The 19th century was a time for letter writing. The expansion of the postal service, railways, canals and steamships within the British Isles and far beyond gave the educated classes the means by which their letters could travel far and wide, at low cost, and with the certainty of their missives arriving safely.
Eminent Victorians such as Charles Dickens entered into voluminous correspondence. However, John Henry Newman’s output of letters exceeded that of many of his contemporaries. By the time he died in 1890, the extraordinary nature — and abundance — of Newman’s letters became clear.
Man of Letters
Writing in 1961 in the introduction to the first volume of Newman’s published letters, Father Charles Dessain explained that Newman “lived so long, he had so many friends, he was engaged upon such various enterprises, for so much of his life he carried on an intense apostolate by means of letters, that his output became enormous.”
By the time he died in 1976, Father Dessain had edited 21 volumes of Newman’s letters. And still the task of editing the late cardinal’s letters was far from complete.
This task continues to be important, not least because Newman’s many letters often reveal the man at his most intimate.
In the tradition of Father Dessain, Andrew Nash, editor of Newman’s Essays Critical and Historical: Volume One (Gracewing, 2018) told the Register, “In Newman’s letters we see his love and friendship when he writes to family members, especially when he was younger, and to close friends. You get an insight into his affectionate and empathetic nature and also his wit, playfulness and humor. Sometimes the letters are on practical subjects: money, organization, travel. This is an aspect of Newman which we can miss if we only know his published work.”
Understandably, Nash, like so many Newman scholars, is amazed at this holy man’s unrelenting output when it came to letter writing; “There is the sheer volume of his letters, more than 20,000 in total. How many hours of his daily life he must have given to writing to people, in the midst of all his pastoral duties and his intellectual work! The letters show his sheer energy and hard work.”
And the letters also display the saint’s charity. Newman’s character, Nash maintains, is illuminated through his correspondence. “They show how wrong it is to see him as a withdrawn intellectual or otherworldly ascetic uninterested in mundane matters,” he said. “Newman is often writing to those who have questions or difficulties about the faith. These are more like his published work, except that he is focused on the individual he’s writing to. You see his clarity in getting to the heart of the person’s inquiry. He is never dismissive and is not afraid to enter into a question in-depth and at length. He is never polemical, even when writing to a hostile correspondent. At times he can be passionate; for instance, when he protested against the tactics of the Ultramontanists, who wanted to impose an extreme interpretation of papal infallibility on the faithful.”
In addition to what Newman’s letters reveal about him as a man and pastor, they also tell us much about Newman the writer. As Nash explains: “It is hard to generalize about the style of his letters when there are so many and they are written to such a diverse range of people and over so many years. Sometimes they are colloquial and chatty. In others he writes in that measured and beautifully constructed prose which we find in his published works. His sentences are balanced, which make him come across to the reader as reasonable. He sees the other person’s point of view and responds to it with sensitivity while putting his finger on the underlying issue.”
To those who wish to learn more about John Henry Newman, the Church’s newest saint, Nash has a simple message: “Get hold of one of the many volumes of his letters and browse!”
The last 10 years of his life were for Newman a time of diminishing health and physical strength. His letter writing continued, however, even as his eyesight grew worse, coupled with stiffness in his fingers that meant he found it difficult to hold a pen. By the end of his life, he had to dictate his letters.
His last letter was an act of reconciliation. It was to his niece, Grace. She was the only child of Newman’s estranged sister Harriet who had broken off relations with her brother over his conversion to Catholicism. Brother and sister were not yet reconciled when Harriet died in 1852. Therefore, Newman had not seen Grace since she had been taken to Australia as a young child. Now a woman, Grace Longford had returned to England and wanted to meet with her uncle.
The Oratory, Birm. Aug 2/90
My dear Grace,
Thank you for your wish to see me. I embrace it readily and I will see you whatever the day next week suits you for that purpose.
Yours affectionately, JHN
P.S. I am sometimes engaged with the doctor.
Grace came to see him on Aug. 9. Thereafter, hand in hand, niece and uncle sat talking in the parlor of the Birmingham Oratory.
Newman fell ill the next day. At 8:48pm on Aug. 11, 1890, he passed from this world into eternity.
K.V. Turley writes from London.