Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“A Fine Awareness” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Touchstone.
A Fine Awareness
Newman and His Contemporaries
reviewed by Christopher White
In the preface to The Princess Casamassima Henry James notes that “the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations. . . . Their being finely aware—as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware—makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum of sense to what befalls them.” In Newman and His Contemporaries Edward Short uses these words to describe the interior life of John Henry Newman. Newman, like James, was his own best critic and had a profound sense of self. Here Short offers an engaging account of how his inner life gave manifestation to his role in the public life of the nineteenth century.
The purpose of the book is not to provide a comprehensive account of Newman’s life and work. For this, one might consult Ian Ker’s John Henry Newman: A Biography. Instead, Short provides the reader an interconnected compendium of the many historical figures of the age that had a significant influence on Newman’s life, and he on theirs.
Six Crucial Years
Born in London in 1801 and ordained an Anglican priest in 1825, Newman is now remembered as one of the last several centuries’ most prominent converts to Catholicism. The six years between 1839 and 1845, during which he wrestled with the claims of Catholicism, have been the subject of much debate and attention, and it is in these six years that many of the relationships he had with his contemporaries were forged and tested.
Among these relationships, the first to be introduced is that with John Keble, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, upon whom Newman relied for counsel during the years of his conversion. Keble, while sympathetic to many of Newman’s ideas—most notably that the Thirty-Nine Articles could be given a Catholic reading—ultimately remained Anglican. Newman spent much effort after 1845 trying to convince Keble to enter the Catholic fold, and the strain led to a breach in their friendship that was only mended shortly before Keble’s death. Despite the estrangement, the influence of Keble on Newman was immense. Short masterfully captures the image of the two elderly gentlemen reconciling at the end of their lives, providing a lesson not only in forgiveness, but also in ecumenical fraternity.
Edward Pusey, an Oxford Hebrew scholar, was generally considered the primary spokesman for the Anglo-Catholics of the era. After Newman converted, the relationship between the two men became uneasy. In a stinging letter to The English Churchman, Pusey reduced Newman’s conversion to mere “over-sensitiveness.” In his 1850 Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church, Newman, in response, argued that Anglo-Catholics had no room to flourish in the Anglican Church and that their logical home was to be found in Roman Catholicism.
While Short shows how the failure of Keble and Pusey to convert disappointed Newman, he also presents the more encouraging figures of Catherine and William Froude. In 1838, Mrs. Froude, an Anglican woman in high society, began corresponding with Newman on matters of religion. In 1857, she and three of her children were received into the Catholic Church. Catherine Froude died in 1878; her husband, with whom Newman continued to correspond after her death, passed away the next year. The loyalty of their friendship proved a treasure for Newman as he faced a nation that was largely hostile to Catholics. Some of Newman’s richest observations on vocation and the relation between faith and reason are found in his letters to the Froudes.
The Letters’ Witness
Short gives an account of Newman’s acquaintanceships with William Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, and Richard Hutton, among others. He also includes a speculative chapter on what a relationship with William Thackeray might have been like. Short lays particular emphasis on correspondence, for Newman’s private letters give witness to many friendships. But perhaps what the letters most strikingly reveal is not the tremendous debt owed to Newman by his contemporaries, but the devotion of the life that sustained those relationships as a conscious part of its vocation. •
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