John Richard Green

Biography of John Richard Green

John Richard Green
John Richard Green

Historian. The eighteenth century did some things with a splendor and a completeness, which is the despair of later, more restlessly striving generations. Barren though it was of poetry and high imagination, it gave birth to our most famous works in political economy, in biography, and in history; and it has set up for us classic models of imperishable fame. But the wisdom of Adam Smith, the shrewd observation of Boswell, the learning of Gibbon, did not readily find their way into the market place. Outside of the libraries and the booksellers’ rows in London and Edinburgh they were in slight demand. Even when the volumes of Gibbon, Hume, and Robertson had been added to the library shelves, where Clarendon and Burnet reigned before them, too often they only passed to a state of dignified retirement and slumber. No hand disturbed them save that of the conscientious housemaid who dusted them in due season. They were part of the furnishings indispensable to the elegance of a ‘gentleman’s seat’; and in many cases the guests, unless a Gibbon were among them, remained ignorant whether the labels on their backs told a truthful tale, or whether they disguised an ingenious box or backgammon board, or formed a mere covering to the wall.

The fault was with the public more than with the authors. Those who ventured on the quest would find noble eloquence in Clarendon, lively narrative in Burnet, critical analysis in Hume; but the indolence of the Universities and the ignorance of the general public unfitted them for the effort required to value a knowledge of history or to take steps to acquire it. It is true that the majestic style of Clarendon was puzzling to a generation accustomed to prose of the fashion inaugurated by Dryden and Addison; and that Hume and other historians, with all their precision and clearness, were wanting in fervor and imagination. But the record of English history was so glorious, so full of interest for the patriot and for the politician, that it should have spoken for itself, and the apathy of the educated classes was not creditable to them. Even so Ezekiel found the Israelites of his day, forgetful of their past history and its lessons, sunk in torpor and indifference. He looked upon the wreckage of his nation, settled in the Babylonian plain; in his fervent imagination he saw but a valley of dry bones, and called aloud to the four winds that breath should come into them and they should live.

In our islands the prophets who wielded the most potent spell came from beyond the Border. Walter Scott exercised the wider influence, Carlyle kindled the intenser flame. As artists they followed very different methods. Scott, like a painter, wielding a vigorous brush full charged with human sympathies, set before us a broad canvas in lively colors filled with a warm diffused light. Carlyle worked more in the manner of an etcher, the mordant acid eating deep into the plate. From the depth of his shadows would stand out single figures or groups, in striking contrast, riveting the attention and impressing themselves on the memory. Scott drew thousands of readers to sympathize with the men and women of an earlier day, and to feel the romance that attaches to lost causes in Church and State. Carlyle set scores of students striving to recreate the great men of the past and by their standards to reject the shibboleths of the present. However different were the methods of the enchanters, the dry bones had come to life. Mediaeval abbot and crusader, cavalier and covenanter, Elizabeth and Cromwell, spoke once more with a living voice to ears, which were opened to hear.

Nor did the English Universities fail to send forth men who could meet the demands of a generation, which was waking up to a healthier political life. The individual who achieved most in popularizing English history was Macaulay, who began to write his famous Essays in 1825, the year after he won his fellowship at Trinity, though the world had to wait another twenty-five years for his History of the English Revolution. Since then Cambridge historians like Acton, or Maitland, have equaled or excelled him in learning, though none has won such brilliant success. But it was the Oxford School, which did most, in the middle of the nineteenth century, to clear up the dark places of our national record and to present a complete picture of the life of the English people. Freeman delved long among the chronicles of Normans and Saxons; Stubbs no less laboriously excavated the charters of the Plantagenets; Froude hewed his path through the State papers of the Tudors; while Gardiner patiently unraveled the tangled skein of Stuart misgovernment. John Richard Green, one of the youngest of the school, took a wider subject, the continuous history of the English people. He was fortunate in writing at a time when the public was prepared to find the subject interesting, but he himself did wonders in promoting this interest, and since then his work has been a lamp to light teachers on the way.

In a twofold way Green may claim to be a child of Oxford. Not only was he a member of the University, but he was a native of the town, being born in the centre of that ancient city in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession. His family had been engaged in trade there for two generations without making more than a competence; and even before his father died in 1852 they were verging on poverty. Of his parents, who were kind and affectionate, but not gifted with special talents, there is little to be told; the boy was inclined, in after life, to attribute any literary taste that he may have inherited to his mother. From his earliest days reading was his passion, and he was rarely to be seen without a book. Old church architecture and the sound of church bells also kindled his childish enthusiasms, and he would hoard his pence to purchase the joy of being admitted into a locked-up church. So he was fortunate in being sent at the age of eight to Magdalen College School, where he had daily access to the old buildings of the College and the beautiful walks, which had been trodden by the feet of Addison a century and a half before. An amusing contrast could be drawn between the decorous scholar of the seventeenth century, handsome, grave of mien, calmly pacing the gravel walk, while he tasted the delights of classic literature, and little ‘Johnny Green’, a mere shrimp of a boy with bright eyes and restless ways, darting here and there, eagerly searching for anything new or exciting which he might find, whether in the bushes or in the pages of some romance which he was carrying.

But, for all his lively curiosity, Green seems to have got little out of his lessons at school. The classic languages formed the staple of his education, and he never had that power of verbal memory, which could enable him to retain the rules of the Greek grammar or to handle the Latin language with the accuracy of a scholar. He soon gave up trying to do so. Instead of aspiring to the mastery of accidence and syntax, he aimed rather at securing immunity from the rod. At Magdalen School it was still actively in use; but there were certain rules about the number of offences, which must be committed in a given time to call for its application. Green was clever enough to notice this, and to shape his course accordingly; and thus his lessons became, from a sporting point of view, an unqualified success.

But his real progress in learning was due to his use of the old library in his leisure hours. Here he made acquaintance with Marco Polo and other books of travel; here he read works on history of various kinds, and became prematurely learned in the heresies of the early Church. The views, which he developed, and perhaps stated too crudely, did not win approval. He was snubbed by examiners for his interest in heresiarchs, and gravely reproved by Canon Mozley for justifying the execution of Charles I. The latter subject had been set for a prize essay; and the Canon was fair-minded enough to give the award to the boy whose views he disliked, but whose merit he recognized. Partial and imperfect though this education was, the years spent under the shadow of Magdalen must have had a deep influence on Green; but he tells us little of his impressions, and was only half conscious of them at the time. The incident, which perhaps struck him most, was his receiving a prize from the hands of the aged Dr. Routh, President of the College, who had seen Dr. Johnson in his youth, and lived to be a centenarian and the pride of Oxford in early Victorian days.

Green’s school life ended in 1852, the year in which his father died. He was already at the top of the school; and to win a scholarship at the University was now doubly important for him. This he achieved at Jesus College, Oxford, in December 1854, after eighteen months spent with a private tutor; and, as he was too young to go into residence at once, he continued for another year to read by himself. Though he gave closer attention to his classics he did not drop his general reading; and it was a landmark in his career when at the age of sixteen he made acquaintance with Gibbon.

His life as an undergraduate was not very happy and was even less successful than his days at school, though the fault did not lie with him. Shy and sensitive as he was, he had a sociable disposition and was naturally fitted to make friends. But he had come from a solitary life at a tutor’s to a college where the men were clannish, most of them Welshmen, and few of them disposed to look outside their own circle for friends. Had Green been as fortunate as William Morris, his life at Oxford might have been different; but there was no Welshman at Jesus of the caliber of Burne-Jones; and Green lived in almost complete isolation till the arrival of Boyd Dawkins in 1857. The latter, who became in after years a well-known professor of anthropology, was Green’s first real friend, and the letters which he wrote to him show how necessary it was for Green to have one with whom he could share his interests and exchange views freely. Dawkins had the scientific, Green the literary, nature and gifts; but they had plenty of common ground and were always ready to explore the records of the past, whether they were to be found in barrows, in buildings, or in books. If Dawkins was the first friend, the first teacher who influenced him was Arthur Stanley, then Canon of Christ Church and Professor of Ecclesiastical History. An accident led Green into his lecture-room one day; but he was so much delighted with the spirit of Stanley’s teaching, and the life, which he imparted to history, that he became a constant member of the class. And when Stanley made overtures of friendship, Green welcomed them warmly.

A new influence had come into his life. Not only was his industry, which had been feeble and irregular, stimulated at last to real effort; but his attitude to religious questions and to the position of the English Church was at this time sensibly modified. He had come up to the University a High Churchman; like many others at the time of the Oxford Movement, he had been led half-way towards Roman Catholicism, stirred by the historical claims and the mystic spell of Rome. But from now onwards, under the guidance of Stanley and Maurice, he adopted the views of what is called the ‘Broad Church Party’, which suited his moral fervor and the liberal character of his social and political opinions.

Despite, however, the stimulus given to him (perhaps too late) by Dawkins and Stanley, Green won no distinctions at the University, and few men of his day could have guessed that he would ever win distinction elsewhere. He took a dislike to the system of history-teaching then in vogue, which consisted in demanding of all candidates for the schools a knowledge of selected fragments of certain authors, giving them no choice or scope in the handling of wider subjects. He refused to enter for a class in the one subject in which he could shine, and managed to scrape through his examination by combining a variety of uncongenial subjects. This was perverse, and he himself recognized it to be so afterwards. All the while there was latent in him the talent, and the ambition, which might have enabled him to surpass all his contemporaries. His one literary achievement of the time was unknown to the men of his college, but it is of singular interest in view of what he came to achieve later. He was asked by the editor of the Oxford Chronicle, an old-established local paper, to write two articles on the history of the city of Oxford. To most undergraduates the town seemed a mere parasite of the University; to Green it was an elder sister. Many years later he complained in one of his letters that the city had been stifled by the University, which in its turn had suffered similar treatment from the Church. To this task, accordingly, he brought a ready enthusiasm and a full mind; and his articles are alive with the essence of what, since the days of his childhood, he had observed, learnt, and imagined, in the town of his birth. We see the same spirit in a letter, which he wrote to Dawkins in 1860, telling him how he had given up a day to following the Mayor of Oxford when he observed the time-honored custom of beating the bounds of the city. He describes with gusto how he trudged along roads, clambered over hedges, and even waded through marshes in order to perform the rite with scrupulous thoroughness. But it was years before he could find an audience who would appreciate his power of handling such a subject, and his University career must, on his own evidence, be written down a failure.

When it was over he was confronted with the need for choosing a profession. It had strained the resources of his family to give him a good education, and now he must fend for himself. To a man of his nature and upbringing the choice was not wide. His age and his limited means put the Services out of the question; nor was he fitted to embark in trade. Medicine would revolt his sensibility, law would chill his imagination, and journalism did not yet exist as a profession for men of his stamp. In the teaching profession, for which he had such rare gifts, he would start handicapped by his low degree. In any case, he had for some time cherished the idea of taking Holy Orders. The ministry of the Church would give him a congenial field of work and, so he hoped, some leisure to continue his favorite studies. Perhaps he had not the same strong conviction of a ‘call’ as many men of his day in the High Church or Evangelical parties; but he was, at the time, strongly drawn by the example and teaching of Stanley and Maurice, and he soon showed that it was not merely for negative reasons or from half-hearted zeal that he had made the choice. When urged by Stanley to seek a curacy in West London, he deliberately chose the East End of the town because the need there was greater and the training in self-sacrifice was sterner; and there is no doubt that the popular sympathies, which the reading of history had already implanted in him, were nourished and strengthened by nine years of work among the poor. The exertion of parish work taxed his physical resources, and he was often incapacitated for short periods by the lavish way in which he spent himself. Indeed, but for this constant drain upon his strength, he might have lived a longer life and left more work behind him.

Of the parishes, which he served, the last and the most interesting was St. Philip’s, Stepney, to which he went from Hoxton in 1864. It was a parish of 16,000 souls, lying between Whitechapel and Poplar, not far from the London Docks. Dreary though the district seems to us to-day-and at times Green was fully conscious of this-he could re-people it in imagination with the men of the past, and find pleasure in the noble views on the river and the crowded shipping that passed so near its streets. But above all he found a source of interest in the living individuals whom he met in his daily round and who needed his help; and though he achieved signal success in the pulpit by his power of extempore preaching, he himself cared more for the effect of his visiting and other social work. Sermons might make an impression for the moment; personal sympathy, shown in the moment when it was needed, might change the whole current of a life.

For children his affection was unfailing; and for the humors of older people he had a wide tolerance and charity. His letters abound with references to this side of his work. He tells us of his ‘polished’ pork butcher and his learned parish clerk, and boasts how he won the regard of the clerk’s Welsh wife by correctly pronouncing the magic name of Machynlleth. He gave a great deal of time to his parishioners, to consulting his churchwardens, to starting choirs, to managing classes and parish expeditions. He could find time to attend a morning police court when one of his boys got into difficulties, or to hold a midnight service for the outcasts of the pavement.

When cholera broke out in Stepney in 1866, Green visited the sick and dying in rooms that others did not dare to enter, and was not afraid to help actively in burying those who had died of the disease. At holiday gatherings he was the life and soul of the body, ‘shocking two prim maiden teachers by starting kiss-in-the-ring’, and surprising his most vigorous helpers by his energy and decision. On such occasions he exhausted himself in the task of leadership, and he was no less generous in giving financial help to every parish institution that was in need.

What hours he could snatch from these tasks he would spend in the Reading Room of the British Museum; but these were all too few. His position, within a few miles of the treasure houses of London, and of friends who might have shared his studies, must have been tantalizing to a degree. To parish claims also was sacrificed many a chance of a precious holiday. We have one letter in which he regretfully abandons the project of a tour with Freeman in his beloved Anjou because he finds that the only dates open to his companion clash with the festival of the patron saint of his church. In another he resists the appeal of Dawkins to visit him in Somerset on similar grounds. His friend may become abusive, but Green assures him emphatically that it cannot be helped. ‘I am not a pig,’ he writes; ‘I am a missionary curate…. I could not come to you, because I was hastily summoned to the cure of 5,000 costermongers and dock laborers.’ We are far from the easy standard of work too often accepted by ‘incumbents’ in the opening years of the nineteenth century.

Early in his clerical career he had begun to form plans for writing on historical subjects, most of which had to be abandoned for one reason or another. At one time he was planning with Dawkins a history of Somerset, which would have been a forerunner of the County Histories of the twentieth century. Dawkins was to do the geology and anthropology; Green would contribute the archaeology and history. In many ways they were well equipped for the task; but the materials had not been sifted and the demands on their time would have been excessive, even if they abstained from all other work. Another scheme was for a series of Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Green was much attracted by the subject. Already he had made a special study of Dunstan and other great holders of the See; and he believed that the series would illustrate, better than the lives of kings, the growth of certain principles in English history. But with other archbishops he found himself out of sympathy; and in the end he was not sorry to abandon the idea, when he found that Dean Hook was already engaged upon it.

A project still nearer to his heart, which he cherished till near the end of his life, was to write a history of our Angevin kings. For this he collected a vast quantity of materials, and it was a task for which he was peculiarly fitted. It would be difficult to say whether Fulc Nerra, the founder of the dynasty, or Black Angers, the home of the race, was more vividly present to him. Grim piles of masonry, stark force of character, alike compelled his admiration and he could make them live again in print. As it proved, his life was too short to realize this ambition and he has only left fragments of what he had to tell, though we are fortunate in having other books on parts of the subject from his wife and from Miss Norgate, which owed their origin to his inspiration.

During his time as a London clergyman Green used to pay occasional visits to Dawkins in Somerset; and in 1862, when he went to read a paper on Dunstan to a society at Taunton, he renewed acquaintance with his old schoolfellow, E. A. Freeman, a notable figure in the county as squire, politician, and antiquarian, and already becoming known outside it as a historian. The following year, as Freeman’s guest, he met Professor Stubbs; and about this time he also made friends with James Bryce, ‘the Holy Roman’, as he calls him in later letters. The friendship of these three men was treasured by Green throughout his life, and it gave rise to much interesting correspondence on historical subjects. They were the central group of the Oxford School; they reverenced the same ideals and were in general sympathy with one another. But this sympathy never descended to mere mutual admiration, as with some literary coteries. Between Freeman and Green in particular there was kept up a running fire of friendly but outspoken criticism, which would have strained the tie between men less generous and less devoted to historical truth. Freeman was the more arbitrary and dogmatic, Green the more sensitive and discriminating. Green bows to Freeman’s superior knowledge of Norman times, acknowledges him his master, and apologizes for hasty criticisms when they give offence; but he boldly rebukes his friend for his indifference to the popular movements in Italian cities and for his pedantry about Italian names.

And he treads on even more delicate ground when he taxes him with indulging too frequently in polemics, urging him to ‘come out of the arena’ and to cease girding at Froude and Kingsley, whose writings Freeman loved to abuse. Freeman, on the other hand, grumbles at Green for going outside the province of history to write on more frivolous subjects, and scolds him for introducing fanciful ideas into his narrative of events. The classic instance of this was when Green, after describing the capture by the French of the famous Château Gaillard in Normandy, had the audacity to say, ‘from its broken walls we see not merely the pleasant vale of Seine, but also the sedgy flats of our own Runnymede’. Thereby he meant his readers to learn that John would never have granted the Great Charter to the Barons, had he not already weakened the royal authority by the loss of Cœur-de-Lion’s great fortress beyond the sea, and that to a historian the germs of English freedom, won beside the Thames, were to be seen in the wreckage of Norman power above the Seine. But Freeman was too matter of fact to allow such flights of fancy; and a lively correspondence passed between the two friends, each maintaining his own view of what might or might not be permitted to the votaries of Clio.

But before this episode Green had been introduced by Freeman to John Douglas Cook, founder and editor of the Saturday Review, and had begun to contribute to its columns. Naturally it was on historical subjects that his pen was most active; but apart from the serious ‘leading articles’, the Saturday found place for what the staff called ‘Middles’, light essays written after the manner of Addison or Steele on matters of every-day life. Here Green was often at his best. Freeman growled, in his dictatorial fashion, when he found his friend turning away from the strait path of historical research to describe the humors of his parish, the foibles of district visitors and deaconesses, the charms of the school-girl before she expands her wings in the drawing-room-above all (and this last was quoted by the author as his best literary achievement) the joys of ‘Children by the sea’. But any one who turns over the pages of the volume called Stray Studies from England and Italy, where some of these articles are reprinted, will probably agree with the verdict of the author on their merits. The subjects are drawn from all ages and all countries. Historical scenes are peopled with the figures of the past, treated in the magical style, which Green made his own. Dante is seen against the background of mediaeval Florence; Tintoret represents the life of Venice at its richest, most glorious time. The old buildings of Lambeth make a noble setting for the portraits of archbishops, the gentle Warham, the hapless Cranmer, the tyrannical Laud. Many of these studies are given to the pleasant borderland between history and geography, and to the impressions of travel gathered in England or abroad. In one sketch he puts into a single sentence all the features of an old English town which his quick eye could note, and from which he could ‘work out the history of the men who lived and died there. In quiet quaintly-named streets, in the town mead and the market-place, in the lord’s mill beside the stream, in the ruffed and furred brasses of its burghers in the church, lies the real life of England and Englishmen, the life of their home and their trade, their ceaseless, sober struggle with oppression, their steady, unwearied battle for self-government.’

In another he follows the funeral procession of his Angevin hero Henry II from the stately buildings of Chinon ‘by the broad bright Vienne coming down in great gleaming curves, under the grey escarpments of rock pierced here and there with the peculiar cellars or cave-dwellings of the country’, to his last resting-place in the vaults of Fontevraud. Standing beside the monuments on their tombs he notes the striking contrast of type and character, which Henry offers to his son Richard Cœur-de-Lion. ‘Nothing’, he says, ‘could be less ideal than the narrow brow, the large prosaic eyes, the coarse full cheeks, the sensual dogged jaw, that combine somehow into a face far higher than its separate details, and which is marked by a certain sense of power and command. No countenance could be in stronger contrast with his son’s, and yet in both there is the same look of repulsive isolation from men. Richard’s is a face of cultivation and refinement, but there is a strange severity in the small delicate mouth and in the compact brow of the lion-hearted, which realizes the verdict of his day. To an historical student one glance at these faces, as they lie here beneath the vault raised by their ancestor, the fifth Count Fulc, tells more than pages of history.’ Our reviews and magazines may abound today in such vivid pen-pictures of places and men; but it was Green and others of his day who watered the dry roots of archaeology and restored it to life.

But from his earliest days as a student Green had looked beyond the figures of kings, ministers, and prelates, who had so long filled the stage in the volumes of our historians. However clearly they stood out in their greatness and in their faults, they were not, and could not be, the nation. And when he came to write on a larger scale, the title, which he chose for his book, showed that he was aiming at new ideals.

The Short History of the English People is the book by which Green’s fame will stand or fall, and it occupied him for the best years of his life. The true heroes of it are the laborer and the artisan, the friar, the printer, and the industrial mechanic-‘not many mighty, not many noble’. The true growth of the English nation is seen broad-based on the life of the commonalty, and we can study it better in the rude verse of Longland, or the parables of Bunyan, than in the formal records of battles and dynastic schemes.

The periods into which the book is divided are chosen on other grounds than those of the old handbooks, where the accession of a new king or a new dynasty is made a landmark; and a different proportion is observed in the space given to events or to prominent men. The Wars of the Roses are viewed as less important than the Peasants’ Revolt; the scholars of the New Learning leave scant space for Lambert Simnels and Perkin Warbecks. Henry Pelham, one of the last prime ministers to owe his position to the king’s favour, receives four lines, while forty are given to John Howard, a pioneer in the new path of philanthropy. Besides social subjects, literature receives generous measure, but even here no rigid system is observed. Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare take a prominent place in their epochs; Byron, Wordsworth, and Tennyson are ignored. This is not because Green had no interest in them or undervalued their influence. Far from it. But, as the history of the nation became more complex, he found it impossible, within the limits prescribed by a Short History, to do justice to everything. He believed that the industrialism, which grew up in the Georgian era, exercised a wider influence in changing the character of the people than the literature of that period; and so he turned his attention to Watt and Brindley, and deliberately omitted the poets and painters of that day. With his wide sympathies he must have found this rigorous compression the hardest of his tasks, and only in part could he compensate it later. He never lived long enough to treat, as he wished to do, in the fullness of his knowledge, the later periods of English history.

In writing this book Green had many discouragements to contend against, apart from his continual ill health. Even his friends spoke doubtfully of its method and style, with the exception of his publisher, George Macmillan, and of Stopford Brooke, whose own writings breathe the same spirit as Green’s, and who did equally good work in spreading a real love of history and literature among the classes who were beginning to read. It was true that Green’s book failed to conform to the usual type of manual; it was not orderly in arrangement, it was often allusive in style, it seemed to select what it pleased and to leave out what students were accustomed to learn. But Green’s faith in its power to reach the audience to whom he appealed was justified by the enthusiasm with which the general public received it. This success was largely due to the literary style and artistic handling of the subject. Green claims himself that on most literary questions he is French in his point of view. ‘It seems to me’, he says, ‘that on all points of literary art we have to sit at the feet of French Gamaliels’; and in his best work he has more in common with Michelet than with our own classic historians. But while Michelet had many large volumes in which to expand his treatment of picturesque episodes, Green was painfully limited by space.

What he can give us of clear and lively portraiture in a few lines is seen in his presentation of the gallant men who laid the foundation of our Empire overseas. By a few lines of narrative, and a happy quotation from their own words, Green brings out the heroism of their sacrifice or their success, the faith which inspired Humphry Gilbert to meet his death at sea, the patience which enabled John Smith to achieve the tillage of Virginian soil.

Side by side with these masterly vignettes are full-length portraits of great rulers such as Alfred, Elizabeth, and Cromwell, and vivid descriptions of religious leaders such as Cranmer, Laud, and Wesley. Strong though Green’s own views on Church and State were, we do not feel that he is deserting the province of the historian to lecture us on religion or politics. The book is real narrative written in a fair spirit, the author rendering justice to the good points of men like Laud, whom he detested, and aiming above all at conveying clearly to his readers the picture of what he believed to have happened in the past. As a narrative it was not without faults. The reviewers at once seized on many small mistakes, into which Green had fallen through the uncertainty of his memory for names and words. To these Green cheerfully confessed, and was thankful that they proved to be so slight. But when other critics accused him of superficiality they were in error. On this point we have the verdict of Bishop Stubbs, the most learned and conscientious historian of the day. ‘All Green’s work’, he says, ‘was real and original work. Few people beside those who knew him well could see, under the charming ease and vivacity of his style, the deep research and sustained industry of the laborious student. But it was so; there was no department of our national records that he had not studied, and, I think I may say, mastered. Hence, I think, the unity of his dramatic scenes and the cogency of his historical arguments.’

Green himself was as severe a critic of the book as any one. Writing in 1877 to his future wife, he says, ‘I see the indelible mark of the essayist, the “want of long breath”, as the French say, the jerkiness, the slurring over of the uninteresting parts, above all, the want of grasp of the subject as a whole’. On the advice of some of his best friends, confirmed by his own judgment, in 1874 he gave up contributing to the Saturday Review, in order to free his style from the character imparted to it by writing detached weekly articles. The composing of these articles had been a pleasure; the writing of English history was to be his life work, and no divided allegiance was conceivable to him. But we may indeed be thankful that he resisted the views of other friends who wished to drive him into copying German models. This class Green called ‘Pragmatic Historians’; and, while acknowledging their solid contributions to history, he maintains his conviction that there is another method and another school worthy of imitation, and that he must ‘hold to what he thinks true and work it out as he can’.

Green was a rapid reader and a rapid writer. In a letter to Freeman, written when he was wintering in Florence in 1872, he admits covering the period from the Peasant Revolt to the end of the New Learning (1381-1520) in ten days. But he was writing from notes, which represented years of previous study. In another letter, written in 1876, he confesses a tendency to ‘wild hitting’, and perhaps he was too rapid at times in drawing his inferences. ‘With me’, he says, ‘the impulse to try to connect things, to find the “why” of things, is irresistible; and even if I overdo my political guesses, you or some German will punch my head and put things rightly and intelligibly again.’ It is this power of connecting events and explaining how one movement leads to another which makes the stimulating quality of Green’s work; and to a nation like the English, too little apt to indulge in general ideas, this quality may be of more value than the German erudition which tends to overburden the intelligence with too great a load of ‘facts’. And, after all the labors of Carlyle and Froude, of Stubbs and Freeman, and all the delving into records and chronicles, who shall say what are facts, and what is inference, legitimate or illegitimate, from them?

Whatever were the shortcomings of the book, which Green in his letters to Freeman called by the affectionate names of ‘Shorts’ and ‘Little Book’, it inaugurated a new method, and won a hearing among readers who had hitherto professed no taste for history; and, financially, it proved so far a success that Green was relieved from the necessity of continuing work that was uncongenial. He had already given up his parish in 1869. Ill health and the advice of his doctor were the deciding factors; but there is no doubt that Green was also finding it difficult to subscribe to all the doctrines of the Church. He took up the same liberal comprehensive attitude to Church questions as he did to politics, and opposed any attempt to stifle honest inquiry or to punish honest doubt. He was much disturbed by some of the attempts made at this time by the more extreme parties in the Church to enforce uniformity. Also he felt that the Church was not exercising its proper influence on the nation, owing to the prejudice or apathy of the clergy in meeting the social movements of the day. If he had found more support, inside the diocese, for his social and educational work, the breach might have been healed, or at any rate postponed, in the hope of his health mending.

Relieved of parish work, he found plentiful occupation in revising his old books and in planning new; he showed wonderful zest for traveling abroad, and, by choosing carefully the places for his winter sojourn, he fought heroically to combat increasing ill-health and to achieve his literary ambitions. Thus it was that he made intimate acquaintance with San Remo, Mentone, and Capri; and one winter he went as far as Luxor in the hope that the Egyptian climate might help him; but in vain. Under the guidance of his friend Stopford Brooke he visited for shorter periods Venice, Florence, and other Italian towns. He was catholic in his sympathies but not over-conscientious in sight-seeing. When Brooke left him at Florence, Green was openly glad to relapse into vagrant pilgrimage, to put aside his guide book and to omit the daily visit to the Uffizi Gallery. But, on the other hand, he reproached Freeman for confining his interests entirely to architecture and emperors while ignoring pictures and sculpture, mediaeval guilds, and the relics of old civic life. It was at Troyes that Bryce observed him ‘darting hither and thither through the streets like a dog following a scent’-and to such purpose that after a few hours of research he could write a brilliant paper sketching the history of the town as illustrated in its monuments-but in Italy, as in France, he had a wonderful gift for discovering all that was most worth knowing about a town, which other men passed by and ignored.

Capri, which he first visited at Christmas 1872, was the most successful of his winter haunts. The climate, the beauty of the scenery, the simplicity of the life, all suited him admirably. On this occasion he stayed four months in the island, and he has sung its praises in one of the ‘Stray Studies’. Within a small compass there is a wonderful variety of scene. Green delights in it all, ‘in the boldly scarped cliffs, in the dense scrub of myrtle and arbutus, in the blue strips of sea that seem to have been cunningly let in among the rocks, in the olive yards creeping thriftily up the hill sides, in the remains of Roman sculptures and mosaics, in the homesteads of grey stone and low domes and Oriental roofs’. And he found it an ideal place for literary work, restful and remote, ‘where one can live unscourged by Kingsley’s “wind of God”.’ ‘The island’, he writes, ‘is a paradise of silence for those to whom silence is a delight. One wanders about in the vineyards without a sound save the call of the vinedressers: one lies on the cliff and hears, a thousand feet below, the dreary wash of the sea. There is hardly the cry of a bird to break the spell; even the girls who meet one with a smile on the hillside smile quietly and gravely in the Southern fashion as they pass by.’ No greater contrast could be found to the conditions under which he began his books; and it is not surprising that in this haven of peace, with no parish business to break in upon his study, he worked more rapidly and confidently-when his health allowed.

From such retreats he would return refreshed in body and mind to continue studying and writing in London and to sketch out new plans for the future. One that bore rich fruit was that of a series of Primers, dealing shortly with great subjects and commending them to the general reader by attractive literary style. They were produced by Macmillan, Green acting as editor; and notable volumes were contributed by Gladstone on Homer, by Creighton on Rome, and by Stopford Brooke on English Literature. Here, again, Green was a pioneer in a path where he has had many followers since; and he would have been the first to edit an English Historical Review if more support had been forthcoming from the public. But for financial reasons he was obliged to abandon the scheme, and it did not see the light of day till Creighton launched it in 1886.

In 1877 he married and found in his wife just the helper that he needed. She too had the historical imagination, the love of research, and the power of writing. Husband and wife produced in co-operation a small geography of the British Isles, well planned, clear, and pleasant to read. But, apart from this, she was content, during the too brief period of their married life, to subordinate her activities to helping her husband, and her aid was invaluable at the time when he was writing his later books. There is no doubt that his marriage prolonged his life. The care which his wife took of him, whether in their home in foggy London, or in primitive lodgings in beautiful Capri, helped him over his worst days; and the new value which he now set on life and its happiness gave him redoubled force of will. There were others who helped him in these days of perpetual struggle with ill health. His doctors, Sir Andrew Clark and Sir Lauder Brunton, rendered him the devotion of personal friends. The historians gathered round him in Kensington Square, the home of his later years, and cheered him with good talk. Those who were lucky enough to be admitted might hear him at his best, discussing historical questions in a circle which included Sir Henry Maine and Bishop Stubbs, as well as Lecky, Freeman, and Bryce. He had many other interests. Such a man could not be indifferent to contemporary politics. His heroes-and he was an ardent worshipper of heroes-were Gladstone and Garibaldi, and, like many Liberals of the day, he was violent in his opposition to Beaconsfield’s policy in Eastern Europe. Hatred of Napoleonic tyranny killed for a while his sympathy with France, and in 1870 he sympathized with the German cause-at least till the rape of the two provinces and the sorrows of disillusioned France revived his old feeling for the French nation. Over everything he felt keenly and expressed himself warmly. As Tennyson said to him at the close of a visit to Aldworth, ‘You’re a jolly, vivid man; you’re as vivid as lightning’.

Particularly dear to him was the close sympathy of Stopford Brooke and that of Humphry Ward, to whose father he had been curate in 1860 and who had himself for years learnt to cherish the friendship of Green and to seek his counsel. Mrs. Ward has told us how she (then Miss Arnold) brought her earliest literary efforts to Green, how kindly was his encouragement but how formidable was the standard of excellence which he set up. She has also pictured for us ‘the thin wasted form seated in the corner of the sofa… the eloquent lips… the life flashing from his eyes beneath the very shadow of death’. His latter years, lived perpetually under this grim shadow, were yet full of cheerfulness and of hope. However the body might fail, the active brain was planning and the high courage was bracing him to further effort. Between 1877 and 1880 he published in four volumes a History of the English People, which follows the same plan and covers much the same ground as the Short History. He was able to revise his views on points where recent study threw fresh light and to include subjects, which had been crowded out for want of space. But the book failed to attract readers to the same extent as the Short History. The freshness and buoyancy of the earlier sketch could not be recaptured after so long an interval. In the last year of his life he began again on the early history of England, working at a pace, which would have been astonishing even in a man of robust health, and he completed in the short period of eleven months the brilliant volume called The Making of England. He had thought out the subject during many a day and night of pain and had the plan clear in his head; but he was indefatigable in revising his work, and would make as many as eight or ten drafts of a chapter before it satisfied his judgment. His last autumn and winter were occupied with the succeeding volume, The Conquest of England, and he left it sufficiently complete for his wife to edit and publish a few months after his death.

The end came at Mentone early in 1883. Two years of life had been won, as his doctor said, by sheer force of will; but the frail body could no longer obey the soul, and nature could bear no more.

If in the twentieth century history is losing its hold on the thought and feeling of the rising generation, Green is the last man whom we can blame. He gave all his faculties unsparingly to his task-patience, enthusiasm, single-hearted love of truth; and he encouraged others to do the same. No man was more free from the pontifical airs of those historians who proclaimed history as an academic science to be confined within the chilly walls of libraries and colleges. We may apply to his work what Mr. G. M. Trevelyan has said of the English historians from Clarendon down to recent times; it was ‘the means of spreading far and wide, throughout all the reading classes, a love and knowledge of history, an elevated and critical patriotism, and certain qualities of mind and heart’. Against the danger which he mentions in his next sentence, that we are now being drilled into submission to German models, Mr. Trevelyan is himself one of our surest protectors.


Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920.

Search Military Records - Fold3

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top