St John Henry Newman and Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope never ceases to astonish me – surely he must be the only popular novelist who counts a saint among his world-wide fan club of Trollopians.

The world’s newest saint, a man always associated with Oxford, is John Henry Newman, of Trinity and Oriel Colleges, former vicar of St Mary the Virgin, the university church, and Littlemore, a village near the city. He was canonised at Rome on October 13 this year to the great delight of many Anglicans and all English Catholics.

Cardinal Newman’s importance in 19th century religion is well known so I shall not go into it except for a short reminder.

He was an evangelical (low church in Anglican slang) Oxford University academic and Anglican priest but was drawn into what is called the high church tradition. He became known as a polemicist for the Oxford Movement (aka Oxford Apostles), which stood for a return by the Church of England to many pre-Reformation beliefs and liturgical rituals. The movement had some success in this.

In 1845. Newman, with some of his followers, officially left the Church of England and his teaching post at Oxford University and was received into the Catholic Church, then re-ordained. He was instrumental in founding a religious university in Dublin in 1854 and it evolved into University College, Dublin. He was created a cardinal in 1879.

Dr Richard Mullen, author of The Penguin Companion to Trollope (written with James Munson for Penguin Books, 1996) says our author, who had High Church sympathies, seems to have heard Newman preach at St Mary’s in the 1830s when he was visiting his brother, Thomas Adolphus, or seeking a scholarship for himself.

Dr Mullen says: “Trollope was friendly towards Newman when he was an Anglican and, having a sympathetic attitude toward Catholicism, he did not turn against Newman when he became a Catholic.”

Newman was a devoted reader of Trollope from 1858, the year of Doctor Thorne, according to N John Hall’s two-volume The Letters of Anthony Trollope (Stanford University Press, California, 1983).

Indeed, he wrote to our author on October 28 1882 ,just a few days before Trollope suffered his fatal stroke on November 3, dying in a nursing home in Welbeck Street on December 6. His was the last letter Trollope is known to have received, making it doubly special.

The cardinal had sent a saltpetre treatment for Trollope’s asthma via a third party. Trollope’s letter of thanks was written on October 27 after he received the treatment fom the third party. In it, he said: “May I be allowed to take this opportunity also of telling your Eminence how great has been my pleasure which I have received from understanding that you have occasionally read and been amused by some of my novels. It is when I hear that such men as yourself have been gratified that I feel I have not worked altogether in vain; but there is no man as to whom I can say that his good opinion would give me such intense gratification as your own.”

The cardinal’s reply, the last letter received by Trollope, must have added to his pleasure. It said: “It is very kind of you to express pleasure at hearing of my admiration of your novels. Many of them I read again and again. I have just been re-reading one for the third time (which I think I first read about 1865).”

Trollope, Newman’s favourite novelist, mentions the theologian in several novels, including Barchester Towers. Newman told an anecdote of his reading the novel in bed and bursting out laughing. When he woke in the middle of the night, he began laughing again.(The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, edited by C S Dessain, 1968)

Perhaps significantly and perhaps not, we first meet Mr, later Dean, Arabin in Barchester . He is a Tractarian Oxford academic called in to oppose the low church Proudie-Slope axis. Most people think there are elements of Newman in his character.

Newman much approved of the sub-plots in Trollope’s work. He said: “Such a contrivance obliged events to go more slowly – also it gives an opportunity for variety and repose.”

But Newman was not uncritical. On a much-needed restful holiday at Deal, in Kent, in 1861, he enjoyed The Bertrams but was disturbed by “a touch of scepticism which I have never seen in him before.” John Henry Newman, by Ian Ker (Oxford University Press, 1988).

Here is a “what if” observation. Trollope offered to review The Reign of Elizabeth, by another Tractarian leader and academic, Richard Hurrell Froude, who died at 32. His offer was apparently declined because it was reviewed by Charles Kingsley, a leading broad churchman now largely remembered as the author of The Water Babies, an expose of the sufferings of poor infants who were sent up chimneys to clean them.

Kingsley’s review prompted Newman to produce his hard-hitting Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A defence of one’s own life) in 1864. Both The Water Babies and the Apologia are still in print and worth reading if you are interested in the Oxford controversy or Victorian child labour.

Final point. Dr W G Ward, an academic and Oxford Movement leader, was deprived of his degrees by the university for a book he wrote attacking the Church of England. He ediited the influential Catholic magazine Dublin Review and became a teacher. Newman once compared Mrs Ward to Mrs Proudie.

by Peter Blacklock