Rosemary Ashton

Rosemary Ashton is the author of The German Idea, a study of the reception of German thought in Britain during the 19th century. She teaches at University College, London.

Doing the bores

Rosemary Ashton, 21 March 1991

There will be many more years –and many more volumes – before the Carlyles’ Collected Letters are brought to completion. Twenty-two more years of Jane Carlyle’s long, witty, sharp, self-dramatising yet oddly attractive litanies about the obstinacy of servants, her husband’s indifference to her, and the annoyances of her lot as a ‘Lion’s wife’ obliged to ‘do the bores’ who come to view the lion himself. And 36 years still to come of Carlyle’s groaning but stoical descriptions of his work in progress, his rhetorical assassinations of politicians of all parties and clergymen of all persuasions, and his surprisingly tender and encouraging letters to members of his family, to aspiring young authors and to the few people – Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance – whom he loves or admires. It is a daunting thought, particularly as no one seems ever to have thrown away a letter from Thomas or Jane: the libraries of the world are stuffed with them.’

Englamouring the humdrum

Rosemary Ashton, 23 November 1989

Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the past, a collection of essays published in recent years (with one, on Richardson and Milton, dating from as long ago as 1968), is richly written, contains many sharp critical insights, and shows the author to have a good ear for nuances of language in the literary works she chooses to discuss. At the same time, she reveals some straining in her pursuit of the chief ‘argument’ – namely, that half-readings, ‘failed’ readings and forgettings of other authors can make up an important part of a writer’s experience and creativity.’

How clever of Nature to ‘choose’ Darwin to teach the world that she has, against the prevailing view of natural theology, no purpose, no teleology, no choice. No one could be more gentlemanly, cautious, desirous of conforming, unwilling to shock or upset – yet no one could be more deliberate, more stubborn in holding to an opinion once embraced – than Darwin. Volume four of the immaculately edited Correspondence, covering the years 1847-1850, shows him at work amongst his ‘beloved Barnacles’, doggedly yet excitedly making his discoveries in that relatively small field of zoological study. George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists is at least as interesting in its excellent study of the Origin of Species and Darwin’s tactful relation to natural theology, as represented here by William Whewell, as it is in its analysis of novels by Jane Austen, Dickens and Trollope in the light of the Darwinian theory and method.’

Leaving it

Rosemary Ashton, 16 February 1989

If there can be said to be such a thing as a Victorian ‘frame of mind’, it must be a broad category indeed to contain two such different representatives as John Henry Newman and James Fitzjames Stephen. They shared a distrust of reform and democracy, a love of England, and a penchant for getting into controversy in print. Otherwise, they strike one as chalk and cheese, or ‘dog and fish’, as Newman put it, à propos of their one encounter, in 1864, when Stephen attacked the ‘dangerous sophistry’ of Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. These two biographies of the two men are also strikingly at opposite extremes of the genre’s possibilities. Ker’s life of Newman is massive, expansive, reverential towards its subject, while Smith’s life of Stephen is terse, matter-of-fact, and unblinkingly critical of its subject’s failings.

Satanic School

Rosemary Ashton, 7 May 1987

‘I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past – in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table … We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar.’ Thus Henry James in the Preface to The Aspern Papers, the germ of which was the story of an American Shelley-worshipper seeking out the eighty-year old Claire Clairmont to trick or wheedle her into handing over precious documents illuminating her youthful relations with Shelley and Byron. There has been a flurry of activity with reference to these poets in our own time: Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron and their associates have been the subject of recent visitations by literary scholars and editors, by Freudians and students of taboo, by historians of medicine, by novelists (see Amanda Prantera’s recent Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 162 Years after his Lordship’s Death), and by Ken Russell, who has tried to make them palpable in his latest film, Gothic.’

Solomon Tuesday

Rosemary Ashton, 8 January 1987

Coleridge has always been our representative Romantic literary critic, and Matthew Arnold has long been thought of as the type of the Victorian critic. There is, perhaps, no need to topple Arnold from his eminence, but it is high time that a close competitor was brought out from the shadows where he now lurks, uncollected and unread. For Richard Holt Hutton was a prodigious and impressive critic. And unlike Arnold he made literary (and theological) criticism his profession. Hutton was the author of about seven thousand reviews and essays. He edited the Spectator from 1861 until his death in 1897. Like Jeffrey, first editor of the great Edinburgh Review in the early part of the century, he read for the Bar, but unlike Jeffrey he never practised law, choosing to devote all his time and attention to literary journalism. In more ways than this, too, he was typical of the progressive movement, during the 19th century, away from the uniformity of Oxford or Cambridge-educated professional men who undertook reviewing as a gentlemanly pastime. As a Unitarian in his youth, he was debarred from taking a degree at either of the universities, and became one of the first distinguished generation of Victorian intellectuals to be educated at University College London, which was founded on the German system guaranteeing freedom of opportunity and learning to dissenters from the established Church. He even spent some time studying at the University of Bonn, one of the institutions which served as a model for University College.

Homage to Mrs Brater

Rosemary Ashton, 7 August 1986

Was it sisterly or unsisterly of George Eliot to celebrate in Middlemarch Dorothea’s contribution to human progress by means of ‘unhistoric acts’ carried out under limiting social conditions which ensured that, unlike St Theresa, she remained ‘foundress of nothing’? Certainly, Dorothea’s sphere of action is represented as being – true to life for her class and time – confined to the domestic. She passes from eligible spinster to helpmeet, wife and mother, and on the whole George Eliot describes that passage as one to fulfilment. Contemporary women readers, lacking the vote and still, despite decades of agitation by reformers, without rights over their own property – the Married Women’s Property Act was not passed until 1883 – were perhaps expected to take comfort, even pride, in the conclusion that ‘the effect of [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’’


Rosemary Ashton, 17 October 1985

It was fortunate for George Eliot, or Marian Evans as she was in 1852, that the philosopher Herbert Spencer rejected her brave and desperate pleas for him to marry her. If he had accepted, she might well have found herself in something akin to Sarah Austin’s position as emotional and financial prop to a miserable, selfish hypochondriac. As it was, her relationship with the very different G.H. Lewes, fostered by Spencer himself in his eagerness to retreat, blossomed within the year, and by 1854 Marian was ‘Mrs Lewes’ (and soon to be ‘George Eliot’, too). Being Mrs Austin meant for Sarah Taylor a life of toil and sacrifice, though it is probable that she was at least less unhappy than her tortured husband. The story of their marriage is ghastly, comic, and dismaying. It has the interest not only of the particular case but also of the illustrative type: the Austin marriage was a classic mismatch which, appropriately enough, reminds us of fictional pairings, especially that of Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch. Moreover, in its elements of husbandly pride and disappointment constantly self-excused and of wifely activity, compensating yet self-effacing, it was one of many Victorian marriages (one thinks of the Carlyles) which showed the strains of the age, with its changing expectations of and for women in questions of education, employment and opinion.

Two Velvet Peaches

Rosemary Ashton, 17 February 1983

Was George Eliot reticent about sex? During the period in which her reputation was at its lowest, between 1890 and 1940, one element in the general argument that her novels were philosophical treatises rather than art was her supposed coyness in sexual matters. ‘Pallas with prejudices and a corset,’ cried W.E. Henley in 1890, ‘George Sand plus Science and minus Sex.’ Since Leavis rehabilitated her in The Great Tradition in 1948, critics have laboured to answer the criticism. Strangely, though, the subject has brought mainly defences of her reticence, such as Barbara Hardy’s eloquent discussion of the ‘hints and implications’ of George Eliot’s handling of sexual relationships in The Appropriate Form (1964), the appropriate chapter of which is now reprinted in Particularities, or, in the George Eliot Centenary Tribute, Juliet McMaster’s vigorous attempt ‘to bring back the voluptuous George Eliot’ by arguing that ‘the physical and sexual lives of her characters are very fully expressed, albeit often by indirection.’ Leavis himself came much nearer to claiming for George Eliot a daring lack of reticence. Of Felix Holt he wrote: ‘It is remarkable – and it is characteristic of George Eliot’s mature art – that the treatment of Mrs Transome’s early lapse should have in it nothing of the Victorian moralist. In the world of this art the atmosphere of the taboo is unknown; there is none of the excited hush, the skirting round, the thrill of shocked reprobation, or any of the forms of sentimentality typical of Victorian fiction when such themes are handled.’ We may find Leavis’s circumlocution itself rather coy (‘Mrs Transome’s early lapse’), but I think it surprising that critics have not generally taken his lead and tackled the question of sexuality in the novels head-on.

Goethe In Britain

Rosemary Ashton, 19 March 1981

In 1827, Thomas Carlyle, already the translator of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, was invited by Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, to ‘Germanise the public’. Jeffrey issued the invitation cautiously, even negatively, asking Carlyle to temper his enthusiasm for ‘your German divinities’ – an enthusiasm he could scarcely understand, let alone share. Indeed, two years earlier Jeffrey had reviewed Carlyle’s Meister translation, censoring the work as ‘eminently absurd, puerile, incongruous, vulgar and affected’. Carlyle fulfilled the task set him by his amused, semi-reluctant editor with the influential essay ‘The State of German Literature’. As a result of this and other articles on German literature, Carlyle became the most celebrated Germanist of his age. It was Carlyle, as G.H. Lewes acknowledged in his Life of Goethe (1855), ‘who first taught England to appreciate Goethe’.

Snakes and Leeches: The Great Stink

Rosemary Hill, 4 January 2018

The last day​ of June 1858 was a warm day, though not the hottest of that summer. Two weeks earlier the temperature in London had reached 90 degrees, the highest ever recorded. Even so the...

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‘The test of poetry which professes to be modern’, Arthur Symons wrote in 1892, is ‘its capacity for dealing with London, with what one sees or might see there.’ And what...

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Adulation or Eggs: At home with the Carlyles

Susan Eilenberg, 7 October 2004

It’s a century and a quarter since J.A. Froude’s Life of Carlyle and his edition of Carlyle’s Reminiscences, a hundred years since Alexander Carlyle’s New Letters and...

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He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to...

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Gnawed by rats, burnt at Oxford

Claire Tomalin, 10 October 1991

George Henry Lewes was a close contemporary of Dickens, born five years after him, in 1817, and dying eight years after him, in 1878. Both men worked themselves to the limits of their strength...

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Peter Pulzer, 4 September 1986

The Reading Room of the British Museum is now completed, and if London had nothing but this hall of the blessed, scholars would make it well worth their while to make a pilgrimage here. All the...

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Out of Germany

E.S. Shaffer, 2 October 1980

Rosemary Ashton traces the impact of some German writers, especially Goethe, on the British periodicals and on four writers, Coleridge, Carlyle, Eliot and Lewes; Geoffrey Hartman ranges widely...

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