Of human bondage: the life and times of the vicar of Trumpington

July 6, 2007

Sexuality and 'bondage'

John Grote seems to have been asexual a victim of what the historian Geoffrey Best calls "the dominant culture of Victorian respectability".

There was once a rumour in the family that John got on so well with the governess of his adopted niece, Alexandrina Jessie Grote, that he might marry the said Charlotte la Trobe when she came to live in Trumpington - but it came to nought.

I believe Grote was celibate as there is no evidence of any sexual preferences at all. In this period, Christian repression and fear of exclusion from university positions made open homosexuality rare.

Grote once called Trinity College "this house of Bondage" in his personal journal, so all was not well there. He developed nervous tics in response to the repression suffered at the hands of his mother and within the university.

Family feuds

Grote had a difficult relationship with his older brother George (the historian of Greece, Radical MP and atheist). Harriet Grote, George's bossy wife, felt that John was not deferential enough to his more famous brother and excluded John from "Groteries", the family get-togethers. John healed the rift in some way in 1851 when he wrote a blistering attack on Richard Shilletto (a Cambridge classicist) who had attacked George's History.

College dust-ups

Grote was a liberal reformer in Trinity and the university. William Whewell, the conservative, autocratic Master of Trinity, distrusted Grote as too liberal and called him "a revolutionary" and his opinions "odious". But Grote won on most key reforming issues.

Personal dramas

In 1862 Grote's editor, Joseph Mayor, applied for the Cambridge chair in political economy. Grote and Mayor's utilitarian enemies, including Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf) and the rising star Henry Sidgwick, led a scurrilous attack on Grote and Mayor in the press, accusing Grote of nepotism in supporting Mayor (who was planning to marry Grote's niece Alexandrina Jessie). Sidgwick undermined Mayor by getting another St John's fellow to stand and split his vote. Mayor lost. Grote and the emerging Cambridge idealists had been undermined - paving the way for Sidgwick's later triumph.

Bravery and honour

Grote hated the reduction of academic conflict which he considered to be good to personal attack. He called it the " odium ethicum " and the " odium philosophicum ". This is why he attacked John Stuart Mill's books but not him, while he defended Whewell from scurrilous attack in the Saturday Review even when he was opposed to Whewell's philosophy and politics.

Grote defended the Liberal Broadchurch authors of the Essays and Reviews of 1861 from charges of heresy. He suggested that the Bible be understood like any other text, treating Genesis as myth. This was brave.

The intellectual aristocracy

Grote's adopted niece Alexandrina Jessie had three children, Henry, Robin and Flora Mayor. Flora became an eminent novelist, while Robin's daughter Teresa was renowned for her brains and beauty while at Cambridge. She knew all the Apostles, who included her genius brother Andreas, famous for his editions of Proust, and in marrying Victor Rothschild united two great banking families. Teresa's daughter Emma is a leading contemporary thinker and is married to the Nobel prizewinning economist Amartya Sen. John Grote would have appreciated the continuity of Emma's move with Sen into the Master's lodge at Trinity.

John Gibbins

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