John Henry Newman: A portrait in letters
Roderick Strange, editor
Church Times Bookshop £27
YOU might be forgiven for shying away from yet another book of John Henry Newman’s letters. This edition, however, is rather different from the others.
As Roderick Strange acknowledges, Charles Dessain, to whom the work is dedicated — and here I must declare an interest, for he was my supervisor’s supervisor — felt that only the publication of Newman’s entire correspondence could possibly do him proper justice; and so Dessain himself began the monolithic undertaking that became the Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, which was carried on by others after his untimely death in 1976.
The problem with such a tack is that, although it has produced a resource of inestimable value for historians of the 19th-century Church and theologians of the 20th and 21st, the corpus as a whole is rather daunting. People tend to dip in and out (me included), focusing on particular issues and dates; and I have yet to meet anyone who has read the collection from start to finish, even if that slow method would provide a smooth and cumulative sense of the development of Newman’s life and intellect.
Mgr Strange, who is a former Rector of the Pontifical Beda College at Rome, has presented us with a different approach. Taking as his point of departure Newman’s own thoughts that the story of anyone’s life lies in letters, and that he
himself was at his best when he was writing, he charts the key phases of Newman’s journey through careful selections from each period: he describes them as “funny letters, tired letters, sad letters, angry letters, tetchy letters, reflective letters, and many more”. They are, then, an introduction to Newman — the Vicar of St Mary’s; the theologian; the Oratorian; the Prince of the Church; the beatus, even — through his personality.
What a personality that was. Some readers encountering his letters for the first time may be surprised, even shocked, to realise how angry, cold, and cutting Newman could sometimes be; but he could also be — and frequently was — gentle, perceptive, and kind.
Strange shows us, through Newman’s eyes, the ups and downs of a varied life: its disappointments, betrayals, and failures; and its later growing confidence leading up to the final vindication of a Cardinal’s hat, and national-treasure status
to rival that of Henry Edward Manning.
Of particular interest to Church Times readers will be the letters that illuminate Newman’s thoughts on the Eirenicon of his old friend Edward Bouverie Pusey, and his dealings with William Ewart Gladstone in the wake of the First Vatican Council and the ensuing definition of papal infallibility — about which Newman had his own misgivings.
There is much pleasure in this book; and the letters could just as easily be read one or a few at a time as chapter by chapter. It will be a valuable tool for anyone wishing to get to know Newman’s character better in the company of a sensitive guide.
Dr Serenhedd James is an Associate member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House.