Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Buckle, Henry Thomas
BUCKLE, HENRY THOMAS (1821–1862), historian of civilisation, was born 24 Nov. 1821. The Buckle family had long been settled in London. An ancestor, Sir Cuthbert Buckle, originally of Burgh in Cumberland, was lord mayor of London in 1593. Thomas Henry, father of Henry Thomas, born 6 Oct. 1779, belonged to a firm of shipowners, Buckle, Bagster, & Buckle. In 1811 he married Jane Middleton of the Yorkshire Middletons, by whom he had two daughters and Henry Thomas, who was born at Lee during a visit to his father's only brother and partner, John William Buckle. The family lived at this time in the city, and soon afterwards moved to 25 Mecklenburgh Square.
Buckle was a very delicate child, unfit for the usual games. By Dr. Birkbeck's advice his parents were careful not to over-stimulate his brain. His early education was conducted by a most devoted mother, who would read the Bible to him for hours. He scarcely knew his letters at eight, and till eighteen had read little but ‘Shakespeare,’ the ‘Pilgrim's Progress,’ and the ‘Arabian Nights;’ three books, he says (Huth, i. 157), ‘on which I literally feasted.’ For a time he was sent to the school of Dr. Holloway in Kentish Town, on the condition that he should learn nothing but what he chose. He won a prize in mathematics, to which his attention had been accidentally drawn. His father offered him any additional reward he pleased, whereupon he chose the reward of being taken away from school. This was in his fourteenth year.
At home the boy indulged in some childish pranks, but was soon interested by the conversation of his elders. His mother was a strict Calvinist, his father a strong tory, and a man of literary cultivation. The son listened to his father's recitals of Shakespeare, and imbibed his parents' principles in religion and politics, though he was at an early age impressed by free-trade doctrines.
At the age of seventeen Buckle's health had improved. His father insisted upon his entering the business, and the lad spent some months in an uncongenial employment. Meanwhile the elder Buckle's health was declining; he became unsocial and strangely absent-minded. An accident by which his arm was broken gave him a shock, under which he sank in four weeks, dying 24 Jan. 1840. Buckle was seized with a fainting fit on his father's death; frequent attacks followed, and he only recovered after a long stay at Brighton. In July 1840 he left England with his mother and unmarried sister for change of scene. The party travelled through Belgium, Germany, Holland, and Italy, returning through France after a year's absence. Buckle ever afterwards held travelling to be the best education. He studied the languages in each country. In 1850 he could read nineteen languages with facility and converse fluently in seven, though he was incapable of acquiring a tolerable accent even in French. His experience had removed his early prepossessions. He came home a freethinker and a radical. In France he had given proofs of his extraordinary powers as a chess-player. Captain Kennedy thought him as good a player at this as at any later period. He then encountered Kieseritzki and St. Amant and beat them both when receiving the odds of a pawn.
Buckle was left in an independent position at his father's death. He gave up all thoughts of the business, and upon returning to England settled down to serious studies. In October 1842 he took lodgings in Norfolk Street, set up his books, and began a course of mediæval history. In March 1843 he was writing a life of Charles I, which, as Mr. Huth shows (i. 281), was not that given in his fragments. In the same year he again went abroad, having first been presented at court to qualify himself for foreign society. At Hamburg he made the acquaintance of Lord Kimberley, with whom he travelled as far as Dresden. Thence he went by Austria to Italy, and on his return settled for a time at Munich. He there overworked himself and had a rheumatic fever; his mother came out and brought him home. The advice of a cousin, John Buckle, whose counsels he valued through life, induced him to abandon all thoughts of going to the bar for fear of the strain upon his health, and a sense of the danger of overwork made him at the same time diminish his indulgence in chess. His two sisters were now married, and his mother came to live with him, though London disagreed with her health. They took 59 Oxford Terrace, where a large back room with a skylight and plenty of wall space offered good accommodation for his books and retirement for his studies. Buckle bought all the books which he used, parting with those no longer required. He had possessed at different times about 22,000 volumes, but left only 11,000 at his death. He worked hard for many years before publishing anything. He made careful notes of all he read, and seldom required to re-read. His memory was very powerful. He could recite long passages from the French and English classics. Three or four readings would fix a page of prose in his mind. He laboured hard to improve his style, reading the best models, and then trying to express the substance in his own words. His plan in writing was to compose a whole paragraph before setting it down in order to avoid discontinuity of style. His domestic affairs were carefully regulated. For two things he never grudged money—books and cigars. Abstinence from smoking incapacitated him from working or talking. He confined himself, however, to three cigars daily. He was a judge of cookery and particular about his meals. Though very careful in money matters, he does not seem to have been fairly chargeable with meanness. He often made liberal offers of help to his friends, and when importuned by beggars took the pains to investigate their cases, and was generous to deserving sufferers. His income did not exceed 1,500l. a year. He resolved not to marry until this could be doubled, holding that he could not educate sons properly on less than 3,000l. a year. No passion seems to have tried the strength of this resolve. When seventeen he had fallen in love with a cousin and challenged a man to whom she was engaged. Another passion for a cousin, a girl of fortune and ability, was suppressed in consequence of the parents' objection to marriages of relations. Buckle's amusements were simple. He walked seven miles a day, he sometimes went to the theatre, and he even attended a masked ball as Mr. Mantalini, and afterwards as a canting methodist. Hallam, whose acquaintance he had made on his first journey, introduced him to the Society of Antiquaries and to the Royal Literary Society, on the committee of which he served in 1852. He gave frequent dinner parties during the season, and when not engaged would spend the evening with his intimate friends. In 1854 he made the acquaintance of Miss Shirreff and her sister, Mrs. Grey. He gave them much literary advice, and Miss Shirreff revised the sheets of his book before publication. For many years chess was his chief recreation. In 1851 he encountered the most distinguished European chess-players in some games played on occasion of the Great Exhibition. He showed himself the equal of the best performers, and beat Anderssen and Loewenthal. He grudged, however, the time withdrawn from literary pursuits, and never afterwards took part in a public match.
Meanwhile he was steadily employed upon his book, which gradually took shape in his mind. He read seven or eight hours a day, and at luncheon ate only bread and fruit to keep his brains clear. He says in January 1856 that ‘he had been engaged upon his manuscript incessantly for fourteen years’ (Huth, i. 113). A letter to Lord Kintore in February 1853 shows that it had then assumed its final shape, and was limited to the history of English civilisation instead of civilisation in general (ib. 63). He had already, in 1852, spoken to a publisher. The work, however, swelled upon his hands. His mother's growing infirmities induced him to accompany her to various places for the sake of her health, and partly of his own. In 1855 he was copying out and arranging notes. A negotiation with the Messrs. Parker for its publication in 1856 fell through from Buckle's unwillingness to pledge himself as to future editions. He acknowledged, however, the frankness and liberality of the publishers, and proposed to them at the end of the year to publish an edition of 1,500 copies on commission. It came out accordingly in the course of 1857 and instantly succeeded. By the end of the year 675 copies of the first edition were sold. For this edition Buckle received ultimately 665l. 7s. The Parkers agreed to give 500l. for a second edition of 2,000 copies. The book was already reprinted in America, and was eagerly discussed at Moscow. Buckle was elected to the Athenæum, in spite of a threatened opposition, by 264 white to nine black balls. The Political Economy Club spontaneously elected him, and on 19 March 1858 he gave a lecture to an overflowing and enthusiastic audience at the Royal Institution upon ‘The Influence of Women on the Progress of Knowledge.’ He spoke for an hour and forty minutes, in a ‘beautifully modulated voice,’ and without once referring to a few notes which he had set down. The lecture was republished in ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for April 1858.
Buckle's profound affection for his mother was one of his most amiable characteristics. His first volume was dedicated to her, and the second to her memory. The dedication was the only part of the volume which she had not read and discussed with him. Buckle was alarmed by her extreme agitation upon receiving what he intended for the pleasant surprise of first reading it in the printed volume. Her health now rapidly declined. Her son watched the process with intense anxiety until her death on 1 April 1859. The grief was the greater as the blow left him in complete solitude. The shock to delicate nerves, already weakened by overwork, was so great that his sister even feared for his brain. He withdrew, to a great degree, from society, and retired for a time from London. The year was chiefly spent at Brighton, Blackheath, Margate, and Boulogne. The death of a favourite nephew at Christmas was felt as another severe blow, and he seems never to have regained his full strength.
His mind was partly distracted by his only controversy in the press. He contributed to ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for May 1859 a review of Mill's ‘Liberty.’ Mill refers to the case of a crazy Cornish labourer, Thomas Pooley, who had been sentenced to twenty-one months' imprisonment by Sir John Coleridge for writing offensive words about christianity in various public places. The judge carefully explained that the punishment was not for the simple publication, but the offensive utterance of unchristian opinions. No suspicion of insanity was suggested at the trial, and when the suggestion was made the judge consented to a pardon. Buckle, however, considered the case to be one of persecution. He not only condemned the severity of the sentence, but implied bad motives. In ‘Fraser’ for June replies were made by ‘A. K. H. B.’ and by John Duke, afterwards Lord Coleridge. Buckle answered the latter in July 1859 in a pamphlet, ‘A Letter to a Gentleman respecting Pooley's Case.’ Parker had objected to the continuation of the controversy in ‘Fraser,’ and the pamphlet had a limited circulation.
Buckle had begun his second volume as soon as his first was published. His domestic troubles and weak health hindered its progress. He began to print in January 1861 and suffered from the labour of publication. He was ‘weak and depressed,’ and his nerves showed increasing symptoms of overwork in spite of various excursions in search of relaxation. In 1857 Buckle had made the acquaintance of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Huth through their common friend, Mr. Capel. Mr. Huth's name is well known by his magnificent collection of rare books. Both Mr. and Mrs. Huth were well able to appreciate Buckle's talents, and their hospitable kindness did much to soothe his last years of life. Mrs. Huth's reminiscences given in her son's life of Buckle are specially interesting. Her three sons were pupils of Mr. Capel's, at Carshalton, and Buckle, when staying there for a time, became very friendly with the boys, joined in their fun, and was described by them as a ‘jolly chap’ who never talked philosophy to them. He was uniformly kind to children, and anxious to save them from injudicious straining in their education.
Buckle's shattered nerves and desolate home naturally suggested the thorough change of travelling. He wished, as he wrote to Mrs. Grote (Huth, ii. 111), to begin life afresh. He resolved to visit Egypt, and kindly offered to take with him the two eldest sons of the Huths, aged fourteen and eleven. Travelling, he held, was a chief part of education. He took with him only the Bible, Shakespeare, Molière, and a few books about Egypt, calculating that the boys would be forced to read them for want of other distraction. Throughout the journey he took the utmost care of their health and amusement, besides stimulating their intellectual interests. The party left Southampton on 20 Oct. 1861, landed at Alexandria, and ascended the Nile from Cairo, reaching Thebes on 14 Dec. and Assouan on 22 Dec. 1861. After a short trip into Nubia, they returned to Cairo. Several English and American travellers made Buckle's acquaintance on this trip. Mr. Stuart Glennie met Buckle at Assouan, and accepted an invitation to join him in a tour to Palestine. The party, including Mr. Glennie, started for Cairo on 3 March 1862, and travelled by the desert of Sinai through Petra to Jerusalem, which they reached on 13 April. Here Buckle was probably infected by typhoid fever. After a visit to the Dead Sea, the party started for Damascus, and the fever soon declared itself. At Nazareth Buckle was seriously ill, and was treated by an Armenian doctor for ulcer in the throat. He improved slightly, and struggled on with great difficulty, reaching Beyrout on 14 May and Damascus on 18 May. Here he was leeched and bled by a Dr. Nicora. Mr. Glennie, thinking him better, continued his journey on 22 May, intending to rejoin Buckle at Beyrout. Before starting, he spoke to Dr. Humphry Sandwith, the acting English consul. Sandwith, upon seeing Buckle, became alarmed, and on the 26th telegraphed to Beyrout for Dr. Barclay, an American physician. Dr. Barclay arrived after some delay on the 28th, and found the case almost hopeless. Buckle died the next morning, 29 May 1862, and was buried the same day in the protestant cemetery. A tomb was erected to his memory by his only surviving sister, Mrs. Allatt, in the autumn of 1866.
The ‘History of Civilisation in England’ won for its author a reputation which has hardly been sustained. The reasons are obvious. Buckle's solitary education deprived him of the main advantage of schools and universities—the frequent clashing with independent minds—which tests most searchingly the thoroughness and solidity of a man's acquirements. Specialists in every department of inquiry will regard him as a brilliant amateur rather than a thorough student. He was a thoroughgoing adherent of the English empirical school, then under the leadership of J. S. Mill. He endeavoured to supply the real defect in their teaching due to their comparative neglect of history. Since his time the application of their principles to historical inquiry has been made with a constant reference to the theory of evolution. Buckle spoke cordially of the early writings of Darwin and Mr. Herbert Spencer (ib. i. 28, 47), but he came too early to assimilate their teaching or to divine its importance. His speculations are already antiquated, because he was without the method which has come to be regarded as all-important by thinkers of his own school. Nor can it be said that Buckle fully appreciated the significance of the historical method. His entire want of sympathy with earlier stages of civilisation is characteristic of this weakness. The principles which he announced with the greatest emphasis are therefore apt to appear as crude paradoxes or truisms too vague to have serious value. But his literary power was very great; the vigour of his composition never flags throughout, at least, his first volume; the extent of his knowledge and his command of all his resources are remarkable, and though his conclusions are neither very new nor valuable to serious thinkers, they are put forward with a rhetorical power admirably adapted to impress the less cultivated reader. What he did was not to achieve new results in the sciences of history, but to popularise the belief in the possibility of applying scientific treatment to historical problems. The value of this belief may be differently estimated. Buckle had many predecessors in his doctrine, but he propagated it with a vigour previously unrivalled in English literature, and which will give some permanent value to a book not otherwise fruitful in positive results.
Buckle's writings are:
- ‘History of Civilisation in England,’ vol. i. London, 1857, 8vo, also 1858, 1861, 1864.
- The same, vol. ii. 1861, also 1864 and 1867. The work was republished as ‘History of Civilisation in England, France, Spain, and Scotland,’ 3 vols. post 8vo, 1866, 1868, 1869, 1871, 1872, 1873, 1878. It has been translated into German, 1860, and (with a notice of Buckle translated from ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for September 1862) in 1868 also into French, and (four times) into Russian.
- ‘Influence of Women on the Progress of Knowledge; a discourse delivered at the Royal Institution on Friday, 19 March 1858,’ ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for April 1858. This has been translated into Dutch.
- Review of ‘Mill on Liberty,’ ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for May 1859.
- ‘A Letter to a Gentleman respecting Pooley's Case,’ London, 1859.
- ‘Fragment on the Reign of Elizabeth, from the posthumous papers of Henry Thomas Buckle,’ ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ February and August 1867.
- ‘The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle; edited, with a biographical notice, by Helen Taylor,’ 3 vols. London, 1872. The first volume includes all the above, with some fragments; the second, and part of the third, contain his commonplace books; the remainder of the third is filled by essays upon the sixteenth century, upon manners in the seventeenth century, and notes from English history. An abridged edition, edited by Grant Allen, has just appeared (1886).
[Biographical notice prefixed to Miscellaneous Works (1872), which includes recollections by Miss Shirreff; Life and Writings of Henry Thomas Buckle, by Alfred Henry Huth (the younger of Buckle's companions in the Eastern journey), with two portraits, 1880; Reminiscences of Buckle by Longmore, Athenæum, 25 Jan. 1873; Charles Hall in Atlantic Monthly, April 1863; J. S. Stuart Glennie's Mr. Buckle in the East, Fraser's Magazine, August 1863. This article contains most of the biographical matter which, with various disquisitions upon religion and notes of Mr. Glennie's lectures to Mr. Buckle, forms the same author's Pilgrim Memoirs (3rd ed. 1880); it contains also a controversy with Mr. Alfred Huth of little importance. For the controversy about Pooley see Law Magazine for August 1859; for Buckle's chess-playing see Chess Player's Magazine, ii. 33–45, and article in Westminster Papers for June 1873 by Captain Kennedy; also Athenæum, 20 Feb. 1875. A list of reported games is in the very full bibliography appended to Mr. Huth's work, where also are references to many contemporary reviews of Buckle's works.]