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a volume of Freeman's Norman Conquest, another is a ' light
middle,' and the last on the history of a small town in
England ; and I have worked them all into form as I was
walking to-day about the parish and in London." One of
these studies was finished before two o'clock in the morning,
and while I talked to him ; the other two were done the next
day. It is not uncommon to reach such speed, but it is very
uncommon to combine this speed with literary excellence of
composition, and with permanent and careful knowledge.
The historical reviews were of use to, and gratefully acknow-
ledged by, his brother historians, and frequently extended, in
two or three numbers of the Saturday Review, to the length
of an article in a magazine. I used to think them master-
pieces of reviewing, and their one fault was the fault which
was then frequent in that Revieiv over- vehemence in
slaughtering its foes. Such reviewing cannot be fairly
described as journalism. It was an historical scholar speaking
to scholars.

Another class of articles written by Mr. Green were articles
on towns in England, France, or Italy. I do not know
whether it was he or Mr. Freeman who introduced this
custom of bringing into a short space the historical aspect of
a single town or of a famous building, and showing how the
town or the building recorded its own history, and how, it
was linked to general history, but Mr. Green, at least, began
it very early in his articles on Oxford. At any rate, it was
his habit, at this time, whenever he travelled in England,
France, or Italy, to make a study of any town he visited.

Articles of this kind and he had them by fifties in his

John Richard Green 137

head formed the second line of what has been called his
journalism. I should prefer to call them contributions to
history. They are totally different in quality from ordinary
journalism. They are short historical essays.

As his duties at Lambeth made no great
demands on his time, he was now able to devote
himself more steadily to historical work. His
first impulse in that direction seems, as I have
said, to have been received from Dean Stanley
at Oxford. His next came from E. A. Free-
man, who had been impressed by an ingenious
paper of his at a meeting of the Somerset
Archaeological Society, and who became from that
time his steadfast friend. Green was a born
historian, who would have been eminent without
any help except that of books. But he was wise
enough to know the value of personal counsel
and direction, and generous enough to be heartily
grateful for what he received. He did not belong
in any special sense to what has been called
Freeman's school, differing widely from that dis-
tinguished writer in many of his views, and still
more in style and manner. But he learnt much
from Freeman, and he delighted to acknowledge
his debt. He learnt among other things the value
of accuracy, the way to handle original authorities,
the interpretation of architecture, and he received,
during many years of intimate intercourse, the
constant sympathy and encouragement of a friend
whose affection was never blind to faults, while

138 Biographical Studies

his admiration was never clouded by jealousy.
It was his good fortune to win the regard and
receive the advice of another illustrious historian,
Dr. Stubbs, who has expressed in language
perhaps more measured, but not less emphatic
than Freeman's, his sense of Green's services
to English history. These two he used to call
his masters ; but no one who has read him and
them needs to be told that his was one of those
strong and rich intelligences which, in becoming
more perfect by the study of others, loses nothing
of its originality.

His first continuous studies had lain among the
Angevin kings of England, and the note-books still
exist in which he had accumulated materials for
their history. However, the book he planned
was never written, for when the state of his lungs
(which forced him to spend the winter of 1870-71
at San Remo) had begun to alarm his friends,
they urged him to throw himself at once into
some treatise likely to touch the world more than
a minute account of so remote a period could
do. Accordingly he began, and in two or three
years, his winters abroad sadly interrupting work,
he completed the Short History of the English
People. When a good deal of it had gone
through the press, he felt, and his friends agreed
with him, that the style of the earlier chapters
was too much in the eager, quick, sketchy,
"point-making" manner of his Satitrday Revieiv

John Richard Green 139

articles, "and did not possess" (says the friend
whom I have already quoted) "enough historical
dignity for a work which was to take in the whole
history of England. It was then, being convinced
of this, that he cancelled a great deal of what
had been stereotyped, and re-wrote it, re-creating,
with his passionate facility, his whole style." In
order to finish it he gave up the Saturday
Review altogether, though he could ill spare what
his writing there brought him in. It is seldom
that one finds such swiftness and ease in com-
position as his, united to so much fastidiousness.
He went on remoulding and revising till his
friends insisted that the book should be published
anyhow, and published it accordingly was, in
1874. Feeling that his time on earth might be
short, for he was often disabled even by a catarrh,
he was the readier to yield.

The success of the SJiort History was rapid
and overwhelming. Everybody bought it. It was
philosophical enough for scholars, and popular
enough for schoolboys. No historical book since
Macaulay's History has made its way so fast, or
been read with so much avidity. And Green was
under disadvantages from which his great pre-
decessor did not suffer. Macaulay's name was
famous before his History of England appeared,
and Macaulay's scale was so large that he could
enliven his pages with a multitude of anecdotes
and personal details. Green was known only to a

140 Biographical Studies

small circle of friends, having written nothing under
his own signature except one or two papers in
magazines or in the Transactions of archaeological
societies ; and the plan of his book, which dealt, in
eight hundred and twenty pages, with the whole
fourteen centuries of English national life, obliged
him to handle facts in the mass, and touch
lightly and briefly on personal traits. A summary
is of all kinds of writing that which it is hardest
to make interesting, because one must speak
in general terms, one must pack facts tightly
together, one must be content to give those facts
without the delicacies of light and shade, or the
subtler tints of colour. Yet such was his skill,
both literary and historical, that his outlines gave
more pleasure and instruction than other people's
finished pictures.

In 1876 he took, for the only time in his life,
except when he had supported a working-man's
candidate for the Tower Hamlets at the general
election of 1868, an active part in practical
politics. Towards the end of that year, when
war seemed impending between Russia and
the Turks, fears were entertained that England
might undertake the defence of the Sultan, and
a body called the Eastern Question Association
was formed to organise opposition to the pro-
Turkish policy of Lord Beaconsfield's Ministry.
Green threw himself warmly into the movement,
was chosen to serve on the Executive Committee

John Richard Green 141

of the Association, and was one of a sub-committee
of five (which included also Mr. Stopford Brooke
and Mr. William Morris the poet ^) appointed to
draw up the manifesto convoking the meeting of
delegates from all parts of the country, which was
held in December 1876, under the title of the
Eastern Question Conference. The sub-com-
mittee met at my house and spent the whole
day on its work. It was a new and curious
experience to see these three great men of
letters drafting a political appeal. Morris and
Green were both of them passionately anti-
Turkish, and Morris indeed acted for the next
two years as treasurer of the Association, doing
his work with a business-like efficiency such as
poets seldom possess. Green continued to attend
the general committee until, after the Treaty of
Berlin, it ceased to meet, and took the keenest
interest in its proceedings. But his weak health
and frequent winter absences made public ap-
pearances impossible to him. He was all his
life an ardent Liberal. His sympathy with
national movements did not confine itself to
Continental Europe, but embraced Ireland and
made him a Home Ruler long before Mr.
Gladstone and the Liberal party adopted that
policy. It ought to be added that though he
had ceased to belong to the Church of England,
he remained strongly opposed to disestablishment.

' Sir Georsze \'oun<j and I were the other members.

142 Biographical Studies

When he had completed the re-casting of his
Short History in the form of a larger book, which
appeared under the title of A History of the
English People, he addressed himself with char-
acteristic activity to a new project. He had for a
long time meditated upon the origines of English
history, the settlement of the Teutonic invaders
in Britain, followed by the consolidation of their
tribes into a nation with definite institutions and a
settled order ; and his desire to treat this topic
was stimulated by the way in which some critics
had sought to disparage his Short History
as a mere popularising of other people's ideas.
The criticism was unjust, for, if there had been
no rummaging in MS. sources for the Short
History, there was abundant originality in the
views the book contained. However, these
carpings disposed his friends to recommend an en-
terprise which would lead him to deal chiefly with
original authorities, and to put forth those powers
of criticism and construction which they knew him
to possess. Thus he set to work afresh at the
very beginning, at Roman Britain and the Saxon
Conquest. He had not advanced far when, having
gone to spend the winter in Egypt, he caught an
illness which so told on his weak frame that he was
only just able to return to London in April, and
would not have reached it at all but for the care
with which he was tended by his wife. (He had
married Miss Alice Stopford in 1877.) In a few

John Richard Green 143

weeks he so far recovered as to be able to resume
his studies, though now forbidden to give to them
more than two or three hours a day. However,
what he could not do alone he did with and through
his wife, who consulted the original sources for
him, investigated obscure points, and wrote at
his dictation. In this way, during the summer
and autumn months of 1881, when often some
slight change of weather would throw him back
and make work impossible for days or weeks,
the book was prepared, which he published in
February 1882, under the title of The Making of
England. Even in those few months it was in-
cessantly rewritten ; no less than ten copies were
made of the first chapter. It was warmly received
by the few persons who were capable of judging
its merits. But he was himself far from satisfied
with it as a literary performance, thinking that a
reader would find it at once too speculative and
too dry, deficient in the details needed to make
the life of primitive England real and instructive.
If this had been so it would have been due to no
failing in his skill, but to the scantiness of the
materials available for the first few centuries of
our national history. But he felt it so strongly
that he was often disposed to recur to his idea of
writing a history of the last seventy or eighty
years, and was only induced by the encourage-
ment of a few friends to pursue the narrative
which, in The Making of England, he had carried

144 Biographical Studies

down to the reign of Egbert. The winter of 1 88 1
was spent at Mentone, and the following summer
in London. He continued very weak, and was
sometimes unable for weeks together to go out
driving or to work at home. But the moment
that an access of strength returned, the note-
books were brought out, and he was again busy
going through what his wife's industry had
tabulated, and dictating for an hour or two till
fatigue forced him to desist. Those who saw
him during that summer were amazed, not only
at the brave spirit which refused to yield to
physical feebleness, but at the brightness and
clearness of his intellect, which was not only
as active as it had ever been before, but as
much interested in whatever passed in the world.
When one saw him sitting propped up with
cushions on the sofa, his tiny frame worn to
skin and bone, his voice interrupted by frequent
fits of coughing, it seemed wrong to stay, but,
after a little, all was forgotten in the fascina-
tion of his talk, and one found it hard to
realise that where thought was strong speech
might be weak.

In October, when he returned to Mentone,
the tale of early English history had been com-
pleted, and was in type down to the death of
Earl Godwine in a.d. 1052. He had hesitated
as to the point at which the book should end,
but finally decided to carry it down to a.d. 1085,

John Richard Green 145

the date of the dispersion of the last great Scandi-
navian armament which threatened England. As
the book dealt with both the Danish and Norman
invasions, he called it The Conquest of England.
It appeared after his death, wanting, indeed,
those expansions in several places which he had
meant to give it, but still a book such as few but he
could have produced, full of new light, and equal
in the parts which have been fully handled to the
best work of his earlier years.

Soon after he returned to Mentone he became
rapidly worse, and unfit for any continuous exer-
tion. He could barely sit in the garden during
an hour or two of morning sunshine. There
I saw him in the end of December, fresh and
keen as ever, aware that the most he could
hope for was to live long enough to complete
his Compiest, but eagerly reading every new
book that came to him from England, starting
schemes for various historical treatises sufficient
to fill three life-times, and ranging in talk over
the whole field of politics, literature, and history.
It seemed as if the intellect and will, which strove
to remain till their work was done, were the only
things which held the weak and wasted body
together. The ardour of his spirit prolonged
life amid the signs of death. In January there
came a new attack, and in February another
unexpected rally. On the 2nd of March he
remarked that it was no use fighting longer,

146 Biographical Studies

and expired five days afterwards at the age of

Short as his life was, maimed and saddened
by an ill- health which gave his powers no fair
chance, it was not an unhappy life, for he had
that immense power of enjoyment which so often
belongs to a vivacious intelligence. He delighted
in books, in travel, in his friends' company, in the
constant changes and movements of the world.
No satiety dulled his taste for these things, nor was
his spirit, except for passing moments, darkened
by the shadows which to others seemed to lie
so thick around his path. He enjoyed, though
without boasting, the fame his books had won,
and the sense of creative power. And the last
six years of his life were brightened by the
society and affection of one v/ho entered into
all his tastes and pursuits with the fullest
sympathy, and enabled him, by her unwearied
diligence, to prosecute labours which physical
weakness must otherwise have arrested.

He might have won fame as a preacher or as
a political journalist. It was, however, towards
historical study that the whole current of his
intellect set, and as it is by what he did in that
sphere that he will be remembered, his special
gifts for it deserve to be examined.

A historian needs four kinds of capacity.
First of all, accuracy, and a desire for the exact
truth, which will grudge no time and pains in

John Richard Green 147

tracing out even what might seem a trivial
matter. Secondly, keen observation, which can
fasten upon small points, and discover in isolated
data the basis for some generalisation, or the
illustration of some principle. Thirdly, a sound
and calm judgment, which will subject all
inferences and generalisations, both one's own
and other people's, to a searching review,
and weigh in delicate scales their validity.
These two last- mentioned qualifications taken
together make up what we call the critical
faculty, i.e. the power of dealing with evidence
as tending to establish or discredit statements
of fact, and those general conclusions which
are built on the grouping of facts. Neither
acuteness alone nor the judicial balance alone is
enough to make the critic. There are men quick
in observation and fertile in suQfcrestion whose
conclusions are worthless, because they cannot
weigh one argument against another, just as
there are solid and well-balanced minds that
never enlighten a subject because, while detecting
the errors of others, they cannot combine the
data and propound a luminous explanation. To
the making of a true critic, in history, in philo-
sophy, in literature, in psychology, even largely
in the sciences of nature, there should go not only
judgment, but also a certain measure of creative
power. Fourthly, the historian must have imagi-
nation, not indeed with that intensit)- which

148 Biographical Studies

makes the poet, but in sufficient volume to let him
feel the men of other ages and countries to be
living and real like those among whom he moves,
to present to him a large and full picture of a
world remote from himself in time as a world
moving, struggling, hoping, fearing, enjoying, be-
lieving, like the near world of to-day a world in
which there went on a private life of thousands or
millions of men and women, vaster, more complex,
more interesting than that public life which is
sometimes all that the records of the past have
transmitted to us. Our imaginative historian
may or may not be able to reconstruct for us the
private and personal as well as the public or
political life of the past. If he can, he will. If
the data are too scanty, he may cautiously for-
bear. Yet he will still feel that those whose
movements on the public stage he chronicles
were steeped in an environment of natural
and human influences which must have affected
them at every turn; and he will so describe
them as to make us feel them human, and give
life to the pallid figures of far-off warriors and

To these four aptitudes one need hardly add
the faculty of literary exposition, for whoever
possesses in large measure the last three, or
even the last alone, cannot fail to interest his
readers ; and what more does literary talent
mean ?

John Richard Green 149

Distinguishing these several aptitudes, his-
torians will be found to fall into two classes,
according as there predominates in them the
critical or the imaginative faculty. Though no
one can attain greatness without both gifts, still
they may be present in very unequal degrees.
Some will investigate tangible facts and their
relations with special care, occupying themselves
chiefly with that constitutional and diplomatic
side of history in which positive conclusions are
(from the comparative abundance of records) most
easily reached. Others will be drawn towards
the dramatic and personal elements in history,
primarily as they appear in the lives of famous
individual men, secondarily as they are seen,
more dimly but not less impressively, in groups
and masses of men, and in a nation at large,
and will also observe and dwell upon inci-
dents of private life or features of social and
religious custom, which the student of stately
politics passes by.

As Coleridge, when he divided thinkers into
two classes, took Plato as the type of one, Aristotle
of the other, so we may take as representatives of
these two tendencies among historians Thucydides
for the critical and philosophical, I lerodotus for the
iniaginative and picturesque. The former does not
indeed want a sense of the dramatic grandeur of a
situation ; his narrative of the later part of the
Athenian expedition against Syracuse is like a

150 Biographical Studies

piece of ^schylus in prose. So too Herodotus
is by no means without a philosophical view of
things, nor without a critical instinct, although
his generalisations are sometimes vague or
fanciful, and his critical apparatus rudimentary.
Each is so splendid because each is wide, with
the great gifts largely, although not equally,

Green was an historian of the Herodotean
type. He possessed capacities which belong to
the other type also ; he was critical, sceptical,
perhaps too sceptical, and philosophical. Yet
the imaginative quality was the leading and dis-
tinctive quality in his mind and writing. An
ordinary reader, if asked what was the main
impression given by the Short History of the
English People, would answer that it was the
impression of picturesqueness and vividity
picturesqueness in attention to the externals of
the life described, vividity in the presentation
of that life itself

I remember to have once, in talking with
Green about Greek history, told him how I
had heard Mr. Jowett, in discussing the ancient
historians, disparage Herodotus and declare him
unworthy to be placed near Thucydides. Green
answered, almost with indignation, that to say
such a thing showed that eminent scholars might
have little feeling for history. "Great as Thucy-
dides is," he said, " Herodotus is far greater, or

John Richard Green 151

at any rate far more precious. His view was so
much wider." I forget the rest of the conversa-
tion, but what he meant was that Herodotus, to
whom everything in the world was interesting,
and who has told us something about every
country he visited or heard of, had a more fruitful
conception of history than his Athenian successor,
who practically confined himself to politics in the
narrower sense of the term, and that even the
wisdom of the latter is not so valuable to us as the
flood of miscellaneous information which Herodotus
pours out about everything in the early world a
world about which we should know comparatively
little if his book had not been preserved.

This deliverance was thoroughly characteristic
of Green's own view of history. Everything was
interesting to him because his imagination laid
hold of everything. When he travelled, nothing
escaped his quick eye, perpetually ranging over
the aspects of places and society. When he went
out to dinner, he noted every person present whom
he had not known before, and could tell you after-
wards something about them. He had a theory,
so to speak, about each of them, and indeed about
every one with whom he exchanged a dozen
words. When he read the newspaper, he seemed
to squeeze all the juice out of it in a few minutes.
Nor was it merely the large events that fixed his
mind ; he drew from stray notices of minor cur-
rent niatters evidence of principles or tendencies

152 Biographical Studies

which escaped other people's eyes. You never
left him without having new light thrown upon
the questions of the hour. His memory was re-
tentive, but more remarkable was the sustained
keenness of apprehension with which he read,
and which made him fasten upon everything in
a book or in talk which was significant, and
could be made the basis for an illustration of
some view. He had the Herodotean quality of
reckoning nothing, however small or apparently
remote from the main studies of his life, to
be trivial or unfruitful. His imagination vitalised
the small things, and found a place for them
in the pictures he was always sketching out.

As this faculty of discerning hidden meanings
and relations was one index and consequence
of his imaginative power, so another was found
in that artistic gift to which I have referred. To
give literary form to everything was a necessity
of his intellect. He could not tell an anecdote
or repeat a conversation without unconsciously
dramatising it, putting into people's mouths better
phrases than they would have themselves em-
ployed, and giving a finer point to the moral
which the incident expressed. Verbal accuracy
suffered, but what he thought the inner truth
came out the more fully.

Though he wrote very fast, and in the most
familiar way, the style of his more serious letters
was as good, I might say as finished, as that of his

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 9 of 29)