Parenthood and Politics: Some Reflections on the Shared Values of Matthew and Eleanor Arnold

By Powell, John | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

Parenthood and Politics: Some Reflections on the Shared Values of Matthew and Eleanor Arnold


Powell, John, Nineteenth-Century Prose


During December 1888, ten months after Matthew Arnold's death, Frances Arnold announced the engagement of their younger daughter, Eleanor, to Armine Wodehouse, younger son of the Liberal statesman, Lord Kimberley. (1) In writing to an American friend, Frances expressed her fondness for Armine, and indicated that "above all ... dearest Matt knew of his attachment to Nelly & wished for the engagement" (qtd. in McCarthy, "Mrs. Matthew Arnold" 398). This may seem surprising in light of Arnold's public derision of the Gladstonian Whigs, including Lord Kimberley by name (CPW 10:209). (2) The Arnolds knew that their future son-in-law desired to enter parliament, and that he favored Home Rule for Ireland, a policy which they adamantly opposed. Eleanor, far from being uncommitted, enthusiastically campaigned for Armine's candidacy in 1895 and 1900, and was considered by Kimberley to be a great asset to Armine's political career. (3) Even assuming that Arnold had had no influence on his daughter's marriage, which is unlikely considering their close relationship, the question remains as to the values which led the intelligent and devoted daughter of the most influential social critic of the day to marry into a political household at such odds with the great critic's published view of politics. It is the purpose of this work to examine the relationship between Matthew and Eleanor, with particular reference to her marriage. (4) From this examination one may derive not only a greater understanding of Eleanor's life and character, which has scarcely been treated, but also a sharper sense of Arnold's own values. With Arnold being so frequently etherealized (5), it is easily forgotten that his ultimate concerns were largely those of middleclass Victorian society. (6)

Eleanor Mary Caroline Arnold was born on 11 February 1861, the youngest of five children, and was soon after nicknamed "gorilla" by her father. Arnold delighted in her mischievous antics as a toddler; Nelly responded with touching devotion. At age four she instructed her nursemaid to take special care of a small comb Arnold had given her: "I wouldn't lose that comb for all my means, Tufty, because Papa gave it me" (Russell 1:359). Despite an extraordinarily busy schedule, Arnold consistently made time for his family, frequently sharing with them his love of nature and books. He often walked with Nelly and her older sister, Lucy, visiting with them as they collected flowers. Arnold immortalized beloved family pets in the poem "Poor Matthias," in which he told of young Nelly being "dazzled" by an itinerant French vendor's golden canary in the Channel port of Hastings (Poems 603-9). The bird, of course, returned to Pains Hill with them. Once when Nelly had been ill, he sat with her for an hour, reading his newspaper at tea-time in order to make "the evening less long for her from dark to dinner" (Russell 2:216-7). Just before his death, Arnold wrote that no "father ever had two girls who were quite so good," walking with him as if they really enjoyed it (Russell 2:440).

Arnold's concern that his children might become provincial while living in rural England led to family travels on the Continent--along the Riviera, to the Black Forest, to Florence and Rome. In 1882 Nelly accompanied her father to Scotland and in 1886 she travelled with him in America, where the family was visiting Lucy. (7) When Arnold lectured in America and on the Continent without her, she wrote him long, "delightful" letters, full of wit and news. Although Arnold was not wealthy, he insured that his daughters would be "at ease in society" as well as at home with the world (Honan 377). At sixteen Nelly was introduced to Froude and Carlyle at a Rothschild luncheon. From her hour with Carlyle in 1877, she moved gracefully into society, both in America and England. To Arnold she was a "charming companion" who made friends with everyone (Russell 2:234). Others confirmed what might be taken as a father's preference, reckoning her to be "one of the most delightful and clever talkers" (Collier 15), which is not surprising in light of Arnold's reputation, his fatherly attention, and his concern for her cultural development. …

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