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UW Professor’s Book Offers New Insight into Puzzling Historical Events

September 16, 2015
man showing off magazine headline
UW Professor Eric Nye was in Aberdeen, Scotland, the day the London Review of Books was released. (Ryan Zehner Photo)

A University of Wyoming professor’s recent book explains a previously misunderstood but highly significant episode in British intellectual history.

UW Professor Eric Nye’s volume, “John Kemble’s Gibraltar Journal: The Spanish Expedition of the Cambridge Apostles, 1830-1831” (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), reveals for the first time the involvement of a group of young intellectuals from Cambridge University in attempting to overthrow the tyrannical monarchy in Spain.

While researching the life and letters of the early Victorian man of letters, John Sterling, Nye had written hundreds of postal queries to collections around the world. In the mid-1980s he received a reply from a librarian in New Zealand. Nye opened the letter and learned of a large collection of unrecorded documents pertaining to the Cambridge Apostles, the famous secret society at England’s Cambridge University that has had a profound influence over English intellectual life and still exists today.

Thirty years later, Nye’s book resulting from that discovery became only the second book by a UW professor ever to be reviewed by the prestigious London Review of Books (Sept. 10). The story of that book and the events it rescued from oblivion is almost as riveting as the events themselves.

Nye had discovered a bundle of manuscripts assembled by the Cambridge Apostle, John Kemble, who is best known as the first English editor of the Anglo-Saxon epic, “Beowulf,” and member of the most famous family of actors in England in the early 19th century. Before he achieved fame as a linguist, Kemble and the other Cambridge Apostles had joined the Spanish refugees in England to launch an invasion of Spain in 1830, hoping to depose the tyrant king, Ferdinand VII. Half of Kemble’s detailed journal was known to survive in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, but the other part among the papers in New Zealand was unknown.

During a visit to Dunedin on the South Island to transcribe and study the manuscripts, Nye granted an interview to the local newspaper. The somewhat sensational story was clipped out by a local professor and sent to scholars around the world. The resulting publicity landed Nye in the middle of a controversy. Scholars wanted immediate access to the manuscripts, yet Nye knew there would be more research required to set them all in suitable context and explain their value in intellectual history.

An eminent Canadian scholar published an amusing article about Nye and his discovery. He speculated that the manuscripts might have been acquired on the black market or stolen, and it took much further research for Nye to reject that claim. Over the next two decades, he pursued his larger project, the life and letters of Kemble’s fellow Apostle, Sterling, as he sought out the missing pieces of the Kemble puzzle.

Finally, in 2013-14 as a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, Nye finished editing and annotating a scholarly edition of his new book. Commenting on the work, a reviewer wrote, “A host of newly discovered painting of group of men in 19th century standing on a beach with dead men in frontdocuments now enable us to re-examine one of the most intriguing events in British intellectual history.” Another literary review, the Carlyle Studies Annual, notes “Kemble's journal is an invaluable addition to the primary literature on this notable episode. This edition's strong factual and documentary foundation ensures that it will make a lasting and substantial contribution to the field of early 19th-century studies.”

Kemble may have intended his diary as more than a private record of his dealings with the rebels, Nye says. Kemble took the precaution of entering long intimate or politically sensitive passages in cipher, and Nye cracked all 12 of his ciphers by aid of computer.

“Some of his coded entries treat military matters, but as the months dragged on and military success seemed more elusive, Kemble's attention turned to personal affairs, his friendship with Richard Chenevix Trench, his study of Spanish literature and especially Spanish women,” Nye says.

While former accounts of the events ridicule the idealism of the Cambridge Apostles, Nye interprets Kemble’s response differently. He says Kemble’s passions were deeply felt, and his betrayal and failure took a terrible toll on him.

“He (Kemble) senses the Spanish revolutionaries really aren’t on board, that they are more interested in their own welfare than they are in the welfare of their country,” Nye says. “At the end, he has some sad comments about how the Spaniards aren’t really ready for freedom yet. And this was from a man who was willing to give his life for their cause.”

Nye says that Kemble’s journal recounts the coming-of-age of a brilliant and articulate young rebel, a story that resonates throughout subsequent history. The writer in the London Review of Books suggests that it contains the substance of a novel that Graham Greene should have written but couldn’t.

“It would make a fabulous movie,” Nye says.

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