What grabbed me about Newman and His Contemporaries was a puff from an Australian writer quoted on the back. This book, it said, ‘is like a Victorian Dance to the Music of Time’. Sounded like my kind of thing, especially since the central figure interlocking the characters is in this case not Widmerpool but that elusive, ethereal and indefinable figure, John Henry Newman.
It is probably hard for a modern reader to grasp how important Newman was to his contemporaries. Since his beatification last summer, Newman will seem a little bit less real to many people, a bit more of a plaster saint. And it will be perhaps more difficult to recognise how important he was to those who did not share his faith, as well as to those who did. Mark Pattison, thought by some to be the model of Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch, wrote to Newman in the year that book was published:
If I have not dared to approach you in any way of recent years, it has been only from the veneration and affection which I felt for you at the time you left us, which are in no way diminished; and however remote my intellectual standpoint may now be from your own, I can truly say that I learnt more from you than from anyone else with whom I have ever been in contact.
Another agnostic, Matthew Arnold, wrote in very similar terms. George Eliot herself, on a visit to Oxford in the year she was writing Middlemarch, was taken out to see the ‘monastery’ at Littlemore where Newman had lived in retreat before becoming a Catholic, and she expressed huge admiration for him more than once in her letters. Lord Rosebery, one day to become the Liberal Prime Minister, and no Catholic, met Newman at Norfolk House (the Duke of Norfolk’s London house) when the great man was 79 and felt the attraction: ‘He is much younger looking than his photographs, less wrinkled, has a deliciously soft voice and manner’.
Everyone mentioned the beguiling voice, which had held Oxford enthralled during the 1830s. When Newman died, and Rosebery was a great political figure, he took the train to Birmingham to see Newman laid out on the High Altar of the Oratory:
This was the end of the young Calvinist, the Oxford don, the austere vicar of St Mary’s. It seemed as if a whole cycle of human thought and life were concentrated in that august repose.
Nor should one forget Newman’s spellbinding posthumous influence on the poets of the Nineties — and Ezra Pound’s amusing poem about the death of Lionel Johnson, who had fallen off a pub stool, ‘But showed no trace of alcohol/At the autopsy, privately performed —Tissue preserved – the pure mind/Arose toward Newman as the whisky warmed’. Does this count as a miracle?
Edward Short’s Dance to the Music of Time cast-list includes Gladstone, R. H. Hutton (editor of The Spectator), various Arnolds and Wilberforces, Lord Palmerston and of course the Cardinals Wiseman and Manning. There is a good chapter on Newman and Arthur Hugh Clough. My chief disappointment was that I do not think he went into enough detail about the Froude family. Hurrell Froude, with his pretty little-boy cherub looks was in a way Newman’s first big love. When Hurrell died, the notebooks he left behind — Froude’s Remains — caused scandal by showing just how High he had been, how close to Rome in his distaste for the poor old C of E. Newman published the Remains deliberately as a bomb in a supermarket, to cause mayhem in the Oxford Common Rooms. Hurrell’s brother James Anthony Froude was a keen New-maniac until he grew up. Then he put all that behind him and became a disciple of Carlyle.
I’d have liked more about J.A.Froude — he increasingly seems to me the most impressive of all the Victorian intellectuals. But this book has a strong Roman Catholic bias, which is especially discernible in the chapter on Pusey. No matter. It is difficult to discard a point of view if you have one.
I am not sure that it entirely lives up to the promise of a Victorian Dance to the Music of Time. I think D. J. Taylor would be better qualified to write that. This book, however, with its rich cast-list and broad sweep, will be a valued addition to the libraries not only of the Newmaniacs but of anyone who takes the 19th century seriously and who wishes to explore its often alien ideas and characters.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 20, 2011