Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter I
Reminiscences of Childhood and Youth

AMONG the crowd of vaguely remembered trivial incidents of very early childhood, the earliest that has distinctly impressed itself upon my mind is the identification of the colour blue in general with the sky in particular. This I have reason to believe occurred at Leamington about the month of September in the year 1857. I must have been then a little over three years of age, having been born on July 23, 1854. One or two other things I can recall concerning childish ways of regarding the world which illustrate the parallel between the mind of the young child and that of primitive man. I can recall, for instance, how on one occasion our cat returned to the kitchen one morning with evidences of having been out in a fight during the night. How well I remember, in pondering over the incident of the battle of the cats, that I could not divest myself of the notion of their having talked to each other and so started the quarrel, although well aware that my elders did not believe in animals talking. Mine was then clearly a state of mind in which myths of talking beasts arise in early ages. It is undoubtedly an interesting fact to be able to recollect, if only in a glimpse or two, a childish mental condition, quickly outgrown, but which indicates having passed through a state of mind, however transitory, corresponding to that of primitive humanity.

The scene of most of my earlier childish reminiscences was Brighton, where we lived for some years. At that time the atmosphere of the George IV period still lingered in the town. Superannuated old gentlemen, in costume approaching that of the earlier part of the century, were still occasionally to be seen sunning themselves on the sea-front, and especially in the Kings Road, of an afternoon. It was at Brighton that I first became aware of the larger issues of the world. The American Civil War and the cotton famine in Lancashire were among my earliest recollections of public events. The International Exhibition of 1862, to which I was taken late the following Autumn, was also a noteworthy event of the time to me. I remember the talk occasioned by Encke’s comet in 1861, but as it was in the middle of Summer I was never allowed to stop up late enough to see it myself.

At that time yellow-bodied carriages with a mottled black and white dog running behind them were still to be seen rolling up and down the King’s Road. Then was the period – that of the early sixties – of the universal pot-hat (the old beaver was still occasionally to be seen with elderly gentlemen), of the broad-cloth frock coat, of women with enormous crinolines – the younger ones with hair done up in nets, the older ones sporting long curls ; of tallow candles, which might be seen hanging up in bundles outside oil-shops, of bedroom candlesticks with their necessary snuffers. Gas had only recently been introduced into private houses and was still looked at askance by some as a dangerous innovation. The tea-urn was in its afternoon glory. Daguerreotype photographs were by no means out of date, though they were just beginning to be superseded by the more modern photography. Smoking was not as yet very common among the middle classes, but where practised, it was chiefly in the form of the cigar, cigarettes being quite unknown to the general public. Dickens, it may be remembered, in Nicholas Nickleby, describes it as a distinguishing mark of some Spaniards he alludes to, that they smoked what he calls “little paper cigars.” The clay pipe was universal among the working classes.

Turning to the literature of the period, in the department of fiction the great lights of the early sixties were of course Thackeray who died in 1863, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Bulwer Lytton, and a host of minor writers, such as Anthony Trollope, Whyte Melville, Mrs. Henry Wood, Miss Braddon, etc., who produced novels sold in red and yellow covers which were prominent in all station bookstalls. For the more intellectual reader the works of the Brontes, George Eliot, and Charles Kingsley were the vogue. In the more serious departments, Hallam and Macaulay, recently dead, Carlyle, Mill, Grote, etc., were in the heyday of their glory as embodying the cultured side of English life. Poetry was represented chiefly by Longfellow and Tennyson. Browning’s fame came a little later. Darwin had but recently startled the public and shocked the theological world by the publication of the Origin of Species. But the really cultured class existing at that time in England was, as compared with the present generation, a very restricted one. The intellectual possibilities of the English people were then stunted and cramped by the influence of the dogmatic Calvinistic theology which was the basis of its traditional religious sentiment.

The life our family lived during my childhood was, owing to various causes, exceptionally quiet and retired. Most of the relations and friends who used to visit us were socially uninteresting and of no great account from the side of intellectually profitable intercourse. My paternal grandfather, I may mention, however, whose family originally came from Ockley, in Surrey, was born in the year 1777, dying in 1868, and was consequently in a position to remember the French Revolution. I recollect as a child once questioning him upon the subject, and his relating to me the horrible reports of civil slaughter in Paris that reached his native village. I have since thought that the special event he may have had in his mind was possibly the September massacres of 1792. But the old man, to my disappointment, showed a tendency to switch his conversation off on to the more recent events of 1848, which seemed to me a very insipid change of venue. My grandfather also recollected hearing some of the great singers of the early part of the nineteenth century, notably John Braham. On the whole, however, as will be seen, it was my lot to grow up under no very favourable conditions for intellectual development. The subjects talked of in the family circle were mainly connected with religious dogma, or the sectarian interests of the various religious bodies. Preachers and the pure quality of their orthodoxy, as opposed on the one side to “Romanism” and on the other to “Latitudinarianism,” bulked largely among the topics of conversation with ours as with other middle-class families at the time. A severe censorship in the matter of the literature that was allowed into the house was maintained. The only reading encouraged was that directly or indirectly favouring the “Evangelical” theology. As usual with the bulk of early and mid-Victorian middle-class society, the theatre in all its forms was banned. In fact in many cases, ours among them, any form of amusement was supposed to savour more or less of godlessness. In those where it was not absolutely forbidden there was a tinge of disapproval attaching to it as having the shadow of “worldliness” upon it.

The most cruel of all the results of mid-Victorian religion was perhaps the rigid enforcement of the most drastic Sabbatarianism. The horror of the tedium of Sunday infected more or less the whole of the latter portion of the week. Many a story was laid before the youth of the period to the effect that the boy who began by Sabbath-breaking inevitably ended his days on the gallows. In fact, didactic narrative, often embodied in the form of the religious tract, was a much commended means in the Evangelical world for converting the sinner from the error of his ways. Thus, to discourage the gratification of the taste for the drama, a moral, inculcating the retribution which the Evangelical God sometimes inflicted on frequenters of “play-houses,” was drawn from the history of fires that had taken place in theatres. But this was not all – I can recall a tract (I think it was) which told the story of the conversion of a lady playgoer who, on passing into the theatre, was struck by seeing the words “To the pit” in illuminated letters in front of her. The notion that entering the pit of a theatre would inevitably land her ultimately in the other “pit” said to be bottomless, appealed to her as a solemn warning; so she turned back, sought out a suitable conventicle, and became a converted character.

But although brought up in this hot-bed of Calvinistic Methodism, and hearing the duties of becoming converted and of cultivating one’s soul in the directions approved of by the Evangelical sects, the whole theological business never affected me very deeply. The introspection of the soul and the whole sentiment connected with the Christian cult did not specially appeal to me. I believed in it, of course, in a way, knowing nothing else, and hence it being the only theory of the universe available for my young intelligence. What interested me more than any maunderings anent the individual soul, being “born again” and the like, was when my old governess, who took a truly maternal interest in me, used to talk to me about Daniel’s image and its four monarchies. This gave me, in its way and within the limits of the current orthodox creed, a theory of history, such as it was, and I have always felt the need of an intelligible doctrine of history. It appeared to me as much more interesting than any reflexions on the communion of the individual soul with the living presence of its God or its Saviour, and so forth. But if my childish belief in Christian dogmas was somewhat perfunctory, there was one thing that I did believe in, although I did not talk much about it, and that was the supernatural. The somewhat inconsequent assurances of my elders that God, although in the past He had done so, did not permit any manifestation of the supernatural since the beginning of the Christian era, and certainly not in our days, was not quite good enough for me. The credentials of their assurances in this connexion seemed to rue doubtful, and the assurance itself to express a purely arbitrary assumption.

The foregoing were the current ideas of the English middle class half a century ago. In economics and politics a few crude aphorisms were supposed sufficient to satisfy every reasonable mind. The economic problem of the distribution of wealth, of the antithesis of rich and poor, was supposed to be satisfactorily accounted for and settled by the assumption that wealth was the reward of industry and virtue, and poverty the result of laziness and incompetence, either in the present generation or their fathers. The politics of the middle classes of the sixties was Manchester School Liberalism, coloured more or less-more in some circles and with some persons, less in others – with a snobbish deference to the upper classes, and especially Queen Victoria, who, the middle-class mind of the time flattered itself, was a woman after its own heart. Cobden, Bright, and Palmerston were names to conjure with in middle-class political circles. As regards foreign politics, the views of the English middle classes were largely dictated by their anti-Catholic sentiments, Garibaldi was their popular hero, for example, even more because he fought against the Papal domination in Italy than as a national patriot. This feeling played a part with many people even as late as 1870 in determining the strong sympathy with Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of that year. In short, the middle-class mind of fifty and sixty years ago ran in certain well-defined grooves which determined its attitude in all particular cases. The main interest, for the middle-class man or woman of the period in question, outside “business” or the “home” was, as already intimated, religion, especially the internecine rivalry and quarrels of the various Christian sects and churches. For art there was little feeling. In fact, there is only one form of art which can be specially associated with the society of the period, and that was in music, viz. the Oratorio. It is true even the Oratorio, as being a form of public entertainment, was looked upon somewhat doubtfully by the ultra pious. But still Oratorio music did undoubtedly represent the special form in which the consciousness of the society in question seemed to find its artistic expression. For every society has its own artistic expression, such as it is and what there is of it. That the intrinsically ugly and, to many of us to-day, repulsive Calvinistic theology of Evangelicalism could have given birth to any genuine feeling at all, it is difficult to understand. But, as I said above, such as it was, undoubtedly it received its expression in the Oratorio music of Handel and Mendelssohn, particularly in the Messiah and the Elijah. I would signalize especially, in this respect, as typical, the aria O Rest in the Lord. It is said that when Mendelssohn had written this melody he was inclined to strike it out of his work as being too sickly sweet, but was prevailed upon by his friends to leave it in. That the composer was intrinsically right in his estimate of it will be probably the opinion of many in the present day, but it is none the less true that it does typically embody the emotional religious sentiment of the English middle classes of the fifties and sixties, in so far as that was genuine. This was shown by the enormous vogue it had. It was to be heard in every church, chapel, and parlour where there was a piano, at this time. It is one of those remarkable musical inspirations which seem to carry in them the whole atmosphere of a period. In its own way, a very different way certainly, it is in this respect comparable with Ein’ feste Burg and the Marseillaise. The latter embody the virility of the German Reformation and the French Revolution respectively. O Rest in the Lord embodies the artificial, even where genuine, bourgeois emotional sweetness of the “place of worship” and the family parlour with its antimacassars and tea-urns of the English mid-nineteenth century.

Before taking leave of this world of the sixties – this world of tallow candles, snuffers, tea-urns, women’s hair-nets and crinolines, men’s broadcloth, stocks and pot-hats, four-post bedsteads, feather beds, hymns and oratorios – there is one question, which has always interested me, to be mooted. In how far are we to regard the religiosity, the theological and ecclesiastical interests, of the early and mid-Victorian period as the product of hypocrisy, and in how far was it genuine? That some of all this was genuine and a good deal of it deliberate hypocrisy I have no doubt whatever, but I should attribute the bulk of it to something between these two extremes which I should term unconscious hypocrisy. By unconscious hypocrisy I understand an attitude of mind which succeeds in persuading itself that it believes or approves certain things as it professes to do, while really in foro conscientiae this profession is dictated by a sense of its own interests, real or supposed. For instance, in discussing Free thought in religion or Radicalism in politics, as a makeweight to the conventional arguments against such subversive doctrines, one often heard it thrown in, that if Freethought prevailed, or the political constitution were overthrown, there would be no security for property and its interests. Apart from the truth of theological doctrine or political theory, religion and the existing English constitution were necessary to keep the lower classes in order. Now it was this sort of remark, thrown in as above said as a makeweight, that first opened my eyes to the subconscious insincerity or unconscious hypocrisy of much of middle-class public opinion on these subjects. I could not escape the conviction that this secondary consideration, ostensibly a mere “aside” in the argument, was really the determining one in the formation of that opinion, albeit this fact was in many cases not consciously realized by the persons in question themselves.

A fairly typical illustration of what is said is afforded by the case of Dr. Colenso, Bishop of Natal, who in 1862 published a book on biblical criticism, the views contained in which are in their substance commonplaces to-day, but were at that time regarded as staggeringly subversive. The view that if the world in general came to disbelieve in the Mosaic authorship and the historicity of the Pentateuch, the world itself – bien entendu the mid-Victorian world of that date – would fall to pieces, was the current middle-class opinion. It seems scarcely credible to-day, but so it was. Hence the zeal with which the current theology with its dogma of biblical infallibility was defended at all costs. But in the case of the aforesaid Bishop of Natal there was an additional reason for using the cry of heresy as a means for effecting his discomfiture. Dr. Colenso was an eminently humane and just man, and in consequence was zealous in defending the rights of the native population of Natal against attempts of the British settlers to ride roughshod over those rights and to exploit the natives in their own interests. Hence the worthy Bishop was by no means a persona grata with the influential colonial magnates, or with the colonists generally, of his diocese. The charge of heresy was therefore a godsend to these gentry as a weapon for getting him removed. Somehow or other they failed, owing, it was said, to their having played their cards badly with the Ecclesiastical Court which judged the case.

But notwithstanding the power of the middle-class ostracism of heterodox opinions, the decade of the sixties from its beginning onward showed an increasing number of books published, venturing to traverse the current conventional opinion of the day. My own childhood was padded towards the fag-end of the period of moral and intellectual slavery in question, in which the Calvinistic dogmas of Evangelicalism in religion and the Cobden-Bright dogmas of the Manchester School in economics and politics, modified by a snobbish reverence for authority in general and the upper classes, dominated the mentality of the whole social atmosphere. Those who want to know what it had been at an earlier period of the century, say during the forties and fifties, may consult the two volumes of the late Mr. A.W. Benn’s excellent History of English Rationalism in the Nineteenth Century, or the short survey in Professor Bury’s History of Freedom of Thought (pp.176-251). But though my youthful days were passed towards the end of the period in question, I experienced quite enough for it to have left an enduringly unpleasant reminiscence behind it. This is the more to be regretted as it affects one’s memories of persons long since dead, whom one cannot altogether dissociate in one’s mind from the at once morally repulsive and intellectually foolish beliefs they held, or professed to hold, and expected other people to hold. In themselves doubtless excellent, good-hearted people, their characters were poisoned and warped by the foulness and follies of their creed.

In the year 1864 we left Brighton and went to Hampstead. Here we led a life almost as retired as that of Brighton. I went to school for a short time, but my education was mainly conducted by private tuition. Here I began to take a definite interest in things, among others natural history, and especially entomology. Here also I made various acquaintances and two friendships, the one a schoolboy friendship originating in common interests, butterfly collecting, etc. This was with the late Vivian Byam Lewes, who subsequently became the great chemist, whose lectures on the subject of practical chemistry in relation to the war are well known, and whose labours and studies in this department were only terminated by his sudden death at the comparatively early age of sixty-three in October 1915. Though close associates in boyhood and early youth, we subsequently drifted asunder owing to various causes, distance of residence, diversity of interests and other things, and I seldom saw Lewes after he had attained to manhood. While not possessed of any special intellectual qualities, Lewes was the type of the conscientious and thorough, if narrow, scientific specialist. He was the nephew of George Henry Lewes, the son of a brother of his who was killed as an officer of the Army Medical Corps in the Crimean War. His mother, a bright, intelligent woman, was a connexion of the Wellesley family. She much impressed me during my later boyhood owing to the freedom of her views on theological and political subjects. As regards the latter, it is true she clung to many of the prejudices of her time and class, with a tincture of aristocratic antipathies thrown in. This was still more the case with economic questions, where she was Manchester School to the backbone. Yet, strange to say, in spite of this strain of Whiggery and Manchesterism in her, this woman was one of the half-dozen persons of my acquaintance from whom a few years later I got some sympathy on the subject of the Commune. The barefaced misrepresentations and obviously unjust judgments of the bourgeois Press, and the brutalities of the Versaillaise soldiery, combined to disgust her with the enemies of the Commune. She also was prepared to recognize the high ideal underlying the movement and animating many of its advocates. Mrs. Edward Lewes was the first woman I had met having any pretensions to high culture or intelligence, and her intellectual superiority to other women I knew was a revelation to me.

The other friendship I made in Hampstead during the late sixties was more enduring than that of Lewes, and happily subsists to this day. William Boulting, the distinguished authority on mediaeval and renaissance Italy, was, when I first met him, a student of medicine at University College. He used to attend with his father and mother a Baptist conventicle in Heath Street, Hampstead, in which my family also held what were known as “sittings.” I used to have long walks with Boulting at this time, and one thing I can remember very well is that it was our delight on “sacrament” Sundays, while our elders were sacramentalizing within the walls of the chapel, to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath, and in that breezy atmosphere to indulge in free discussion of matters speculative, social and political. During a period of half a century I have never lost sight of Boulting for any long period, and our friendship has always remained unclouded. For long a medical practitioner in Hampstead, Boulting always found time for progressive self-culture, but it is only some twelve years ago that he was able to retire from practice and devote himself to the work of his life, the only work really congenial to him, viz. to his studies in Italian History, and to original thought in philosophy. A scrupulously exact and conscientious historical investigator, and an acute and careful philosophical thinker, I have always found the greatest intellectual stimulus and advantage from intercourse with him. May he live long to continue the good work he has done in his own special department of history, and to produce the work he is capable of in philosophy! Before leaving the subject I may mention, as illustrating the conscientious thoroughness of Boulting’s historical work, that the Italian history published in one thick volume by Messrs. Routledge and Sons as an edition of Sismondi’s “Italian Republics” is really a work of independent research. The editor, having found so much needing correction and alteration in its proportions to bring the original work of Sismondl up to date, decided to treat it in the manner of Wallenstein’s war-steed, of which we are told “the head, neck, legs, and greater part of the body have been renewed; all the rest is the real horse.” There is one thing I always admire and envy in Boulting’s work, and that is the faculty it shows for exact and careful research.

I have spoken above, in dealing with the early period of my childhood, of how, in spite of the mid-Victorian common sense, as embodied in my elders, I was imbued with the naive primitive belief of early man in the supernatural, as it is termed. About the age of eight or nine, it only required a very little suggestion to make me go to bed in abject fear of the appearance of a ghost, the devil, or some other unpleasant supernatural figure, out of the darkness by the bedside. Once I remember rousing the household by my screams, on being woke up by the squalling of cats immediately outside the window, believing the room to be full of hobgoblins. This state of mind was also stimulated by nightmares. I can well recall the peculiar horror of one of these, in which I saw seven gibbets on which were hanging seven beings howling. These seven beings were either seven great gaunt cats or seven thin, wizened, hideous old women – which, I could not tell. This dread of the dark and supernatural was, I suppose, common to the children of two or three generations ago, and was not infrequent with those of the time I am speaking of. With the modern child I imagine it hardly exists any more. A noteworthy point in connexion with it is, that this sense of the supernatural, which was the groundwork of the fear, in some cases survived sporadically and on rare occasions into earlier adult life. This has been confirmed by two or three friends of my generation. If I remember rightly, Goethe also has somewhere alluded to this feeling and its gradual cessation with advancing years, in his own life. The last instance of it in my case was soon after I was married to my first wife, when I was in the early twenties. We were looking for a house, and had seen one which seemed not unsuitable at West Croydon. There was nothing particular about the house, which was a comparatively small double-fronted one, with a good-sized walled garden, and dating probably from about the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The taking of the house was noted as worthy of consideration, and it being somewhat late in the afternoon, we went home. But that same evening in the bedroom, the matter coming up again for discussion, my wife made the remark, “I don’t know why it is, but somehow or other I feel there is something uncanny about the house. I can’t help fancying that at this moment” – it being then about ten o’clock – “goblins might be holding their revels in that front room.” “Very odd,” I remarked; “I had a precisely similar feeling myself this afternoon on leaving that house!” I give this as it was a singular coincidence – a house not specially noteworthy in itself having excited similar fancies in two different persons at the same time. This was the last occasion on which I can remember having experienced a survival of the old childish feeling of the presence of the supernatural. In later life, as Goethe also has remarked, if I am not mistaken, in the passage above referred to in the Wahrheit and Dichtung, it is difficult even to recall what this old childish feeling was like.

With regard to the new quasi-scientific form assumed by the idea of the supernatural, supernormal, or occult (as one may choose to call it), as embodied in the labours and investigations of the “Society for Psychical Research,” I am not entitled to offer a decided opinion, since I have not gone into the matter with any serious purpose. The reason for this is that I have always doubted, with regard to some of the chief subjects occupying the attention of this body, whether the probabilities of the case are sufficient to make it worth while to spend time and energy in investigating the subject. This of course, I know, is the commonplace opinion probably of the majority of educated mankind, but I hardly think the published results of the Society’s work are sufficient, up to date, decisively to rebut it. In addition to this, there is a positive side to the matter, apart from the negative one of waste of time and energy, and that is the apparent tendency of such researches to deteriorate and debilitate the intellect. How often do we find men of fair average intelligence and strength of understanding who, beginning these “occult” studies in a perfectly reasonable and scientific spirit, after a time degenerate into credulous cranks. At the same time, as regards the Psychical Research Society, I would not deny that in certain departments of their investigations they have achieved some results. Notably is this the case in the matter of thought-transference. Here, they seem to have succeeded in establishing by their evidence, to say the least, a certain justification for the assumption of the possible interaction of individual minds directly and apart from the ordinary sense-channels. As concerns other departments of their studies touching the supernormal in its more strict sense, my own attitude, and it is shared, I think, by a good many persons of intelligence in the present day, might be described as an “agnostic” one, with a bias in favour of the negative opinion.

The dogmatism, in these matters, of the early and mid-Victorian man of education is now generally admitted to be scientifically indefensible, however much we may regard the balance of probabilities as being against the affirmative side. Speaking personally, my rationalistic conscience (using the word “rationalistic” in its traditional sense) sustains a far greater strain from the ordinary events of so-called “chance” in the world, by which, in defiance of all probabilities, as we generally understand them, one man is perennially lucky in the affairs of life, while the other (who probably belongs to a larger class) is perennially unlucky. It would seem as though what we call “chance,” in events where human interests are involved, has as its peculiar characteristic the bring a respecter of persons, rather than, as in theory it ought, allowing its rain to descend equally “on the just and the unjust.” In other words, events of this kind might seem to give the occultist a colourable pretence for his belief in the interference of supernormal or infra-normal (as one likes to regard it) intelligences or wills in the course of human affairs. [1] These commonplace and everyday events of luck and ill-luck pursuing particular individuals respectively, certainly seem to me, as far as they go, to tend more to weaken the rationalistic way of looking at things than the alleged “phenomena” (exceptional in any case) which interest Spiritists and Psychical Researchers. The special interest in these studies has its origin, of course, in the desire to arrive at an affirmative solution, on rational grounds, of the problem of the survival of personal identity and consciousness after death. I may mention here, in passing, the remark of a friend of mine who has dabbled considerably in Psychical Research, but who, unlike many others, has kept his mental balance, that none of the accredited evidence he had had before him afforded, in his opinion, any valid grounds for the assumption of the action of intelligences other than those “incarnated” ones concerned in the different experiments.

When about the age of fifteen my interest in music acquired a strong ascendancy over me. I began to study seriously musical theory with a view to devoting myself to composition. Although I broke off from time to time, I more than once resumed my endeavours in this direction, until subsequently I came to the conclusion that my inspiration fell so much below my aspiration in the domain of musical creativeness as to discourage me from pursuing the matter further. It was, however, some years later that I definitively resolved to abandon devoting myself to music as a career. Meanwhile, during the years (1875-6) that I was in Stuttgart, I zealously attended the Conservatorium for which that town is famous.

It was in 1870, just at the time of the outbreak of the Franco-German War, that we left Hampstead for Streatham, now a suburb of Greater London, but at that time still retaining some few surviving traces of its old rurality and village character. Thrale House, of Johnsonian memory, was then still standing. The Franco-German War of this year was the first public event that I followed with anything like continuous interest. The general sentiment in England with regard to the struggle was strongly pro-German. Nothing was known at that time of the “faked” telegram and of the true inwardness of the policy of Prussia and of Bismarck. The general notion was that the sole explanation of the war found expression in the fact that it was a gambler’s last stake on the part of Napoleon III to rehabilitate himself by a great victory with the army, after the results of the plebiscite, recently held, had given such strong evidence of his waning popularity in French military circles.

The war, however, though it strongly interested me, was only the exordium to the drama of the Paris Commune of the following Spring, which proved a prominent landmark in my mental career. But of this more anon. During this winter of 1870-71 I did a considerable amount of reading in well-known books of the time, among which I may mention Lewes’s History of Philosophy and Life of Goethe, Lecky’s Rationalism and European Morals, Bain’s psychological works, Spencer’s First Principles and Mill’s Logic.

The beginning of February 1871 saw the end of the war and the bases of an unsatisfactory future peace laid. But the internal condition of France, and especially Paris, continued disturbed. Finally, on the 18th of March the insurrection broke out in Paris which led to the establishment of the Commune, the first organized Government founded in the interests of the working class and having for its conscious aim the transformation of existing civilization in the direction of Socialism. I say in the direction of Socialism, for, though all those who took part in the Commune were almost entirely Socialists by instinct, yet they were not by any means all Socialists by understanding, in the scientific sense of to-day. Their general aspirations were towards a society of economical and political equality, but beyond this there was great nebulosity of view. The followers of Proudhon were still very numerous among the educated French working class and their representative men. But all this did not alter the fact that the Commune was, in essence, the outcome and embodiment of the first great movement of the working classes towards Socialism (for the abortive insurrection of June 1848 was too short-lived to count as such). Although at the time my own ideas of the aims of true social progress were nebulous enough, merely embracing political liberty and democracy together with economic equality in a vague and abstract way, yet I could see the significance of the new movement in Paris from the first. My interest grew as events developed and culminated with the horrors of the semaine sanglante. I can well recall the tears I shed during these days, in secret and in my own room, over this martyrdom of all that was noblest (as I conceived it) in the life of the time. Henceforward I became convinced that the highest and indeed only true religion for human beings was that which had for its object the devotion to the future social life of humanity. The martyrs of the Commune who died, as one of there expressed it, pour la solidarité humaine, appealed to me a far nobler than any martyrs the Christian creed has had to show. the Communist believed that his end at the hands of the Versaillaise soldiery meant the extinction of his personality, but perhaps a step towards the realization of his ideal, and in this belief he faced death. The Christian martyr, on the other hand, we may presume, was sincerely convinced according to the tenets of his creed that his death at the hands of the executioner opened for his personality the gates of a paradise of never-ending bliss.

These considerations, only intensified by the foul abuse and lies with which the bourgeois Press assailed the Commune and all those connected with it, made an ineffaceable impression upon me. The idea of human progress as the proper object of religion led me some time after this to attach myself somewhat, although I never formally joined it, to the Positivist body, the leaders of which at that time were Dr. Richard Congreve, Mr. Frederic Harrison, Professor Beesly, and Dr. Bridges. Professor Beesly having died in old age recently, Mr. Frederic Harrison is the only living survivor of this group. I was the more attracted to the Positivists from the fact that they were the only organized body of persons at that time in the country who had the courage systematically to defend the movement of which the Commune was the outcome, as well as the actions of the Commune and its adherents themselves. Exception must be made, of course, of the small circle that gathered round Karl Marx and formed the nucleus of the British Branch of the International Association. But the old International, notwithstanding its influence on the Continent, had never any real hold on the English intellectual or working classes, and it is extremely doubtful whether more than a few, more or less in the inner circle, fully realized what the Commune meant, or sympathized with its aims. For the rest, the other popular movements of the day, which centred round Charles Bradlaugh and the National Secular Society, were steeped in Manchester School economic prejudices and were thoroughly insular in their general outlook. As a consequence of this they were mostly unsympathetic to the French “Red Republican” party, as it was then the fashion to call it. The Positivists, on the contrary, manfully espoused the cause of the Commune in the Fortnightly Review, at that time edited by Mr. John (now Lord) Morley. The same may be said of the weekly journal, The Examiner, originally established by Albany Fonblanque, and to which in its early days John Stuart Mill was a regular contributor. It was edited, at the time of which I speak, by my elder contemporary and friend, the late Mr. Fox Bourne.

The latter, although a thorough Manchester School man and political Radical of the Cobden-Bright type, was also thoroughly honest up to his lights, and respected the honesty and self-sacrifice of those who had suffered for their ideal in Paris, little as he might appreciate that ideal itself. He has informed me that during the period of the Commune and for some time after he was a frequent caller at Marx’s house in Maitland Park, Haverstock Hill, where he received the true account of things which were taking place, and after the Commune had been suppressed he met many of the refugees who used to visit there. It thus came about, as stated, that The Examiner bravely defended the honesty and courageous enthusiasm of the Commune and its adherents.

As is well known, the following year, 1872, saw what was practically the wind-up of the old International (founded in 1864) at the Hague Congress. Its end was the work of Marx and his friend Engels. The latter stated, in a speech closing the International Socialist Congress held at Zurich in 1893 that they felt the situation to be becoming on the Continent too dangerous for the old organization to be maintained. They feared, he said, lest its maintenance might mean the wrecking of the liberty and perhaps the lives of too many valuable workers for the cause under the existing conditions in many European countries.

I have dwelt upon this matter of the Commune at some length, as it had a strong influence upon the whole course of my thought on things social and political, and led ultimately to my becoming a convinced Socialist. At the time being, of course, it was the heroism of the Communards in their championing of the cause of the people, of the economically oppressed and downtrodden, that fired my youthful imagination.

During the early years of the seventies I continued my studies in various directions, until in August 1875 I went to Stuttgart, where, still with a view of devoting myself to music, especially composition, I joined the Conservatorium. Stuttgart was at that tune still a quaint old town as regards its central portion, although a circle of new streets and buildings was already sufficiently in evidence on its outer fringe. I remained in Stuttgart for :somewhat over a year, mixing freely with all sorts and conditions of men. From Stuttgart I went down South into French Switzerland, residing for two or three months in the house of a pasteur at the little village of La Sarraz, in the Canton de Vaud, not very far from Lausanne. I returned home to Streatham in the Autumn of the year 1876. A year later I married. My wife was the collateral descendant of John Hoole, the contemporary and friend of Dr. Johnson, and the well-known translator of Tasso and other poets of the Italian Renaissance. [2]

With the few details given above I may appropriately close the present chapter of reminiscences belonging to the period of childhood and youth. What is known as the mid-Victorian period was soon to lapse into the late-Victorian period.



1. For instance, as illustrating the apparent impish design in chance, there is the well-known phenomenon of the successful lottery ticket – the almost invariable coincidence that if the ticket be lost, destroyed, or otherwise become unavailable, it unfailingly wins the first prize.

2. 3rd quarter 1877 first marriage Chorlton 8c 1001 (Registry of Births, Marriages and deaths). – Note by Ted Crawford


Last updated on 29.3.2004