Cardinal’s Hat

Robert Blake

  • Cardinal Manning: A Biography by Robert Gray
    Weidenfeld, 366 pp, £16.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 297 78674 1

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.

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