The Times/1926/Obituary/Sidney Lee

Obituary: Sir Sidney Lee, Shakespearean scholar and biographer  (1926) 

Source: The Times, Thursday, Mar 04, 1926; Issue 44211; pg. 9 — Obituary. Sir Sidney Lee. Shakespearean Scholar and Biographer.



Shakespearean scholar and biographer.

We regret to announce that Sir Sidney Lee, the Shakespearean scholar and biographer, died yesterday at his residence in Lexham-gardens, Kensington, at the age of 66. It was the first anniversary of the publication of the first volume of his biography of King Edward VII. He was engaged to the last, in spite of disabling illness, from which he had suffered for a long time, on the second volume of this biography, and he realized his great wish to leave it practically complete. It will be published as soon as it can be seen through the Press.

Sidney Lee, who was of Jewish descent, was born on December 5, 1859, and at an age when intellectual and moral influences produce their most lasting complex effect he entered the City of London School, then established in Milk-street, Cheapside. He was here one of a knot of young men who, inspired by the character and example of Dr. Abbott at the prime of his powers, achieved distinction in more than one walk of life. The main stream of interest for Lee, as for his school contemporaries in Abbott's Sixth, was, of necessity, literary. Since the days of Dr. Mortimer the school had sedulously nursed not the study only, but the veritable pursuit of English literature. Abbott himself was an impressive teacher, steeped particularly in Shakespeare and Elizabethan writings, and full of infective enjoyment of good things. More, he was engaged in literary controversy, in making books, and in writing magazine articles on great themes, which his Sixth Form read and discussed.

Some of Lee's schoolfellows, like the late Dr. Beeching, Dean of Norwich, and the late Arthur Bullen, of Stratford-on-Avon, went, in a sense, farther afield; but Lee fastened, so to speak, on Shakespeare, and will be best remembered, by scholars at all events, for the Shakespearean studies to which be was first led by Abbott, and in which he achieved signal eminence. Indeed, it is not too much to say that Shakespeare was the passion of his life, and a few days ago he arranged that his ashes should be laid at Stratford-on-Avon.

In 1878 he went up to Balliol as Brackenbury history scholar, and Oxford contemporaries will remember the epigram to his address which appeared in the now rare broadsheet, The Masque of Balliol, when a dear and life-long friend of Lee's wrote prophetically of the gown that "hung like a footnote from his shoulders." Of his Oxford teachers he was, according to occasional hints of his own, much impressed by Stubbs, but except perhaps in stimulating Lee's taste for research it would be hard to say that that notable scholar left much of a mark upon him. During his second undergraduate year he wrote two articles for the Gentleman's Magazine, one of which, a study of Love's Labour's Lost, led him without a doubt to write in 1910 his notable "French Renaissance in England." From his undergraduate days he was active in literary societies. He was the first secretary of the Oxford Browning Society, and when his headquarters shifted to London he became treasurer to the New (or, as Swinburne like to call it, the newest) Shakespeare Society; and he was president of the Elizabethan Society for 30 years.

The "D.N.B."

After a second class in the History School, he became for a time tutor to one of the sons of the then Lord Portsmouth, but very soon he applied himself to Shakespearean subjects, being unaffectedly pleased in those early days to take his station and degree as "dieser neue kritiker" in a German periodical. His great chance, however, came when in 1883 Leslie Stephen made him assistant editor of the "Dictionary of National Biography." The bent thus given him determined the main character of his work until the end; he became a professional biographer, and one of the best. His relations with his chiefs at Waterloo-place were of the most intimate and friendliest kind, and gradually on the assistant editor fell the bulk of the Dictionary's heavy work. In 1890 Lee became "joint" editor, but a year later his post was effectively recognized as that of editor, tout court. Stephen lending a frequent hand, and being available at all times for consultation. In the post Lee remained until the Dictionary passed into the hands of the Oxford Delegacy, or, rather, University, in circumstances by no means to his liking, as he explained on our columns at the time.

During his first years in London Lee was busily associated with the activities that centred in the Toynbee Settlement of those days, though he never seems to have resided on the spot; and to the end of his days he spent himself without stint in gratuitous public services of the same type. For Whitechapel in those days he arranged concerts and lectures and the like, finding himself from time to time a little irritated by Authority as then constituted. Some of his friends remember how, when on day Authority interposed to enjoin, in one of the concerts organized by Lee, that "Miss X must sing — elsewhere." Lee never like to be "bluffed."

With contributors to the Dictionary Lee's relations were diversified, as will needs happen when such different and sometimes touchy units have to be managed. He was not always ready with the suave word and conciliatory manner; but, apart from the important contributions to biography coming from Lee himself, and making all allowances for the high claims of the publisher, the Dictionary is a great and enduring monument not only to the memory of Leslie Stephen but also to the skill, industry, and accuracy of his successor.

Stephen's own opinion of Lee's work may be gathered from a passage in his "Some Early Impressions," reprinted by the Hogarth Press in 1924:— I have said "we" rather than "I" for a sufficient reason. My greatest piece of good fortune, perhaps, was that from the first I had the cooperation of Mr. Sidney Lee as my sub-editor. Always calm and confident when I was tearing my hair over the delay of some article urgently required for the timely production of our next volume, always ready to undertake any amount of thankless drudgery, and most-thoroughly conscientious in his work, he was an invaluable helpmate. When he succeeded to my post, after a third of the task was done, I felt assured that the Dictionary would at least not suffer by the exchange. He had, moreover, more aptitude for many parts of the work than I can boast of; for there were moments at which my gorge rose against the unappetising but, I sorrowfully admit, the desirable masses of minute information which I had to insert. I improved a little under the antiquarian critics who cried for more concessions to Dryasdust; but Mr. Lee had no such defect of sympathy to overcome.

Royal Biographies

Of his own biographical work the most notable were his lives of Shakespeare and of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. The Shakespeare, in its enlarged and book form, will always remain, after making all allowances a "standard" book. It collects all available materials, whatever the inferences to be made from them; and it must be said that Lee is a better guide in biography and bibliography than in æsthetics.

The Royal biographies are admirable in their marshalling of facts, but more in their honesty and courage. They make no pretence of being "court" biographies, and in occasional details and inferences Lee may have been mistaken; but they are models of uncoloured impartial history. High-minded and sincere in all personal relations, as a historian he was scrupulous and even austere. He had a masterly command of his documents, and be never wrote what he did not believe to be borne out by them. In July, 1921, The Times published three articles by Lee preliminary to the larger book which he had in preparation, under authority, dealing with the life of the late King, for which purposes a great mass of material was placed at his disposal by those most intimate with the subject. The first volume of this authorized biography obtained almost universal recognition, in all parts of the world, as a valuable contribution to the history of a critical time marked by a convincing sobriety of style. When we remember the very judicial treatment of King Edward VII. in the Dictionary, we may be proud both of the biographer who undertook; and of the Court which could thereafter so frankly hand to a biographer of proved fearlessness a task so delicate. And it may be added that Lee's subsequent researches and reflections led him to the conclusion that he had, in his earlier work, underestimated the salutary influence which King Edward legitimately exercised on international relations.

Beside labouring incessantly as a biography, Lee was working hard from 1913 to 1924 as Professor of English Literature in the East London College of the University of London. Like his literary style his lecturing and speaking improved greatly with time. With few graces as a "popular" lecturer, he attracted increasingly large classes of eager students from all quarters, and gave them of his best and ripest learning. Almost equal in burdensomeness was his chairmanship of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which, involving endless details of business and administration, with frequent travelling undoubtedly helped to shorten his life. At Stratford, as in most places, Lee was almost always among the first to be called upon to lend a hand where "representative" English men of letters were wanted. Foreign scholars came to him armed with claims, always kindly met, on his services. But even in comparatively minor matters his diminishing time and strength paid heavy taxes, as when, during the war and after, he conducted many parties of overseas soldiers to various parts of historic London and elsewhere.

As Dean of the Faculty of Arts in the University of London, Lee had to undertake heavy duties additional to his college work, and, finally, the organization of the diploma courses for journalism fell largely upon him and was admirably performed. Almost his last remaining strength was give to the furthering the efforts of the Elizabethan Literary Society to complete the Marlowe Memorial in Great Dane Park, Canterbury, with which end in view he had initiated the Marlowe Memorial Fund in 1924. He was a frequent correspondent of The Times, chiefly on Shakespearean topics, his last letter being a contribution to the recent discussion on Shakespeare's second-best bed. An article of his, on a copy of the Second Folio of 1632, which had been expurgated under the authority of the Spanish Inquisition, appeared in The Times of April 10, 1922.

Honours, chiefly academic, came to Lee. He was knighted in 1911; the Universities of Oxford, Glasgow, and Manchester gave him honorary degrees; he was a Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, a Fellow of the British Academy, Registrar of the Royal Literary Fund, a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a corresponding member of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He had been Clark Lecturer at Cambridge Leslie Stephen Lecturer at Cambridge, Lecturer for the Common University Fund at Oxford, and Lecturer at Lowell Institute, Boston. He did not marry, but was long ably and devoted assisted in his work until her death by his sister, Miss Elizabeth Lee, herself an accomplished scholar and writer of distinction. He was elected a member of the Athenæum under Rule II. in 1901.

Lee's place as a bibliographer and scholar is a very high and safe one, and every one is aware of it. But those who knew him best know best how genial and generous, both publicly and privately , in service to others.

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