BOOK REVIEW / The long march of the Victorian titans: 'The Convert Cardinals' - David Newsome :John Murray, 25 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS a puzzle. Two of the titans of the 19th century are clearly Newman and Manning. Both were born Anglicans, both claimed evangelical conversions, both became Roman Catholics, and finally both were made cardinals. Newman's funeral evoked little mass response. Manning's, by contrast, prompted an outpouring of public grief and respect second only to that witnessed at the Duke of Wellington's demise. Since then it has been downhill all the way for poor old Manning. He suffered grievously at the hands of his official biographer. Then came the damning and largely untruthful sketch by Lytton Strachey.

The reputations of men of action are usually more difficult to cultivate than those of scholars and writers. Both of these giants suffered at the time, due often to the well- meaning actions of their friends. Since then practically no writer has been able to write of one without depreciating the other.

On to this battleground comes David Newsome, a Victorian historian of great distinction. Here, I thought, if anywhere, we would find a study which holds both characters in balance. From the historian's angle, of course, Newman has the edge. His Order at Birmingham appears to have preserved practically everything about its founder. Manning's Order's custodianship of his papers is nothing short of a scandal.

The author struggles not to be overpowered, yet such is the appeal of Newman that even someone of Newsome's stature is beguiled by the old devil. Although Manning, it is true, gets a much more sympathetic understanding than he generally receives, the underlying tide of the book goes towards Newman.

Still, the study is so faultlessly compiled that much of the information rehabilitates Manning. We are reminded of his straightness of character - he always made it abundantly clear with Newman and others where they agreed and disagreed; and his generosity - immediately he was made Archbishop of Westminster he sought to build bridges with his most implacable opponents. It is just that somehow he does not quite manage to emerge from Newman's shadow.

Conversely, the nastier side of Newman is on display for all to witness. Let us leave aside early disputes in which Newman was often the inventor of his own difficulties. Much later, when Newman wins his battle with Charles Kingsley and in the process writes one of the great autobiographies, Apologia pro Vita sua, Newsome admits that the line of argument could not always be called straight. There are also countless examples of Newman's pettiness, his inability to forgive, his pathological possessiveness and a tendency to believe the worst.

All this matters because Newman's claim to greatness is his call to godliness. Can godliness be furthered by such a character? I don't believe so, if godliness is on a different plane from writing beautiful prose. By contrast, Manning's life is about action. Where Manning's true greatness lies is in his effect on today's civil society, he must necessarily suffer at the hand of a historian.

Newman's greatness is cemented into the past. Manning is ever present in our own society. Manning's chief goal was to integrate into British society what were then the hated Irish immigrants. The importance of this is hard to overemphasise.

The Troubles, horrendous as they are in Northern Ireland, are limited there and almost nonexistent here, despite the bombing outrages. Without Manning's major life work the IRA would have found countless sympathisers willing to provide cover for its deadly trade. The extent of the outrages on the mainland could then have been of such scale and devastation that British society might well have imploded upon itself. That civil society in Britain continues relatively unaffected by such a campaign of terror and murder is a daily tribute to the true greatness of the man Newman found so hard to stomach.