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 Since many of the previously unpublished letters date from the crucial years immediately prior to the conversion, we are now in a position to view that event as Newman experienced it, in addition to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’.

His feeling of anxiety that he should appear – perhaps even be – a hypocrite for ‘being a Roman in my heart when they think me an Anglican’ (letter to Henry Wilberforce, 1843) was exacerbated by his knowledge that he was being watched on all sides, and that the probability of his going over to Rome had long been a talking-point. He was bound to incur the criticism of saying one thing and meaning another. It was the chief irony of a life full of ironies that, as Ker puts it, ‘the Protestant legend that he had been a crypto-Papist while in the Church of England’ was eventually to give way to a corresponding ‘Catholic myth that he was a crypto-heretic’ in the Church of Rome. What Ker’s biography makes brilliantly clear is that Newman’s views hardly changed from ‘Protestant’ to ‘Catholic’: it was his sense of where he belonged, given his views, that did. Thus his famous comment about there being only two choices – Catholicism or unbelief – was already being voiced while he was a Tractarian. As if predicting the demise of the party he was even then leading, he wrote in 1840: ‘it seems to me as if there were coming on a great encounter between infidelity and Rome, and that we should be smashed between them.’

Consistency was always his watchword, but paradox was always his mode. In 1839 he wrote scathingly of the Broad Church party’s desire for comprehensiveness:

A man who can set down half a dozen general propositions, which escape from destroying one another only by being diluted into truisms, who can hold the balance between opposites so skilfully as to do without fulcrum or beam, who never enunciates a truth without guarding himself from being supposed to exclude the contradictory, who holds that Scripture is the only authority, yet that the Church is to be deferred to, that faith only justifies, yet that it does not justify without works, that grace does not depend upon sacraments, yet is not given without them, that bishops are a divine ordinance, yet those who have them not are in the same religious condition as those who have, – this is your safe man and the hope of the Church; this is what the Church is said to want, not party men, but sensible, temperate, sober, well-judging persons, to guide it through the channel of No-meaning, between the Scylla and Charybdis of Aye and No.

Yet in the same piece he earnestly advocated the finding of some ‘via media’, thought necessary to bring ‘the current of the age’ into the ‘Anglican port’ rather than let it be ‘propelled into Popery, or drifted upon unbelief’.

Again, there is continuity in his views on ‘private judgment’ before and after his conversion. In 1837 he cleverly castigates Protestantism, which ‘considers it a hardship to have anything clearly and distinctly told it in elucidation of Scripture doctrine, an infringement of its right of doubting, and mistaking, and labouring in vain’. In Loss and Gain (1848), his witty novel dramatising the route from Oxford to Rome, he dismisses private judgment with a humorous metaphor. Catholics, too, may use it, but ‘they use it ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home. What would be thought of his bringing it into his drawing room?’ Yet he was aware of an anxiety that his own habit of introspection might imperceptibly become ‘introversion’. And once a Roman Catholic, he found himself under attack in Rome, and among English Catholics led by Wiseman and Manning, for exercising his own judgment rather too much in matters of doctrine.

Though the shyest of men, Newman sought out, or was sought out by, controversy and notoriety, whether leading the Tractarian revolt at Oxford, setting up the Birmingham Oratory and later its school (on the lines of Eton, plus religion, minus wickedness), or treading on the minefield in Dublin when he took on the task of trying to set up the Catholic University without fatally displeasing either the old Catholics or the converts, the Irish or the English. He tried to ignore the whisperings in Rome and the Protestant attacks at home, but was frequently jolted out of his shy silence. When that happened, as he cheerfully admitted, his tendency was to let rip. One of the finest features of Newman the controversialist was his habit of seizing upon a Protestant caricature of the Catholic – such as Kingsley’s supersubtle priest in the famous attack which gave Newman the opportunity to reply with the Apologia – and making it even more grotesque in order to undermine it. In his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851), he gleefully took up the dark rumours spread by the Protestant press about the building of cellars under the Oratory. With sweet reasonableness, Newman gives the reason for the cellars as the unevenness of the ground, and ‘there is a prejudice among Catholics in favour of horizontal floors.’ He lets his imagination run riot in parody of the lurid Protestant image of Catholics, musing how one day ‘a mob might have swarmed about our innocent dwelling, to rescue certain legs of mutton and pats of butter from imprisonment, and to hold an inquest over a dozen packing-cases, some old hampers, a knife-board, and a range of empty blacking-bottles’.

Another strength of Ker’s excellent biography is to show Newman’s paradoxical status as a Catholic and an Englishman. He maintained his love of Oxford from first to last (and Oxford, improbably, paid tribute to him in 1877 when Oriel made him an honorary fellow). On his first visit to Rome in 1833 he compared its splendour to that of ‘dear Oxford’; his idea of the Irish university was ‘Oxford imported into Ireland’; the Oratory was to be like an Oxbridge college. Indeed, one of the reasons for Manning’s disapproval of Newman was that he transplanted ‘the old Anglican, patristic, literary, Oxford tone’ into Roman Catholicism. No doubt this manner, as well as his propensity to question edicts from Rome, kept him at war with most other English Catholics, both traditional and convert.

Here one might have liked Ker to be more generous with details. Wiseman and Manning are hostile figures who remain on the fringes of this biography. So, also, do Newman’s family. His brother Francis, whose career on the extreme left wing, as it were, of Protestantism mirrors Newman’s on the extreme right, makes only fleeting appearances, and his sisters and brother Charles appear even less. As for Newman’s parents, it would be interesting to know if there is any clue, in what is known of their lives and opinions, to the extraordinary nature of their son. Yet Newman is such an intellectual giant, so fascinating, that it is easy to see how he dominates his own biography to the near-extinction of others. A more psychoanalytially-minded biographer would comment on his obsession with religion from boyhood, his grotesque response to the news of any of his friends marrying – on hearing of Keble’s intention to get married, he recorded feeling a ‘most piercing pain’ and being ‘sickish’ – and his singular lack of charity. Of Mrs Keble, who lived for some weeks after the death of her husband, Newman wrote: ‘It struck me (I trust it is a really charitable thought) that she was to be kept awhile to do penance for having kept Keble from being a Catholic.’ When his rival at the Brompton Oratory, Father Faber, was in his last illness. Newman’s remark was: ‘How many times has Fr Faber been a-dying?’

If one wished to test Newman’s claim that in the mid-19th century the only choice was between Catholicism and unbelief, one might do worse than consider the life of James Fitzjames Stephen, barrister brother of Leslie Stephen. Newman’s warning to his own brother Francis that the ‘low arrogant ultra-Protestant principle’ by which ‘every one may gain the true doctrines of the gospel for himself from the Bible’ would lead to infidelity – ‘You will unravel the web of self-sufficient inquiry’ – proved true not only for Francis but also for Fitzjames Stephen. Born into an Evangelical family with the habit of inquiry, and imagining himself, as he later said, ‘a highly intellectual little saint’, he passed gradually into a (rather joyless) state of unbelief.

Not that the question of religious faith was central for Stephen. His first love was the law, his second literary journalism. But no Victorian could ignore the question of religion. Stephen approached it from a rationalist, utilitarian point of view. As a law-giver and law-reformer, he viewed religion as a possible ally in enforcing justice. As Frederick Harrison said of him, he ‘clung to Hell for its utility as a moralising agent in deterring the weak and the vicious from sin and crime’. Stephen himself gives a minimalist view in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873): ‘If there is a future state, it is natural to suppose that that which survives death will be that which is most permanent in life ... That is to say, mind, self-consciousness, conscience or our opinion of ourselves.’ Here is the rationalist position put in the bleakest terms. For Stephen, Protestantism, ‘in the form stated by Paley and others’, was the only form of Christianity which ‘rational men’ could seriously consider. Yet he himself seemed to prove Newman’s rule that rational Protestantism led inevitably to unbelief.

But if Stephen’s position on religion was a negative unlovely thing, he could aim a strong swipe at Newman’s position. Feeling that Newman had won the war of words with Kingsley, he tackled the Apologia in an article in Fraser’s Magazine in 1864. While conceding that the book was ‘winning’ and in some ways ‘touching’, he questioned Newman’s logic: ‘If the probability of the existence of a God, of the truth of Christianity, and of the truth of Romanism, are dependent on each other, then it must be less probable that Romanism is true than that Theism or the fact of the divine mission of Christ is true. If, on the other hand, the probabilities are independent, what becomes of the argument that every consistent man who is not a Romanist, must be an Atheist? If independently of the probability of Romanism, there is a separate probability in favour of Theism and of Christianity, [they] may be believed on the ground of those probabilities, and that without resorting to Rome.’ More tellingly still, he characterised Newman as the sort of man who, ‘having been infatuated by a woman neither young, lovely, nor virtuous, marries her at the expense of destroying all his prospects in life, and of throwing up all his connections, and then exhausts every resource of his mind in proving that she combines, in ideal perfection, eternal youth, perfect beauty, and every moral and mental grace which could adorn such a person’. There is some truth in this jibe, for Newman was privately dismayed at the state of education among Catholics and at the pettiness of many Vatican officials, as well as the poverty of their intellects, while insisting in print, understandably enough, on the attractive aspects of Rome.

Stephen could, like Newman, dress an argument in fine metaphorical garb, as when he described the state of English law in 1856 as a ‘huge heap of building materials’ on which ‘by signal good luck you may avoid holes, and pick your way in safety over the heterogeneous mass; but if you are not very careful of your steps some treacherous clause will give way, and you may disappear into all sorts of pitfalls and caverns – you may fall from statute to statute, all touching, but none meeting your case – till your descent is arrested by some antiquated monument of medieval legislation or by the unfathomable mysteries of the common law.’ Nevertheless, Stephen’s was, on his own admission, ‘a good useful cut and come again intellect, which makes itself happy with quantities of cold meats and potatoes and table beer in the shape of the law’. If he was gloomy and disheartened on the subject of faith and the afterlife, he was, as Smith deftly shows, pleasingly progressive on several points of law. He successfully defended Rowland Williams, one of the authors of Essays and Reviews (1860) against the charge of heresy – asking if ‘the Law of England forbade the Clergy of the Church of England to use their mind’ – and he advocated that atheists be allowed to act as trial witnesses. He also sided with doctors and scientists against his fellow lawyers on the question of whether insanity could be pleaded in mitigation of offences.

Still, beside Newman’s, Stephen’s mind was a decidedly flinty object. As Newman told him in 1876, declining an invitation to meet his erstwhile critic, ‘in matters of religion we unhappily differ in first principle’; ‘each of us assumes’ what the other ‘will not grant’ and therefore discussion would be ‘a melancholy waste of time’. It was a question of dog and fish. Stephen was the more representative of the two men among the Victorian intelligentsia in substituting knowledge for faith: but Newman was the greater, even in argument, though his was always argument based on an assumption – not shared by many of his contemporaries, including several who would have wished to be able to share it – of faith: ‘that the mind is changed by a discovery, or saved by a diversion, and can thus be amused into immortality, – that grief, anger, cowardice, self-conceit, pride, or passion, can be subdued by an examination of shells or grasses, or inhaling of gases, or chipping of rocks, or calculating the longitude, is the veriest of pretences which sophist or mountebank ever professed to a gaping auditory’ (The Tamworth Reading Room, 1841). Thus speaks the man most often arraigned for sophistry by those contemporaries, from the Christian Socialist Kingsley to the most dedicated freethinking scientists like Huxley, who put their faith, or part of it, in science.