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Loss of Faith

MARK RUTHERFORD. A Biography of William Hale White. By Catherine Macdonald Maclean. (Macdonald. 25s.)

We must think that if other things are equal a labour of love is likely to make a more perceptive biography than a labour of hate. For surely it is a symptom of damnation to believe that hatred has sharper eyes than love. Yet it is a truism, too, that love is blind, and there are moments in this book when Miss Maclean's affection and admiration for her subject have led her to interpret facts a little bit too kindly.

"Mark Rutherford" has always seemed to me to be one of the most interesting of the minor Victorian figures, and when, a few months ago, I was looking for a biography of him it came as a surprise to discover that none existed. Miss Maclean's very full and conscientious study admirably fills that gap. William Hale White, who wrote his novels under the pseudonym of Mark Rutherford, is a fascinating figure not only for himself but because he was so strikingly representative of his time.

He lived from 1831 to 1913, overlapping the reign of Queen Victoria by a few years at each end and just avoiding the untypical Victorian experience of the first war. It is true that he belonged by origin and upbringing to Dissent and not to the Establishment, but this made very little difference to the typical nature of his religious quest and agony. As a very young man he was expelled from a nonconformist theological college for expressing heretical views - nonconformity has all too seldom, since the days of Milton, allowed nonconformity within itself - and he died in a state of dubious theism, no longer believing that he would survive his death in any form.

Hale White's life was spent in or near London, working first with the rationalist publisher John Chapman, then, and most miserably, as a clerk at Somerset House, and finally, before his retirement in 1891, as an official at the Admiralty. For most of this time he was also acting as London correspondent for various provincial newspapers, and between 1881 and 1896 he wrote the six brilliant realistic novels which have won him a permanent and deserved reputation as one of the best minor novelists of that prolific novel-bearing age. The most famous of these are, of course, the two semi-autobiographical works, "The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford" and "The Deliverance of Mark Rutherford."

Miss Maclean devotes a painstaking and rather pedestrian section of her book to the novels, but anyone whose interest in Rutherford is aroused would do well to look elsewhere for a critical study. By an odd coincidence they need not look far. Earlier this year, Mr. Wilfred Stone, of Stamford [sic] University, published a perceptive and learned thesis on The Religion and Art of William Hale White (Oxford, 24s.) which makes an admirable pendant to the book under review.

Hale White was a courageous melancholic. The fact that he could usually show good reason for his melancholy can no longer satisfy us, since we have learned that it is the nature of such a character to create sad circumstances to suit him. Even the most Groddeckian could scarcely claim that he was responsible for his first wife's long and agonising death from an illness that she had contracted before she met him. But the tragi-comedy of White's succession of impossible rented houses should surely cause more suspicion that Miss Maclean allows herself to feel. Nor does she disclose his really dreadful admission that he could not endure the happiness of those around him. He was, indeed, much and deservedly loved, for his extreme honesty, for his wish to be kind, for his bright intelligence and his obvious courage. But no one, not even Clough, lost his faith harder than William Hale White.

Having said this, it seems to me that it is our sympathy and pity which should be engaged by this book rather than our mockery and wisdom after the event. The experience of losing a faith is rarer to-day than that of regaining one, but it should not need much imagination from us to understand that this is one of the most painful things that can happen to a serious and thoughtful man. Many, perhaps most, of us were brought up without strong belief and have continued in that state. But few of us are satisfied with that condition, although our dissatisfaction is a minor discomfort compared with the anguish of those who actually suffered expulsion from the garden of Christian certitude.

Hale White and the many like him were true martyrs in the cause of honest unbelief, and Miss Maclean deserves our gratitude for presenting again that old but by no means obsolete tragedy, and for doing so with sympathy and understanding.

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