Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

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It was in November of this same j^ear that his father died.
The event affected his life deeply ; it was not only his first
great sorrow, but it swayed his whole course and his choice of
a vocation. A waiting profession like the Law became
impossible, and the thought of the Church which had not
ceased to haunt and attract him, assumed a definite shape.
The uncertainty as to what he ought to do oppressed him
heavily, and his old friend, Richard Browne, who about now
visited him at Cambridge, found him plunged in deep dejec-
tion, partly of grief, partly of doubt. There is some irony
in the fact that at this critical moment he consulted his
former tutor, Leslie Stephen, as to the advisability of taking
orders and that his counsellor advised him to do so. But
whatever fears Alfred entertained were fears about his own


unworthiness, not about the merits of the Church as a voca-
tion or his earnest desire for it. It had, perhaps, never been
so attractive as then. The visible proof given by Kingsley,
Robertson, and Maurice of what individuals could effect for
it — the need of the best men to follow in their steps and
replace the inferior spirits who had entered it for inferior
motives — these were reasons that weighed largely with Ainger.
And it was really the influence of IMaurice, and no personal
advice, which finally determined him to be ordained. ' I owe
everything to Maurice,' he used to say in later days, and he
never regretted his decision.

There are those who assume that his taking Orders was
almost an accident of circumstances, the result of conventional
acquiescence in the need of a suitable career. But this is
very far from the truth, for wut and man of letters though
he was, he was, before all else, a clergyman of the Church of

He was always more of a minister than a priest. The
argument of authority, the glamour of ecclesiastical tradition
had little power over him. He felt something very near
prejudice against any pronounced form of Ritualism, and if
his position had to be defined, we should say that he
belonged to the old Evangelical School — of a day when its
most marked characteristic was a deep but unaggressive
piety. This attitude of mind harmonised with the Broad
Church views of that time, the views of F. D. Maurice; on
the other hand, he was not of the Broad Church in the
modern acceptance of the term, and the latitude of view
that it admits would never have had his sanction. For, from
beginning to end, he seems never to have entertained a doubt
concerning orthodox Christianity. From all such doubts,
from all speculation and criticism, from modern scientific
thought, he turned away with a strong distaste that
amounted to distress. Religion founded on orthodox belief —
a very different thing to dogmatism — w^as to him the only
working method of existence. His Huguenot ancestors had
left him an inheritance : he was throughout life possessed by
a deep conviction of sin, a conviction which, disclosed in his



private utterances, was almost as strong as Dr. Johnson's. The
personal attitude towards Christ, the Christian Revelation, with
its sense of reconcilement, were a necessity to him, and this
necessity was, in his eyes, evidence beyond which he felt no need
to travel. Individual in religion as in everything else, when
once he had found what suited him he kept it, with a pure
unshaken faith that endured, or rather ignored, every shock
that might assail it. ' A clergyman is, at the best, a man in
blinkers. He must not receive any lateral impressions,"* so he
wrote in his private notebook, in the autumn of this same
year ; and the candid, almost nd\f phrase sums up his position,
both in its strength and in its weakness. In matters of
thought he was, indeed, more practical than he was imagina-
tive, more spiritual than intellectual. Like all truly religious
natures, he felt that the appeal of faith was to the heart, not to
the head, and in that belief he was perhaps too willing to put
aside the demands of the mind. However much the idea of
taking Orders had existed at the back of his thoughts, he had
not found it possible to talk of it, and the decision came as a
great surprise to his family. Soon after he had announced
it to them — in 1860 — he wrote about his views to a cousin,
Marianne Nicol, with whom he was on terms of intimacy : —

' It gave me great pleasure to find that my final choice of a
profession did not altogether surprise you . , . You are right in
supposing that it is no sudden freak. It is a subject that has
always been lying open before me for some years and which, when
1 came lately to regard it as a definite possibility, assumed a more
favourable look the more I reflected on it. If I cannot hope (as
who could), that I have the best qualifications for the office, I
certainly think that in the secular necessaries for it I am at least
as well qualified as many men — for I have had some practice in
reading, writing, and speaking. I think that, regarding it on
this lower ground, the Chui'ch is the profession most suited to my
disposition. When I come to speak of the higher qualifica-
tions I can only speak (as, my dear Marianne, we all must), with
shame and diffidence. I have, and always have had, very
strong views on the duties of a clergyman. I have always thought
that that immense machinery which our clergy set in motion
does not produce an effect proportionate to its magnitude, I


think the clergyman often alienates where he might conciliate,
and I firmly believe that if evei-y one of them was sensible and
kind, there would not be many dissenters left in England soon.
And the effective power of the Church of England would be
thereby enhanced to an indefinite extent.

' I dare say there are many points, my dear cousin, on which
you and I won't agree. I think there are some on which you
would think me quite unorthodox. But I know of no points
which debar me from preaching the doctrines of the Church with
sincerity. "What are the little things we fight for," says Arch-
bishop Leighton, ''compared with the great things of God?"
There is so much to do in the Church, about which no one could
doubt, that it little matters differing on points which concern no
man's relation to his Maker.

' There is no point I feel stronger on than the divinity of
Christ, being convinced that with it, Christianity must live or

' If the Saviour of men were not identical with their Creator, I
see no help in the Cross for the suffering millions of the world.
2'he doctrine of doctrines that men need to learn and take to heart
is this — that the only thing that alienates them from God is sin
— that each man among us has a right, by his brotherhood with
Christ, to claim his position as a child of God — and that there is
nothing but his own disobedience that keeps him from his true

' Please do not show this to any one. . . .

' I hope to see you soon in town — till then goodbye, and
believe me to be, Ever your affectionate cousin,

'Alfred Ainqer.'

It was about this time that William Elderton was also
thinking of Orders, and the following letters on the subject
throw further light on Ainger's own feeling and follow
fittingly on the last one : —

' 1859.

' I was a little perplexed and surprised by what you said to
me on Sunday on the subject of your taking Orders. You
spoke so mysteriously at times that I thought there might be
family reasons for your seeming indecision, into which I had
no right to inquire. But again you spoke also in a kind
of desponding or unsatisfied tone as to the state of the Church


and its ministers, which has led me to think that your reasons
are such as concern yourself alone, and with which a stranger —
not to say a friend — may intermeddle. The experience which
seemed to deter you from the step in question seems to me to be
just what would encourage me to pursue the path I had entered
on. If the Church is (and it is painfully obvious) torn by dis-
sension, lowered by the ignorance and indiscretion of too many
of its ministers, and losing that respect which it has hitherto
received from the world, it seems to me just the time for an
earnest and thoughtful man, who values the Church as the true
and only salt of society, to join its ministerial body, and labour
to make his voice heard above the jargon of sects and fanatics.
It seems to me that there never was a time when to preach
the simple Gospel of St. Paul and St. John was much more
needed than now. The low church preachers are teaching a
gospel of selfishness — " pur et simple " — the high church are
crushing God's message under a heap of the dreariest symbolism.
We want the Kingdom of Heaven preached : not a gospel of
rewards and punishments, but the good news of that peace and
joy which the knowledge of Christ imparts — that utter change in
the aspect of the world and of human life which that knowledge
produces. That love is the greatest of the graces we may well
believe, for it is surely the rarest — the hardest to cleave to, and
to feel in the intercourse of life. And therefore woe unto us if
we do not preach it. You know all this ; and I do wish I could
see you on your way to taking your part as a teacher. I do not
believe you have doubts — except as to yourself and your own
powers. God give us all this distrust of our own selves and our
own powers, as the first step to being filled with His power,
which is given wherever it is loved and sought for.

' Do write to me, and speak freely about these or any other
difficulties. Ever yours affectionately,

'Alfred Ainger.'

' Monday.

'Though I am hoping to see you to-morrow, still I feel I must
write a few lines to tell you how good I think you were to
answer a note which I felt, after I had sent it, might appear
officious and uncalled-for. I fully sympathise with the diffi-
culties which you feel in your way arising from your knowledge
of your own character. I am not prepared to say that your
estimate of yourself is a true one, but you know your own weak-


ness better than any one else, as we all must do. But such
knowledge is, as I said before, the first step to accepting that
strength which is offered freely to you and me and all men.^

' I confess that the aspect of religious parties is appalling ; and
petty as is the little pride and vain-glory of the two great parties
of High Church and Low, I have come of late to think that of
the modern " neologians/' in many instances, quite as petty.
The prate and chatter of free thought, and late schools of Biblical
ci'iticism, is to me quite as offensive as any other cant ; and I
confess that the contemplation of it all drives me back to the
simple friendship of Christ as the most perfect rest and relief.
Whatever be the mysteries of His nature — of His birth, His life,
His death — still to know that He loves us, in spite of all, and is
yearning to make us His, is a shrine of comfort which may give
us fresh hope and confidence to go on and work at whatever our
hand finds to do — certain of this, that we shall soon know all
things and lose ourselves in Him as our perfectest reward. — Yours
ever, A. A.'

Ainger had by now left Cambridge, and when he informed
his family of his resolution, he was already settled with his
sister Marianne in lodgings at Queen's Terrace, St. John's
Wood. But her marriage, soon after this, to a German gentle-
man named Mr. Wiss, a descendant of the poet Campbell,
put an end to any joint arrangement. Mrs. Ainger and her
children had meanwhile moved to Birkenhead, so from this
time until his ordination he had no real home in London. He
was thus thrown nmch upon himself, and in the intervals of
studying divinity he read and thought a good deal. Thought
with him oftenest took the form of observation, and at this
time it was his habit to jot down the results in a notebook.
The little volume lies before us now — sober brown, edged with
gold, full of his careful handwriting, lucid, flowing, regular
— and perhaps we cannot better follow his progress than by
copying from it some of the reflections that he made during
1859 and 1860 :—

' Shakespeare said, " Brevity is the soul of wit." Our age reads,
" levity." '

^ Mr, Elderton did not enter the Church, but gave himself up to teaching.


'Hamlet's mental disorder consists in this, that he judges all
men by his experience of a few. Brought up in the unnatural
atmosphere of the Court of Denmark, and having no life beyond
it except what he lives in himself, he hates his kind because he
believes them to resemble the persons among whom he is doomed
to live. A large intercourse with the world was the corrective he

' Any one who remembers the impression produced on his
mind by King's Chapel and the other grand buildings of Cam-
bridge when seen for the first time, and remembers how, after
the lapse of a few months, they failed to produce any impression
at all, and come to be looked at as the dullest matter of course,
will receive a slight aid towards understanding Wordsworth's
Ode on the Inlimalions of Iminortalitij. Who will write an " Intima-
tions of Immortality from Recollections of the Freshman's Term " ? '

•' Charles Lamb's friend, who left off reading to the great increase
of his originality, assuredly erred on the right side. The danger
in this much-written-for age is of reading too much. Placed
among the countless shelves of modern libraries, we are like men
with many acquaintances but few friends. We are on compara-
tively intimate terms with the reviews. We occasionally ask a
new poet to our house. We are on bowing terms with the
scientific writers. We just know the historian to speak to. But,
where are the books our forefathers loved because they were true
and tried, when there wei*e not so many new-comes that they felt
themselves called on to leave their best friends to step across and
chat with the smartly-dressed crowd of strangers opposite .'' Why
do we not know our Shakespeares as good Sir Tliomas Lee in
Woodstock knew his .'' Oh, that we could be wrecked on a desert
island, and could save ''Milton" from the wreck as well as the
salt-beef and biscuit ! That we only knew our Spenser as well
as we knew that most insipid of novels after being locked up with
it for three days in wet weather in a Welsh inn, with no other
consolation near but a Bradshaw's Guide and a cruet-stand ! . . •
How refreshing it is to meet sometimes with those who never
read at all ! What a relief it is from that clever technical con-
versation which is sure to spring up among readers ! Often Ave
envy those persons, unspotted from Mudie's, who would listen
to the sentiments of books with the astonishment with Avhich
a savage in a state of most primeval nature would gaze upon a
crinoline. They have advantages over us, proud as we feel our-


selves. Their thoughts and feeHngs they can trace home to their
objects, and know that they are genuine, unplagued by the
thought that the same things have often been thought before,
and are as old as the first man who gazed upon a sunset. Their
aspirations and hopes are more awful to them that they do not
know how to give them expression in words.

' This is high ground, perhaps ; and an ingenuous reader would
pooh-pooh us. We are content, if he demur, to take a lower
ground. The non-reader, if he lose much by not reading — con-
sider well from how much he is saved. Truly the illiterate man
has much to be thankful for.'

'Blackstone says that idiots cannot marry. How frequently
is this law evaded ! '

' According to Vattel, the Law of Nations, in its origin, is nothing
but the law of Nature applied to nations. Of all the opinions of
the old jurists this seems the most satisfactory. It helps, too,
to expose a fallacy in Mr. Mill's essay on Liberty. The writer, in
trying to prove that the Christian's scheme of morality is far
from being complete, mentions inter alia that such a quality as
patriotism, universally acknowledged to be a virtue, is not taught
in the New Testament. This statement shews to what lengths a
weak cause will drive its advocates. What is patriotism but the
application to a man's country of those principles of love, grati-
tude, relationship, which are the great teachings of the gospel .''
If the New Testament writers had set themselves to lay down
every application of the principles they taught, then, the '^ world
would not hold the books that should be written." '

' " God gives every man his choice between truth and repose."
Thus says Emerson, and how finely it sounds. But is it not a
gross fallacy } To whom will Mr. Emerson venture to say that
God has given truth ? Will he dare to say that any man that
ever lived attained ''truth by any measure of unrest"? If
Emerson kept himself loose from all moorings for his whole life,
would he attain any nearer to truth than another man ? ... The
insinuation involved in it is ungenerous and unjust. A man will
never do anything great, if he spend his years in sifting and
digging the ground on which he stands. He cannot labour
without a firm foundation under his foot. It is only by taking
strong hold of the soil in which it springs, that the tree will take
the greatest good from the light into which it rises.'

' The distinction between the two essayists, Addison and Steele,


is something like that which Sir Andrew Aguecheek finds to exist
between himself and Sir Toby Belch : " He does it well enough —
and so. do I too : he does it with a better grace, but I do it more
natural." *

' Foster's well-known essay is on the aversion of men of taste
to the Evangelical religion ; and this will never cease to exist till
men of the evangelical religion shew less aversion to taste. No
form of creed will ever recommend itself to a myriad-minded race,
which does not acknowledge that every taste, faculty, and power
of human nature is capable of being exercised to the glory
of God.'

* Our thoughts are greater than our words : our feelings than
our thoughts. Greater than all are those phantoms of thought
which sometimes, in our high moments, glide about the mind, but
will not stay to be registered in words. They are glimpses of the
infinite, which close before we guess whither we are looking.'

'There is an old sentimental prayer: "Teach me to forget."
A wiser prayer would be "Teach me to remember — teach me to
cling to the memory of those things which supported me when I
was a child and helped me onwards." It is a misfortune to forget.
" He that lacks time to mourn," says Henry Taylor, " lacks time
to mend." So it is with those who lack time to live again, some-
times, in the past.'

The living in the past as in a natural home — so usual in age,
so rare in youth — was, with him, an instinct. Perhaps no one
clung more tenderly, or so tenaciously, to what had been : and
to this feeling was due a great part of his natural conservatism.
The words are dated August, I860. It was in the month follow-
ing that he was ordained Deacon, and became curate to the Rev.
Richard Haslehurst, the Vicar of Alrevvas, in Staffordshire.



Alfred Ainger's lines had fallen in pleasant places. IVIr. Hasle-
hurst was the brother-in-law of the Rev. George Atkinson, the
Principal of the Collegiate School in Sheffield, who had been
Alfred's friend in Cambridge days, and Junior Tutor at Trinity
Hall. Through him Ain«rer had first been introduced to the
Vicar of Alrewas, and the instinctive sympathy that each then
felt for the other ripened into something like intimacy, and
ended in the offer of the curacy. Alfred went to the place he
most needed — a home ; a house daily graced by the love of wife
and children. Mrs. Haslehurst was one of those women — Tenny-
sonian women, we might call them — who come into life already
idealised, who need no doings to justify them. Tranquil and
poetic, she represented that feminine element always necessary
to Alfred's nature, and even more important now than during
his stay with the Kings. The sympathy, the spiritual stimu-
lus which his sensitive temperament demanded, were provided
by her, and her power to soothe and to encourage him became
a factor in his existence. The shadow of her early death was
still far off, and the happy days went by in work and talk
and music. She was herself a musician and her husband
a good violinist, so that Aingers tenor voice with its rare
quality found a warm welcome from them. So also did his
friends, who were soon as much accepted in the Vicarage as
himself. They were asked there, one after another, and grew,
like him, to regard the house as home. Horace Smith, fresh
from Germany with Schumann'^s songs upon his lips ; the
literary Fullarton ; Ralph Macleod, and others of his Cam-
bridge cronies, many of them now at work in London, shared
the calm days at Alrewas ; and one of them, Mr. Alsager



Hay Hill, has left a record in verse, dedicated to Ainger. It
seems worth reproducing as a reminder of their intercourse : —

' And each had welcome. Who could doubt the hand
That grasped us on the threshold when we came?
(Our only title that we came with you) . . .
So kindly, too, the greeting on his face.
One almost thought, indeed, he was a friend
In some forgotten world that once was ours. . . .

Such a man
Is Nature's moulding, fashioned by the hand,
That bids the oak uplift its valiant arms. . . .
A village pastor, be it even so, . . .
Shepherd and king in one — without a crown.
But wearing all the royalty of love ; . . .

She too, the gentle partner at his side,

And constant as the shadow to the tree. . . .

. . . How tenderly

She took the trivial-seeming household tasks, . . .

Among her children half a child for them.

. . . How blithely rang

The voices to our music in their glee . . .

. . . And then the vicar played his violin

As if his very heart-strings had been given

To make the tune go brisker. . . .

Or else we kept the tourney of debate.

With not a pause or resting of the lance

Till lamp flared low and moon was gliding high.

For first we laid the laws of village state ;

How vestries should be guided, how the schools ;

How best to stamp the spawning schisms out ;

Then poets' names would glide into our talk ;

And one would say " We had no poets now :

Since he the Seer of Rydal fell asleep

Thei'e had been many babblers in the land

And mocking-birds were many in the woods,

But not a solitary nightingale

To sing and make a music of its own."

Whereat there rose a clamour of dispute

To think that one should dare to speak so ill.

And e'en deny the very sweetest voice

That ever minstrel raised amid the choir

AVhere all are master-singers sent of God.

The hand that touched the sorrow and the sin

Of Guinevere and made them both immortal ;


The tongue that framed of grief the holiest hymu
That ever heart uplifted in its loss ;
It could not be his songs were born of earth,
Poor wandering echoes of some earlier voice. . . .
So lengthened ran the current of discourse
And so borne on were one and all of us —
From poets to potatoes, law to lambs,
And many another contrary, passing swift ;
Thus lightly touching all things, gauging none.'

These evenings were episodes in work of which Ainger took
his full share. The homes of his flock lay far apart and in
after days he used to tell how he cheered his long tramps
through muddy lanes by whistling the songs of Schubert.
He was not a born parish -priest, nor did his gifts lie in
district visiting. Among the poor as among the rich, his
sympathy was with the individual, and while in one cottage
his talk would flow with ease, in another he would have
nothing to say. But of those to whom he felt akin, he made
friends, and to them he remained not the clergyman but the
dear companion and helper, conversant with the details of
their lives. The charm of his presence still lives among them.
' He married me, and beautifully he did it,' was one old
woman's comment on his death.

Yet his real work in Alrewas lay outside these ministrations.
Much of his time was devoted to the services which he made
more musical than was then common in country places. His
chief achievements, however, were the readings which he gave
every week to the parish, interspersing them periodically with
more important entertainments, attended by the neighbour-

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 7 of 32)