The Cambridge Apostles, 1820-1914
Liberalism, Imagination, and Friendship
in British Intellectual and Professional Life
William C. Lubenow
Cambridge: University Press, 1998 (Paperback reissue, 2007)
£28.99. xvi + 458 pages, with index. ISBN-13: 978-0521037280
Reviewed by Philippe Vervaecke
Université Charles-de-Gaulle – Lille 3
This book is a meticulous study of the Apostles, a small but influential secret society to which 255 Cambridge students were elected between 1820 and 1914. The society is also known as the Cambridge Conversazione Society and owes its nickname to the number of its original founders, twelve students who also had “pronounced (…) evangelical views” . Still in existence as we write, its membership roll includes Amartya Sen, Eric Hobsbawm, Quentin Skinner, and, more controversially, the notorious KGB recruits Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess. But, apart from brief forays into the post-1945 period in the introduction, Lubenow does not cover the more contemporary years of the society and has no time to waste on the often told story of the ‘Cambridge Five’, the nickname of the famous spy ring who worked for the USSR.(1)
For the period analysed by Lubenow, the Apostles’ most prominent members included an equally impressive array of prestigious figures, such as John Frederick Denison (F.D.) Maurice, Henry Maine, Frederic William Maitland, Gerald Balfour, Rupert Brooke, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, George Macaulay Trevelyan, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lubenow has included as an appendix a convenient biographical directory of all the Apostles for the period he covers [413-432], with the year of their election to the society, their fathers’ background and elements on their education and subsequent career. What is striking from this directory is how close-knit the world of the Apostles was, with numerous instances of siblings elected to the society (the Balfour brothers, Francis and Gerald; Alfred and Charles Lyttelton; Lytton and James Strachey) and with even some Apostolic “dynasties”, for example the Trevelyans, with George Otto, the Cabinet minister, and his two sons, Robert and George Macaulay, all elected to the society.
The book is
based upon extensive research in the archives of Cambridge colleges and the
papers and correspondence of over forty Apostles, including among others
Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, G.M. Trevelyan and Roger Fry. Numerous
minute books (twelve in all) have been consulted, including those pertaining to
subtitle implies, Lubenow does not just address the history of the society, but
also the life-long friendships that the Apostles forged during their
The book is composed of seven dense chapters in which Lubenow conducts a detailed prosopographic study of the group. Numerous tables allow the reader to find out about the social position  of the Apostles, the family background from which they came [94; 96], the type of professional environment in which they later moved , their academic achievements [118; 121], the metropolitan clubs which they joined  and a wealth of detail on the political affiliation of those who became MPs  and on the proportion among them who became schoolmasters in public schools , dons  or clergymen . The introduction presents the wider context of university life in the nineteenth century and the methodology used by Lubenow, who is fully aware that his is a fairly small group and that generalisations about it thus require caution. The study, the author insists, “stresses the value of individuals and the fact that even elites are never monolithic and uniform” [15-16].
chapter explains the foundation of the society, the process through which it
recruited its members and the type of activities it promoted. The Apostles met
on a weekly basis for discussions in one of the members’ rooms, developing their
own idiom in the process. The
chapter examines the social background, education and careers of the Apostles.
Most of them obviously came from upper- or middle-class backgrounds, with a
significant proportion of the Apostles’ fathers working as clergymen (over
30%). Quite a few of them were from aristocratic families (for almost one out
of five among them), and many were also ennobled in later life. But the main
conclusion drawn by Lubenow is that the great bulk of the Apostles came from
professional families and later embraced professional careers (for 93% of them
for the 1860-1914 period), whether as lawyers, civil servants, schoolmasters,
dons or clergymen. Few of them became businessmen (between 4 and 11% of the
group), although Lubenow does not consider this as a confirmation that
universities “failed to encourage
The remaining chapters analyse the role played by leading and more obscure Apostles in the world. Chapter Three discusses their involvement in parliament, government, the civil service and legal professions; Chapter Four the part they played in journalism, letters and clubs; Chapter Five in the public schools; Chapter Six in the universities and Chapter Seven in the Church.
remarks, once out of university, “Apostle sought out Apostle” . This greatly
facilitated their careers and their access to the civil service in particular,
where a lot of them were active in the Colonial Office, the India Office (e.g.
Keynes in his early career), the Education Office, and the Treasury (notably
Keynes again). One learns that at the
the Apostles were more at home in the Liberal Party, but many were prominent in
Conservative ranks. They played a considerable role in politics, with many
elected as MPs or becoming Cabinet ministers. They also had the ability to
belong to different worlds, and were equally at home in
of course underlines the Apostles’ importance in the publishing world, with
quite a few of them working as regular contributors to the reviews and
newspapers of the time, for instance the Pall
Mall Gazette, the Spectator and
the Athenaeum. Lytton Strachey was
probably the most successful of them as man of letters, but Russell and Keynes
were also household names as leading actors in public debate. Probably the most
significant contribution of the Apostles as a group resided in university
reform. As members of college boards, of the Council, of the Senate and the
General Board of Studies, they played a crucial part in the rise of new
subjects such as physics, physiology and engineering. Collectively, those among
them who became prominent in academic circles, in
This splendid book is a most useful addition to our knowledge of intellectual life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It offers insights into the workings of academic life and into the way in which universities adjusted to a new, liberal ethos. Although, as the author insists in the conclusion, the Apostles did not “hold a single ideology”, his detailed work shows the patient reader how much they acted as “creators of cultural capital” . They were, in a way, both “organic” and “critical” intellectuals, because, as Lubenow amply demonstrates, they were not alienated, as “their conception of duty curbed tendencies towards an oppositional mentality” , while their scepticism also allowed them to embrace change and to challenge authority.
(1) Seven Apostles ended up working as agents for the Soviet secret services. For a story of the Apostles with a good deal of emphasis on the post-1945 years and on the involvement of some of them in pro-Soviet spy rings, see Richard Deacon, The Cambridge Apostles: A History of Cambridge University's Elite Intellectual Secret Society, New York: Farrar, 1986. Lubenow makes short shrift of Deacon’s work, suggesting that it indulges in “higher gossip” . For an earlier account of the Apostles in the 1820s and 1830s, see Peter Allen, The Cambridge Apostles: The Early Years, Cambridge: University Press, 1978 (Paperback reissue, 2010). Allen halted his narrative from the moment the Society decided to withdraw into secrecy, which is one of the reasons why Lubenow had to rely upon the unpublished papers of the Apostles to cover the later years of the Society.
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