Victorian Studies 44.1 (2001) 120-122
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Lord Acton, by Roland Hill; pp. xxiv + 548. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2000, $39.95, £31.45.
In the vast literature about Lord Acton, there has never been a true biography of the man. Archbishop David Mathew wrote two overtly biographical works, but these were nothing [End Page 120] more than series of vignettes. Academic writers have tended either toward intellectual biographies, beginning with Gertrude Himmelfarb's important 1952 work, or analyses of Acton's thought and writings, starting with Ulrich Noack in the 1930s, and both these works were often overladen with ideology. Roland Hill's huge book is the first biographical biography, making the obligatory engagements with Acton's thought and writings as they arise in the story, but primarily concerned with coming to grips with Acton the man.
Roland Hill is not an academic historian. He is a retired journalist, German- Jewish in origin, who spent his career as an English correspondent for Continental newspapers. Hill's long interest in Acton traces back to his connection with Acton's grandson-in-law Douglas Woodruff and his widow Mia Woodruff, sponsor of much later Acton research and responsible, along with the fourth Lord Acton, for the deposit of Acton's correspondence in Cambridge University Library, where it joined the rest of the Acton Nachlass. Hill has mined these (and many other) archives extensively; indeed this is the most comprehensively researched study of Acton ever written.
Hill's European background helps him explain Acton's uniquely cosmopolitan background, which made him "first among English Europeans" (416). The Actons were a family of Shropshire baronets whose estates fell to a branch which had gone to France and turned Catholic. In the next generation its head moved to Italy and became prime minister of Naples. The next generation married in France the heiress of a Napoleonic duke, himself a scion of a distinguished German family, the Dalbergs, which had produced the last Archbishop-Elector of Mainz and later Prince Primate of the Confederation of the Rhine. All this requires genealogical tables in the inside covers. Acton was born in Naples in 1834, but on his father's death in 1837 moved to the family estate of Aldenham; in 1840 his mother remarried the future Earl Granville, a Whig aristocrat who later served in the Cabinet. Acton spent a year in a French school before completing his schooling at Oscott and Edinburgh. In 1850 he went to Munich for private higher education with Ignaz von Döllinger, who shaped his thought as a liberal Catholic and his career as an historian in the advanced school of German historical scholarship.
Acton returned to his estate in England to stand for Parliament, where he served a few undistinguished years, and to embark on a career in liberal Catholic journalism which ultimately proved disappointing. The peak of his liberal Catholic career came at the first Vatican Council of 1869 to 1870, where this young layman functioned as a minority whip for the anti-Infallibilist bishops. Hill's coverage of the Council is excellent. He regards it as "the great divide in Acton's life" (333). It forced Acton to abandon any career as a Catholic intellectual. His future career, in which he took up and abandoned many projects besides the unwritten History of Liberty, revolved around two main themes. One was his growing friendship with, and influence upon, William Ewart Gladstone. Hill traces this carefully, going beyond Owen Chadwick (who supplies a nice Foreword to Hill's book) in asserting that "there were aspects in which what Gladstone owed to Acton was more important than what Acton owed to him" (360), especially with regard to Irish Home Rule and in deepening Gladstone's understanding of his late-come Liberalism. The other theme is the hardening of Acton's moralism.
This rigorous moralism is the great problematic of Acton's thought and is intertwined with the commitment to liberty for which he is best known. Acton insisted on the reign of conscience, demanding an absolute ethicality, especially...