Just a decade before writing his first novel, Newman had cautioned his Oxford parish against the “dangers” of reading or writing novels. The Anglican Newman preached that by reading novels, even religious ones, “we do mischief to the moral system within us, just as we might spoil a watch, or other piece of mechanism, by playing with the wheels of it. We weaken its springs, and they cease to act truly.” Suspicions about the corrupting influence of novel-reading are almost as old as the novel itself. Newman’s own position was that the reading of novels could lead to a dissipation of moral feeling at the expense of moral action. Despite this concern, Newman enjoyed reading novels—he praised Walter Scott, complained about Jane Austen—and eventually overcame his moral scruples to write two novels of his own.
Over time, Newman became less ambivalent about literary art. Several years after the publication of Loss and Gain, he would offer a qualified endorsement of literature in The Idea of a University (1852). There he argued that literature could have an edifying function by shining a light on man’s sinfulness. “Man is a being of genius, passion, intellect, conscience, power,” Newman writes. “He exercises these various gifts in various ways, in great deeds, in heroic acts, in hateful crimes…. Literature records them all to the life.” He continued:
If then the power of speech is a gift as great as any that can be named,—if the origin of language is by many philosophers even considered to be nothing short of divine,—if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,—if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,—if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and prophets of the human family—it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study.
Newman’s defense of literature, then, was both humanistic and instrumental. And his own novels both had nonliterary purposes. He wrote Loss and Gain in response to a “tale, directed against the Oxford converts to the Catholic Faith.” That tale was Elizabeth Harris’s From Oxford to Rome (1847), which had been written to warn Anglicans against conversion to the Catholic Church and which explicitly mentioned Newman. From Oxford to Rome was one of a number of anti-Catholic novels published in the mid-1840s. Another was written by Newman’s fellow Tractarian, William Sewall. Hawkstone (1845) is told from the perspective of a paternalistic English lord who makes it his mission to reassert the authority of the Anglican Church in his village. Anxieties about manhood, family life, and nation abound, as do conventional anti-Catholic tropes such as troublesome Irish immigrants and menacing Jesuits, with disparaging references to the Oxford Movement. Another example is Frances Trollope’s Father Eustace (1847), in which a Protestant heroine overcomes an oppressive gothic Catholicism. Not only does Trollope’s novel include a character modeled on Newman, but some have argued that the novel itself was the product of the author’s interest in the Oxford Movement.
Loss and Gain was meant to be controversial, and it was. Critics either loved it or hated it. The Rambler offered one of the more favorable reviews, saying it was “one of the most entertaining, touching, instructive, and profound books we ever met with” and commending its use of satire. Mary Augusta Ward regarded the Oxford campus novel as an important record of life, “to which the future student of the nineteenth century will have to look for what is deepest, most intimate, and most real in its personal experience.” The American Transcendentalist-turned-Catholic Orestes Brownson expressed a similar view, writing that Newman’s novel “should be studied by all who would contribute something to our growing English Catholic literature, for it commends itself alike to good taste, sound judgment, and Catholic sentiment.”
Among the book’s detractors was Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country: “A tale of this kind—a book of jokes and gossip, of eating and drinking, of smartnesses, levities, and most probably personalities—appears a somewhat undignified vehicle for the opinions of one who has long been revered as a prophet and a saint.” The following month, the English Review issued a thirty-page diatribe against what it called a “most dangerous, but in many respects, even a most wicked book,” listing all the passages it found offensive and describing Newman in the most unflattering terms it could muster: “We have his cold sneers, his politely hinted calumnies, his general coldness and deadness of heart, as evinced in the ‘Essay on Development,’ his rationalistic hints and queries, and finally, his exaggerated demonstrations of fervor with respect to the beauties of Romish worship and Romish service.”
Despite such hostile reviews, Newman’s first novel was a bestseller. His notoriety, coupled with the popularity of religious novels in the mid-nineteenth century, ensured that Loss and Gain would find a wide audience. It would end up going through nine editions in England, thirteen printings by 1881, as well as two American editions. It was soon translated into French, Italian, German, and Dutch. Eight years later, Newman would have another success with his second novel, Callista.
Like Loss and Gain, Callista is a story of conversion. Newman began writing it immediately after he finished Loss and Gain, but put it aside for a period of about eight years. It is somewhat derivative of the early Christian historical romance and, although it, too, contains some autobiographical elements, Callista was, according to Newman, “an attempt to imagine and express, from a Catholic point of view, the feelings and mutual relations of Christians and heathens at the period to which it belongs.”
Callista is the story of a young Greek sculptor and her conversion to Christianity. Set in the third century A.D., several years after settling in the Roman province of Africa, Callista rejects the marriage proposal of Agellius, a young Christian modeled after Newman, who she feels does not live up to the ideals of his faith. When Christians are blamed for a plague of locusts, Callista is mistakenly imprisoned and persecuted. Meanwhile, Agellius meets Caecilius, the future St. Cyprian. After having his own faith revived, Agellius take Caecilius to see the imprisoned Callista. Having met the saint, she undergoes a conversion.
Newman wanted the book to teach his fellow Catholics how to live—and die—as a Christian in a hostile and violent world. In Callista, Christianity is a marginal faith that struggles to persist within the dominant pagan culture. Callista could have saved herself by making an offering to Jove or swearing to the emperor, but she resists despite the penalty that awaits her. It is St. Cyprian who helps Callista, suffering from the anticipation of death, to understand on an emotional level what faith means.
“There is but one Lover of souls,” cried Caecilius, “and He loves each one of us, as though there were no one else to love. He died for each one of us, as if there were no one else to die for. He died on the shameful cross. ‘Amor meus crucifixus est.’ The love which he inspires lasts, for it is the love of the Unchangeable. It satisfies, for He is inexhaustible. The nearer we draw to Him, the more triumphantly does He enter into us; the longer He dwells in us, the more intimately have we possession of Him. It is an espousal for eternity. This is why it is so easy for us to die for our faith, at which the world marvels.”
The process of Callista’s conversion is like that of Newman’s own, a journey of starts and stops.
She was neither a Christian, nor was she not. She was in the midway region of inquiry, which as surely takes time to pass over, except there be some almost miraculous interference, as it takes time to walk from place to place. You see a person coming towards you, and you say, impatiently, “Why don’t you come faster?—why are you not here already?” Why?—because it takes time. To see that heathenism is false,—to see that Christianity is true,—are two acts, and involve two processes. They may indeed be united, and the truth may supplant the error; but they may not. Callista obeyed, as far as truth was brought home to her.
At the end of her journey, Callista is transfigured by the truth, which gives her the strength to sacrifice her life.
In their sympathetic portraits of two marginalized figures, both of Newman’s novels do something that his philosophical and theological tracts could not. They have the power to move readers, regardless of their faith, to feel sympathy for the convert, even to identify with him or her. Newman hoped this sympathy would remove emotional obstacles to the reader’s own potential conversion. Perhaps we might think of his novels as, among other things, intercessory prayers for the conversion of others like Newman himself.