NEWMAN, MANNING AND THEIR AGE
In a flash a sort of ripple ran along the line and all these eccentrics went down on their knees on the public pavement … Then I realized that a sort of little dark cab or carriage had drawn up … and out of it came a ghost clad in flames … lifting long frail fingers over the crowd in blessing. And then I looked at his face and was startled with a contrast; for his face was dead pale like ivory and very wrinkled and old … having in every line the ruin of great beauty.
The “ghost clad in flames” was Cardinal Manning, a prince of the Church enshrined as an ageing Prince Charming in the memory of an ageing G.K. Chesterton writing more than fifty years after the event. In Chesterton’s memory of his childhood encounter with the Cardinal, Manning is not merely clothed in the scarlet of his ecclesial office but is also clad in the clouds of romantic legend. At the other extreme, Lytton Strachey, in his notorious book, Eminent Victorians, robed Manning in a cloak of hypocrisy under which the ambitious Cardinal concealed the treacherous dagger of intrigue. To the charitable Chesterton, Manning was a hero, perhaps even a saint; to the cynical Strachey, the same man was a villain worthy of vilification. It could be argued that these judgments reveal more about the men doing the judging than the man being judged. Chesterton perceived the truth in broad sweeping strokes of fanciful colour in which history was, above all, a good story, in which inimitable heroes fought iniquitous dragons; Strachey, as the founder of the modern school of hackiography, subjugated the broader truth to narrow fact in which historical figures are seen as icons to be smashed in an iconoclastic debauch of cynical revisionism.
As for Manning himself, he made many enemies but was heralded at his death as “the people’s cardinal”. Even Strachey was forced to acknowledge Manning’s huge popularity at the time of his death in January 1892, though he was evidently perplexed as to the reason for it:
The route of the procession was lined by vast crowds of working people, whose imaginations, in some instinctive manner, had been touched. Many who had hardly seen him declared that in Cardinal Manning they had lost their best friend. Was it the magnetic vigour of the dead man’s spirit that moved them? Or was it his valiant disregard of common custom and those conventional reserves and poor punctilios, which are wont to hem about the great? Or was it something untameable in his glances and in his gestures? Or was it, perhaps, the mysterious glamour lingering about him of the antique organisation of Rome? For whatever cause, the mind of the people had been impressed.…
Why, one wonders, does Strachey gloss over the most obvious reason for Manning’s popularity: his tireless work for the poor and the downtrodden?
Barely two years earlier, in September 1889, Manning had played a crucial role in the ending of the Dock Strike when, after weeks of delicate negotiation, the 81-year-old cardinal finally obtained for the dockworkers the bare justice for which they had asked. On 14 September, “the Cardinal’s Peace” was signed, ending the strike and confirming Manning as a hero of the working class. A few years earlier, in 1885, he had been a member of the royal commission on the housing of the poor, and a year later was appointed to the royal commission on education. His social vision was gaining international recognition and it is widely believed that Manning’s social teaching, and his practical example, were influential upon Pope Leo XIII’s writing of the famous social encyclical, Rerum novarum, published in 1891, shortly before Manning’s death.
As well as being a tireless defender of the poor, Manning was also an indefatigable defender of the Pope and he played an influential role at the First Vatican Council in 1870 in the discussions that led to the formal promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility.
Having succeeded Cardinal Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster in 1865, Manning was the head of the English hierarchy and therefore the leader of England’s Catholics during a period of great revival. And yet, in many ways, the revival of which he was the de jure leader could be said to have had a de facto leader in the person of his great contemporary, and sometime rival, John Henry Newman. Although the two men had so much in common, being graduates of Oxford and fellows of Oxford colleges, and being Anglican ministers who converted to Catholicism, they also had many differences.
Newman’s conversion in 1845 can be seen as the real starting point of the Catholic revival, heralding a wave of high-profile conversions, of which Manning’s in 1851 was but one of many. Newman’s brilliance was universally acknowledged, even by his enemies, and works such as his quasi-autobiographical novel, Loss and Gain (1848), and his autobiographical Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) have established his reputation as one of the finest prose stylists of the Victorian period, a truly rare accomplishment considering how many great writers that particular period produced. He was also a poet of considerable merit as is seen in the quality of the poetry published in his Verses on Various Occasions (1874). His poetic masterpiece is indubitably The Dream of Gerontius, which was later set to music in an oratorio by Edward Elgar. The publication of his sermons and lectures established Newman’s reputation as a theologian and philosopher, a reputation that was fortified still further in 1870 with the publication of his masterful and seminal Grammar of Assent, on the philosophy of faith.
Considering the sheer depth and breadth of Newman’s brilliance it is not surprising that he has outshone Manning’s own considerable achievement. To the eyes of posterity, if not necessarily in the eyes of their own age, Manning is seen as walking in Newman’s more illustrious shadow.
In paying homage to the age of Manning and Newman, it would be a sin of omission not to mention another illustrious convert who is now justifiably revered but who was completely unknown during his own lifetime. This is Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest, received into the Church by Newman himself in 1866, who was destined, thirty years after his death, to become one of the most influential poets of the following century. Hopkins’ verse, inestimable though not inimitable, is imitated the world over by budding poets seeking in vain to emulate the majesty and magnificence of the Jesuit master’s sprung rhythm and mystical vision of inscape. As a poet he had no equal among his contemporaries, and perhaps only T.S. Eliot is his rival among the generations of poets who have followed in his wake. Hopkins’ magnum opus, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, is one of the greatest poems of all time, not only in its form but in the celestial heights of mystical theology to which it ascends.
And so we see in the powerful presence of Manning, Newman and Hopkins a triune triumvirate of converts who made an indelible mark on the minds and hearts of the age in which they lived and who continue to inspire those who are trying to emulate their magnificent example in today’s darkened world.
We will end, as we began, with a vision of Manning. We began with G. K. Chesterton’s vision; we will end with Hilaire Belloc’s:
It was my custom during my first days in London, as a very young man … to call upon the Cardinal as regularly as he would receive me; and during those brief interviews I heard from him many things which I have had later occasion to test by the experience of human life … and Manning did seem to me (and still seems to me) much the greatest Englishman of his time. He was certainly the greatest of all that band, small but intensely significant, who, in the Victorian period, so rose above their fellows, pre-eminent in will and in intellect, as not only to perceive, but even to accept the Faith.