For the biographer, friends and family of the chosen biographical subject present perennial problems. The subject was almost certainly a public figure; the major elements of the biography will thus address public actions; but it would have been that private world of friends and family which occupied the vast majority of the subjects life and shaped attitudes and public actions in a profound yet often elusive manner. To make matters more complicated, friendships and family ties rarely function with predictable tidiness; rather, they inject an irrationality into life which flows from the haphazard nature of emotional commitments.
In light of this, the biographer of John Henry Newman enjoys some remarkable advantages. Most notable is the historical evidence available for reconstructing his friendships and family relationships, for exploring that private space which exerted so much occult influence on his public life. For Newman was a prolific letter writer: His extant letters, along with his diaries, fill thirty-two volumes in the Oxford critical edition. Indeed, his passion for writing letters seems to have had an almost compulsive quality to it. And what a correspondent he was. The Victorian era produced some great letter writers but greatest of them all was the man once dubbed the most dangerous man in England. His letters are literary, models of English prose, and of a kind which this age, sinking under the easy virtue of emails and the banality of tweets, will not see again.
It is this vast correspondence, and Edward Shorts thorough knowledge of the same, which lies at the heart of Newman and His Family. This is the second volume in a trilogy which Short began with Newman and His Contemporaries and will end with Newman and His Critics. While the definitive biography is likely to remain that by Ian Ker, and the most readable that by Sheridan Gilley, Short’s books bring something distinctive to Newman studies through their delineation of his personal relationships with friends, family, and foes. In this volume in particular we see into the intimate struggles of a man navigating the complex geography of familial ties and relationships. The Newman that emerges is at once more human, more fallible, and indeed perhaps more attractively accessible than that of previous biographies. That Short quotes extensively from the correspondence, often tying this to quotations from the sermons and other works, is also a treat: He exposes the reader to the range and beauty of Newmans writing at its most intimate; and he weaves together the private and the public in a way that makes clear how the two were intimately connected.
There is always a danger with biographical studies which are too firmly rooted in the world of family: The particularity of the subject of study can lead to a failure to connect this private sphere to the wider world. The world of parents and siblings can be portrayed as interesting but ultimately irrelevant to the grand narratives of the time. This is where Newman and his family are such a gift to a writer like Short, for as a group they were a portrait in miniature of the great challenges and changes of the Victorian era. Indeed, other than the absence of a Theosophist, one could hardly wish for a selection of individuals which more perfectly reflected the collective pathologies of the age: They were middle-class English stock at a time when the middle-class English rose to dominate not simply England but, through industry and empire, much of the world as well: They prized education at a time when education was a means to social advancement; and individually they represented types of the nineteenth century and, in one or two cases, of the next century too.
Take his parents, for example. His father was a banker who was financially ruined in the economic turmoil which engulfed Europe after Waterloo. From him Newman gained his self-reliance, his love of music and his sharp intelligence. His mother was of Huguenot stock, a woman of simple Victorian tastes with a deep dislike of pomp and circumstance. This lack of ostentation and simplicity of spirit were things evident in Newman himself.
Most fascinating are his shifting relationships with his siblings. His one sister, Mary, died at age seventeen and her death left a profound mark on her brothers life to which I will return in my next post. Harriett and Jemima would remain loyal to the Anglican Church and their brothers move to Rome would do serious damage to their relationship with him. Charles and Francis both repudiated orthodox Christianity in all its forms, the former for Owenite socialism, a peculiarly nineteenth century form of political lunacy, and the latter for an eccentric type of Unitarianism, via a dalliance with the Plymouth Brethren.
At the centre of the narrative, of course, is John himself, the most famous English actor in that mid-nineteenth century European drama of the breakdown of church establishments all over the continent, from the Dutch Afscheiding to the Scottish Disruption. In post-Napoleonic Europe, the emergence of the modern nation state raised acute questions for national confessional churches. In England, these questions were exacerbated by Irish immigration, Catholic Emancipation, and the Reform Acts. In Newmans case one can add to this his personal struggles with connecting history to dogma and the implications of this for authority and catholicity. The result for him was the path to Rome.
Those familiar with the role of Newman in modern Roman Catholicism will be aware of the struggle to claim his legacy. There are (for want of better terminology) conservatives who stress his traditionalism and liberals who place great significance on his views of conscience. Shorts sympathies clearly lie with the former group, though he is careful to avoid anachronism. Nevertheless, it seems to me as a Protestant outsider that, when one sets Newman in the context of his brothers, the conservative interpretation is surely strengthened: John, Charles, and Frank were all responding to the same challenges to authority; in juxtaposing them, it is clear that it was the paths of the other two brothers which represented that of private conscience and there seems no reasonable way to interpret Newmans move to Rome as anything other than a decisive rejection of such a move in all of its forms, even the moderately Christian.
In the background, alluded to by Short but perhaps not stressed as it might have been, was the profoundly anti-Roman nature of nineteenth century English Victorian culture. Perhaps my one criticism would be that Short underplays the reasons for this. The Rome which Newman joined was not the intellectual womb of the likes of a Tadeusz Mazowiecki or of the moral and political discourse of a journal like First Things. Newman’s old allegiance had been to a state church; from 1845 it was, at least in the minds of his critics, to a church state. Rome had historically been given to political ambitions and this raised obvious questions about the national loyalties and patriotism of her adherents. In the popular Victorian mind, she was still the malignant power behind the martyrdoms in John Foxes Acts and Monuments, a book reprinted at this very time as part of the publications war precipitated by the Oxford Movement and then a resurgent Catholicism. When Short says Newmans siblings regarded Rome as foreign, it needs to be stressed that that was not for them simply a geographical, emotional, ethnic, or cultural category but above all a political and moral one.
Yet, against this larger narrative, Short portrays in poignant detail the human cost of these Victorian religious struggles to individuals. For Newman, the personal pain is evident in the content of numerous letters. Sometimes this is explicit, in the exchange of harsh words; at other times it is implicit, evident not so much in what is said as in what is left unsaid—-for example, in the loss of those earlier notes of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy with his beloved sister Jemima. That none of his siblings chose the same path was clearly a burden to Newman, as his conversion was to them. Newman saw Rome as gain, but there was also loss: Loss of filial affection, loss of meaningful conversations, loss of physical contact with nieces and nephews, all of which took their toll on him over the years.
Shorts book is excellent, at once both scholarly and moving. It gives deep and original insights into a man and a family whose tragedies and tensions were emblematic of their age. This is a volume which does not simply enrich our understanding of Newman; it also brings a human note to the larger religious and political dramas of Victorian England and thus to the background of this, our present age. One can hardly wait for the third volume to see what Short will make of the critics, especially the unfortunate Charles Kingsley, doomed to be forever remembered as the immediate cause of Newman’s finest literary hour.