Lord Acton

By Gilley, Sheridan | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Lord Acton


Gilley, Sheridan, The Catholic Historical Review


Lord Acton. By Roland Hill. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2000. Pp. xxv, 548. $39.95;£30 sterling.)

This masterly volume has something of the grand proportions of its subject. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834-1902) was the descendant of a line of Shropshire Baronets, one of whom, his grandfather, had become Prime Minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. By his mother, he was grandson of the German-born nobleman the Duke of Dalberg, and he was later stepson of the English Earl Granville. he married the daughter of the Bavarian Count Maximilian von Arco-Valley and his lovely Italian wife, born Countess Marescalchi. He became a British MP and then a peer. His connections with the English, German, and Italian aristocracies gave him exquisite manners and made him fluent in three languages and a citizen of an international Catholic world, which explains something of his enormous self-confidence in both himself and his ideas. As a Catholic and a pupil of the great Munich church historian Ignaz von Döllinger, he defended the cause of liberty as the cause of historical truth, and he fell out with Rome when he thought that the ultramontane movement of the nineteenth century was attacking liberty and falsifying history. His monumental erudition did not result in any single monograph but in collections of lectures and essays-in a sense, Acton was stupefied by his own learning, and by his yearning for the truth to be achieved by exhaustive research-but he also left behind the beginnings of the multi-volume Cambridge history which he planned and edited as Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, and a huge library and card index of notes, which, with his books, are now in the Cambridge University Library.

The sheer sweep of such a life, spanning the political and ecclesiastical history of the second two-thirds of the nineteenth century, and the huge body of paper which records it in several languages, much of it in enigmatic note form, have been a double discouragement to biographers. Roland Hill is to be congratulated on reducing the whole of Acton's career to a luminous narrative in a single capacious volume, based upon eighteen archives and a mass of printed primary material and later scholarship. No reviewer should underestimate the magnitude of this achievement, which richly deserves its Foreword encomium from the master of this subject, Owen Chadwick. The writer is especially to be congratulated upon his expert knowledge of Acton's setting, of its many crosscurrents and historical connections, and of the sheer richness of Acton's relations with the scholars and politicians of his era, not least with the great liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom Acton called "the brightest light in our history." A pervading delight of the work lies in its topographical description, as of the summer Villa Arco by lake Tegernsee in Bavaria, and in many small touches, as of Dollinger's study high chair and interest in butterflies, or of Acton's spectacularly eccentric chaplain John Brande Morris, or of odd facts like the Acton family's belief that Acton's father had died of pneumonia after his wife had ordered the servants to lock him out after an evening's gambling.

Mr. Hill does full justice to the devotion and sincerity of Acton's Catholic faith, which had a massive simplicity all its own. he also reveals some of the complexities of Acton's Liberal Catholicism, which was deeply opposed to the nineteenth-century nationalism so often connected with liberalism, and to the concurrent development of the secular centralizing nation state, which was to bear such ill-fruit in the following century. …

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