Writing to his sister Jemima Mozley in 1863, John Henry Newman commented that “a man’s life lies in his letters.” To him, letters offered a more accurate account of a life than a biography. Biographers interpret and assign motives, he noted. We might also add that they write with the benefit of hindsight and impose an order on the vicissitudes of life. Letters are limited in outlook, immediate and personal, and so perhaps are more direct windows on a life. Yet we must not forget that, like biographers, letter writers are also offering their own interpretations of their lives and actions. Of that, more later.
Roderick Strange’s new selection of Newman’s letters should be welcomed by all those interested in the life of the erstwhile “most dangerous man in England.” Newman was a brilliant and prolific correspondent, yet few will have the luxury of the money or the time to invest in the thirty-two volumes of the Oxford edition of the complete letters. This book is an excellent alternative, and one to which all those who enjoy Newman will find themselves returning again and again.
To select letters is, of course, to interpret a life, but Strange’s decisions in this regard are sound. All the major events of Newman’s career are covered: student days, the tutorial dispute, the Oxford Movement, the continental tour with Hurrell Froude, the crisis of Tract XC, the conversion to Rome, the Achilli trial, the internal struggles of the Oratorian order, the literary conflict with Charles Kingsley, Vatican I, and the belated recognition, academic and ecclesiastical, of the later years. Strange’s periodization is helpful. He does not present Newman simply in terms of pre- and post-conversion but subdivides his life in a manner that seeks to do justice to his changing fortunes and reputation both before and after 1845.
A volume like this witnesses to an age now long gone, when letter writing was a standard form of communication and, in the hands of a Newman, could be raised to the level of an art. Yet there is more to this book than that. Newman famously asserted that Christianity is a dogmatic religion, one of objective truth. Dogmas, however, are believed and fought over by real people made of flesh and blood. Thus, while the history of public controversies can appear straightforward, it is always played out against the intricate background of personal relationships. Real life cannot be reduced to dogmatic commitments. Friendships often transcend doctrinal and ecclesiastical divisions, while rivalries can punctuate and disrupt confessional unity. And families color everything. The complicated relationship between his religious beliefs and his real, flesh-and-blood existence lies at the heart of the drama of Newman’s letters.
The reader of these letters is constantly reminded that the great events of Newman’s lifetime were often negotiated in relation to mundane obligations of family, friendships, and pastoral duties. Throughout his life, Newman’s personalism was demonstrated in practice. The man who fought so hard for a system of individual tutoring at Oxford was obviously a man who saw clearly the importance of personal interaction. That is one major reason why he was committed to such an extensive group of correspondents. These letters show that, in this regard, he was no particular respecter of persons. Indeed, the correspondents range from an eight-year-old boy to the pope himself. Particularly gratifying is the letter of 1864 to Msgr. George Talbot, who had invited Newman to an eminent gathering of Protestants at Talbot’s church in Rome during Lent. He tersely declines on the grounds that “Birmingham people have souls.”
In any understanding of Newman’s life, the years 1833 to 1845 are going to be crucial. The letters covering this time are fascinating in cataloguing how the hopeful zeal of the years after 1833 gives way to despair after Tract XC, which argued for the possibility of an Anglican endorsement of the Council of Trent. The letters of 1833 to Charles Golightly and Froude indicate Newman’s boundless confidence that the Tractarian movement will attract money and influential friends. By 1841, a new tone comes to dominate. Newman realizes that the establishment of the Jerusalem bishopric, with its planned rotation of appointees from Anglican, Lutheran, and Calvinist traditions, demonstrates the real political weakness of the Oxford Movement and the hopeless nature of the cause. Newman should have learned his lesson—that theological arguments are one thing, but ecclesiastical influence is tied to more earthly means.
As for Tract XC itself, it is clear from the letters that Newman’s last, desperate statement as an Anglican was designed to persuade not so much the watching world but rather himself of the catholicity of the Church of England. The letters of the early 1840s indicate a man at war with himself. Yet, traumatic as was the inner struggle, the correspondence with John Keble and Edward Pusey was even more bitter. Marvin O’Connell’s fine narrative history of Tractarianism, The Oxford Conspirators, presents the movement as the work of men bound together by ties of friendship as much as ecclesiastical vision. This adds much personal poignancy to the events of the 1840s as friendships are first strained and then broken, and these letters are invaluable in helping us understand the pain of these years.
As Newman indicated to Catherine Froude in 1843, he was sadly aware that those closest to him could see that he was heading Romeward. The mind pulls one way but ties of friendship pull in another. Thus, as his friends start to suspect he is about to convert, he writes to Keble in 1844, “I sometimes have uncomfortable feelings as if I should not like to die in the English Church,” and then adds, “I have written all this, as it occurred to me only that you might see the state of my mind—not in the way of argument.” One suspects the die is cast at this point. Newman writes to prepare his friend Keble for the inevitable, not to seek to be dissuaded.
Pusey found the direction of his friend’s life particularly distressing. In August 1844, Newman writes to him in similar terms as with Keble, though with more obviously conflicted emotions:
I have great anxiety about answering you. . . . Surely great part of our pain is from suspense, anxiety, suspicion, anticipation—surely if I could but make you feel the worst, it must be a relief to you. . . . What am I to say but that I am one who, even five years ago, had a strong conviction, from reading the history of the early ages, that we are not part of the Church?
Newman’s move is coming, and he knows that Pusey will see it as a betrayal of the cause and, perhaps worse, of their friendship.
When the crisis came, Newman’s conversion led to a sharp break in the three men’s relationship that lasted for years and was only really healed in 1865. It was then that they reunited briefly at Keble’s house. Newman wrote about the meeting to Ambrose St. John, his close colleague among the Oratorians, and the letter is a moving testimony to the nature of time, friendship, and the pain of loss. As he travels there, he hopes Pusey will ride in the same railway carriage. He does not. Then, when Newman arrives, Keble meets him at the door to allow time for both Newman and Pusey (already indoors) to prepare themselves for what will be an emotional meeting. When Newman finally enters, he comments that as “we three sat together at one table, I had as painful thoughts as I ever recollect.” Fractured friendship, lost time, broken prospects. By Newman’s own account, the reunion melts away the years, but it also reminds him of his own mortality and the tragic quality of life which promises so much and yet delivers so little.
If Newman’s relationship with Keble and Pusey demonstrates the pain of friendship that crosses confessional lines, his relationship with Henry Edward Manning is an example of how ecclesiastical agreement can yet fuel personal rivalry. The letters to Manning start in the pre-conversion period and extend throughout Newman’s career, moving from cordial expressions of friendship to the later studied, polite terseness that concealed as much as it revealed. There is much here to support Lytton Strachey’s iconoclastic portrait of Manning. Strachey’s motives may have been mischievous, but it is clear that Manning was ruthless, ambitious, well-connected, and extremely clever in terms of church politics. Newman’s attitude to him moves from that of kindly acquaintance to confusion to deep suspicion. But Newman is also necessarily duplicitous in his expressions of deference to Manning, as archbishop and cardinal, even while he shares with others his deep distrust of the man. Newman was human, capable of dissembling with the best of them.
Finally, there are the family relationships. The Newman family was complicated. Brothers Charles and Frank took very different paths from their famous brother, with Charles becoming an Owenite, and Frank an advocate of progressive causes, among them euthanasia. Sisters Harriet and Jemima took their brother’s conversion hard. Indeed, it effectively finished Newman’s relationship with Harriet, yet he remained in constant and friendly correspondence with Jemima. Nevertheless, he wrote her a nasty, self-pitying letter in 1865, angrily whining about how he had been neglected by the family. Newman was one of us, someone quite capable of petulance, ingratitude, and grievance.
Other human aspects of Newman emerge in the letters. As late as 1882 he is correcting the claim that his father’s bank failed. Yet his father’s bank did fail in 1816; his statement that it managed to meet all its obligations and merely stopped would appear to be a distinction without a difference. It also points to the lasting shame Newman felt over his father’s financial misfortunes and later bankruptcy. And then there is his beloved younger sister Mary who died aged nineteen in 1828 (described in moving detail in a letter of January that year from Newman to Robert Isaac Wilberforce). Her death haunts him for the rest of his life. In 1882, he comments that he “cannot mention her name without tears coming into my eyes,” and in 1886, he notes how he is always imagining what her life would have been, had she lived.
And this is perhaps what makes this volume so deeply moving. Newman scholars debate the extent to which his letters are to be taken at face value and to what extent they serve the ulterior or manipulative purposes of self-representation. That is a most legitimate scholarly discussion, but one to which this book offers no answer. Nevertheless, regardless of one’s own position in that debate, it is clear that the letters do point to certain incontestable truths of life. Time and time again in these pages, we encounter a man forced to come to terms with reality. Whatever games of political self-representation Newman may or may not have been playing, the loss of family and of friendships, through betrayal, neglect, or death, was real, painful, and poignant.
Yes, a man’s life is indeed in his letters. And that is because letters inevitably witness to the truth that life consists in personal relationships. And it is also true that such relationships, no matter what temporary gains they may involve, must ultimately make life a story of cumulative, painful losses—the loss of dear friends and of family. All flesh is as grass. One can read Newman’s letters for historical and theological insight. But in an era such as ours, where the language of family is equivocal and the language of friendship cheap, one can also read these letters to understand the value of personal relationships and to see exemplified the hard truth that it is precisely because such relationships are worthwhile that they ultimately and inevitably cost so much in the way of personal pain. Though it is clear from Newman’s letters that he rightly considered such pain a price worth paying.
A Review by Carl Truman in FIRST THINGS