Leaving it

Rosemary Ashton

  • John Henry Newman: A Biography by Ian Ker
    Oxford, 762 pp, £48.00, January 1989, ISBN 0 19 826451 8
  • James Fitzjames Stephen: Portrait of a Victorian Rationalist by K.J.M. Smith
    Cambridge, 338 pp, £30.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 521 34029 2

If there can be said to be such a thing as a Victorian ‘frame of mind’, it must be a broad category indeed to contain two such different representatives as John Henry Newman and James Fitzjames Stephen. They shared a distrust of reform and democracy, a love of England, and a penchant for getting into controversy in print. Otherwise, they strike one as chalk and cheese, or ‘dog and fish’, as Newman put it, à propos of their one encounter, in 1864, when Stephen attacked the ‘dangerous sophistry’ of Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. These two biographies of the two men are also strikingly at opposite extremes of the genre’s possibilities. Ker’s life of Newman is massive, expansive, reverential towards its subject, while Smith’s life of Stephen is terse, matter-of-fact, and unblinkingly critical of its subject’s failings.

Ker rightly declares the need for a new biography of Newman, on the grounds both that Wilfrid Ward’s Life of 1912 is unfairly brief on the Anglican half of Newman’s life and that many manuscript letters have come to light since he wrote his book. Ker himself scrupulously devotes almost as many pages to Newman’s life up to 1845 as he does to the Catholic half (for Newman’s long life divides up almost exactly into two parts – from his birth in 1801 to the conversion in 1845, from 1845 to his death in 1890). Since many of the previously unpublished letters date from the crucial years immediately prior to the conversion, we are now in a position to view that event as Newman experienced it, in addition to having the account which recalls the experience, in the Apologia. In that work, he maintains a double view: the convert’s certainty that God’s providence had led him to the right decision alongside the memory of his uncertainty, his approaching and retreating, before he took the leap. The most interesting fact to emerge from the new perspective Ker gives us is that Newman actually seems to have had something of that double vision all along. It was not simply Catholic propaganda speaking when he wrote in the Apologia of feeling a love for Rome long before he left the Anglican Church. The retrospective view does not falsify the experience.

In his letters to his closest friends during 1843 and 1844 he gave frequent expression to his ambivalence. Ambivalence, alongside certainty, was a habit of Newman’s mind throughout his life: as he wrote, with some wit, in 1861, ‘convictions change: habits of mind endure.’ As early as 1841 he was writing, with a characteristically surprising turn of thought, that ‘the only way to keep in the English Church is steadily to contemplate and act upon the possibility of leaving it.’ Even in the days when he intended to reform the Church of England from within, his reasoning had this tortured refinement. Regretting the changes made by the early Church of England to the Catholic Eucharist Service, he wrote in 1836. ‘It is our misfortune – and I bear it resignedly, as I should the loss of a limb,’ adding that it was right to ‘love the service more for its very misfortunes, as we should be more tender of a persecuted and mutilated brother’.

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