The making, and unmaking, of Victorian 'heroes'

July 28, 2016

Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889); Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

By Lesley Higgins

It is not hard to identify the short-term and long-term consequences of Victorian hero-worship. As theorized by the likes of Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche, the practice embodied and bolstered the expansive, positivist spirit of the era, whilst also providing a convenient alibi for everything from the domination of women at home to imperial aggression abroad. Yet, the cultural love affair with The Great Man was conducted assiduously in the newspapers, periodical press, fiction, and poetry. Whether in military uniform (Duke of Wellington, Sir Henry Havelock, General Gordon ‘of Khartoum’) or athletic gear (Andrew Ernest Stoddart, W. G. Grace), tropical khaki (David Livingston) or Arthurian garb as reimagined by Tennyson or the Pre-Raphaelite painters, the Hero was an icon of exceptionalism whose glory was happily reflected in everyday men’s faces. An interesting lesson in how to venerate and vituperate with equal intensity emerges from the private writings of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.. Among Hopkins’s great heroes was John Henry Newman, one of the most compelling figures in Victorian religious and cultural life. The man Hopkins enjoyed reviling was none other than William Ewart Gladstone, politician and part-time classicist.

When Hopkins arrived in Oxford, April 1863, Newman was still very much a felt presence there—both positive and negative—almost twenty years after his very public conversion to Rome (a decision as polarizing as it was famous). At four key junctures in his life, Hopkins tried to emulate Newman. Hopkins first approached his religious hero by letter, explaining that he was ‘anxious to become a Catholic’, on 28 August 1866; at Newman’s invitation, Hopkins travelled to St Philip of Neri Oratory (in Edgbaston, a Birmingham suburb) on 21 October, and was received into the Church of Rome. Not all of the letters they exchanged between August 1866 and Spring 1867 survive, but Newman was evidently advising Hopkins how to conduct himself, at Oxford and with his family, at this time of ‘trouble and pain’ (Newman’s phrase; Kate Hopkins cites her ‘sorrow’ when writing to her son).

The second experience was professional: after completing his studies at Oxford, Hopkins served as a schoolmaster at the Oratory boys’ school from September 1867 to April 1868. (Newman had promised Hopkins, in February 1867, that, ‘You will not find your work hard here’, but the position proved to be just the first of several teaching positions that left Hopkins feeling enervated. ‘I must say that I am very anxious to get away from this place’, he confided to his friend Alexander William Baillie in February 1868.) A decade later, when Fr Hopkins, S.J. returned to Oxford for ten months to serve as assistant pastor at the Jesuits’ St Aloysius Church, many hoped he too would ‘fire up’ the ‘towery city’ for Rome—but that did not happen. Worship and emulation were very different things. Soon after arriving in Dublin, in February 1884, Hopkins notified the Cardinal of his new positions (as Professor of Greek and Latin at University College, the Jesuit reincarnation of Newman’s Catholic University, and as Fellow of the Royal University of Ireland) and lamented that current circumstances at St Stephen’s Green were antithetical to their shared ‘idea of a university’.

For more than two decades, Hopkins sent at least one note a year to Newman , to mark the occasion of his birthday (21 February). Newman’s letters to Hopkins, however, became merely perfunctory. Reading between the lines, one might suggest that the hero had found the acolyte to be insufficiently engaging or useful.

It is no surprise that the person who could write ‘God’s Grandeur’ and ‘No worse, there is none’ was capable of extreme judgments of public figures. If Newman was firmly fixed upon a pedestal of admiration, William Ewart Gladstone was the much-vilified anathema. (For Hopkins, Benjamin Disraeli epitomized the best in a British politician and prime minister.) Over the decades, Gladstone adopted increasingly radical positions on extending the franchise and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland. In 1868, he was elected as prime minister in the Liberal Party, a position from which he retired in 1874 after calling and losing a general election. He returned as Prime Minister in 1880, his party passing the Irish Land Act of 1881 and the Reform Act of 1884. He stepped down in 1885, stymied in attempts to broker a system of local government for Ireland. He was elected again the next year, but left office after calling and losing a general election following the defeat of his Home Rule Bill. During his final tenure as Prime Minister, 1892‒4, the second Home Rule Bill failed.

In July 1874, during the regency phase of his Jesuit training, Hopkins visited the House of Commons and actually saw Gladstone ‘preparing to speak and la writing fast’, but could not ‘stay to hear him’ (Diaries 584‒5). That’s probably just as well, given the verbal outbursts Gladstone inspired in some of Hopkins’s later correspondence. Life in Ireland from February 1884 until his death 8 June 1889 amplified Hopkins’s disdain. (Hopkins, like so many others, was quite willing to blame Gladstone for the death of General Gordon in January 1885.) In a March 1885 letter to Robert Bridges, Hopkins interrupts comments about a stage production to lament: ‘But there is no depth of stupidity and gape a race could not fall to on the stage that in real life gapes on while Gladstone negotiates his surrenders. of the empire’. Two months later, nothing but violent rhetoric will suffice to express his feelings to Baillie: “You said, and it was profoundly true then, that Mr. Gladstone ought to be beheaded on Tower Hill and buried in Westminster Abbey. Ought he now to be buried in Westminster Abbey? As I am accustomed to speak too strongly of him I will not further commit myself in writing’.

Hopkins, an ardent English nationalist, was a most reluctant ‘Home Ruler’; Gladstone’s commitment to the Irish independence movement was yet another source of the priest’s dismay. Gladstone’s willingness to cooperate with Charles Stewart Parnell was a further provocation. Writing to Bridges on 30 July 1887 Hopkins mocks Gladstone’s popular nickname as the ‘Grand Old Man’ even as he tries to explain his own political equivocations:

          ‘recognise with me that with an unwavering will… or at least a flood of passion, on one, the Irish, side and a wavering one or
          indifference on the other, the English, and the Grand Old Mischief-maker loose, like the Devil, for a little while and meddling and
          marring all the fiercer for his hurry, Home Rule is… likely to come and… may perhaps in itself be a measure of a sort of equity and,
          considering that worse might be, of a kind of prudence.’

Prudence typically involves even-tempered common sense and dispassionate wisdom; Hopkins was more prone to ardent admiration or white-hot antipathy. Newman, for him, was one of the ‘great ones’ as Carlyle defined them in the introduction to On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841): the ‘modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators’, the ‘natural luminar[ies] shining by the gift of Heaven’. Gladstone, on the other hand, only reflected an infernal light and purpose.


Lesley Higgins, Professor of English at York University (Toronto, Canada), is the author of The Modernist Cult of Ugliness: Aesthetic and Gender Politics, and editor of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Diaries, his Oxford Essays and Notebooks, 1863‒68, and co-editor of his Dublin Notebook. Lesley is an editorial board member for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.