WHAT IS INTERESTING about the letters of someone who died seventyfive years ago? Great men of any period interest us, but with Newman there is a fascination not simply historical. Controversies still surround him because he is a Jiving influence.
Indeed, it is only since Pope John's Council that Newman's work can be fully understood and he himself seen in the right perspective. We have only just begun to sec what it means to be the Church in Ala world "simply irreligious", which Newman foresaw, and we are still living in the ecclesiastical situation which caused him so many difficulties, even though the transition to a new era has been started.
In Newman's opinion. a man's life was best told in his letters. It was a judgment founded on his respect for historical truth and the fact that a man is changing and developing all his life. Letters are not always the best expression of a life, even during the great letter writing age of Victoria. but they are probably the best record of Newman's. This is because he was (in all senses of the word) a direct letter writer.
He said what he meant and meant what he said—and he said it straight off. He hardly ever had time to read over what he wrote. so that there are engaging mis-spellings, especially of names. which Newman set down as he heard them. And while he always wrote specifically for the person addressed, his own personality retained its strong individuality throughout. The hastiest note has the true Newmanic flavour — perhaps this was why so many people kept them.
Mother reason why New THE LETTERS AND DIARIES OF JOHN HENRY NEWMAN (Vol. XVI), edited by Charles Stephen Dessain (Nelson 105s.) man's letters are his best biography is the chance, unfortunate to him, which so often separated him from friends and from his community in its formative years, so that he was kept in correspondence as intimate as it was constant.
The present volume (published yesterday), the sixth that has appeared—XVI as it is numbered for the projected complete series — covers the first period of Newman's double life in the '50s (his own and the century's) in Birmingham and Dublin — January, 1854 to September, 1855. Its principal interest is the Catholic University of Ireland. officially inaugurated at Whitsun. 1854. with Newman appointed rector by Papal brief.
It is an extraordinary record of Newman's energy and activity, hampered as he was by difficulties large and small, from Irish politics to a torn tendon in his leg. Almost single-handed he dealt with appointments, salaries, examinations, books, the curriculum and the endless human problems involved. He Was determined to have lay professors and anxious for lay control of finance, though he was never to achieve the latter. The academic staff became his friends for life.
He understood Irish nationalism and appointed Irishmen when they had the necessary qualifications, but he did not intend the university to be exclusively Irish and invited not only Englishmen but also distinguished Europeans and the American Orestes Brownson, who attacked Newman's theory of Development but came to appreciate his personal qualities.
Legends still persist that Newman was impractical and that his horizon was limited by nostalgia for classical Oxford. Here we have the evidence for all the work he did and for his attempt, from the start, to plant faculties to cover a very wide range of subjects.
Newman laid emphasis on the importance of modern history and literature. He included the sciences and founded a medical school, which was to go from strength to strength. He planned for an observatory, for engineering, line arts and archaeology.
Here too. in all its miserable detail. is the evidence proving that the "failure" of the project was due to circumstances outside Newman's control. He made a shewd guess at what had happened, but recently documents in the Roman Archives of Propaganda have made everything plain.
The university was originally Archbishop Cullen's "Roman" answer to the government's colleges. Archbishop MacHale and the nationalists were therefore against it. In January 1855 Newman courteously, but firmly, refused to jettison lay professors who had been associated in youth with the Young Ireland party.
Without saying anything to Newman himself. Cullen turned against him and began to write letters to his Roman agent, to he passed to Propaganda, attacking the rector's conduct of the university. This was the beginning of curial prejudice against Newman which was later to become serious.
Many other things come up: Newman's disgust with the Crimean War. for whose victims he prayed daily; humourous sketches of Irish incidents; kind hut shrewd advice to would-be nuns among the converts. Ifs no sin not to attend to the dry old French sermons . . It is a great (win' of thankfulness you don't go to sleep, which I should do for certain.
The scholarly editing of Newman's fetters by Charles Stephen Dessain has already drawn the highest praise from those best qualified to give it. He has the rare ability to make his notes interesting as well as informative.
Written in a lucid economical style, they are not without a touch of humour. sometimes expressed in the choice of extracts from the memoirs and letters of Newman's varied correspondents. The range of references indicates something of Fr. Des
saw's wide knowledge of the Victorian scene.
An editor's task is selfeffacing, but it has lasting value. No one can adequately study Newman's ideas without reference to his correspondence. Wonderful that in Newman's own Oratory at Birmingham there should be someone with the scholarship and judgment to carry out this essential work. It is none the less exacting for being a labour of love.