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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” [27]. 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 Cambridge University’s General Board of Faculties and to the governing bodies of Trinity, King’s and Emmanuel College. The range of published sources made use of is equally impressive, and the eight pages listing the secondary sources consulted by Lubenow provide a most handy bibliography on the intellectual and social history of the Victorian and Edwardian period. This is a work of prodigious scholarship, written by a historian with a keen eye for the telling anecdote and with the concern to paint the big picture of intellectual life and university and civil service reform in the nineteenth century.

As the subtitle implies, Lubenow does not just address the history of the society, but also the life-long friendships that the Apostles forged during their Cambridge days. His focus is indeed on what members of this “intellectual aristocracy” [1] accomplished in their later careers, whether as politicians, dons, educationalists, civil servants or men of letters. According to the author, the significance of the group resides in the fact that they were “among the creators of the liberal university” [7]. The bonds of friendship which united them allowed them “to attack hierarchy and to associate themselves with free-thinking and enlightenment” [26], and their common reverence for liberal learning acted as a “liberating” force [25] equipping them to face public life.

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 [123] of the Apostles, the family background from which they came [94; 96], the type of professional environment in which they later moved [143], their academic achievements [118; 121], the metropolitan clubs which they joined [231] and a wealth of detail on the political affiliation of those who became MPs [185] and on the proportion among them who became schoolmasters in public schools [253], dons [298] or clergymen [382]. 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].

The first 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 Ark referred to the chest in which their records were kept; potential members were called embryos; the sponsors of new members were dubbed fathers; and footprints were the achievements they wished to attain during their subsequent careers. They also made a distinction between themselves, whom they called Reality, and all else, which was referred to as Phenomenon. All members were expected to read an essay at regular intervals, standing on the hearth-rug, after which one of the brethren responded to the contribution of the day. Some recruits were not quite successful: Lubenow mentions the case of Alfred Tennyson, who could not be got to read the three papers required to become an Angel. Annual dinners were held at which Apostles who had left Cambridge (or “taken wings”, to use another of the Society’s idiolects) were also invited, which did much to perpetuate the Society and to get different generations of Apostles to know one another. Their chief characteristic was to be “anti-authoritarian and sceptical” [29]. In the later stages of the nineteenth century, it appears that they were very much influenced by Idealism. In the society’s weekly discussions, “absolute candour was the only duty the traditions of the Society enforced”, as Henry Sidgwick stated in 1900 [53]. But there was no “uniformity” [43] in their attitudes, and no “common philosophy, or body of ideas uniting one with all” [88].

The second 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 Britain’s industrial spirit” [125]. University reform diminished the importance of the contingent of clergymen among them, which went from 35% of the group between 1820 and 1859 to 7% between 1860 and 1914. According to Lubenow, this shift towards the professions shows that the Apostles “assisted in the formation of a new civic culture, a new civil society”, namely in the rise of the new world of “liberal professional culture detached from traditional religion and traditional social regimes”, the central values of which were “manliness and civility” [141].

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.

As Lubenow remarks, once out of university, “Apostle sought out Apostle” [155]. 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 India Office Keynes undertook the task of editing a report on the material and moral progress of India, which was supposed to contain “an illustrated appendix on Sodomy” [166]. Not all Apostles were happy with their lot as civil servants. Arthur Clough found his work at the Education Office dull and remarked that “breaking stones in the road was certainly better” [161]. Keynes was scathing about the India Office, which he considered consisted in “government by dotardy” [167].

Politically, 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 Westminster, the West End clubs, Bloomsbury, Whitehall and Cambridge. One of the major rifts within Apostolic circles took place during the Great War, when Bertrand Russell was imprisoned and deprived of his Trinity lectureship for his pacifist opinions, a decision in which well-known Angels who sat on the Council of the college took part, while others like Keynes, Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster were in the pro-Russell party. Trinity ended up electing Russell to an honorary fellowship in 1944, but Lubenow remarks that “uneasiness remained” long afterwards over this whole affair [202].

Chapter Four 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 Cambridge and elsewhere, were passionate about the purpose of universities and the liberal character of studies. As James Ward, professor of mental philosophy and logic at Trinity from 1897 onwards, put it: “Not mental possession but mental power and activity, in a word, not to impart knowledge but to draw out and develop individuality in them is (…) the first concern of all education and most of all of university education” [339]. Apostles took a notable part in the gradual elimination of religious tests and celibacy qualifications, which transformed academics “from clergymen into dons”. They were also active in the opening of universities to women. Henry Sidgwick was particularly involved in this transformation as he was – with his wife the mathematician and physicist Eleanor Balfour – among the founders of Newnham College. Working in academia was definitely no sinecure and could prove taxing, to judge from Sidgwick’s doleful remarks: “Alas! with Boards general and special, Committees of Boards, Syndicates and Subsyndicates, there is a luxuriant fungoid growth of administrative work feeding on the best juices of academic life. One longs for a benevolent despot” [351]. A remark which, except the parting shot perhaps, latter-day academics would no doubt agree with.

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” [411]. 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” [411], 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” [16]. 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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