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John Richard Green 153

books. Every one of them had a beginning,
middle, and end. The ideas were developed in an
apt and graceful order, the sentences could all be
construed, the diction was choice. It was the
same with the short articles which he at one time
used to write for the Saturday Revieiv. They
are little essays, some of them worthy to live not
only for the excellent matter they contain, but
for the delicate refinement of their form. Yet
they were all written swiftly, and sometimes in
the midst of physical exhaustion. The friend I
have previously quoted describes the genesis of
one. Green had reached the town of Troyes
early one morning with two companions, and
immediately started off to explore it, darting
hither and thither through the streets like a dog
trying to find a scent. In two or three hours the
examination was complete. The friends lunched
together, took the train on to Basel, got there
late, and went off to bed. Green, however, wrote
before he slept, and laid on the breakfast-table
next morning, an article on Troyes, in which its
characteristic features were brouQ-ht out and con-
nected with its fortunes and those of the Counts
of Champagne during some centuries, an article
'vhich was really a history in miniature. Then they
went out too-ether to look at Basel, and beincf asked
some question about that city he o-ave on the spur
of the moment a sketch of its growth and character
equally vivid and equally systematic, grouping all

154 Biographical Studies

he had to say round two or three leading theories.
Yet he had never been in either place before, and
had not made a special study of either. He could
apparently have done the same for many another
town in France or the Rhineland.

Nothing struck one so much in daily inter-
course with him as his passionate interest in
human life. The same quickness of sympathy
which had served him well in his work among
the East End poor, enabled him to pour feeling
into the figures of a bygone age, and become
the most human, and in so far the most real and
touching, of all who have dealt with English
history. Whether or not his portraits are true,
they always seem to breathe.

Men and women that is to say, such of them
as have characteristics pronounced enough to
make them classifiable may be divided into
those whose primary interests are in nature and
what relates to nature, and those whose primary
interests are in and for man. Green was the most
striking type I have known of the latter class,
not merely because his human interests were
strong, but also because they excluded, to a
degree singular in a mind so versatile, interests
in purely natural things. He did not seem to
care for or seek to know any of the sciences of
nature^ except in so far as they bore directly

1 At one time, however, he learnt a little geology from his friend
Professor Dawkins, perceiving its bearings on history.

John Richard Green 155

upon man's life, and were capable of explaining
it or of serving it. He had a keen eye for
country, for the direction and character of hills,
the position and influence of rivers, forests, and
marshes, of changes in the line of land and sea.
Readers of The Making of England will recall
the picture of the physical aspects of B itain when
the Teutonic invaders entered it as an unsur-
passed piece of reconstructive description. So
on a battle-field or in an historical town, his
vision of the features of the ground or the site
was unerring. But he perceived and enjoyed
natural beauty chiefly in reference to human life.
The study of the battle-field and the town site
were aids to the comprehension of historical
events. The exquisite landscape was exquisite
because it was associated with the people dwelling
there, with the processes of their political growth,
with their ideas or their social usages, I re-
member to have had from him the most vivid
descriptions of the towns of the Riviera and
of Capri, where he used to pass the winter, but
he never touched on anything which did not
illustrate or intertwine itself with the life of the
people, leaving one uninformed on matters purely
physical. Facts about the character of the
mountains, the relation of their ranges to one
another, or their rocks, or the trees and flowers
of their upper regions, the prospects their
summits command, the scenes of beauty in their

156 Biographical Studies

glens, or beside their wood - embosomed lakes,
all, in fact, which the mountain lover delights
in, and which are to him a part of the mountain
ardour, of the passion for pure nature unsullied
by the presence of man all this was cold to
him. But as soon as a touch of human life fell
like a sunbeam across the landscape, all became
warm and lovable.

It was the same with art. With an historian's
delight in the creative ages and their work, he
had a fondness for painting and sculpture, and
could so describe what he saw in the galleries and
churches of Italy as to bring out meanings one
had not perceived before. But here, too, it was
the human element that fascinated him. Technical
merits, though he observed them, as he observed
most things, were forgotten ; he dwelt only on
what the picture expressed or revealed. Pure
landscape painting gave him little pleasure.

It seems a truism to say that one who writes
history ought to care for all that bears upon
man in the present in order that he may com-
prehend what bore upon him in the past. This
roaring loom of Time, these complex physical
and moral forces playing round us, and driving
us hither and thither by such a strange and
intricate interlacement of movements that we
seem to perceive no more than what is next us,
and are unable to say v/hither we are tending,
ought to be always before the historian's mind.

John Richard Green 157

But there are few who have tried, as Green
tried, to follow every flash of the shuttle, and to
discover a direction and a relation amidst appar-
ent confusion, for there are few who have taken
so wide a view of the historian's functions, and
have so distinctly set before them as their object
the comprehension and realisation and descrip-
tion of the whole field of bygone human life.
The Past was all present to him in this sense,
that he saw and felt in it not only those large
events which annalists or state papers have re-
corded, but the everyday life of the people, their
ideas, their habits, their external surroundings.
And the Present was always as if past to him
in this sense, that in spite of his strong political
feelings, he looked eit it with the eye of a
philosophical observer, trying to disengage prin-
ciples from details, permanent tendencies from
passing outbursts. His imagination visualised,
so to speak, the phenomena as in a picture ; his
speculative faculty tried to harmonise them,
measure them, and forecast their effects. Hence
it was a necessity to him to know what was
passing in the world. The first thing he did
every day, whatever other pressure there might
be on him, was to read the daily newspaper.
The last thing that he ceased to read, when what
remained of life began to be counted by hours,
was the daily newspaper. This warm interest in
mankind is the keynote of his History of the

158 Biographical Studies

English People. It is the whole people that is
ever present to him, as it had been present before
to few other historians.

Such power of imagination and sympathy as I
have endeavoured to describe is enough to make
a brilliant writer, yet not necessarily a great
historian. One must see how far the other
qualifications, accuracy, acuteness of observation,
and judgment, are also brought into action.

His accuracy has been much impeached. When
the first burst of applause that welcomed the
Short History had subsided, several critics began
to attack it on the score of minor errors. They
pointed out a number of statements of fact which
were doubtful, and others which were incorrect,
and spread in some quarters the impression that
Green was a careless and untrustworthy writer.
I do not deny that there are in the first editions
of the Short History some assertions made
more positively than the evidence warrants,
some pictures drawn from exceedingly slender
materials. Mr. Skene remarks of the account
given of the battle between the Jutes and the
Britons which took place in the middle of the fifth
century, somewhere near Aylesford in Kent, and
about which we really know scarcely anything,
"Mr. Green describes it as if he had been present."
The temptation to such liberties is strong where
the treatment of a period is summary. A writer
who compresses the whole history of England

John Richard Green 159

into eight hundred pages of small octavo, making
his narrative not a bare narrative but a picture
full of colour and incident incident which, for
brevity's sake, must often be given by allusion
cannot be always interrupting the current of the
story to indicate doubts or quote authorities for
every statement in which there may be an
element of conjecture ; and it is probable that
when the authorities are scrutinised their result
will sometimes appear different from that which
the author has presented. On this head the
Short History may be admitted to have occasion-
ally purchased vividity at the price of exactitude.
Of mistakes, strictly so called i.e. statements
demonstrably incorrect and therefore ascribable
to haste or carelessness there are enough to
make a show under the hands of a hostile critic,
yet not more than one is prepared to expect
from any but the most careful scholars. The
book falls far short of the accuracy of Thirlwall
or Ranke or Stubbs, short even of the accuracy
of Gibbon or Carlyle ; but it is not greatly
below the standard of Grote or jMacaulay or
Robertson, it is equal to the standard of Milman,
above that of David Hume. I take famous
names, and could put a better face on the matter
by choosing for comparison divers contemporary
writers whose literary eminence is higher than
their historical. And Green's mistakes, although
pretty numerous, were (for they have been cor-

i6o Biographical Studies

rected in later editions) nearly all in small matters.
He puts an event, let us say, in 1340 which
happened in the November of 1339; he calls a
man John whose name was William. These are
mistakes to the eye of a civil service examiner,
but they seldom make any difference to the
general reader, for they do not affect the doctrines
and pictures which the book contains, and in
which lies its permanent value as well as its literary
charm. As Bishop Stubbs says, " Like other
people, Green makes mistakes sometimes ; but
scarcely ever does the correction of his mistakes
affect either the essence of the picture or the
force of the argument. . . , All his work was
real and original work ; few people besides those
who knew him well would see under the charming
ease and vivacity of his style the deep research
and sustained industry of the laborious student."
It may be added that Green's later and more
detailed works, The Making of Engla7id and
The Conquest of England, though they contain
plenty of debatable matter, as in the paucity
of authentic data any such book must do, have
been charged with few errors in matters of

In considering his critical gift, it is well to dis-
tinguish those two elements of acute perception
and sober judgment which I have already specified,
for he possessed the former in larger measure than
the latter. The same activity of mind which made

John Richard Green i6i

him notice everything while travelHng or enter-
ing a company of strangers, played incessantly
upon the historical data of his work, and supplied
him with endless theories as to the meaning of
a statement, the source it came from, the way it
had been transmitted, the conditions under which
it was made. No one could be more acute and
penetrating in what the Germans call Quelle?i-
forsckiiug, the collection and investigation and
testing of the sources of history, nor could any
one be more painstaking. Errors of view, apart
from those trivial inaccuracies already referred to,
did not arise from an indolence that left any
stone unturned, but rather from an occupation
with the leading idea which had drawn his
attention away from the details of time and place.
The ingenuity with which he built up theories
was as admirable as the art with which he
stated them. People whom that art fascinated
sometimes fancied that the charm lay entirely in
the style. But the style was only a part of the
craftsmanship. The facility in theorising, the
power of grouping facts under new aspects, the
skill in gathering and sifting evidence, were
as remarkable as those artistic qualities which
expressed themselves in the paragraphs and
sentences and phrases. What danger there was
arose from this fecundity. His mind was so
fertile, could see so much in a theory and apply

it so dexterously, that his judgment was some-


1 62 Biographical Studies

times dazzled by the brilliance of his ingenuity.
I do not think he loved his theories specially
because they were his own, for he often modified
them, and was ready to consider any one else's
suggestions ; but he had a passion for light, and
when a new view seemed to him to explain things
previously dark, he wanted the patience to sus-
pend his judgment and abide in uncertainty.
Some of his hypotheses he himself dropped.
Some others he probably would have dropped,
as the authorities he respected have not embraced
them. Others have made their way into general
acceptance, and may become still more useful as
future research works them out. But, whether
right or wrong, they were instructive. Every
one of them is based upon facts whose im-
portance had not been so fully seen before, and
suggests a point of view worth considering.
Green's view may sometimes appear fanciful : it
is never foolish, or superficial, or perverse. And
so far from being credulous, his natural tendency
was towards doubt.

Inventive as his mind was, it was also solvent
and sceptical. Seldom is a strong imagination
coupled with so unsparing a criticism as that
which he applied to the materials on which the
constructive faculty had to work. His later
tendencies were rather towards scepticism, and
towards what one may call a severe and ascetic
view of history. While writing The Making of

John Richard Green 163

England and The Conqziesi of England, he used
to lament the scantiness of the data and the
barren dryness which he feared the books would
consequently show. " How am I to make any-
thing of these meagre entries of marches and
battles which are the only materials for the history
of whole centuries ? Here are the Norsemen
and Danes ravaging and occupying the country ;
we learn hardly anything about them from English
sources, and nothing at all from Danish. How
can one conceive and describe them ? how have
any comprehension of what England was like in
the districts the Northmen took and ruled ? " I
tried to get him to work at the Norse Sagas, and
remember in particular to have entreated him
when he came to the battle of Brunanburh to
eke out the pitifully scanty records of that fight
from the account given of it in the story of
the Icelandic hero, Egil, son of Skallagrim.
But he answered that the Saga was unhistorical,
a bit of legend written down more than a
century after the events, and that he could not,
by using it in the text, appear to trust it, or to
mix up authentic history with what was possibly
fable. It was urged that he could guard him-
self in a note from being supposed to take it
for more than what it was, a most picturesque
embellishment of his tale. But he stood firm.
Throughout these two last books, he steadily
refrained from introducing any matter, however

164 Biographical Studies

lively or romantic, which could not stand the
test of his stringent criticism, and used laughingly
to tell how Dean Stanley had long ago said to
him, after reading one of his earliest pieces, " I
see you are in danger of growing picturesque.
Beware of it. I have suffered for it."

If in these later years he reined in his
imagination more tightly, the change was due
to no failing in his ingenuity. Nothing in
his work shows higher constructive ability than
The Making of Engla7id. He had to deal
with a time which has left us scarcely any
authentic records, and to piece together his nar-
rative and his picture of the country out of these
records, and the indications, faint and scattered,
and often capable of several interpretations, which
are supplied by the remains of Roman roads and
villas, the names of places, the boundaries of local
divisions, the casual statements of writers many
centuries later. What he has given us remains
an enduring witness to his historical power.
For here it is not a question of mere brilliance
of style. The result is due to patience, pene-
tration, and the careful weighing of evidence,
joined to that faculty of realising things in
the concrete by which a picture is conjured up
out of a mass of phenomena, everything falling
into its place under laws which seem to prove
themselves as soon as they are stated.

Of his style nothing need be said, for his

John Richard Green 165

readers have felt its charm. But it deserves
to be remarked that this accomplished master
of words had little verbal memory. He used
to say that he could never recollect a phrase in
its exact form, and in his books he often uncon-
sciously varied, writing from memory, some ex-
pression whose precise form is on record. Nor
had he any turn for languages. German he knew
scarcely at all, a fact which makes the range of his
historical knowledge appear more striking ; and
though he had spent several winters in Italy, he
could not speak Italian except so far as he
needed it for the inn or the railway. The want
of mere verbal memory partly accounts for this
deficiency, but it was not unconnected with the
vehemence of his interest in the substance of
things. He was so anxious to get at the kernel
that he could not stop to examine the nut. In
this absence of linguistic gifts, as well as in the
keenness of his observation (and in his short-
sightedness), he resembled Dean Stanley, who,
though he had travelled in and brought back all
that was best worth knowing from every country
in Europe, had no facility in any language but his

Green was not one of those whose personality
is unlike their books, for there was in both the
same fertility, the same vivacity, the same quick-
ness of sympathy. Nevertheless, his conversa-
tion seemed to give an even higher impression

1 66 Biographical Studies

of intellectual power than did his writings,
because it was so swift and so spontaneous.
Such talk has rarely been heard in our time, so
gay was it, so vivid, so various, so full of anec-
dote and illustration, so acute in criticism, so
candid in consideration, so graphic in descrip-
tion, so abundant in sympathy, so flashing in
insight, so full of colour and emotion as well as
of knowledge and thought. One had to forbid
one's self to visit him in the evening, because
it was impossible to get away before two o'clock
in the morning. And, unlike many famous
talkers, he was just as willing to listen as to
speak. One of the charms of his company
was that it made a man feel better than his
ordinary self. His appreciation of whatever had
any worth in it, his comments and replies,
so stimulated the interlocutor's mind that it
moved faster and could hit upon apter ex-
pressions than at any other time. The same
gifts which shone in his conversation, lucid
arrangement of ideas, ready command of words,
and a power in perceiving the tendencies of
those whom he addressed, would have made
him an admirable public speaker. I do not
remember that he ever did speak, in his later
years, to any audience larger than a committee
of twenty. But he was an eloquent preacher.
The first time I ever saw him was in St. Philip's
Church at Stepney about 1866, and I shall never

John Richard Green 167

forget the impression made on me by the im-
passioned sentences that rang through the church
from the fiery Httle figure in the pulpit with its
thin face and bright black eyes.

What Green accomplished seems to those who
ased to listen to him little in comparison with
\^'hat he might have done had longer life and a
n^ore robust body been granted him. Some of
his finest gifts would not have found their full
scope till he came to treat of a period where the
materials for history are ample, and where he
cou'd have allowed himself space to deal with
them such a period, for instance, as that of his
eary choice, the Angevin kings of England.
Yet even basing themselves on what he has
done, they may claim for him a place among the
forenost writers of his time. He left behind him
no ore who combined so many of the best gifts.
There were among his contemporaries historians
more learned and equally industrious. There were
two or three whose accuracy was more scrupulous,
their jidgment more uniformly sober and cautious.
But there was no one in whom so much know-
ledge aid so wide a range of interests were united
to such ingenuity, acuteness, and originality, as
well as to such a power of presenting results in
rich, cleir, pictorial language. A master of style
may be c worthless historian. We have instances.
A skilful investigator and sound reasoner may be
unreadabe. The conjunction of fine gifts for

1 68 Biographical Studies

investigation with fine gifts for exposition is a
rare conjunction, which cannot be prized too
highly, for while it advances historical science, it
brines historical methods, as well as historical
facts, within the horizon of the ordinary reader.

Of the services Green rendered to English
history, the first, and that which was most
promptly appreciated, was the intensity witi
which he realised, and the skill with which he
portrayed, the life of the people of England as
a whole, and taught his readers that the exploits
of kings and the intrigues of ministers, and the
struggles of parties in Parliament, are, after all,
secondary matters, and important chiefly as tiey
aftect the welfare or stimulate the thoughts and
feelings of the great mass of undistinguished
humanity in whose hands the future of a nition
lies. He changed the old-fashioned distribution
of our annals according to reigns and dyrasties
into certain periods, showing that such di^isions
often obscure the true connection of even's, and
suggesting new and better conceptions d( the
periods into which the record of English pjogress
naturally falls. And. lastly, he laid, in hii latest
books, a firm and enduring foundation for our
mediaeval history by that account of the leutonic
occupation of England, of the state of thecountry
as they found it, and the way they conquered and
began to organise it, which I have already dwelt
on as a signal proof of his constructive faculty.

John Richard Green 169

Many readers will be disposed to place him
near Macaulay, for though he was less weighty
he was more subtle, and not less fascinating. To
fewer perhaps will it occur to compare him with
Gibbon, yet I am emboldened by the opinion
of one of our greatest contemporary historians
to note some points of resemblance. There are
indeed wide differences between the two. Green
is as completely a man of the nineteenth century
as Gibbon was a man of the eighteenth. Green's
style has not the majestic march of Gibbon : it
is quick and eager almost to restlessness. Nor
is his judgment so uniformly grave and sound.
But one may find in his genius what was
characteristic of Gibbon's also, the combination
of a mastery of multitudinous details, with a large
and luminous view of those far-reaching forces
and relations which govern the fortunes of peoples
and guide the course of empire. This width and
comprehensiveness, this power of massing for the
purposes of argument the facts which his literary
art has just been clothing in its most brilliant
hues, is the highest of a historian's gifts, and is
the one which seems most surely to establish
Green's position among the leading historical
minds of his time.


There is hardly any walk of English life in
which brilliant abilities win so little fame for
their possessor among the public at large as
that of practice at the Chancery bar. A
leading ecclesiastic, or physician, or surgeon,
or financier, or manufacturer, or even a great
man of science, unless his work is done in some

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 10 of 29)