Conrad Black says that Blessed John Henry Newman’s conversion to Catholicism had an extraordinary effect on his contemporaries
Newman and his Contemporaries
BY EDWARD SHORT T & T CLARK, £60
his formidably researched and carefully organised book provides a valuable approach to a much-covered subject from a novel angle. The title and the photographs of the many prominent cultural figures, part of whose lives overlapped with Newman’s prodigious 70 years as a writer and theologian, might lead the unsuspecting to think that Newman had rich relationships or at least extensive correspondence with them all. These include Thackeray, Tennyson, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, Chesterton, Disraeli, Gladstone, Rosebery, and Orestes Brownson.
But that is not what the title portends. The author skilfully moves from the category of noteworthy intellectual intimates, the Tractarian hothouse of John Keble, Edward Pusey, the family of Hurrell Froude (who died in his 30s); to Newman’s notions of public life and his passing views, through his vast correspondence, of Wellington, Peel, Melbourne, Palmerston, Disraeli, and Gladstone; almost 60 years of prime ministers. These references tend to be sketchy and just comments on passing controversies, though in the case of Gladstone, a very learned and opinionated man in religious matters (whom Newman considered “earnest but unamiable”), there is a whole chapter. Again, the contact between the two, in person, was very rare and limited, but there is extensive material for analysis of their theological views, a matter of particular interest because of the close relations between Gladstone and Newman’s great colleague and rival, Henry Cardinal Manning.
Before the great schism that Newman’s conversion to Rome exacerbated, the Tractarians were shoulder to shoulder through the late 1820s and 1830s with the High Tories against Catholic Emancipation and electoral reform.
It is interesting to read of even the Duke of Wellington, not someone I ever thought was much exercised about theological fineries, though his concerns about Irish popery are notorious, accusing the “shopkeepers” whom he considered the beneficiaries of the First Reform Act, of being “Socinians and athe ists”. Melbourne acknowledged reading 57 pages of a publication of Newman’s, and “cannot say I understand a sentence”.
The Tractarians were at this point one of the greatest pillars of the Established Church and were in complete solidarity with the Tory and even Whig grandees in opposing a broadening of the franchise. The fear was widespread among the great landowners and conservative intellectuals that the country would be taken over by demagogues pandering to a volatile industrial proletariat and that the Church of England would be undermined and overwhelmed by a gaggle of low-church rabble-rousers, a fig-leaf for militant atheism.
Rome was scarcely on the horizon, other than to the extent that it could foment problems in Ireland. Melbourne soon resignedly declared that “what all the wise men said would happen has not occurred, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass”.
Newman was very active in opposing Sir Robert Peel’s election in Oxford in 1829 because of Peel’s support of Catholic Emancipation. Newman and his Tractarian friends saw Catholic Emancipation as a conspiracy of “Romanists, Sectarians, Liberals, and Infidels”. Even when he had become the intellectual leader of England’s Roman Catholics, Newman was proud of having so fervently opposed Catholic Emancipation.
But the real bone of contention in these sections is the temptation Newman posed to the entire Anglican establishment and community to join him on the road to Rome after Monophysitism, Erastianism as it arose in the Goreham Incident, Tractarian reflections on the Henrician apostasy, the limitations of a national church, and the (to use one of Newman’s countless amusing phrases) “shovel-hatted humbug” response of the Anglican episcopate to Tract 90, caused his defection to Rome.
The Tractarians split: though Keble and Pusey stuck grimly to their course on the Via Media, the surviving Froudes and the Wilberforces and Arnolds fragmented, (Dr Arnold’s rugged fulminations against popery notwithstanding). The Tractarians had been one of the greatest pillars of the Established Church.
It is difficult to reconstruct the hysteria that was created by Newman’s conversion. And while the dogmatic arguments and political and sociological aspects have been the subject of a vast literature, the gradations of different responses from the range of people highlighted in this book, from Gladstone to Thackeray to Arthur Hugh Clough, is arrayed almost precisely, a psychological X-ray of the layers of what Newman called “the talent of the day”.
The reconstruction of the English Roman Catholic Church along diocesan lines at midcentury was called “the papal aggression” and even a comparatively composed observer, Charlotte Brontë, described an encounter with the rather bonhomous (compared to his ecclesiastical successors Manning and Newman), Wiseman “swimming into the room, smiling, simpering, and bowing like a fat old lady ... [yet] the picture of a sleek hypocrite. [He] spoke in a smooth, whining manner, just like a canting Methodist preacher. A spirit of the hottest zeal pervaded the whole meeting ... the necessity of straining every nerve to make converts to popery.” When the Iron Duke is roaring about Socinians and a Brontë is raving like this, the glories of the Victorian era were not as august and tranquil as is generally thought.
Newman wasn’t overly impressed with Disraeli as a novelist and thought him a trimmer and an opportunist politically. He didn’t approve either Palmerston’s or Disraeli’s efforts at containment of Russia, especially in company with the Turk, and thought the Crimean War to combine the wrong time, place, and adversary, a prefiguring of Vietnam. He did give Disraeli great credit for the Congress of Berlin, but their shared gift for piercing wit and polemic, and disdain for sanctimony, didn’t generate much rapport between them.
There are separate chapters on Newman’s correspondence with women, which show an ease and sensibility, though with kindred religious spirits; and also on Newman’s relations with Americans. Newman liked the optimism and absence of hidebound bias of Americans, and correctly foresaw and then happily observed the relatively effortless rise of Roman Catholicism in that country.
The author rightly laments that Newman never visited America. There is an implausible reference to Lincoln suppressing circulation of a militantly Catholic paper in 1861, and in one cited letter Newman very unjustly assimilates President Grant, commander of the Union armies, to the financial scoundrel Jubilee Jim Fiske. It is unlikely that Newman had much interest in or grasp of US secular affairs.
While the detailed analysis of the ecclesiastical views of some secondary personalities can be challenging, this is a very rigorous and readable account of the personal impact of one of modern England’s greatest intellectuals on a fascinating range of his contemporaries and is a valuable addition to the Newman literature.