The last man who knew everything

Matthew Walther:

Baring-Gould was born in Exeter in 1834 to the daughter of an admiral and a former lieutenant in an Indian cavalry regiment. Much of his early life was spent in continental travel with his family. A sickly child, he attended school for two noncontiguous years and was otherwise instructed by private tutors. After taking his degree from Clare College, Cambridge, he worked briefly as a schoolmaster before receiving Anglican orders in 1864. By this time he had already begun his immense writing career, contributing 17 installments of Orœfa-dal, a novel about medieval Iceland, to a magazine edited by friends.

Readers will naturally ask how it was possible for one man to accumulate such a wide and various mass of knowledge, and to distill it into millions of published words. The two activities cannot be understood independently; in the age of instant publication via the internet it has become a cliché, but Baring-Gould seems to have been the sort of person who really did go through life without ever having an unpublished, or at least unwritten, thought. He wrote compulsively, with an almost inhuman energy, sitting down — or rather getting up: He was an early proponent of the standing desk phenomenon — to work every day and not leaving off until he felt he had finished. His daily quota was invariably one complete chapter, which often meant as much as 3,000 words. When he had completed a book, he would make his own fair copy and send it off to the publishers. Within a week he would be working on something else. It was this need to write that seems to have been the driving force behind his reading as much as his insatiable curiosity.

It would have been very easy to have written a biography of so prolific a writer that read like a puffed up, if judiciously annotated bibliography. Tope manages somehow to avoid such an obvious pitfall by placing her subject in the political and religious context of his era without allowing him to be subsumed into history or his work.

The result is among other things a very moving, if to modern ears somewhat exasperating, love story. Baring-Gould met his wife, Grace, while serving as curate of Horbury Bridge in Yorkshire. The daughter of a mill hand, she was considered by her eventual husband’s ecclesiastical superior somewhat unsuited to the role of vicar’s wife and was sent to York to receive instruction in the art of being a middle-class Englishwoman. To this tutelage she meekly submitted, and the couple were married in 1868. Together they had 15 children, of whom all but one survived to adulthood. When his wife died in 1916, Baring-Gould asked that her tombstone be engraved with the phrase Dimidium animae meae (“Half my soul”).