[Profesor Thomas has kindly shared the preface of her new book, which is available form Amazon.com, with readers of The Victorian Web. GPL]
Before I knew who the man was, I was intrigued by the rumor of his diary, a nineteenth-century diary, a diary in secret code, a diary that had supposedly served as a man's confessional for extra-marital affairs. How enticing it would be, I thought, to actually find such a document, to break the code, and then to read the unguarded, uncensored thoughts of a man reflecting on his moral weaknesses, if he indeed saw an affair as a weakness.
I soon learned that Frederick W. Robertson was not just any man. He had been an Anglican clergyman, had been awarded celebrity status in his time. For his funeral in 1853 the entire city of Brighton closed up shop and wore black. Thousands marched in the funeral procession from his home to the cemetery: Diplomats, military officers, Oxford dons, bishops, Members of Parliament, weavers, chimney sweeps, people from every walk of life. The crowd included Moslems, Jews, Christians, even atheists. To borrow the words of Charles Dickens, "he was one of the greatest masters of elocution I ever knew. To hear Robertson read the church prayers was in itself a liberal education." Charles Kingsley, a novelist, poet, and co-founder of Christian Socialism, was also an acquaintance. It was his conviction that few sermons could compare "with the breadth and depth of the ocean of thought" found in Robertson's sermons. The Dictionary of National Biography describes him as beyond reproach in terms of virtue.
If this man, Robertson, had extra-marital affairs, how had he dealt with the contradiction between the man he publicly professed to be and the man he was? If he didn't see his life as a contradiction, how did he justify his conduct? If he did see his life as a contradiction, how did he make his peace with God, if he did?
He was young, only 37, when he died, survived by his widow and two young children, his parents, and three brothers. Perhaps there was a diary in a drawer somewhere as well.
I began my research into the life of F.W. Robertson by reading the biography that had been published less than a decade after his death. The author, Stopford Brooke, was Queen Victoria's chaplain at the time. One woman's name, that of Lady Byron, stood out in that biography not because Brooke went into any detail about her friendship with Robertson, but because her status as the estranged wife of a famous poet is well known.
Research into Lady Byron's life revealed that she had been the first choice to write Robertson's biography. She had declined, however, in favor of a book of tributes from the many who, like herself, admired him. Was it possible that he had had an affair with her? I noted a number of similarities between the man she married and this man whom she greatly admired. Both Lord Byron and Robertson were gifted wordsmiths, Byron a poet, Robertson, a pulpit orator. Both had unfulfilled dreams of engaging in military exploits, Byron to liberate Greece from Turkey, Robertson to quell rebellions in India. Both had the courage to defy social conventions and live with the consequences. Both had entered into a self-imposed exile, Byron going to Lake Geneva and then Italy, Robertson also going to Lake Geneva but then, in a last-minute decision, going to Germany instead, noting that "sunny" Italy did not suit his melancholic mood.
I compared the accounts of Lady Byron's response to their deaths, she having outlived both of them. In the case of her estranged husband, she didn't even attend his funeral when he died suddenly at the age of 36. When Robertson died at approximately the same age, she didn't just attend his funeral, she walked behind his coffin in the procession when custom dictated that she ride in a carriage with those of her class. When newspaper reporters asked later why she had walked, she said she wasn't even worthy to walk, much less ride, behind the carriage that held his coffin. Then, too, she donated money for a memorial stained glass window to be installed in the chapel of his alma mater, Brasenose College, Oxford University. She also contributed the seed money to start a fund for the education of Robertson's children. Finally, when asked why she wasn't putting flowers on Robertson's grave as so many others were doing during the weeks following his funeral, she wrote a poem that is still recited at weddings as well as funerals. It's about flowers that never fade and memories that never die. These facts made an affair possible, but not at all certain.
Research into her life didn't help because Robertson's name appears only as a footnote, which raised a question in my mind. Was that the case because little was known about their friendship or because of a deliberate cover up on the part of those who wanted to protect Robertson's sterling reputation? Given the few facts I did have, it seemed to me that he had played a more significant role in her life than history gives him credit for.
Three biographies of Robertson were published in the nineteenth century. Then in the middle of the twentieth century, the Bishop of Sheffield, Gordon Fallows, supposedly found the diary, but death prevented him from writing a new biography. Ironically, it was I, a twenty-first-century American, who wrote the next biography: Victorian Conscience: F.W. Robertson. Since I didn't have the diary, I leaned heavily on Robertson's sermons, sermons that, when originally published, had been best sellers, but now had been out of print for over a century. I managed to locate all of them at different times and in unexpected places. The diary, if there actually was one, remained a mystery.
Fortunately publication of my biography opened another door for me when the owner of the diary revealed himself. I got the document and decoded it. Still, however, I had no idea who the woman or women might be, because Robertson had used code names or initials to conceal their identities. I searched for clues that might either affirm or negate my suspicions about Lady Byron.
Then thanks to a little black suitcase that was handed to me one day, I attained what I decided was an extremely pertinent fact about the relationship between these two people. Inside the suitcase was a stack of Robertson correspondence. Among the letters, I found one Robertson had sent to his father. Robertson, 32 at the time, married, and the father of an infant son, was staying with Lady Byron in the Tyrolean Alps. In the letter he asks his father not to tell anyone about it, that he has his reasons. What could those reasons have been? History maintains that Robertson and Lady Byron didn't meet until the following year, not in the Alps, but in Brighton. Why the secrecy?
Of course, an overriding question was why I cared about any of this. Why, in fact, does anyone care about the lives of others? Why are biographies important? Robertson's answer to this question makes perfect sense. To paraphrase, he said we care because we are all human and therefore are more alike than we are different. Whether we are paupers or princes, we all face temptations of one kind or another. We all struggle to overcome our weaknesses, whatever shape they take. In their essence, the lives of others are mirrors of our own. They help us understand ourselves.
My search took me from Oxford to Sheffield to Cheltenham to Brighton to the Isle of Wight to Cambridge and finally to Dublin. This book is the story of that journey. What I had not yet seen in any biography of Robertson, and hoped to find in the diary, if it existed, was Robertson alone with himself, recording his inner struggle to be what he had both publicly professed to be and privately hoped to become: a man of God.
Brooke, Stopford A. Life and Letters of Fred[erick]. W. Robertson, M. A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. People's Edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1902. Reprint: Kessinger, 2007.
Brooke, Stopford A. Life and Letters of Fred[erick]. W. Robertson, M. A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. People's Edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1902.
Faulkenberg, Marilyn Thomas. Victorian Conscience: F.W. Robertson. Peter Lang, 2001.
Last modified 15 January 2008