Many attempts have been made to reveal the secrets of the Apostles. The first in 1906 was by that irrepressible tittle-tattle Mrs Brookfield, of whom Leslie Stephen wrote that he had "a cheerful dream a night or two ago that Mrs Brookfield was burnt to death". In 1978, an excellent book by Peter Allen appeared, covering the first 14 years of the society, but here is an account by a scholar who has had access to the society's minute book and has read vast collections of letters and secondary sources. The result is a formidable and definitive work.
W. C. Lubenow has exercised noble discretion by taking the story only down to 1914. The society insists on preserving secrecy about its present membership for a reason that dates back to 1847. In that year, Henry Roby was elected but said he did not have time to attend meetings. A curse written by the future theologian Fenton Hart in magnificent Hegelian phraseology was pronounced upon Roby and he was consigned "gibbering to the howling wilderness whence he came". He was not expelled for resigning.
Alfred Tennyson had resigned when he could not write a paper on ghosts.
Wittgenstein sometimes came and sometimes did not. Roby was cursed because the Apostles believed he regarded membership as another feather in his cap.
Instead of ploughing on decade by decade, Lubenow has assessed the influence the Apostles had later in life upon Parliament, government and the law; journalism and letters; upon clubs, the public schools, the universities and the life of the mind; and upon religion and the crisis of belief.
The majority of the members were the sons of fathers in the learned professions. Twenty per cent came from the peerage and 15 per cent from business. An increasing proportion had been to a public school. The early members came from St John's, then overwhelmingly from Trinity, but in the 30 years before the first world war, the majority came from King's. Most entered the professions, some became politicians, some were revolutionaries. John Sterling financed an insurrection of exiled Liberals in Spain and his cousin was executed by a firing squad on the sands of Malaga. William O'Brien MP was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in the Irish insurrection in 1848. He insisted that the sentence must be carried out according to the letter of the law so the sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania. Another befriended the wife of a fellow journalist in Paris who stabbed him to death. There was no evidence of adultery but a French court naturally acquitted the husband of murder.
Multitudes of undergraduate discussion clubs have formed and dissolved over the past 200 years - some famous with formal rules, such as the union, but most meeting over coffee. The Apostles, however, were governed by strict rules. Enormous care was taken over whom to elect - how to "give birth".
From Sterling's time in the 1830s, what mattered was not sheer intellect but the desire to put your mind to other minds, to recognise that there were many sides to a question, never to flounce out, however horrified you might be by others' views, never to despise brilliance, but always to remember that sincerity was the guiding principle of Apostolic discussion.
The members read papers to each other, taking it in turns to stand on the "hearth-rug" in front of the fire and address the group. After a few years of membership, the graduate members "took wing" and became known as "Angels", but would continue to attend meetings. As a result, the future denizens of Bloomsbury found themselves facing Bertrand Russell, Bob and George Trevelyan, G. E. Moore and Desmond MacCarthy of the former generation.
No labour was ever so protracted as "giving birth" - and earlier days, the process was absurdly neurotic. Tea parties were given to inspect unsuspecting candidates and prolonged deliberations followed. How would an "embryo" develop? If he had charm and intimacy, would he be up to it intellectually? People sometimes imagine that the Apostles looked only for the most brilliant of individuals. That is not so. Otherwise how could so Apostolic a character as E. D. Adrian have been missed?
Over the years, the substance of the papers differed enormously. When Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson was elected, the topics were the devil in literature and women smoking. On his return as a fellow, he, John McTaggart, Roger Fry and Nathaniel Wedd transformed the meetings. At the end of the evening a vote was taken on some motion often reflecting a clear division of opinion, sometimes impenetrably opaque: when Michael Jaffe wrote a paper, the society divided on "Mothy myth" or "Mythical moth".
Every year a dinner would be held in London, fanatically attended. Perhaps nothing was so important to them as friendship and they discussed it endlessly. Has that long, intimate, passionately strong certitude of affection and sympathy gone from modern life?
Home Rule divided them. Frederic Maitland, Henry Sidgwick, Frederick Pollack and Henry Montagu Butler came down against it but some crept back again after the South African war and tariff reform. The most notorious explosion was when McTaggart, during the first world war, got the rump of the fellows of Trinity to deprive Russell, who was in jail for his pacifism, of his lectureship. But other Apostles fought: not only Rupert Brooke and Peter (F. L.) Lucas, but Ference Bekassy for the Austrian and Wittgenstein in the German army.
They were never hostile to the great world. They wanted to change and civilise it. Keynes had doubts about applying mathematics to social problems. Economics was a moral science. Not for him econometrics.
Intuition mattered. What the Apostles did in the great world is the core of Lubenow's book. This is a first-class addition to Victorian intellectual history.
Lord Annan was provost of King's College, Cambridge, and of University College London.
The Cambridge Apostles 1820-1914
Author - W.C. Lubenow
ISBN - 0 521 57213 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 458