Biographers suffer from a myriad of temptations. Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her bibliography to the newly republished Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics, recalls how Acton’s first biographer, Ulrich Noack struggled mightily to reconcile contradictions and tensions in Acton’s thought and in doing so lost much of the man himself. Later, Monsignor David Mathew succumbed to the opposite temptation of frequently digressing into trivialities and going off on tangents and as a result losing Acton in the great sea of nineteenth century Catholicism. Himmelfarb’s Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics is one of those rare biographies which manage to thread the needle. It is an intellectual biography which limits itself to the main threads of Acton’s thought as a historian, a Catholic, and a Classical Liberal.
As a historian Acton is brilliant but his work is often inaccessible to the general public. It is buried in collections of lectures, obscure periodicals, personal correspondence, and unpublished notes. By the time he was 40 years old …
He had mastered a variety of disciplines related to the history of politics, culture, ideas and religion. His style combined the sharp, colourful writing, the sense of immediacy and timeliness, of the informal essay, with the precision (degenerating occasionally into pedantry) and the susceptibility for the ancient and the universal of academic history. In addition to some 400 reviews and short articles, he had already published or delivered in the form of lectures the equivalent of almost 1,000 pages of serious essays ranging in subject from the early Christian Church to the American Civil War and the Italian Revolution.