Matthew Arnold’s School Inspections, Part I

David Hopkinson introduces a liberal-minded Victorian poet, seriously concerned with the effects of education.

When Matthew Arnold fell in love with Fanny Lucy Wightman, the daughter of a High Court Judge, he was twenty-seven years of age and was employed as private secretary by the Whig statesman and art-lover, Lord Lansdowne. His Oxford friends viewed with some degree of mistrust the sybaritic social life to which he now seemed committed.

They feared its effect on someone they admired but in whom an element of lordly disdain and some disquieting signs of levity had been observed. Great things were expected of Thomas Arnold’s eldest son, educated at Rugby and Balliol, with a fellowship of Oriel and a year’s teaching experience at his father’s old school behind him.

Yet he often seemed insufficiently serious about such questions as the ideals and aspirations of his friends. Was he tending to trade on the undeniable charm of his personality and to be too much concerned with learning to display it in the grand manner? Would this excursion into high society corrupt his once republican and always liberal spirit?

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