A Victorian Wanderer: The life of Thomas Arnold the Younger, Bernard Bergonzi

Travels and travails of a troubled literary man
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The Independent Culture

Rarely can a biography have been so aptly titled. Thomas Arnold was a wanderer in every sense. The son of Dr Thomas Arnold, renowned reforming headmaster of Rugby, and the brother of Matthew Arnold, poet and school inspector, Tom Arnold had "contacts" that enabled him to spend a long life (1823-1900) ambling in the corridors of education and literature.

His family connections didn't stop there. One of his daughters, Mary, became, as Mrs Humphrey Ward, the Jilly Cooper of her day. The marriage of another daughter, Julia, to Leonard Huxley produced Aldous and Julian, while Tom's nephew, Edward Arnold, made his name as a publisher.

Tom Arnold wandered in time as well. He had, as Bernard Bergonzi points out, known the elderly Wordsworth well in his youth because the Arnold family had a house near Ambleside. Yet years later, as a professor of English in Dublin, Arnold read essays by a student named James Joyce.

Then there were his geographical wanderings, to New Zealand and Tasmania. He was a religious meanderer too, leaving the Anglican family fold for the smells and bells of Catholicism not once, but twice.

Bergonzi's detailed researches - delving deep into Arnold's memoirs and an extensive archive of family letters - discover a likeable man. Good company and mercurially intelligent, he was troubled by conscience and domestic challenges, and somehow never quite managed to make a success of his life.

After Oxford he had a brief spell of employment at the Colonial Office in London, moonlighting with freelance literary activities. Then he spent several years teaching, writing and advising schools in the Antipodes. There - at a dance in Hobart - he met Julia Sorell, daughter of a respected family in the colony but with a few skeletons in the ancestral cupboard. They were married in 1850 and Julia, not an easy woman, became simultaneously the greatest love of his life and the worst thorn in his side.

Her deficiencies as a housekeeper meant that the family was always short of money. Arnold was "philogenerative" like his father - so there were a lot of mouths to feed. Julia loathed her husband's Catholic leanings and his closeness to John Henry Newman, for whom he taught at the Oratory School in Birmingham after the family's return to Britain. She, like Arnold's mother, siblings and later his children, saw Catholicism as a foul weakness, akin to a drug addiction which kept sucking him back.

In anti-papist 19th-century Britain, Catholics still had difficulty getting teaching posts in non-Catholic establishments. So Bergonzi does make us feel a certain sympathy for Julia, despite her rather histrionic temperament. After the second conversion the couple lived mostly apart, but continued firmly married, deeply fond of one another; there were regular visits. Arnold was present at his wife's death, from breast cancer, in 1888.

The author of A Manual of English Literature and other quite useful works did, eventually, find some peace, modest prosperity and congenial companionship. He enjoyed a second marriage and what Bergonzi calls a "golden autumn" with the calm, competent Josephine Benison, a long-standing Catholic friend from Ireland.