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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

A Sketch of my Life: By Charles Thomas Newton

In 1886, Charles Thomas Newton retired from being Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum and in October of the same year he wrote a ‘sketch of his life’ to Dora. Dora is likely to be his sister-in-law Eleanor Furneaux (nee Severn) as this letter is among her papers in the Birkenhead Family archive. I will quote from it but – despite years of reading his letters – his writing is often indecipherable to me, much as mine is to everyone. His life, as he saw it, began at the British Museum:

Properly speaking my life really began to have any interest in May 1840 when I was first appointed to a very subordinate post in the British Museum. But as I was not born out of the earth like those creatures [?] to which the ancient Athenians likened themselves as autochthonous [Greek meaning ‘born of the soil’], but came in the world in the usual manner, it is more respectful to my forebears to tell [crossed out] record who they were.

What follows are a remarkable few pages of an autobiography recounting his early childhood and information about his family, including a risqué story about his grandfather. Like his father, his grandfather George Watson Hand was a clergyman and vicar of St Giles Cripplegate in London from the 1770s, but spent much of his time in France and moved in a French woman as his mistress. Newton’s father then lived with his grandmother and step-grandfather, who was Dr Newton and Bishop of Bristol. Newton was therefore part of the Anglican clergy establishment but observed:

My second name when I was christened was Thomas in the fond hope and belief that I might grow up a pillar of orthodox like the Bishop whose name I inherited! How dreadfully shocked would my father have been if he had known the state of mind into which I have finally gravitated!

It is interesting that Newton recounts both this story about a clergyman of the Sterne (the author of Tristram Shandy) variety and his doubts of Christianity to Dora, whom he clearly trusts. His observations on his father and his parents’ marriage have something of the autobiographical style used by Dickens in David Copperfield in the narrative:

My father, the Reverend Newton Dickinson Hand Newton was no ordinary man, but one of those who might have been distinguished if he had not had the great disadvantage of having been born a spoiled child, inheriting just enough not to be obliged to earn his bread; under these conditions a naturally fiery temper developed as he grew older into a state which did not make him ‘An Angel in the House’.

‘Angel in the House’ is a reference to Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem that idealised his wife Emily Andrews, constructing a docile femininity with separate spheres for men and women in order for them to be fulfilled companions in marriage. (It was made notorious by Virginia Woolf in Room of One’s Own in which she kills the ‘Angel of the House’: though this Angel had been vanquished by many Victorian female writers before her.) Unlike the Patmores, his mother was no true companion to his father and had had a ‘narrow faith’:

Often would she knew as much as the eye could embrace from the window of a parsonage in a distant Province, her intellectual horizon was equally limited.’ She worshipped my father and made him a faultless wife in all but one thing, she was no companion to him in the highest sense of the word. Her desire to fully to appreciate him was strong, the capacity for appreciating his qualities nil. At a very early period of my existence, I having a strange way of studying my family as if I had no personal connection with them, came to the conclusion that my parents were an unhappy and as ill matched pair, a fact of which they were apparently quite unconscious.

Today, I would read that detachment as a lack of attachment to both his parents since his mother showed him no affection, ‘bestowing all tenderness on my older brother’ [William, who became a clergyman], and his father idolised Newton, until teaching him Latin. This led to him losing his father’s affection too. But, of course, attachment theory, such as that espoused by John Bowlby, is a mid to late twentieth century insight and this is where we arrive at a question that has always fascinated me: how do we read and interpret peoples’ lives from the past, particularly those from the Victorian period? They are so near as to be photographed, yet so far that things they took for granted – hair broaches for example – seem alien.


Newton’s awareness of the reserve in his family, the marital tension between his parents, their incompatibility and emotional unhappiness read as ‘modern’ and made me think of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). Sometimes seen as the first ‘modern’ or psychological biography, Gosse recounts his life with his father, particularly after the death of his mother, as tormented by their religious expectations. Both Gosse’s parents were members of the strict protestant sect the Plymouth Brethren, though the biography can be read as much as about their differences in ‘temperament’ as belief hence the subtitle ‘A Study in Two Temperaments’. Hermione Lee notes in her 2001 essay ‘Father and Son: Philip and Edmund Gosse’ that:

The body of the father hangs over these pages like a shadow man.

The same can be said of the six pages of Newton’s autobiography. He observes that his father directed his anger at his children - Newton had a younger sister Georgina as well as an older brother William – and so:

[ . . .] we grew more and more reserved towards him and towards each other. You have the great privilege of belonging to a family who, not only love each other dearly but are not ashamed to show your feelings openly.

Mary on the left and Charles on the right

Part of the attraction of Mary Severn for Newton was, perhaps, that openness and willingness to love and show love? Newton’s sad observation seems peculiarly ‘modern’, yet it is also Victorian and expresses an exploration of family and masculinity common in novels and reflective writing from the time. Again, I find myself confronting assumptions around the Victorians as I did so many years ago when starting my PhD and reading Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians (2001). Of course, there is socio-historical context and these change in a period that spans 70 years but attitudes, ideas and networks evolve and linger across generations. For example, Edmund Gosse started his career at the British Museum in 1867 and knew many of the same people that Newton did - including Oscar Wilde, whom Newton first met in Greece in 1874.


Newton’s account is often drily funny too. In it we can hear his voice – a voice that Mary captures in her drawings of him and their relationship. For example, he remembers that 'roaming about my father’s library I very soon knew the position of every book on the shelves’, which made him ‘that damnable nuisance to all but infatuated parents, an infant prodigy’.

Reading a life, for me at least, also means I reflect on mine. I never thought I shared elements of an autobiography with Newton, but need to be aware of these points of connection with my own life to be able to write and research his. As a vicar’s daughter who similarly lost my Christian faith and found a kind of salvation in Ancient Greece (albeit always aware that it was built with slavery and misogyny), I should not read too much into his vicarage upbringing. Yet, one of Newton’s last sentences – though am hoping I’ll find more of this letter in the archive – makes me ache as it speaks to that sense I have of never fitting in:

These preliminary details must appear to you trivial and purposeless, but remember the history of my childhood is the story of how a duck’s egg came to be hatched and reared by a hen.

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