Newman as Novelist

Why the English Saint Turned to Fiction
Blessed John Henry Newman is pictured in an 1865 photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory)

When John Henry Newman is canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, the nineteenth-century cardinal and theologian will become the first new English saint in almost fifty years. He will also become the first novelist to be elevated to sainthood.

Of course, it is far from unusual for a saint to have an interest outside of piety and devotion, but Newman has the distinction of being the only saint with two published novels to his credit. Newman lived a life devoted to Christ and to serving the church, and his example of devotion led to a Catholic revival in England. His philosophical and theological writings have also had a major influence on Catholic life in the post–Vatican II church. So what might it mean to encounter Newman through his novels, one of which is semi-autobiographical?

I thought about this last summer while attending a seminar on Newman sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute. The seminar, which took place at Merton College, Oxford, was led by the renowned Newman scholar Fr. Ian Ker and brought together more than a dozen academics from around the world. We spent many hours discussing the complexities of Newman’s ideas and visiting some of Newman’s old stomping grounds at nearby Oriel College, the University Church of St. Mary’s, and his retreat at Littlemore.

As someone who studies the religion and literature of the nineteenth century, I focus on the forms Newman chose to express his ideas, including essays, sermons, poetry, and historical monographs. But I am particularly interested in his novels. What I’ve discovered is that fiction gave Newman a freedom to communicate his feelings about the experience of conversion that other kinds of writing did not.

Newman is best known in the English literary tradition for The Idea of a University (1852) and the Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864). His books The Grammar of Assent (1870) and The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833) remain important to theologians. Much lesser known today are his two novels: the semi-autobiographical Loss and Gain (1848) and the historical romance Callista (1855). Written after his conversion to Catholicism, Newman’s novels depict characters who share conversion experiences similar to his own, and whose fictional lives illustrate what he thought of as the first principles of Catholicism.

Newman once scoffed at the idea that he, a novel-writing priest, could ever be a saint. “I have nothing of a Saint about me as every one knows,” Newman wrote in a letter to an admirer sometime after he had begun writing his second novel. “Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales.” This quotation is sometimes cited as an example of Newman’s humility, but he was clearly proud of his status as a “literary man.” It is also telling of Newman’s own conflicted feelings about the moral value of literature.

To be clear, Newman is not the first person, canonized or beatified, to have published a work of long narrative fiction. St. Thomas More, for example, wrote the social and political satire Utopia (1516). But that book, while fictional, is not exactly a novel. What distinguishes the modern novel from its many premodern precursors is its realistic representation of social life. Some argue that the Blessed Ramon Llull may have actually written the very first novel sometime around the year 1283. Llull’s story of a fictional pope, Blanquerna, would make the Catalan mystic the first blessed novelist, but Llull has yet to be canonized. And while St. Francis de Sales serves as the patron saint of writers and journalists, all his published work falls within the category of the Catholic devotional.

Newman, however, was most certainly a novelist, albeit a minor one. He is best remembered, of course, as a major theologian and leader of the Oxford Movement, but his first published work after becoming a Catholic was a novel intended to describe “the course of thought and state of mind” of his own conversion experience. It was in the form of the novel that Newman was best able to describe what faith feels like.

 

In Loss and Gain, the protagonist rejects all social influences and ultimately his own subjectivity in assenting to his Catholic faith.

Loss and Gain is the story of a young Oxford student, Charles Reding, who seeks to find his own “view” amid the religious climate of the Tractarian controversy of the 1830s and 1840s. The novel offers parody versions of the same religious factions Newman encountered as a student at Oxford. Evangelical and high-church Anglicans engage the protagonist in debates about belief and true religion. In one passage, for example, Reding debates an Evangelical named Freeborn on the nature of faith:

“I can’t believe I understand you,” said Charles: “you say that to have faith is to seize Christ’s merits; and that we have them, if we will but seize them. But surely not every one who seizes them gains them; because dissolute men, who never have a dream of thorough repentance or real hatred of sin, would gladly seize and appropriate them, if they might do so. They would like to get to heaven for nothing. Faith, then, must be some particular kind of apprehension; what kind?—good works cannot be mistaken, but an ‘apprehension’ may. What, then, is a true apprehension? what is faith?”

Freeborn replies he is no more interested in securing a “true” apprehension of faith than he is in securing a true apprehension of bread. Rather, he is content with merely possessing it. To Reding, this seems like an evasion. He observes that, while Martin Luther is ambiguous about what exactly faith looks like, the Catholic Church is not.

I know very little about the real nature of Popery, but when I was a boy I was once, by chance, in a Roman Catholic chapel; and I really never saw such devotion in my life—the people all on their knees, and most earnestly attentive to what was going on. I did not understand what that was; but I am sure, had you been there, you never would have called their religion, be it right or wrong, an outward form or carnal ordinance.

Reding’s childhood memory of Catholics at Mass stands in contrast to what Newman characterizes as religious quibbling over sola fide justification. Though he did not understand it at the time, the sight of ordinary Catholics on their knees moved Reding more than any theological argument could.

What is most interesting about Loss and Gain as a literary work is the way its protagonist rejects all social influences and ultimately his own subjectivity in assenting to his Catholic faith. In this way, it resembles a romance in the medieval style. But its satirical elements make parts of it read like the script for a Victorian-era situation comedy, with passages of serious theological controversies alternating with more light-hearted dialogue.

It is no coincidence that Loss and Gain, a kind of autobiographical bildungsroman, has so much in common with a later, much better-known novel—James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Newman was a major influence on Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, like Joyce’s posthumously published Stephen Hero, follows the life of its protagonist through his university education, complete with the lectures he attends and his conversations with fellow classmates. Like Stephen in A Portrait, who believed Newman to be “the greatest writer,” Joyce felt “that nobody has ever written English prose that can be compared with that of a tiresome footling little Anglican parson who afterwards became a priest of the only true church.” Even if Loss and Gain had no other claim on our attention, it would be worth reading for its influence on Joyce’s masterworks.

But if readers pick up Loss and Gain today, it is most likely because they are looking for insight into Newman’s own life and, especially, his conversion. Nor will they will be disappointed, for the novel is in some ways even more revealing than Newman’s more straightforward “history of his religious opinions,” Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Newman had written the Apologia as a response to a personal attack by Charles Kingsley, who questioned Newman’s honesty before, during, and after his conversion to Catholicism. The Apologia is a controlled, largely impersonal construction that functions like a rhetorical citadel. It documents Newman’s theological development—from Evangelical to Tractarian to Catholic, with stops in between. Sheltered within this citadel of arguments and counterarguments is a more intimate narrative of Newman’s religious sentiments. In the book’s final chapter, he relinquishes his “religious opinions” for the truth of the Catholic Church.

In comparison to the Apologia, Loss and Gain seems to reveal much more about its author’s inner life—perhaps more than he intended. Clearly, the spiritual trials of the protagonist Reding mirror those of Newman himself, tracing his loss of confidence in Evangelicalism and, later, in high-church Anglicanism, before describing his conversion to Roman Catholicism. In the conflated voices of its narrator and protagonist, Loss and Gain projects a composite of what Newman perhaps saw in himself—a sensitive, introspective man who, despite having become a Catholic, retains his Englishness, remaining a typical Oxford man, almost to the point of caricature, long after his conversion.

In some respects, Loss and Gain, and later, Callista, are English Catholic interpretations of the novel of manners. That Newman characterizes his protagonists as having the social virtues ascribed to Englishness is significant, for not only did this make his novels—and by extension, English Catholicism—more appealing to Victorian readers; it also reflects his distinctively Catholic understanding of the value of literature.

 

Suspicions about the corrupting influence of novel-reading are almost as old as the novel itself.

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.

Mark Gallagher teaches in the English Department at UCLA.

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