Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spedding, James

SPEDDING, JAMES (1808–1881), editor of Bacon's works, born 26 June 1808, was the son of John Spedding of Mirehouse, Cumberland, by Sarah, eldest daughter of Henry Gibson of Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was educated at the grammar school of Bury St. Edmunds, and in 1827 entered Trinity College, Cambridge. He won a ‘declamation prize,’ as appears from a printed ‘Apology for the moral and literary character of the 19th century, delivered in Trinity College Chapel, Commemoration day, 1830.’ Though a good classical scholar, he had not the smartness required for success in examinations. He graduated as a ‘junior optime,’ and was in the second class of the classical tripos of 1831. His merits were recognised by his contemporaries. He was an ‘apostle’ and became a warm friend of the Tennysons, Lord Houghton, Arthur Hallam, (Archbishop) Trench, Thackeray, and other young men of promise. Alfred Tennyson said of him, ‘He was the Pope among us young men—the wisest man I know’ (Lord Tennyson, Life of his father, i. 38). He resided chiefly at Cambridge, till in 1835 he entered the colonial office. The appointment was made by James Stephen (1789–1859) [q. v.], at the request of (Sir) Henry Taylor. A quotation by Taylor in a note to ‘Philip Van Artevelde’ of a speech made by Spedding at a Cambridge debating society had led to their acquaintance and a lifelong friendship. Spedding's appointment was temporary, and his pay only 150l. a year. He established a reputation as having ‘quite a genius for business;’ but though he would have accepted a permanent place, none was offered to him. He therefore left the colonial office in July 1841.

He now devoted himself to the study of Bacon, which was his main employment for over thirty years. The only interruptions were caused by his appointment as secretary to Lord Ashburton's mission to the United States in 1842, and to the civil service commission when it was first instituted in 1855. He resigned the last appointment as soon as the office was brought into working order. In 1847 the office of permanent under-secretary of state for the colonies, worth 2,000l. a year, was offered to him upon the retirement of Sir James Stephen. Stephen wrote that he could desire no better successor, ‘so gentle, so luminous, and, in his own quiet way, so energetic is he.’ But Spedding could not be persuaded to abandon Bacon. The first result of Spedding's Bacon studies was an elaborate examination of Macaulay's essay called ‘Evenings with a Reviewer’ (written in 1845). It was privately printed (though posthumously published), and never seen by Macaulay. In 1847 he agreed with Robert Leslie Ellis [q. v.] and D. D. Heath to bring out a complete edition of Bacon. Ellis, who was to edit the philosophical works, was disabled by illness, and in 1853 had to leave the completion of his task to Spedding. Heath edited the legal writings, but Spedding had to do far the greatest part of the editing, and was solely responsible for the biographical section. Bacon's works were published in seven volumes from 1857 to 1859, and the seven volumes of ‘Life and Letters’ appeared from 1861 to 1874. The work is an unsurpassable model of thorough and scholarlike editing. Taylor reports that about 1863 Spedding showed signs of declining interest in his task, but recovered after a long rest. His unflagging industry had made him familiar with every possible source of information, and his own writing is everywhere marked by slow but surefooted judgment, and most careful balancing of evidence. Spedding's qualities are in curious contrast with Macaulay's brilliant audacity, and yet the trenchant exposure of Macaulay's misrepresentations is accompanied by a quiet humour and a shrewd critical faculty which, to a careful reader, make the book more interesting than its rival. Critics have thought Spedding's judgment of his hero too favourable, but no one doubts that his views require the most respectful consideration. Venables states that the plan of Carlyle's ‘Cromwell,’ even to the typographical arrangements, was ‘borrowed from Spedding. It is impossible to reconcile this with the fact that the ‘Cromwell’ was published in 1845; but it is believed that Spedding had in some way an influence in the matter. Carlyle wrote of the ‘Life and Letters’ to Fitzgerald in 1874 as ‘the hugest and faithfullest bit of literary navvy work I have ever met with in this generation … Bacon is washed clean down to the natural skin. … There is a grim strength in Spedding, quietly, very quietly, invincible, which I did not quite know of before this book’ (Ed. Fiztgerald, Letters, 1894, ii. 175–7). An edition called ‘Life and Times of Francis Bacon,’ in two volumes, omitting most of the original documents by which the narrative is interrupted, appeared in 1878. Spedding limited his studies, both historical and philosophical, to the Baconian period, and humorously exaggerated his ignorance of all other matters. He took up some special hobbies: he was profoundly versed in Miss Austen; he was an early admirer of Tennyson, and contributed a critical essay to Charles Tennyson Turner's sonnets; he knew Shakespeare thoroughly, and wrote some admirable criticisms. In August 1850 he contributed to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ a discussion of the parts to be assigned respectively to Shakespeare and Fletcher in ‘Henry VIII’ (reprinted by the New Shakespere Society, 1874). His conclusions have been generally accepted. Spedding was a sturdy liberal in politics, but was rarely roused to enthusiasm after the Hungarian struggle of 1848–9.

Spedding, who was unmarried, occupied chambers in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and afterwards lived, with some of his family, in Westbourne Terrace. He was a good swimmer and walker, and fond of shooting. He afterwards found relaxation from his work in archery and billiards, though a brilliant performer at neither. He was the most valued friend of several households. His calm and thoughtful temperament fitted him to be an excellent adviser, and nobody could be more absolutely free from self-assertion. Tennyson reckoned him among his most trusted friends and counsellors. He read many of Tennyson's poems in manuscript, and reviewed the volume of ‘Poems’ of 1842 in the ‘Edinburgh.’ A drawing of Tennyson by Spedding appears in the former's ‘Life’ by his son. Spedding was the ‘earliest and dearest friend’ of Edward Fitzgerald, who mentions him with great affection in his letters (Fitzgerald, Letters, 1889, i. 207, 462). Taylor recognised the ‘depths of tenderness’ which underlay Spedding's ‘somewhat melancholy composure.’ His quiet but strong sense of humour made him a delightful companion. He always seemed to regard himself from the outside as a good-natured man might regard a friend whose foibles amuse him, but who is at bottom not a bad fellow. He declined appointments, including an offer of the professorship of modern history at Cambridge on Kingsley's resignation in 1869, and of an honorary degree from the university in 1874, with humorous and lucid explanations of his own unfitness for the honour. He accepted, however, an honorary fellowship at Trinity College.

Spedding was knocked down by a cab on 1 March 1881 and taken to St. George's Hospital, where he died on the 9th. While still conscious he was characteristically anxious to make it clear that he considered the accident to have been due not to the driver, but to his own carelessness. His portrait, painted by G. F. Watts, belongs to the family.

Besides his ‘Bacon,’ Spedding's only works were:

  1. ‘Publishers and Authors,’ 1867 (a pamphlet).
  2. ‘Reviews and Discussions, Literary, Political, and Historical, not relating to Bacon,’ 1879 (reprints chiefly from the ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Fraser,’ including some articles on colonial policy and some Shakespearean criticism).
  3. ‘Evenings with a Reviewer,’ 1881, 2 vols. (privately printed, 1845).

Two articles by him are in ‘Studies in English History,’ by J. Gairdner and J. Spedding, 1881. Mr. Gairdner's preface gives an interesting estimate of Spedding's writings.

[Life by G. S. Venables, prefixed to Evenings with a Reviewer (1881); Sir Henry Taylor's Autobiography (1885), i. 234–9, ii. 208–14; Lord Tennyson's Life of his father, 1897, passim; information from his niece, Miss Spedding.]

L. S.