“The Fleshly Tables of the Heart”: Newman in His Letters

A new book brilliantly distills Newman’s letters, giving readers a rich view of the great convert’s charm, integrity, and genius.

In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare has his great heroine tell her attendant Iras how she foresees posterity treating her and her entourage after death,

Nay, ‘tis most certain, Iras: saucy lictors 
Will catch at us, like strumpets; and scald rhymers 
Ballad us out o’ tune: the quick comedians 
Extemporally will stage us, and present 
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony 
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see 
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness 
I’ the posture of a whore.

If saucy posterity has, on the whole, been just to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, it is largely because his correspondence documents the events of his life sufficiently to forestall gross misrepresentation. And since these letters document not only the events themselves but Newman’s own deeply meditated responses to events, those who would distort his life and legacy have always had a difficult time of it. In this regard, Newman agreed with Lord Acton, who told Gladstone’s daughter Mary in a letter of 1880 that “history does not stand or fall with historians. From the 13th century we rely much more on letters than on histories written for the public.”

In a piece on John Chrysostom, written when he was an Anglican and later collected in his Historical Sketches (1872), Newman particularly praised the correspondence of the Fathers for uncovering the often elusive inner history of sanctity, to which we might otherwise have little access. The decision of the Fathers to write letters to advance their catechetical purposes was illustrative because, as Newman appreciated, “Their authoritative declarations are written, not on stone tablets, but on what Scripture calls ‘the fleshly tables of the heart.’” And the epistolary character of these records, in turn, enabled readers to follow not only the outward lives of the saints but “the aims, the difficulties, the disappointments, under which they journeyed on heavenward,” as well as “their care of the brethren” and “their anxieties about contemporary teachers of error.”

Here is Newman’s idea of Christian correspondence, and it is an idea that suffuses his own correspondence, which currently extends to 32 volumes, though Oxford University Press has yet to supply a comprehensive index. In John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters, Father Roderick Strange brilliantly distills Newman’s approximately 20,000 extant letters into a rich, revelatory selection, which covers every period of the great convert’s long life and gives readers a judicious view of the man’s pastoral counselling, controversies, and hard-won accomplishments, even though the latter, in a life riddled with failure, can often be seen only sub specie aeternitatis.

One reason why Father Strange has succeeded in his selection is that he has not sought to produce a “life in letters,” knowing that such an epistolary life could never capture the full complexity of his subject. Letters, after all, by their very nature—as Father Strange recognizes—do not lend themselves to a “smooth, rounded, complete narrative.” Moreover, if made to do the necessarily multi-faceted work of such a narrative, a selection of letters would inevitably risk being tendentious. Instead, Father Strange has sensibly chosen to make his selection a portrait of Newman, which may not make any claim to definitiveness, but nonetheless gives the reader a marvelously evocative, critical sense of the charm, integrity, caritas, and genius of his fascinating subject. 

Another laudatory aspect of the book is its introduction, especially its acknowledgement of how vital the dogmatic principle was to Newman. Apropos this essential aspect of the man, Father Strange writes with commendable lucidity. 

One consequence of the startlingly original intellect with which Newman was blessed was not only the clarity of his thought, but his firm sense of principle. When he had recognized in an issue a matter of principle, his adherence to that principle was unswerving. One such principle was dogma. “From the age of fifteen,” he declared in his Apologia, “dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion.” And the outstanding example of such a principled dogmatic conviction was his belief in the visible Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It shaped his life. He sought for its realization while he was an Anglican, and once he had become a Catholic, he worked for its purification.

We should certainly keep Newman’s “unswerving” adherence to doctrinal integrity in mind when we read his letters to Renn Dickson Hampden, the Oriel fellow, with whose heterodox Bampton Lectures (1832) falsifying the Trinity and the Incarnation Newman took such spirited exception. “I dare not trust myself to put on paper my feelings about the principles contained in it,” Newman wrote of the pamphlet Hampden wrote as a follow-up to his lectures, “tending as they do in my opinion altogether to make shipwreck of Christian faith.” Hampden, a shy, reticent, retiring man, never altogether recovered from Newman’s principled attack, though he did what he could to defend himself. “I charge you with malignity,” the indignant don wrote in response to Newman’s accusations, “because you have no other ground of your assault on me but a fanatical persecuting spirit,” to which Newman replied, in the third-person, with comic formality: “He altogether disallows Dr. Hampden’s imputation that he has been guilty of dissimulation, and falsehood, and dark malignity.”

What is most significant about the Hampden controversy is how it reveals the unsparing polemicist in Newman. When it came to principles of doctrine, he never compromised. As he wrote one of his friends with regard to Hampden, “There is no doctrine, however sacred, which he does not scoff at—and in his Moral Philosophy he adopts the lowest and most groveling utilitarianism as the basis of Morals—he considers it is a sacred duty to live to this world—and that religion by itself injuriously absorbs the mind.” For Newman, the other fellows of Oriel might not be irreproachable, but they each had virtues to counterbalance their flaws. Hampden, on the other hand, as far as Newman could see, “judging by his writings, [was] the most lucre loving, earthly minded, unlovely person one ever set eyes on.” With an opponent as fierce as this, Hampden could be forgiven for deciding to spend most of his later career in his garden, far away from the brickbats of debate, only emerging briefly to oppose the heretical Essays and Reviews in 1860, by which time Newman had long since removed himself from the jousts of Anglicans. 

In his later controversies with William Gladstone (who charged that Catholics could not be loyal to their Church without being disloyal to their Queen and country) and with the Congregationalist Scot, Andrew Martin Fairbairn (who charged that, in accepting the infallible authority of the Church, Newman was somehow guilty of skepticism), Newman eschewed the sort of ad hominem distaste to which he had given vent in his responses to Hampden. Indeed, in the case of Gladstone, after parrying the Prime Minister’s distortions of the First Vatican Council with his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), he admitted: “I do not think I ever can be sorry for what I have done, but I never can cease to be sorry for the necessity of doing it.” Nonetheless, for all of the suave forbearance he showed his opponents, Newman was always careful to defend the inviolability of dogmatic truth, especially in an ethos where, for Protestants, as one controversialist put it, “perjury is a dogmatic principle of popery.” 

Of course, the most famous proponent of this widely accepted view was Charles Kingsley, whose contention that neither Newman nor his Catholic co-religionists felt bound by the truth inspired Newman to write his great autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua (1865). Father Strange includes the first letter Newman wrote to Kingsley, which offers a fair specimen of the sense of honor that always animated Newman’s controversial conduct. “When I received your letter,” Newman wrote, “taking upon yourself the authorship I was amazed.” Kingsley might not have regarded such authorship as dishonorable, but Newman would always pay his assailant the compliment of finding it astonishing. 

Then, again, after the Kingsley controversy, when Newman’s contemporaries finally came round to seeing the point of having so principled a convert in their midst, it was typical of Newman never to harbor any grudges. In a letter to the unscrupulous biographer, Edmund Purcell, who made such unfair mincemeat of poor Cardinal Manning, Newman wrote:

My own feeling about the past is “Let bygones be bygones.” The change of sentiment about [me] is so satisfactory that to speak about it is to interfere with it, and is to revive occurrences which are at present in simple oblivion. Of course you cannot help stating the circumstances, which led to the Apologia, but I am pained to find the name of Kingsley recalled, who by his passionate attack on me became one of my best friends, whom I always wished to shake hands with when living, and towards whose memory I have much tenderness.

If Father Strange’s selection gives one a good sampling of Newman the controversialist, it also provides fascinating glimpses into the gestation of his writings. In one letter to the Oratorian whom he would make his literary executor, Father William Neville, for instance, Newman wrote from Switzerland:

The fare is fair here—the bread, butter, honey, cream, good. They won’t give us cheese, though it is the pride of the country—the wine and brandy bad. I am very suspicious of the water, as having lime in it. The meat tolerable—dinner, alas, at one; a nice, clean house; about 40 inoffensive inmates, most of them women and children. The Church quite close by, we said Mass there this morning…I have done some certitude—little enough in quantity—but, (unless my whole theory be a maresnest, of which I am not sure) good in quality. I can do it when lying down, or travelling. It is a work of analysis, not of many words.

Here, in 1866, Newman was referring to work he had begun on his great essay in epistemology, A Grammar of Assent (1870), the purpose of which was to defend the certainty of religious belief against the naysaying of rationalists. The idea for the book had first occurred to him while struggling to convince his wayward brother Charles to return to the Christian fold in the 1820s. Yet, it is fitting that he should have finally set to work on what would prove one of his most arduous undertakings on vacation in Champéry in the Swiss Alps. To James Hope-Scott, the Catholic lawyer and generous patron of Catholic causes whose own faith Newman found so exemplary, he described the writing of the book as “like tunneling through a mountain—I have begun it, and it is almost too much for my strength…. Perhaps the tunnel will break in, when I get fairly into my work. When I have done it, if I am to do it…then I shall say, Nunc dimittis.” 

Another virtue of Father Strange’s selection is that, while never masquerading as a biography, it accomplishes many of the ends of biography by showing how Newman’s contemporaries viewed the priest, poet, theologian, educator, philosopher, historian, satirist, and novelist. Although Father Strange does not find space for that wonderful letter of Jemima, in which she says of her beloved brother, “I often think what a wonderful creature you are, and what a singular history yours is,” he does find space for this gem from John Keble, to whom Newman had sent a draft of his Apologia after being estranged from his old Tractarian friend for nearly 20 years:

My very dear Newman, I will not wait any longer before thanking you with all my heart for your loving words to me and far too loving of me— If I wait till I write as I could wish, I should never write at all—for indeed dear friend the more and the more intently I look at this self-drawn photograph (what a cruel strain it must have been to you) the more I love and admire the Artist— Whatever comes of controversial points, I see no end to the good which the whole Church, we may reasonably hope, may derive from such an example of love and candor under most trying circumstances.

You have said things which by the blessing of God will I trust materially help us in our sad weary struggle against Unbelief.

To give his readers an insight into the caritas of Newman, Father Strange includes an exchange of letters between Newman and a brave young girl named Emily Fortey, who, in 1882, at the age of 16, wrote to the cardinal to ask him his advice on how she should set about becoming a Catholic, since, as she said, she was “a Catholic at heart.” She had read Lilly’s anthology of Newman’s work and his Loss and Gain (1848) and they had had a deep influence on her. Newman’s initial response was cautious: “Our Lord tells us to ‘count the cost’—the change of religion is a most serious step—and must not be taken without great preparation by meditation and prayer.” However, once Miss Fortey made the momentous step of being received into the Faith, with her father’s grudging consent, she wrote Newman an ebullient letter, which must have deeply moved him: “And now I am writing to thank you very much for your kindness to me more than two years ago,” she wrote. “Perhaps if you had not written to me I might never have become a Catholic.” 

Newman’s response could have been a response to his own younger, more ardent self, before the lacerations of conversion had opened his eyes to the reality of the Cross. “You must not suppose your present state of peace and joy will always continue,” he told his bright young correspondent.

It is God’s mercy to bring us over difficulties. As time goes on, you may be cast down to find that your warmth of feeling does not last as it once was, and instead of it you may have trials of various kinds. Never mind; be brave; make acts of faith, hope, and charity; put yourself into God’s hands, and thank Him for all that he sends you, pleasant or painful. The Psalms and Saint Paul’s Epistles will be your great and abiding consolation.

“Rejoice with trembling.” I say all this, not as dissuading you from enjoying your present joy and peace, but that you may enjoy them religiously.

I repeat, God bless you, keep you, and direct you. Through His grace you have begun life well. May he give you perseverance.

This testament to the power of personal influence—even if imparted through the penny post—would surely have reminded Newman of the decisive influence that the letters of the Irish priest Charles Russell had had on him while he was making the final step of his own conversion. “He had, perhaps, more to do with my conversion than anyone else,” Newman would later say of Russell, who went on to become the president of Maynooth. After the publication of the Apologia, he thanked Russell for the vital support he had given him during the writing of that harrowing book. 

I write you at length a line to thank you for the true encouragement your letters gave me. It has been a great deal of suffering, as well as toil, to get through what I have been at—now it is over, and I am very thankful. Letters, such as yours, came to me, as the stimulant or refreshing applications which are administered to a man who is at some hard bodily toil, and were as acceptable as they were serviceable. It was a great pleasure to find that your name came so naturally into my narrative. Besides the real benefit which you did me in my anxieties 20 years ago, you then evidenced what you have shown now, and what is part of your character, your great sympathy for others.

Then, again, a year later, Newman wrote to Russell of Cardinal Wiseman’s funeral in London, to which he was pointedly not invited: “…the Newspapers remark that the son of that Lord Campbell, who talked of trampling on his Cardinal’s hat 14 years ago, was present at the Requiem Mass.” Being a Catholic convert in Victorian England may never have been an easy charge but it would always appeal to Newman’s exquisite sense of humor.  

The shelf of good books on Newman is small, but Father Roderick Strange’s John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters is a welcome addition to it. Those familiar with Newman and those unfamiliar with him will find it an altogether splendid read. 


John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters

Edited by Roderick Strange

Oxford University Press.  595 Pages.  $49.50.

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About Edward Short 34 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. Recently, he chose and introduced the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, which includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists and historians, will be published by Gracewing this spring. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.