John Henry Newman

A Portrait in Letters

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Roderick Strange
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     608 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The letters and diaries of John Henry Newman take up an imposing thirty-two volumes. To produce any coherent edition from this wealth of material would merit high praise. But what makes this effort from Roderick Strange exceptional is its deep understanding of the material, which allows him to organize, yes, but also to reveal. Strange writes in his introduction that he wants to create a “portrait of Newman himself” by using the letters to “illustrate the man.” He wants this collection to give readers the feeling that Newman is “someone they have come to know” (5). The result is a remarkably engaging text proceeding chronologically, with chapters focused on key moments or turning points in Newman’s life.

There is a section on the rise of the Oxford Movement, and another collecting critical correspondence during the time when it became clear that Newman would join the Catholic Church: his transition from “Oxford to Rome.” With the help of expertly written introductions ahead of each section, the letters provide a clear explanation of Newman’s thinking at each step of his conversion process. What also becomes clear is the emotional weight of the decision as he struggles to explain his motivations to friends and family. Strange identifies Newman’s “sense of principle” as a major theme throughout the letters. It is present when Newman leaves a privileged position in the Church of England, and is observable again as he charts his way through times of conflict and crisis. Notable among these is a dispute over power, propriety, and an appeal to Rome that developed between Newman and a separate branch of Oratorians in London. The letters chronicle the initial misunderstanding of 1855, and Newman’s nursing of that raw wound some thirty years later.

Newman’s love and concern for his friends and family is present throughout the collection. “Never had a man such good friends” (502), he writes to the Duke of Norfolk. Newman writes of the loss of his dear friend Ambrose St. John, who rose up from his deathbed to cling to him, saying, “this is the greatest affliction I have had in my life” (476). And upon receiving photographs of his brother Charles, with whom he had a terrible feud and decades-long estrangement, Newman comments that “they are valuable to me as bringing before me his present likeness” (519). Another noteworthy aspect of the letters, and a great pleasure for the reader, is their humor and wit. From a ship, Newman writes to his mother describing sea sickness and how all the objects on board leap about “as if they were seasick too,” “up and down—swing, swing—a tumbler turns over, knife and fork run down, wine is spilt—swing, swing” (54). At 78 years old, he explains a sudden trip to London with the phrase, “a Dentist gives his omnipotent word” (518). Of all the John Henry Newmans, perhaps the laugh-out-loud-funny Newman is the least well known.

Roderick Strange set out to create a portrait of Newman and he succeeded. For students and other interested readers seeking perspective on both Newman’s personal life as well as his way of thinking during different theological controversies, this volume is indispensable. But more than this, it is an absolute pleasure to read. Strange has done a superb job with the editing: the introductions are insightful, the footnotes after each letter are helpful without becoming overbearing, and the index of Newman’s correspondents keeps the reader from getting lost. Most of all, Newman’s command of the English language is present throughout the text. For those who have come away from the Apologia Pro Vita Sua believing it to be a masterpiece of Victorian literature and for those who want more—this book is for them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Canzona is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Pluralism at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roderick Strange was rector of the Pontifical Beda College, Rome, from 1998 to the summer of 2015. He was ordained as a priest of the Shrewsbury Diocese in 1969 and, besides working as a parish priest, he has been the Catholic Chaplain at Oxford University and the chairman of the National Conference of Priests. He has written extensively on Newman including John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive (Darton, Longman, and Todd 2008) and Newman and the Gospel of Christ (OUP 1981).


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