Saint John Henry

Richard Altick

  • John Henry Newman: His Life and Work by Brian Martin
    Chatto, 160 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2588 8
  • Protestant versus Catholic in Mid-Victorian England by Walter Arnstein
    Missouri, 271 pp, £14.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 8262 0354 X

The unseen spectator who was most involved in Pope John Paul’s progress through Britain, formerly in partibus infidelium, was the spirit of John Henry Newman, dead these 92 years, who doubtless observed the proceedings with mixed feelings. Surely Newman, a man of retiring temperament, would have been horrified by the crowds and the publicity which for the moment turned the search for a Via Media into a media event. Newman, as it happens, was one of the first public figures ever to complain of unwelcome attention from the press. In his Apologia pro Vita Sua he describes how he was hounded by newspapers when he left Oxford on what proved to be his way to Rome:

After Tract 90 the Protestant world would not let me alone; they pursued me in the public journals to Littlemore. Reports of all kinds were circulated about me. ‘Imprimis, why did I go up to Littlemore at all? For no good purpose certainly; I dared not tell why.’ Why, to be sure, it was hard that I should be obliged to say to the Editors of newspapers that I went up there to say my prayers ... It was hard to have to plead, that, for what I knew, my doubts would vanish, if the newspapers would be so good as to give me time and let me alone. Who would ever dream of making the world his confidant? yet I was considered insidious, sly, dishonest, if I would not open my heart to the tender mercies of the world ... I had thought that an Englishman’s house was his castle; but the newspapers thought otherwise.

Though the Pope’s visit symbolised the developing rapprochement of two Christian Churches after five centuries of separation, it is by no means certain that Newman would have approved the doctrinal grounds on which ecumenism is being evolved. In the years of his greatest influence, his overriding ambition had been to lead England back into the Roman Catholic fold, not to accomplish a union of equals. But Newman would at least have been pleased by one aspect of the Pope’s tour: the evidence it provided of the decline of anti-Catholic sentiment in England. The small demonstrations, the placard-waving, were mere twitches from a diminishing vestige of public opinion compared with the paroxysm of bigotry that attended the so-called ‘Papal Aggression’ of 1850-51, when Pius IX had the effrontery to set up a Catholic hierarchy on Henry VIII’s Protestant soil. In that season of scurrility and obscurantist fury, the shock wave set off by Newman’s conversion to Rome five years earlier finally reached the nation as a whole. As Brian Martin reports, Punch brutally caricatured ‘a thin, emaciated, bespectacled Newman’ alongside ‘a fat, hypocritical Wiseman’ and rumours spread that Newman ‘was married and had locked his wife away in a convent’. Newman survived the assault, of course, and in his old age became something of a popular hero: his apostasy overlooked or forgiven, he acquired a reputation for holiness which eventually turned into something of a legend. The legend persists today, as the adulatory tone of Martin’s book makes evident. It was not Newman but his less sacrosanct co-religionist, Cardinal Manning, whom Strachey chose to be the victim of his reckless iconoclasm in Eminent Victorians.

The Papal Aggression hysteria subsided, and Newman grew in the esteem of his countrymen: but anti-Catholic sentiment remained vigorous and often vehement. Walter Arnstein’s scholarly study shows that the militancy of Protestant and Roman Catholic alike continued to keep religious issues aflame in Parliament and press. The tireless efforts of the anti-Catholic MP Charles Newdegate to suppress nunneries through legal action are less well remembered today than the rabble-rousing exertions of a mid-Victorian Ian Paisley, an Irishman bearing the exquisitely un-Protestant name of Murphy, which enliven the pages of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: but both belong to the same record of continual religious controversy in 19th-century England. (It was intramural contention, however, not the larger one between Protestant and Catholic, which ignited one of the most sensational episodes along the way, when a band of rowdy anti-ritualists fed liquor to a pack of starving dogs and set them loose inside an East End church during a service conducted by a vicar who went in for High Church ceremony and vestments.)

Presumably Martin’s John Henry Newman was ready for the press before the Pope’s pilgrimage was announced, but his publishers would have been remiss indeed if they had not scheduled its appearance to coincide with that event, which, as they reasonably predicted in their promotional material, would ‘undoubtedly draw attention to Newman’. But the tie-in is loose at best. He remarks, in passing, that, despite the setback administered by the first Vatican Council’s promulgation of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, Newman’s ideas ‘took root and developed, flowering in the work of the second Vatican Council’: but the book does not ponder the significance of those ideas at a time when the reigning pontiff’s acceptance of the second council’s tendencies falls some distance short of enthusiasm. Its lack of ‘relevance’ apart, it is a good example of the new fashion in potted biography which has sprung up as copious illustration has become technically and economically attractive to publishers of up-market non-fiction. The text is relatively short, running to no more than 156 pages, many of which are shared with the 50 pictures of persons and places that are the volume’s distinctive feature. Nothing in the prefatory description of Newman as ‘one of the most brilliant, controversial, far-seeing figures of the 19th century ... of great importance in the history of religious thought’ suggests that he is a writer whose characteristic work lends itself to illustration.

Martin’s narrative, a dogged year-by-year chronicle, is brisk if nothing else. The jacket blurb declares that, ‘unlike previous biographies [sic], Dr Martin has made full use of the extensive Letters and Diaries,’ a series of volumes scrupulously and learnedly edited by the late Father Charles Stephen Dessain and others. But the imputation is unfair to the best modern biographer of Newman, Meriol Trevor, whose two-volume work (1962-63) also had the advantage of the extensive archives at the Birmingham Oratory, even though they were largely unpublished at that time. In any case, there is no telling what fresh material, if any, Martin’s book contains, because it is totally undocumented, lacking even the minimally requisite ‘note on sources’.

The book proceeds from fact to fact with no attempt at interpretation except in a platitude-laden final chapter. One must accept on faith – Newman’s subtly argued ‘illative sense’ – Martin’s encomia, crowned by his characterisation of Newman as ‘a supreme genius set among 19th-century men of ideas and literature’. ‘The human side of this saintly man’ – the blurb again – is scantily portrayed, apart from allusions to his violin-playing. Martin does not explore the implications of the remark made by Newman’s admittedly unsympathetic brother Francis that he was something of a fanatic. Newman’s mind and character were more complex and in some ways more inconsistent than this compressed account allows. The anxious austerity and cultivated humility of his Oxford years, though they were shared by most of the Keble-Hurrell Froude circle and some churchmen outside it, and the ‘feminine’ traits which some of his contemporaries remarked upon pose psychological questions which must be recognised in any biographical sketch which purports to give a faithful and rounded view of its subject.

Most modern readers find it difficult to understand why a man of Newman’s exceptional intellectual gifts and emotional dedication could have allowed himself to become embroiled in the controversies which, along with constant administrative and committee duties once he had become an Oratorian, drained off so much energy that might have been applied to more lastingly fruitful causes. His biographer must explain not only the man but the issues, many of which seem petty and even pointless in retrospect: the furor over the abolition of ten Irish Anglican sees in 1833, which aroused Keble to his ‘National Apostasy’ sermon and the founding of the Oxford Movement; the explosive effect of Newman’s Tract 90, which discredited him at Oxford, and of the relentless logic which propelled him into the Roman community shortly afterwards; and, less dramatic but more protracted, the innumerable squabbles and endless ecclesiastical infighting in the hierarchy and among his brother Oratorians which roiled Newman’s life after 1845, beginning with the vexed project to establish a Catholic university in Dublin. Readers who do not already know who the Monophysites and Ultramontanes were will be bewildered by Martin’s unexplained allusions to them, and readers who do know are not likely to learn anything new from this account.

Most unfortunate of all is Martin’s failure to substantiate his claims for Newman’s stature as a writer. When, in the course of the narrative, the Apologia is published, his comment is limited to the innocuous observation that it ‘was a notable success: Newman’s influence was never greater. Not only was he popular at home, he became popular abroad.’ Further literary criticism, if it can be called that, is postponed to the last chapter, which begins with the blunt announcement that ‘he is one of the greatest of English prose stylists in the 19th century, his Apologia and Idea of a University appearing in university literature syllabuses in the 20th.’ Apparently not recognising the crashing non-sequitur, Martin goes on to devote more space to Newman’s novel, Loss and Gain, surely a minor adornment to Victorian fiction, than to either of his accepted ‘classics’.

Nowhere in this slight, totally uncritical volume is there any hint that possibly – just possibly – Newman’s literary reputation is overblown. Criticism has traditionally approached the Apologia with almost superstitious reverence, springing partly from the circumstances that generated it: an obtuse bully (Charles Kingsley) intemperately impugning the honesty of another clergyman, but a gentle and saintly one, thus inspiring an ‘eloquent’ reply. If the Apologia is, in parts, an unquestionable masterpiece of rhetorical style and structure, elsewhere it is pretty heavy going. Its weight of excerpts from Newman’s private letters and his printed essays and sermons, while strategically indispensable to his defence against Kingsley’s allegations of mendacity, detracts from, if it does not destroy, the artistry of the surrounding spiritual memoir.

The Idea of a University is likewise vitiated by its historical occasion and context, which, like Newman’s recital in the Apologia of the now-forgotten books that critically shaped his religious opinions, rings few bells in the mind of 1982. Still admiringly cited as a classic statement of the humanistic ideal, in our culture it is even more outdated than the subsequent utterances of Arnold, who was in some respects Newman’s disciple. It is predicated on the moral model of the perfect Victorian gentleman, which, for better or worse, no longer presides over our educational idealism. Both the Apologia and The Idea of a University, unredeemed by their rhetorical craft, year by year say less and less to the students for whom they are still set books, and, I am afraid, to everyone else.