Cardinal Manning: A Biography 
by Robert Gray.
Weidenfeld, 366 pp., £16.95, August 1985, 0 297 78674 1
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The history of Cardinal Manning’s biographies is a remarkable one. When he died, on 14 January 1892, ‘no reputation ever appeared more secure,’ as Mr Gray rightly says. His death occurred on the same day as that of the Duke of Clarence, who, had he lived, would have become King of England. Normally the passing of the next heir to the throne would attract much public attention, but it was completely eclipsed by the death of the Cardinal. After the Requiem Mass, despite the poor visibility caused by a London pea-souper, vast crowds lined the streets on the way from Brompton Oratory to the cemetery at Kensal Green. ‘Their reaction,’ writes Mr Gray, ‘constituted perhaps the most striking, certainly the most spontaneous, demonstration of mass emotion that occurred in the capital during the Late Victorian period.’

Manning’s high repute was shattered by his first biographer, Edmund Sheridan Purcell, a Catholic journalist, who maintained that he had been appointed by the Cardinal as ‘official biographer’. There was nothing in writing to this effect, and Mr Gray describes the claim as ‘at best a half-truth’. Manning did, it is true, encourage Purcell, after he had written a sketch for a failed Catholic journal, to produce something more substantial. ‘The loss of your m.s. is a blessing in disguise; publish the Life in Volume form. I should like you, if you can, to write the first volume in my lifetime.’ This offer cannot be dismissed quite as peremptorily as it is by Mr Gray: a struggling journalist like Purcell might legitimately have thought that he had the green light. He was allowed to see an expurgated diary of 1848 and to make copies of certain documents. He would not have known what Manning wrote about him to an inquirer: ‘I am telling him nothing which he could not find for himself in the back files of the Tablet or the Dublin Review.’ Nor would he have been told that Manning had assured Gladstone that Purcell would not be shown any of Gladstone’s letters. In fact, Manning wished his biographer to be J.E.C. Bodley, Sir Charles Dilke’s private secretary, but he may well not have said so to Purcell.

Yet, with every allowance made, Purcell does seem to have behaved in a manner that was none too scrupulous. He persuaded the curators of Manning’s papers at the Church of St Mary of the Angels in Bayswater that he was the authorised biographer and carted away about half of them in a hansom cab. Since he was not even mentioned in Manning’s will, he had no claim at all to act in this way. The unfortunate Bodley was abroad at the time and, when he heard what had happened, described it as the hardest blow of his life. The custodians, alerted too late, did not allow Purcell to remove the rest of the papers, but he had enough on which to base a biography which would kill any attempt by Bodley, and he produced it in 1895 only three years after Manning’s death. It caused a sensation, and was intended to do so. The saintly friend of the poor, the homeless and the dispossessed was depicted as ‘an ecclesiastic consumed by ambition and the will to dominate, prepared to gain his ends by any means, however unscrupulous’. Cardinal Newman was presented as the heroic figure who resisted him and was done down by him.

Few people now read Purcell, but his biography cannot be dismissed quite as sweepingly as it has been by some critics. Professor Owen Chadwick describes it as ‘discreditable’, and Mr Gray as ‘pervaded by malice’. Yet Mr Gray admits that it makes ‘fascinating reading’, adding that ‘Manning’s letters alone were sufficient to ensure that.’ Nor can one laugh off Manning’s behaviour, not mentioned in Purcell, towards Newman over the Cardinal’s Hat. Manning, pressed by many prominent Catholic laymen, had indeed as Archbishop of Westminster forwarded to the Pope a request in generous terms that Newman should receive this greatest of honours. The new Pope, Leo XIII, agreed with alacrity and in January 1879 Manning conveyed the good news through the proper channel, Ullathorne, Bishop of Birmingham, under whose jurisdiction Newman came. The snag was that Newman, old and frail and unwilling to leave the Birmingham Oratory, felt he could not comply with the rule that Cardinals lacking an episcopal see must live in Rome. He consulted Ullathorne and with typical tortuosity he decided to write a letter to the Bishop which if carefully read neither refused nor accepted but stated the difficulty about residence, though in terms which could suggest refusal. At the same time it was agreed that Ullathorne would write a covering letter saying that in reality nothing stood in the way except the matter of residence – a condition which, as everyone knew, the Pope could dispense with, if he saw fit. On receiving the two letters, Manning forwarded the first with all its ambiguities and obfuscations to Rome, but kept the second. Mr Gray rightly says that his action was ‘inexcusable’, and even less excusable was the evidently authorised ‘leak’ to the press from the Archbishop’s House in February to the effect that Newman had been offered and refused a cardinalate. Newman at once deduced that an enemy was at work, and wrote an indignant letter implying Manning’s culpability, though not by name, to the Duke of Norfolk, who sent it on to Manning, then in Rome. Manning at once acted to set matters right: it was of course a misunderstanding, he said. Newman duly received the Hat. Whatever interpretations may be put on Manning’s earlier conduct – and there are several – none can be to his credit.

The Catholic establishment preferred to remain silent after Purcell, rather than spring to Manning’s defence, but, if they hoped that the book would simply ‘go away’, they were wrong. It did not. They were unlucky. In 1911 in a moment of boredom Lytton Strachey, for lack of other reading, picked it up. He was fascinated. As he read on, he saw a splendid opportunity to debunk a Victorian saint. In Eminent Victorians (1918), that entertaining quartet of brilliantly written pen-portraits, he made the most of his opportunity. He cheated of course, as he usually did. He cheated about Dr Arnold and General Gordon, though not about Florence Nightingale. He cheated about Manning, and it is his portrait of Manning rather than Purcell’s which has coloured the Cardinal’s memory ever since. Why did Manning’s friends do nothing about his reputation after the publication of Purcell? They could not have anticipated Strachey, and they probably envisaged an authorised biography to be published at leisure after the fuss had died down. The papers commandeered by Purcell were returned after his death in 1898, though not all of them. When his widow died in 1901 three collections of Manning’s documents were sold to unknown buyers and have never surfaced since. However, the other half had been in the hands of the original custodians all along, so most of the materials existed for a major work. One might have expected it to have been undertaken, at the latest, after the appearance of Eminent Victorians. There was, it is true, a riposte of sorts to that in 1921 by Shane Leslie, who did at least bother to look at the papers, but it is chaotically constructed, though written with characteristic glitter, and it did not cut much ice. Since then, surprisingly, no further biography of any substance has been published, although an important study of one aspect appeared in 1962, Professor McClelland’s Cardinal Manning: His Public Life and Influence 1865-92.

The delay was most unfortunate, for a disaster occurred to the papers. Shane Leslie had himself done them no good by his careless and destructive treatment but the bulk of the collection still remained intact at St Mary of the Angels in Bayswater. After 1939, because of the Blitz, the collection was transferred to the cellars of the church. No precautions were taken against damp, mice, rats and children at play. The Abbé Alphonse Chapeau, who had undertaken the task neglected for so long by Englishmen, found the papers after the end of the war in a state of decomposition and disintegration. He had to piece together charred, torn and rotting fragments. Much has gone beyond recall. But the first volume of a major work shared by him and Professor McClelland is promised, to be finished in 1986. Meanwhile, in a book which is based mainly on published sources, Mr Gray has produced a fair, well-written, sympathetic, though by no means adulatory, interim biography.

Apart from the total lack of sympathy towards religion – in itself a barrier to any but the most superficial understanding of Manning – Strachey deliberately falsified some of the evidence to fit in with his picture of the Cardinal. Manning to him is a ‘superstitious egotist’. When, shortly after his conversion in March 1851, an Anglican bishopric became vacant, Manning, told by a cabinet minister that he would certainly have got it, replied: ‘What an escape my poor soul did have.’ Strachey’s comment is that ‘in truth, Manning’s “poor soul” had scented nobler quarry.’ What, he goes on, was the position of an English bishop restricted by the state through the Gorham judgment (Manning’s immediate cause for abandoning the Anglican Church) compared with the ‘illimitable pretensions of the humblest priest of Rome’? Strachey concedes that Manning might have wondered whether Rome would shunt him, like Newman, into obscurity. But was he really taking so much of a risk? Within 14 years he was Archbishop, and Strachey speculates about an audience that Archdeacon Manning had had with the Pope three years earlier:

It is at least possible that the authorities had their eye on Manning; they may well have felt that the Archdeacon of Chichester would be a great catch. What did Pio Nono say? It is easy to imagine the persuasive innocence of his Italian voice. ‘Ah dear Signor Manning, why don’t you come over to us? Do you suppose that we should not look after you?’

At any rate when he did go over Manning was looked after very thoroughly.

The reader may be left with the impression that some such conversation actually occurred. Not only is there no shadow of evidence that it did, but Strachey’s suggestion is in the highest degree implausible even as a speculation.

Mr Gray does not mention this particular instance of cheating on Strachey’s part, but he does refer to another which is worse. Manning’s wife died young in 1837 of tuberculosis, that scourge of the Victorian era. He was deeply distressed. ‘How could he have guessed,’ wrote Strachey, ‘that one day he would come to number that loss among “God’s special mercies”?’ The implication clearly being that a widower could become a Roman priest and that Manning was in the end grateful for her death. This disagreeable innuendo is probably one of the best remembered things about Manning’s life. Yet a glance at Purcell’s biography, on which Strachey bases it, shows that Manning meant nothing of the sort. He listed in 1847 some of ‘God’s special mercies’ bestowed upon him, and one of these was ‘(8) By afflicting me 1837’. What he clearly meant – and his earlier correspondence confirms this – was that the tragedy had chastened him.

Mr Gray has been helped by the Abbé Chapeau, whose knowledge of Manning’s papers, insofar as he has been able to reconstruct and decipher them, is immense. Manning was ambitious, efficient, and in a sense worldly. He saw the importance of converting the great and the rich. As ‘Cardinal Grandison’ in Disraeli’s Lothair he is depicted in one aspect with acute perceptiveness. Concerning the Newman episode Mr Gray observes that for Manning ‘truth had become simply an artefact of the will.’ Disraeli wrote ten years earlier. He had reason to feel let down politically by Manning, but he was not too far from the reality in the entertaining passage where the Cardinal tries to persuade Lothair, as he recovers consciousness after fighting at Mentana against the Papal forces, that he had been the subject of a miracle and had been fighting for the Pope all along.

But if Manning believed in converting the grandees, it was not on grounds of snobbery or from indifference to the poor. The rich mattered because of their influence. As for the poor, Manning was deeply concerned and held views which if expressed today would undoubtedly be ‘rubbished’, as the modern saying goes, by some unnamed Conservative minister who had not even read them. Manning was accused of being a socialist. He was certainly, like most socialists, an instinctive authoritarian, but he believed in state intervention, not state control, to cope with poverty, and he told Henry George: ‘I believe that the law of property is founded on the law of Nature, and that it is sanctioned in Revelation, declared in the Christian law, taught by the Catholic Church, and incorporated into the civilisation of all nations. Therefore, unless we are in agreement on this, which lies at the foundation of society, I am afraid we cannot approach each other.’ But Manning also argued that labour and skill were a form of property, and so unemployment was a kind of theft which the state should prevent. No doubt his ideas on the relations between church, state and society were confused, but so are those of almost everyone who has thought about a problem which has never yet been solved.

Manning has had a bad press, not only because of Purcell and Strachey. Newman has come down as a more sympathetic figure, and the division between the two in the Catholic world of Britain can only be compared with that between Disraeli and Gladstone in the political. Manning’s ‘constituency’ was the impoverished Irish immigrants, and they were not popular, nor was Irish Home Rule. Manning was an Ultramontane supporter of Papal authority. Newman inspired sympathy among the Old Catholics, mostly upper-class, who after lying low and surviving for centuries had no great sympathy with the newly-asserted Papal claims, still less with Irish labourers. Mr Gray’s book brings out these divisions. It does not purport to be more than an interim biography, but it is none the worse for that. Biographers should never be deterred by the thought that a conclusive work will one day be written by someone else.

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