Page 6, 24th September 1993

24th September 1993
Page 6
Page 6, 24th September 1993 — Two eminent prima donnas

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Two eminent prima donnas

The Convert Cardinals by David Newsome, John Murray, £25

BIOGRAPHIES OF CARDINAL Newman beginning with Wilfred Ward's in 1912, and continuing with Meriol Trevor, Fr Dessain, Fr Ker, Professor Gilley and many more have poured from the presses in the last 70 years. Cardinal Manning has been less fortunate, and there are many who would still believe Lytton Strachey's grotesquely unfair portrait in Eminent Victorians in spite of valiant efforts to rescue Manning's reputation such as Robert Gray's excellent book. But there has been no book devoted to the fascinating question of how these two great princes of the Church came to loathe one another so cordially.

David Nevvsome is our man for this task. He is the foremost 19th century Church historian. He is also a biographer of peculiar sensitivity, subtlety and humour. His earlier books have included The Parting of Friends, an account of Manning's relationship with the Wilberforces and what I think is one of my favourite books in the world On the Edge of Paradise, a life of AC Benson. The man who could tell the story of poor, egotistical, neurotic, frustrated homosexual Benson is certainly wellqualified to chronicle the inner life of John Henry Newman.

Newman was a man of persuasive and subtle intellectual powers and the closest thing to a theologian which the English produced in the last century. He was a poet, an inspired preacher, and a man of prayer. He could also be pettyminded, prickly and as self-regarding as the most impossible prima donna. It is still embarrassing to read of his refusal to attend the opening of the London Oratory on the grounds that poor Fr Faber had gone to his grave without patching up the squabble (all of Newman's making) with the Birmingham Oratory.

Manning was cold, ambitious, and in terms of Church politics, all the things which are now unfashionable. He was ultramontane, authoritarian and a believer in the Catholic doctrine that "outside the Church there is no salvation" extra ecclesia nulla salus. But for his unselfish and tireless administrative gifts and his zeal for his religion, it is questionable whether the Catholic Church in England would really have been much more than the "Italian Mission".

Dr Newsome is very good at explaining how details from the early lives of the two men shaped the kind of Catholics they would become.

As a very young man, for example, Manning taught himseff Italian, forcing himself to learn Italian verbs while he was shaving. Newman never learnt Italian properly. It meant that Cardinal Manning could hobnob with real Roman Catholic prelates in the Vatican while Newman sat in his study reading the Fathers.

I cannot recommend this book

too highly. It is extraordinarily moving, and it is also very funny. When Newman died, his genius had been recognised by the Holy See and he had been rewarded with the cardinal's hat. Dr Newsome is especially good at exonerating Manning from the crime of blocking this and explains that it was partly the ambiguity of Newman's letter, begging to be allowed to stay in Birmingham, which caused the notorious contretetnps.

When Manning died, over 100,000 people followed the coffin through the streets of London, so much had this thin, teetorglling, arrogant man befriended the dockers and the London poor. "Forty years earlier, a cardinal seen in the streets of London might well have been pelted with mud," adds Dr Newsome.

But how much I prefer dear old AC Benson to either of these eminent victorians! In fact, having thought I loved Newman and admired Manning, I finished Dr Newsome's book feeling that Iliad seldom read an account of two nastier old men.

But the achievement of this biographer is that he is not a devil's advocate. He assembles all the material which makes you feel them both to be enormously uncongenial; and at the same time he makes you realise that they are both, in their way, giants of a kind we do not see nowadays.

Their mutual dislike and individual self-regard in both cases titanic makes one wonder how anyone might imagine Newman to be a saint.

Pio Nono's judgment seems sounder. While Newman and Manning rowed about whether there should be an oratory in Oxford, Newman's special friend Ambrose St John and Bittleston went to Rome to put Newman's case to the Pope.

Pio Nono reported himself "bored" by the interview, and. dismissed all the converts as "a lot of queer quarrelsome Inglesi".


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