The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

August 13, 2013

August 13, 1823

A brief glance at the writings of Goldwin Smith (August 13, 1823 to June 7, 1910) suggests his current obscurity is appropriate. Yet at one time he even attracted his own Boswell.

Goldwin Smith was the Regius professor of modern history at Oxford University from 1858 to 1866. The titles he added to the library include:

The Foundation of the American Colonies, (1861)
Three English statesmen, (1867)
The Ascent of Man (1877 )
False hopes (1883) The United States: an Outline of Political History (1893) 
The United Kingdom: a Political History

and many other books.

Even at the time nobody seemed enthralled by the books Goldwin Smith wrote, and that sadly, was not because of his antisemitism. After moving to the United States,(1868)  and teaching at Cornell, he moved to Toronto in 1871 and there continued a life of active public debate. His views on the decline of books, in 1904,  have a certain piquant interest today:

"The 'pamphlet' seems to have gone quite out of date," he remarked one day as a little letter of his appeared in a New York paper. "If I had said that in a pamphlet or in a book, not a hundred copies would have been sold; whereas, as it is, I suppose it has come under the eyes of thousands. People won't buy or read serious books nowadays, it seems. The newspaper has taken the place of the book. The newspaper contains all that the people want in this age. It was not so formerly. If I had to write for a living I should write for the newspaper—I fancy I could make a good income in London. It does not pay to write books."

Thus Goldwin Smith is quoted by his secretary of later years, Arnold Haultain. (Goldwin Smith, his life and opinions, 1914 ). Haultain addresses the character of Smith in sketching scenes of life at his manor house in Toronto, named, The Grange:

The Grange was a delightful habitation. To enter its portal was to enter a household of quiet, culture and refinement. Pictures, statuary, old English furniture, greeted your eye on every hand. In the hall and in the drawing-room were copies of paintings beloved of The Grange's master. The four walls of the dining-room were covered with copies of portraits of Cromwellian heroes—also, and naturally very much beloved of the master—that of Cromwell himself held the place of honour over the mantelpiece. To the gentle little lady of the house, his wife, the grim Professor was always impeccably kind, considerate and affectionate. Did she enter the library in the morning, when work was agoing, that work was stopped and a chair was drawn up before the fire. His work, my Chief kept to himself,
By the servants the Chief was adored. The butler— a most lovable and intelligent old Englishman—had been in the house for more than half a century. ...

As for myself, it may seem an incredible assertion, nevertheless I assert it—.... during the whole eighteen years that I sat at Goldwin Smith's elbow, never once did even a shade of irritation or of exasperation cross his brow. That is simple fact. On certain topics we differed as the poles. And he knew it. But, as I say, never did he show against me personally anger or irritation. When I think of how very young and ignorant I was as compared with him, I love my old Chief for this his extreme... long-suffering....

Even so, the impression Goldwin Smith made on others was a subject to which Haultain must give  some thought:

...[H]is coldness in his personal dealings with individual folk, and the warmth of his sympathies with humanity in general, are at once an enigma and a clue. The stranger sees in this cold, tall, reserved, and austere ex-Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford a human embodiment, dressed in black and with grim face and expression, of pure intellect carried to the utmost, with a necessary abatement of heartfelt personal human sympathy. The friend recognizes the symptoms of a life of seclusion, a life lived apart, amongst books in a library, but an intellect which has busied itself unceasingly and disinterestedly on behalf of all things humanitarian; a warm affection for mankind in the bulk, hidden behind a shy demeanour before mankind in the personal unit.....

Haultain expands: 

.... The annual sum he subscribes to the charities of Toronto is large, very large.  And I have actually heard his voice break with emotion as he recounted some more than extraordinarily horrible incident of poverty or accident or warfare. And yet, at a charities meeting, the iceberg-like manner in which he will hand a cheque to the treasurer is enough to make one misconstrue him. Of course he never goes "slumming." He would not know what on earth to do in the slums..... He came to see me once when I was sick. He sat absolutely silent, and evidently highly distrait, in a chair about two yards from the foot of my bed, and asked banal questions about how I was and when I should be about again. Really, I had to try to put him at his ease by talking about his own affairs and about how soon I should be able to be about again to look after them.

Goldwin Smith originated the much quoted phrase " Above nations, there is humanity",


His sympathy with suffering is intense. To hear him speak of " the 16,000 wounded Dervishes 'agonizing' 'without water' on the field of Omdurman" would move you. He is an active member of the Humane Society; will not allow his horses' tails to be cut, nor permit a bearing-rein; keeps a tap running in his front lawn for thirsty birds; goes to his stables daily and regales his horses on sugar and carrots and turnips, and prides himself on the familiarity with which the cats of the household establishment treat him.

Like Boswell, Haultain was not fond of cats. Like Samuel Johnson, Goldwin Smith shines in this perspective:

These cats really ought to have a proper describer. How many generations of them I have seen I really do not know. They are all mouse-coloured. They sneak into the library, smell about the books, cupboards and steam-pipes, and generally end by jumping up on either the Professor's lap or mine, purring abominably and disturbing audibly, rubbing their noses against our moving pens, walking over the newly-inked paper, sticking up their tails into our nostrils, and generally making nuisances of themselves. They sit on the Professor's arm-chair; they try to sit on his arms, they try to sit in his lap, they push themselves between his face and his book; and they keep up a most noisy purr. They are a nuisance—though I welcome (and I fear encourage) them; they are so ... I was going to say human; well, they like warmth, and stroking, and scratching, and petting, and companionship, and corporeal nearness to vital folk. Often have I written with a cat surreptitiously sitting on my paper watching the point of my pen, with which, too, often enough, I have had to warn it to keep its distance. I have seen the dear old Professor take a hard-bottomed chair rather than disturb a cat which had usurped his soft, comfortable, armed one.

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