Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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conventionalities. ' I try,"* says one mIio knew him then, ' to
retrieve and gather up some fragments of those far-away days.
The figure that moves through them is very much that which
his latest acquaintance knew. The hair was colourless even
then, and changed only for the better when it became dis-
tinctly white. The face never altered ; nor the gait ; nor the
circular swing out of the left arm ; nor the tossing back of the
lock that would fall forward; nor the quick, bird-like turn of
the head. Time had no power over the steady blue eyes, nor
over their glint of merriment heralding the expressive twitch
of the mouth, as it delivered some sportful jest or caustic com-
ment.' As for his figure, so strangely convertible, so incor-
poreal (if the term be allowed us), at one moment altogether
fantastic, at another impressively dignified, perhaps nothing
better evokes it than his own description, written about now,
of the various vicissitudes he put it to. ' In the course of my
chequered career, I have slept at different times under a sofa,
in an armchair, before the turf fire in a Highland cottage.


Alfrrd in youth.

From a photc^raph by Miss Johnston.


Once while reading in my bedroom I fell asleep over the back
of the bed, and was found the next morning hanging in ths^t
position like fine things airing.'

When Ainger went up to Trinity Hall, Latham and Leslie
Stephen were tutors there ; Henry Fawcett was a fellow ;
George Trevelyan, Horace Smith, W. C. Gully, J. E. Gorst,
G. P. Bidder, W, Jack (now Professor Jack of Glasgow),
and A. W. Ward, the present Master of Peterhouse, were
among his university contemporaries. At that time the
Crimean campaign was not yet over. The spirit of heroism
and self-sacrifice called forth by the war was in the air ;
sorrow was all around and a feeling of insecurity prevailed.
It was a religious moment — when the need of faith and of
discipline had come home to the hearts of men, and when
such personalities as Maurice, Robertson, and Kingsley were
making 'belief attractive. The love of the spiritual, the
reaction against commercialism were evident. Tennyson,
Carlyle, and Ruskin were the prophets of the day ; in art,
the Pre-Raphaelites were rising into prominence, while the
Heir of Redclyffe was the novel most demanded by the
wounded officers in Hospital.

' At that period,' writes Mr. Leslie Stephen, in his Life of
Fawcett, ' the more sentimental youth learnt Tennyson by
heart, wept over Jane Eyre, and was beginning to appreciate
Browning. If more seriously disposed, he read Sartor
Uesartus and The French Revolutioii ; he followed the
teachings of Maurice and had some leaning to " Christian
Socialism." But there was also an influential set of young
men with opposite views. The sterner Utilitarians looked
to Mill as their great prophet. They repudiated Carlvle
as reactionary, and set down Maurice as muddle-headed.'
Ainger belonged heart and soul to the other party, and the
two groups had little in common between them.

Such were the intellectual conditions of 1856, and such the
mental atmosphere in which Alfred Ainger found himself.
At that time entrance scholarships did not exist and the
scholarship examination took place at the end of the first
year. Ainger was bracketed 'first' with a friend, with whom



he also shared the Chetsvvode Exhibition, which carried with
it the duties of Chapel Clerk. But his triumphs were short-
lived. Academic ambitions were not for one whose delicate
health soon compelled him to draw in and to renounce the
race for honours. For the first two years of his University
life he read for a mathematical degree. But it was gradually
borne in upon him that mathematics suited neither his taste
nor his powers, and in 1858 he finally decided to abandon
them and to embrace the Law as his profession.

From the day of his arrival in Cambridge, he made friends
in all directions. ' Sunday I breakfasted with Ainger, and in
the evening he took tea with me, as also Ward, Jack,
Davidson, Bidder ' — so runs a passage in the diary of a con-
temporary.^ ' That entry,' he tells us, ' recalls those Sunday
walks which used to be such delightful incidents of our
Cambridge life — walks after breakfast and generally lasting
till the afternoon service at Great St. Mary's . . . walks to
Madingley, or over the Gogmagogs, or to Byron's Pool, if the
day was hot, or in the fens towards Ely.'

Ainger's closest friends were naturally those who thought
like himself, but he had others and from different circles.
Foremost among these was Henry Fawcett, to whom he often
read aloud, and whose gaiety, as well as his courage, endeared
him to all who came near him, Alfred not least among them.
Nor were all his comrades book-men. 'He loved,' says the
same writer, ' the quiet life and the quiet country walk ; but
none the less ... he took the keenest interest in all college
sports ; and so it was that he drew men of all kinds by the
attraction of his innate manliness as much as by the charm
of his conversation. ... It was to one of these . . . Henry
Davidson, who had achieved greatness as "Stroke "in the
Trinity Hall boat, that I owed my introduction to Ainger, at
a Trinity Hall boat-supper, which was to me a memorable
festival, raised above the level of all other entertainments of
the kind, first by a scholarly speech in praise of cricket by
Mr. Matthew Kempson . . . but . . . most of all by a recita-
tion by Ainger, descriptive — as I remember well — of the

» Dr. H. Birdwood, C.S.I.


sights and sounds of an English fair, which revealed to many
of us for the first time, his fine faculty of observation . . .
his frolic and abounding sense of humour, and that most
precious gift of clear, resonant and sympathetic speech. . . .'
Excepting for the record of such events as these, there is no
need to tell the story of his Cambridge days in other words
than his own. His letters to William Elderton, who had
remained behind at King's College, give the truest picture of
his thoughts and doings and are best read in due sequence.
He could not at first get rooms at Trinity Hall and took
lodgings in King's Parade whence his first impressions are

' Saturday Evening.

' Mv DEAR Willy, Here I am as comfortably established as if I
had been born on the place. I have got capital rooms. ... I
am over a respectable fancy-stationer. ... I think I shall like the
life immensely. . . . The tutor, Mr. Latham, is a capital fellow,
most obliging and conversational. ... I think you would have
smiled to see me this morning in chapel in a white surplice which
the whole University wears on Sundays and Saints' Days, and
gives one the appearance of an angel just out of bed. There is a
story afloat of a fi-eshman, who was detected going out to a
wine in his surplice, because it was a Saint's Day ; but his bed-
maker providentially informed him in time. ... I have got
Horace Smith up here.'

' King's Parade, Friday Night.

'Having adjusted the furniture, made up the fire, and arranged
everything in a snug manner for the evening, I sit down to write
to you with infinite satisfaction. I have been writing like a
steam-engine this evening, at a book-work paper in mathematics,
given me by my tutor, and my brain requires a little friendly
gossip to restore it.

' Thank you very much for your speedy reply — I know you will
be hard at work, so I cannot expect you to find me much time.

' This is a most delightful life — most various, and most charming.
A man can very well choose his "set"; and when he has once
picked out his style of friends, he is not interfered with by the
others. I know a very large number of men in the University,
and am gradually making new acquaintances at my own College.


I am glad to tell you that Trinity Hall, though a small College,
stands very high in the opinion of the University, as a nice body
of men, and is much respected. It is also high as a boating
College ; and it holds the second place on the river : St. John's
being at the head.

' I have heard to-day of the Celebrated Characters that have
been at this College.

' Sterling was here ; Selden (the table-talk man) ; Bulwer
Lytton ; Lord Chesterfield (I believe) and last, not least, the Rev.
F. D. Maurice, who was here for two years, and then migrated to
Oxford. — I am becoming quite proud of the institution.

We have got, I think, a very nice set of freshmen up. They
seem all very good fellows. Men say that Trinity Hall has the
best set this year. One gentleman told me that at his college,
they had six freshmen come up, and four of them squinted !

' Ours do not display obliquity of vision ; with us, the " lisp " is
the prevailing pecularity. I tell my friends that "they lisp in
numbers," for which I am very properly scouted by every well-
regulated mind.

' You really must come down to Cambridge some time or other.
Do come while I am here, and see the Lions. Trinity College
Kitchen is not one of the least interesting. The one at the
Reform Club is nothing to it. At Trinity they dine six hundred
men every day. The head-cook keeps his cai'riage ; and his
perquisites ai'e something enormous, making his salary altogether
larger than that of the Master of Trinity, — Whewell.

' Cambridge is remarkably full of Churches — you step upon a
sacred edifice wherever you turn. At the largest of these
Churches, St. Mary's, is preached every Sunday afternoon the
University sermon. Different celebrated men are appointed at
different times to preach these sermons. Next month, November,
our friend Trench is coming down, and I anticipate a great treat.
I shall generally go in the evenings to hear Harvey Goodwin, the
author of Goodivin's Course of Malhematics, which I dare say you
know ; he preaches in his Parish Church here, and preaches
remarkably well.

' I don't know that there is anybody you know here besides
old Horace, whom I see constantly.

'Write again soon, old boy, and tell us all you are doing, what
you have been reading, and etc. I will return the compliment
whenever I can find time. I have been reading again that grand
Epic, ^//o?i Locke; which I find I have been rather underrating.


It is most fine in parts. The chapters about Cambridge have a
fresh interest for me now, I have also read a splendid sermon of
Kingsley's called The Message of the Church to the Working-man. I
don't know that you would like it. It tends to put men on an
equality, which I think you would find a difficulty in stomaching,
my blessed tory friend.

'I have just finished Philip II., and to my taste, I think, for
sustained interest and graphic, nay, even brilliant narration, it
will bear comparison with any history I know.

' Don't tell the fellows at College that you have heard from me
this time; for I have not written to Browne yet, and he may
think me neglectful — I am going to write to him. — Believe me,
ever your affectionate friend, Alfred Ainger.'

* Cajibridge, Saturday Night.

' I repeat, I am going to write you a most idiotic note,^ for I
feel dull and stupid, and unfit for anything but my pillow. Many
thanks for your speedy response to my last. If I might suggest
any alteration in your letters (which are otherwise immaculate), I
would mention that they might be a little longer ; and they would
possess very great interest to me, if you would tell me of any-
thing that has struck you particularly in the course of the last
week ; or since you wrote last ; any opinions you may have
formed, any you have changed, anything you have seen in a
new light, etc., etc. I intend always to do this to you ; and I
hope you will do it to me.

' I saw Proctor yesterday. He told me he had heard from you
and he mentioned the premium you offered for an essay. It is
worth trying for — I think I shall go in for it.

* Nothing of any importance has occurred, I think, since I last
wrote. There have been some boat-races this week, Avhich I
witnessed from the bank of our beloved river. A boat-race is the
most exciting thing you can imagine. I will not attempt to de-
scribe it, for it has been done admirably in Alton Locke, in the
chapter headed "Cambridge." I will lend you the tale, if you
have not had it, when I am up at Christmas.

' After the race yesterday, there was an amusing incident, which
afforded considerable merriment to those not concerned in it. A
ferry-boat which was crossing the river had taken a great many
too many men on board, and she had hardly left the bank, when

^ ' Ah, poor dear, he is much the same.' — W. A. E.


she began gradually to settle down. About fifteen men took to
the water. Some of them^ freshmen, not knowmg the depths of
that classic ditch, the Cam, plunged vigorously in, thinking to
swim to the shore. But the water only came up to their waists ;
and a Trinity Hall gentleman, of great length, who was one of
the sufferers, appeared when in the middle of the stream, only as
if he were in a footbath. But if you can conceive a number of
young men, in every conceivable costume, of every conceivable
colour, wading about in a narrow stream amid shrieks of laughter
from the banks, you will picture a spectacle, highly gratifying, as
I before observed, to those — not in the water.

'I am thinking of writing a poem on this spirit-stirring subject,
beginning :

"Toll for the brave,"

after Cowper.

' Richard Chenevix Trench preached here last Sunday. The
result, I am very sorry to say, was universal disappointment. I
have not been able to find one man yet who could discover what
the Sermon was about. It is needless to say, / could not. He
chose, too, one of the grandest and deepest texts in the New
Testament. The 1st verse of 1st chapter of St. John. And he
talked a great deal about St. Augustine ; but any more I cannot
tell you. He attracted an enormous congregation by his reputa-
tion as a writer ; but there will be a great falling off to-morrow.
I confess I think Trench's forte is rather as a linguist and an
etymologist — and, I would add, as a writer of very sterling
English — than as a Divine.

' I cannot agree with you and Mackay that Kingsley and
Tennyson are "imitators" of that other gentleman (F. D.
Maurice). I rather think that both these writers had shewn the
tendency of their teaching to the world before the other. But
whether or no, there is so much distinctness of form, if there is
the same end sought, in these writers, that I cannot hold that
they are anything but original.

' Perhaps you may say that Kingsley takes and applies to the
concrete what M. and others have taught in the abstract. I be-
lieve that this is so ; and Alton Locke appears to me the most search-
ing and the most earnest application of the laws of Christ to the
present condition of society, that I ever read in fiction.

' The more I read, and the more I see of the world, the more
am I convinced that the great secret of the faithlessness of this
age is in the separation of classes. I often think of those lines


your sister wrote one evening at Blindley Heath ; and think how
they express a great national want. So long as the rich and the
poor are separated, by mutual pride and by the covetousness of
the rich and the envy of the poor, so long, I say, there will never
be a lively faith felt by this nation in the words of Christianity.

'And those whose worldly interest it is to keep them separated
— those traducers ; those Sia/SoXoi, to use the name which the
Greeks gave to the Father of Lies ; whether it be the mob-orators,
who tell their poor fellow-men that the rich are all tyrants, are all
vicious, dissolute^ and sordid, or whether it be the delicate-handed
political economist, who says the " Masses" must be kept down —
why these do a wickedness^ the results of which are quite incalcul-
able ; and they will answer it before a Higher Court than they can
be arraigned before on Earth.

' The rich should know how much of virtue there is among the
poor — virtues, moreover, which the rich truly have need to exer-
cise. They should know how much of sorrow, of suffering, of
patient endurance, of family love, strengthened too often by a
community of hunger and destitution, there is in a world of which
they have no experience. And the poor need just as much to
be told that gentlefolks who ride in their carriages are not, of
necessity, exempt from all cares ; that both rich and poor have
their sources of joy and grief; that both must be perfected by
suffering if they would enter the mansions prepared for them.

' And now I really must finish, or I shall make the letter over-
weight, and I am sure it is not worth twopence.

' If you love me, tear this up directly, or burn it. . . . — Ever
your affectionate friend, Alfred Ainger.'

' Thursday Night, Nov. 20, 1856.

'I have just returned from dining with the Master of Trinity
Hall, who is a hospitable old bird, and has all the freshmen to
dine with him every Michaelmas Term. Horace Smith remark-
ing to me after dinner that he had heard from you, I asked him,
if your letter contained nothing private, if he would let me see
it. . . . And I feel myself obliged, though it is not my turn to
write, to tell you how much I enjoyed it, and at the same time
how much of it surprised me.

' I think that what you say of a too exclusive study of the
writers and the train of thought induced by the day in which one
lives, is very just, and worthy of much remembrance. VVe are too
apt selfishly to confine our attention to our own day, and neglect


to seek the great method of understanding it, and all time, by
studying other times, and the men they produced. But still there
is this to be said, that every man (always of course after the great
object of his existence) is to live for his own time, and for suc-
ceeding times, and that therefore he does well to study those
Seers of the day, whoever they be, who may interpret to him those
failings and those yearnings — those doubts and heart-sinkings
which the contemplation of his existing time will have produced
in his heart. "Why is it," says Kingsley, "that the latest poet
has generally the greatest influence over the minds of the young ?
Surely not the mere charm of novelty ? The reason is that he,
living amid the same hopes, the same temptations, the same sphere
of obsei'vation as they, gives utterance and outward form to the
very questions, which, vague and wordless, have been exercising
their hearts."

' I am sure it must be this which causes me to have so intense
an admiration of Tennyson, and a feeling towards In Memoriam,
which is like an affection towards a personal friend, because I
found in it an expression of so many of the doubts and difficulties
which have beset me at different periods of my life. But I agree
with you that that is not enough, that man's mind must be trained,
and his nature fed by the knowledge of other times, that he luay
acquire an experience (the living experience of men and women
before him), which he may apply to the time in which he is placed.
So far, so good. But now, I confess that I do not know how you
have got the notion that Tennyson gives to reason a higher place
than to faith. As far as I have understood the poem, in hi
Memoricmi he does exactly the reverse to this. I have not the
poem by me ; but numbers of passages crowd upon me, to say the
reverse to what you say. I believe that in one place he talks of
faith — "and reason, like the younger child." I am quite certain
that if you read it again you will find that he considers faith as
the highest lore of the human intellect, and that in this, as in
everything else, in the words of Bacon, we conquer by obeying.

' I will undertake to convince you of this in five minutes, with
the poem in my hands. Again, I do not, with you, look upon
Tennyson in the light of a dreamy, or enervating poet. I believe
that, rightly read, he is as eminently a practical teacher in his
way as Shakespeare. . . .

'Again, thank you for your letters. I assure you that, placed as
I am out of the pale of any literary thought, I leai-n much and
think much by their aid. , , ,


'I send you herewith the Idylls of the King. . . . Their merits
are very great, and greater than any one would suppose who had
not some acquaintance with that large cycle of romances which
formed almost the only popular literature of the feudal times.
The immense value of these old romances is not so much in their
intrinsic merits. The great interest they have for us is rather
from the people who first read them, than from those who wrote
them. . . . They show us the rude virtues and the rude vices.
They do not, it is true, exhibit one of the fundamental evils of
the time — the degradation of the lower class, the great body
of villeins — and therefore in some respects it is not a true picture.
But it is evident that the ideal of a gentleman was in the minds
of the knightly readers, and when we read of the bravery, the
truth, the chastity, the gallantry, and the scorn of all that is
mean, that is held up for imitation in these romances, we may
be inclined to blush for our more minute civilisation, which
with its many refinements and improvements has lost some of
its broader and healthier features. . . . The third and fourth
idylls are, I think, the best. The foui-th and last is perfect. If
you have an opportunity, read them aloud, and so lose none of
the effects of the versification. (N.B. Private.) Don't read the
" Vivien " aloud. There are certain passages in it which are
not pleasant to read before ladies, though the poem itself is
perhaps more powerful than any of the others. There is more
of the Shakspeare-mind in it.'

' Cambridge, Monday Niyht.

' The constancy with which you answer my letters, in the
midst of all your hard work, is most good of you — and I feel
compelled to write to you yet once more, though I shall be in
London, I hope, this day week.

' I am tired to-night, and feel very disinclined for reading :
and had " I the tediousness of a king, could find it in my heart
to bestow it all on your worship."

' The principal new character that I have become acquainted
with since I have been up, is that of Socrates. Have you ever
read any Plato } You will be filled with admiration of the
philosophy of that old Athenian, who kncAV the soul was immortal,
and met his death without a pang. The practical nature, and the
conscientiousness of his arguments are wonderful. There are
strong points of resemblance between Socrates and Bacon, in the
method in which they conducted the search after truth. Both


effected a reformation in philosophy, both brought down vague
and intangible theories to an investigation of existing things —
though one was the reformer of moral philosophy and the other
of physical. We will have a glance at some of the Socratic
methods, some day.

' '' My dear Mary, I will now conclude "

' " That 's rayther a sudden pull up ; ain't it t " said Mr. Weller.

'"I don't know," said Sam, "she'll wish there was more, and
that 's the great art of letter-writing." — Dear Willy, ever yours,

Alfred Ainger.'

The following note is to his old friend, Gertrude King, and
belongs to these early Cambridge days : —

'Sunday evening, a time which calls up before me the
pleasantest evenings of my life. You are all constantly in my
thoughts, but this is a time when regrets are hardest to be
dispelled. Sunday is a very delightful day to me here. The
extreme quiet after the noise of the week is refreshing. . . .
Everything goes on much the same. I like the life very much
indeed, and don't know that I was ever happier. I know an
immense number of men in the university, but I do not find
myself incommoded by them. — Believe me, your affectionate
brother, Alfred Ainger.'

The bachelor formality of the last phrase — piquant from
one so young and social — and the wistful tenderness of the
opening words are alike characteristic of the writer. In spite
of all his fun, he made a serious impression on his contem-
poraries. ' A true man,' says one of them,i ' who might in
any circumstances be relied on to do what was right, nor count
the cost — a man firm of purpose, reverent, and loveable.'
And his thought and his character were one. There is
a passage from a University essay of his, sent, like the
letters that follow, to his regular correspondent Elderton,
the set thought of which is typical of the man.

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 4 of 32)