1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Arthur Helps

Sir Arthur Helps

SIR ARTHUR HELPS, (1813-1875), fourth and youngest son of Thomas and Ann Frisquett Helps, was born at Balham Hill, in the parish of Streatham and county of Surrey, on the 10th of July 1813. His father was then and for many years afterwards head of a large mercantile house in the city of London, and for the last thirteen years of his life treasurer of St Bartholomew's Hospital. His mother was the only surviving child of John, fourth son of the Rev. Charles Plucknett, M.A., of Wincanton. After the usual preliminary training at Eton, young Helps went to Trinity College, Cambridge, passing as B.A. in 1835, when he came out 31st wrangler in the mathematical tripos, and taking his M.A. degree in 1839. Although he took no high honours at the university,—and indeed he had not health sufficiently robust, even if he had possessed the ambition, to achieve them,—he was recognized by the ablest of his contemporaries there as a man of superior gifts, and likely to make his mark in after life. They showed this by electing him as a member of the Conversazione Society, better known as the Apostles, a society which had been established in 1820 for the purposes of discussion on social and literary questions by a few young men attracted to each other by a common taste for literature and specula-tion. A body which in its early days included the names of Charles Buller, Frederick Maurice, Richard Chenevix Trench, Monckton Milnes, Arthur Hallam, and Alfred Tennyson had in it every element to make its gatherings delightful as well as useful. To be elected into its limited circle was a distinction of which Arthur Helps was proud then and to the close of his life; and, familiar as he was with the best and most intellectual society of his time, the social hours passed year by year with the Cambridge Apostles were always counted by him among his happiest, both in anticipation and in remembrance.

In the discussions of these and later days Helps may have found the suggestions for the dialogues of the Friends in Council, in which his genius appears at his best. But his first literary effort, which appeared under the title of Thoughts in the Cloister and the Crowd in 1835, the year lie took his B.A. degree, assumes a very different but scarcely less ambitious form, that of a series of aphorisms upon life, character, politics, and manners. As a rule, such things are only valuable when they come as the fruits of wide experience and matured thought. Still in this volume are to be found passages which may take their place beside the sayings of Vauvenargues, Chamfort, and other masters of aphorism of the second rank, and are quite equal in quality to the many pithy quotable sayings scattered through Helps's later works.

Soon after leaving the university, where he had established many valuable friendships, Arthur Helps became private secretary to Mr Spring Bice (afterwards Lord Monteagle), then chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Melbourne's administration. This appointment he filled till 1840, when he went to Ireland as the private secretary of Lord Morpeth (afterwards earl of Carlisle), then the chief secretary of state for Ireland, where he remained until his principal left Ireland in 1841, on the Government pass-ing from Lord Melbourne into the hands of Sir Robert Peel. In the meanwhile (28th October 1836) Helps had married Miss Bessy Fuller, a young Irish lady. He was also appointed one of the commissioners for the settlement of certain Danish claims which dated so far back as the siege of Copenhagen ; but with the fall of the Melbourne adminis-tration his official experience closed for a period of nearly twenty years. The character which he had established for himself by his tact, sagacity, and business habits was not, however, forgotten by his political friends. And combined as these qualities were with an admirable manner which invited confidence while it repelled intrusion, and with a reticence and discretion on which absolute reliance could be placed, his fitness for official life was unmistakable. When therefore the clerkship of the Privy Council became vacant in 1860, on the resignation of the Hon. W. L. Bathurst, he was recommended for the appointment by his old friend Lord Granville, who knew that for ability, tact, and discretion it could not be in safer hands.

During his early official career Helps cultivated literature with varying success. His Essays written in the Intervals of Business, published in 1841, and his Claims of Labour, an Essay on the Duties of the Employers to the Employed, published in 1844, continue to interest, and are likely to keep their place in well-selected libraries. But two plays, King Henry the Second, an Historical Drama, and Catherine Douglas, a Tragedy, both published in 1843, have no particular merit. Neither in these, nor in his only other dramatic effort, Oidita the Serf, published in 1858, a work far superior, however, to his earlier efforts of the same kind, are to be found the sense of dramatic situation and move-ment, the sharp outlines and contrast of character, or the fitness and concise force of diction which alone justify the selection by an author of the dramatic form as the vehicle for his thoughts. Helps possessed, however, just enough dramatic power to give life and individuality to the dialo-gues which he introduced with excellent effect to enliven many of his other books. His first effort in this direction was in Friends in Council, a Series of Readings and Dis-course thereon, published in 1847and 1851. The plan of this book seems to have been suggested by a passage in Bacon's essay Of Discourse, which appears as the motto of it. " It is good in discourse and speech of conversation to vary and intermingle speech of the present occasion with arguments, tales with reasous, asking of questions with telling of opinions, and jest with earnest; for it is a dull thing to tire, and, as we say now, to jade anything too far." The variety and conflict of opinion, the play of character, the flashes of humour, got by submitting the formal essays on social and moral questions which made the staple of these volumes to be criticized and pulled to pieces by the imagi-nary personages, who, under the names of Milverton, Elles-mere, and Dunsford, grew to be almost as real to Helps's readers as they certainly became to himself, gave a special charm to a book which, by its richness of suggestion, its sweetness of tone, and beauty of style, made for its author a high and enduring reputation. The same expedient was resorted to for the discussion of the ideas of social and philanthropic improvement on which Helps's mind was always at work, in a second series of Friends in Council, published in 1859, and again in Conversations on War and General Culture, published in 1871. The old familiar speakers, with others added, also appeared in his Realmah, and finally in what certainly must always rank as the best of its author's later works, Talk about Animals and their Masters, published in 1873.

The subject of slavery was one which had a peculiar fascination for Helps. A long essay is devoted to it in the first series of Friends in Council. This was subsequently elaborated into a work in two volumes published in 1848 and 1852, called The Conquerors of the New World and their Bondsmen. Helps's interest in the subject led him into further investigations into the history of -the conquest of America by the Spaniards, and he went to Spain in 1847 for the special purpose of examining the numerous MSS. bearing upon the subject at Madrid. The fruits of these researches were embodied in an historical work based upon his Conquerors of the New Warid, and called The Spanish Conquest in America, and its Relation to the History of Slavery and the Government of Colonies. This appeared in four volumes during the years 1855, 1857, and 1861. No pains were spared by its author to secure the most scrupulous accuracy as to the facts with which he dealt. He had found, as most inquirers into the sources of history have found, that this accuracy is rarely to be met with in accepted histories. On this point he was determined that he should not be open to censure ; and so anxious was he that fact should not be coloured or distorted by imagination that he deliberately resisted the temptation to use the picturesque method of treatment by which other writers on the same subject have secured popularity. The success of this work with the public was injured by other peculiarities. History, like fiction, will not bear to be written with an obtrusively moral purpose, as this book was written. Its merits in a literary point of view were also diminished by the author's tendency to suspend the onward movement of the narrative, whilst he pauses to analyse character, to investigate motives, and to philosophize upon results.

This book, the result of years of research and meditation, was not a success. But the excellence of the studies of the great pioneers of Spanish conquest which it contained was quickly perceived when some years afterwards they were recast and published as separate biographies. Thus The Life of Las Casas, the Apostle of the Indians, appeared in 1868, The Life of Columbus in 1869, The Life of Pizarro in the same year, and The Life of Hernando Cortes in 1871. In this form all that is most important as well as attractive in the larger historical work has been placed within the reach of a wide circle of readers, to whom the result of Helps's researches otherwise would have been unknown.

From the time of his appointment as Clerk of the Council in 1860 to his death, Helps continued to add to the already considerable list of books, all dealing in one form or another with questions of social, sanitary, or political reform, which he had most earnestly at heart. No man felt more strongly that, in the words of Lamennais (Livre du Peuple, cap. i.), " things in this world are not as they ought to be." No man was more eager to do what he might towards obviating or curing the folly, stupidity, ignorance, lethargy, and selfishness to which so much of the misery, the ill-health, the suffering, and the sin of the world is due. It was a matter of conscience to do what he could towards "the relief of man's estate," by putting again and again before the world the results of his observation and thought upon its defective social and sanitary arrangements, and in this the reason is to be found for nearly all his books. Besides those which have been already mentioned the following may be named to complete the list —Organization in Daily Life, an Essay (1862), Realmah (2 vols. 1869), Casimir Maremma (1870), Previa, Short Essays and Aphorisms (1871), Thoughts upon Government (1872), Life and Labours of Mr Thomas Brassey (1872), Ivan de Biron (1874), Social Pressure (1875).

His appointment as Clerk of the Council brought him into personal communication with the Queen, and also with the late Prince Consort. They were not slow to find how valu-able a servant they had obtained in him. His powers of mind, his gentle, reserved manners, and his tender almost chivalrous devotion to the sovereign, not demonstrated yet subtly making itself felt, produced their natural effect in winning the confidence and respect of these high personages. After the Prince's death, the Queen early turned to Helps to prepare such a sketch of the prince's character as might make her people aware how much they as well as herself had lost by his early death. The task was undertaken by Helps, and performed with all the excellence which might have been anticipated from his sympathy with the great aims and objects of the Prince's life, and his practised skill in the analysis and portrayal of character. His intro-duction to the collection, published in 1862, of the Prince Consort's speeches and addresses was the first, and will pro-bably always be the standard, attempt to sketch in clear and vivid outlines the varied characteristics of this remarkable man. Helps some years afterwards edited and wrote an introductory preface to the series of extracts from the Queen's diary, which were published in 1868 under the title Leaves from a Journal of Our Life in the Highlands. In 1864 he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford. He was made a C.B. in 1871, and K.C.B. in the following year.
At no time of his life very strong, an obvious decline of vital strength, accelerated probably by anxiety from embarrassments in which his later years were involved by unfortunate speculations in the purchase of land, was visible to Sir Arthur Helps's friends for some years before his death.

This came after only a few days' illness on the 7th of March 1875. Sir Arthur Helps was of middle height, slender, dark in complexion, with a high well-defined forehead, deep-set eyes, and a mouth the habitually grave expression of which was tempered by a pleasant smile, when his fancy was touched by the humorous suggestions of his own mind, or the playfulness or wit of others, to which he was peculiarly sensitive. Something of the delicacy of his frame entered into his manner and conversation, which were marked by an avoidance of everything approaching vehemence or even emphasis. He loved good talk, and His low vibrant voice and grave playfulness of mind were very pleasant, when among trusted friends he was tempted into taking an active part in the give and take of easy conversation. But he was in manhood what he was in youth, when we are told by one who knew him well, " he had not the physical force or the animal spirits which predispose novices to oral controversy." As a rule, he was more ready in general society to listen than to talk,—especially when people were present whose character was worth studying, or whose ideas were fresh and based upon experience or comprehensive study. He was always learning, and a new thought or pregnant suggestion dropped by a friend in conversation was often to be found soon afterwards in his writings carefully developed, and illustrated from his own fertile stores of reading and research. As might be expected from his books, there was a sympathetic charm in his familiar intercourse which was peculiarly fascinating. His sensitiveness to pain, especially to moral pain, was extreme, and would have unfitted him for much of the rough work and ways of the world. As an orator, a character for which he had many intellectual qualities, he could scarcely have failed to attain a high rank. He was himself not unconscious of his gifts in this direction; but he was altogether of too fine a fibre for the bard hitting and the fiery struggle of the political arena, in which alone he would have coveted distinction. Wisely, therefore, he made for himself, as was well said by a friend at the time of his death, "work of another sort, applying his gentle ever busy mind to such discussion as purifies the thought, informs the pity, and confirms the forbearance of mankind." To the last his mind retained its vigour as well as its delicacy of perception. Nor would he have regarded it as among the least happy circumstances of his lot on earth that he was taken away before either of these had been touched by the palsy of decay—taken, moreover, swiftly and by no lingering illness to wear out the spirits of himself and those to whom he was dear. (T. MA.)

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