AN IMPERIAL MEDIEVALIST

Nicola Gordon Bowe

The Tripartite Life of Whitley Stokes (1830-1909), Elizabeth Boyle & Paul Russell (eds), Four Courts Press, 252 pp, €49.50, ISBN 978-1846822780

At the end of 2011, Four Courts Press published two books related to Whitley Stokes: the above title and Whitley Stokes (1830-1909): The lost Celtic notebooks rediscovered, by Dáibhi Ó Cróinín, Professor of History at NUI (Galway), which revealed for the first time all one hundred and fifty of Stokes’s hitherto unchronicled working manuscript notebooks, used in his fifty-year career of research as the foremost Celtic Studies scholar of his time and discovered by the author in Leipzig.

The third chapter of the book reviewed here, entitled “‘The impiety of the intellect’: Whitley Stokes and the Pre-Raphaelites”, written by one of its editors, Elizabeth Boyle, focuses on Stokes’s close creative literary and visual arts alliance in London with Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists when he was in London in the mid-1850s. She sees this period as a bridge between his “youthful literary aspirations and his mature philological achievements”. His translations of mediaeval Danish ballads, epitomising the “simplicity”, “force”, “picturesqueness” and “vividness and reality” he admired at the time, were among his earliest publications. These included his two versions of the doomed tale, rewoven as “Hilellel and Hildebrand, or the Meeting on the Turret Stairs”, the richly coloured, romantic watercolour Frederick William Burton was inspired to paint in 1864. Burton had painted this masterpiece after reading the translation of the tragic Danish ballad by his friend, Whitley Stokes, perhaps given to him by Stokes’s sister, Margaret, no less distinguished an antiquarian than her brother. In 1898, she bought the painting, and in 1900 presented it to the National Gallery of Ireland, where it was voted the nation’s favourite painting this year.

The fourteen chapters in the present volume draw attention to the breadth and significance of Whitley Stokes’s inadequately documented scholarly achievements, which were commemorated at a conference held in Cambridge on the centenary of his death in 2009. There, new source material was presented and discussed, along with the extensive, and mainly untapped, manuscript and other archives housed in, for example, the libraries of Trinity College, Dublin, University College, London and the University of Cambridge. Papers ranged from contextual studies on Stokes’s enlightened grandfather, like his son, Whitley’s father, Regius Professor of Medicine, who was dedicated to making the Bible available to the Irish-speaking Catholic majority in Ireland and to encouraging constructive improvements for the rural and urban poor by developing the country’s natural resources; on the “significantly underestimated”, influential Celtic philologist Rudolf Thomas Siegfried, who died in 1863 aged thirty-two, having been appointed to Trinity’s first chair in Sanskrit and Comparative Philology the previous year; and on Whitley Stokes’s own pioneering legacies – in Sanskrit, Orientalist, Classical, Celtic (including Irish, Welsh, Breton and Cornish), Continental Celtic, or Gaulish, comparative linguistics, and early Irish law studies.

In the collection of wide-ranging scholarly essays published in this book, its two Cambridge academic editors have sought to pay homage to “one of the greatest scholars that Ireland has ever produced”, who was born into one of Ireland’s most prominent academic families in Dublin in 1830. Their aim is to draw attention to a complex man who had what Nigel Chancellor describes as “a vulnerable personality plagued alternately by self-doubt and wild elation”, whose homesickness, lack of money and “profound lack of self esteem” in the company of his distinguished Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite literati and artist friends was mitigated only by “his passion for Celtic philology” until, in desperation, he felt obliged to leave for London to seek his fortune in India in 1862. There his “immense industry”, knowledge of Indo-European languages and “remarkable capacity for legal drafting” and codification resulted in the provision of a framework of statutory law for the future government of British India, while his “highly lucrative and prestigious employment” in “the most senior law position outside the judiciary” gave him the time and leisure to pursue his own scholarly interests in Celtic studies. This relied on continental trips and voluminous correspondence with colleagues while he was in India; the importance of this is liberally indicated and annotated in this book, often for the first time. After twenty years in colonial British India, he returned to London, a sad, bereaved widower, albeit with a fortune and, ironically, “a reputation as the greatest living scholar in Irish philology”, whose prolific achievements were not limited to mediaeval Celtic philology and literature but embraced the languages and literatures of the wider Indo-European world. Thomas Charles-Edwards writes that when he returned from India in 1882, he “had had a distinguished career as a jurist” and “his experience as an editor and translator of texts in Celtic languages was second to none”. This uniquely equipped him to inherit the work of his father’s colleagues, the great antiquarian scholars Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan, on editing and translating the ancient laws of Ireland. Ananya Jahanara Kabir marvels at Stokes’s “imaginative and simultaneous investment in British India and early medieval Ireland”, and the “astounding range” of his publications spanning two seemingly disparate scholarly disciplines. These she sees as characterised by what she terms “imperial medievalism”, considered “along three axes: land, law and language”.

The title the editors have chosen for their book deliberately reflects the title of Stokes’s hefty seminal two-volume edition and translation of the Vita tripartita, The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, with other documents relating to that saint (1887), as well as what they see as the three main elements of Stokes’s “own ‘tripartite’ nature”. They want to reach beyond “the general misconception” of him as “merely a dry and irascible lawyer-philologist” by referring to his private family correspondence, which reveals him as an affectionate, “witty, warm and romantic” man, given to “strong feelings of depression and insecurity”, especially after the death of his first wife. They want to portray him through his life as an individual human being, a friend, son, husband, father and brother; secondly, as an active participant in Britain’s expanding imperial colonial project, as the Dublin-born codifier of Anglo-Indian law who lived and worked in nineteenth century London and India, where he became president of the India law commission in 1879; and thirdly, as an eminent scholar, Celtic specialist, philologist, editor and translator of mediaeval literature. Their thorough bibliography (118 entries under Stokes’s name) and index of archival sources document Stokes’s impressive number of publications (thirty monographs and more than three hundred scholarly articles) on European and Sanskrit poetry as well as his better known works on Anglo-Indian law and mediaeval Celtic philology and literature.

The book concludes with a proposal that a future symposium might consider Stokes’s relationships with his contemporary Irish and Celtic scholars, of whom he was frequently ferociously critical; why he left his “great unrivalled collection of books” to the University of London and not to his alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin. And why did this Irishman who was made sad by “all things Irish” lament that “men and things and places” that he had loved in Ireland but knew, aged thirty-eight, that he would never see again, choose to spend the last twenty-seven years of his life living in London after his return from India? What made him seek redemption in his father’s eyes, as an exile from the land whose language and lore he made his life’s study? Why did he never acquire the ability to speak Irish, despite his father’s and grandfather’s interest in the vernacular? The editors offer their welcome assembly of texts as a starting point to provide a basis for long overdue further studies on what Nollaig Ó Muraíle calls “that many-faceted scholar”.

Nicola Gordon Bowe has lectured and published extensively on nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary applied arts and design, especially on aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Celtic Revival in Ireland and Central Europe. Her publications include Harry Clarke (Douglas Hyde Galler) and Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art (Dolmen Press).