Royal Academy of Arts
26 January-18 April Admission £11
‘Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘modern art is all bosh, isn’t it?’
And so two of the more sympathetic characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited rubbish the art of a hundred years ago. Since Waugh symbolized Charles Ryder’s aesthetic growth by the disposal of a reproduction Van Gogh, it is probable that he would have detested the Royal Academy’s ‘From Russia’ exhibition. Which is a pity, because among other things the exhibition provides marvellous examples of how artists grow and develop.
The exhibition nearly didn’t happen. As part of ongoing diplomatic hostilities, the Russians threatened to call off this great loan of 120 paintings – not the kind of thing, perhaps, to bother a British government which has sold the arts short for the sake of Olympic glory.
Many of the best paintings come from the collections of two wealthy businessmen, Abramovich Morozov and Ivan Shchukin. Shchukin was a patron of Matisse and had an instinctive understanding of new art, though he often found what he had bought ‘difficult’ – Picassos were sometimes kept in their wrappings until he was used to them. He often exhibited his purchases in public, unlike Morozov, whose more historically representative collection was kept in private, where it was seen by and influenced a generation of Russian artists whose work Morozov also collected. Between them, these collectors gave Russians the best introduction to contemporary art anywhere in the world, Paris included.
The exhibition allows us to see the art which these inspired men bought, first against the background of Russian art in the late nineteenth century, and then as the springboard for new Russian art in the fifteen years or so after the 1905 Proclama-
tion for the Improvement of the State.
Waugh would probably have enjoyed the first room of the exhibition, with its late nineteenth-century works, including two excellent Levitan landscapes. But it is difficult not to be aware that compared with what is to come, these pictures are not the radical innovations their makers thought they were. And the religious pictures are the worst. The exhibition makes some play of the continuous tradition of spirituality in Russian art. In the early rooms this tradition is embarrassing – look at Nesterov’s Murdered Tsarevich Dmitry and you couldn’t blame Boris Godunov for having him murdered. But to show that the French tradition can be equally bad, there is Tissot’s Ruins. Here an old peasant couple sits in a bombed church. A ghostly Christ leans on them. Judging by his grand guignol expression, Our Lord is just down from the cross. His huge cope possibly weighs more on him than his extravagant wounds.
So hurry along into the next room for some fine Impressionists, including one of Cezanne’s last views of Mont Sainte-Victoire and Monet’s The Pond at Mongeron, an early anticipation of the famous lilies series. Take time to enjoy these pictures. They are the beginning of the break-up of the old tradition, and once you have looked into the next room it becomes difficult to return to these gentler works.
The third room is the largest and it contains a good selection of Van Goghs, including the fine Portrait of Dr Felix Rey, the doctor who cared for Van Gogh after his first bout of madness (unfortunately he didn’t care for this portrait). There are also Bonnards, Derains, Picassos, a luminous
Braque, and drab conventional pieces of wondrous insipidity. All are blown away by two of Matisse’s finest works: The Dance and The Red Room. These have such life and colour that they are almost a revolution in themselves.
Of the two, The Red Room has more traces of the old tradition – the serving girl at the table with the window opening onto fields looks back to the fifteenth-century Flemish masters via Vermeer. It also maintains the tradition of appalling French wallpaper still maintained in seaside hotels. With The Dance, we breathe a cultivated primitivism lying between Satie’s Gymnopedies and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The whirling figures are on the edge of breaking up as the dancer in front reaches for the hand ahead of it. The colour combines power with subtlety. Here is the future.
The Dance was originally designed for the staircase of Shchukin’s house and its hang is slightly awkward. It is not easy to assimilate, and in way that is the key to the rest of the exhibition, as Russian artists work to embrace and develop the new French ways. With the exception of works by Goncharova and Chagall’s marvellously fresh The Promenade, the Primitives are not that good. But anyone put off by the more whimsical Chagalls turned out in the artist’s later years should see what the original inspiration looked like, colourful and Russian and warm and uplifting.
A similar depth of colour is found in the slightly Cubist portraits of Nathan Altman, whose nervy and intense Anna Akhmatova is the finest representation of thin Russian womanhood on show. The same nerviness and intensity is found in some of the theatrical paintings, with Ida Rubinstein the thinnest woman of them all.
After all that intensity, relax with the constructivist-vorticist-Cubo-futurists, where the explosive energy let loose by Matisse begins to diminish. But it does so with real warmth, especially in Alexandra Exter’s The City at Night.
We are now into the home stretch, the war years and just after. Despite the appalling suffering of that time, the range of invention and colour continues to expand. Miturichs portrait of Arthur Lourie seems to anticipate US art of the late Fifties. Matyushin does a Bridget Riley fifty years early.
Petrov-Vodkin provides an icon of the Virgin of Tender Mercy for the war, while at the other extreme Malevichs plain squares and crosses are modernist, secular icons.
And there the exhibition ends, perhaps
with nowhere to go. The energy and colour and vitality are about to hit the brick wall of Soviet realism or mutate into Surrealism. Maybe Cordelia was right; maybe all the ferment and energy were ultimately bosh, but they were enthralling while they lasted.
How We Surrendered to Conspiracy
Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science
and Fake History
Atlantic Books, 256pp, hbk
184354 675 7, £12.99
The inquest of Diana, Princess of Wales has been a grotesque spectacle, a mixture of the tragic death of a young woman with absurdly laughable conspiracy theories. Webs are spun out of gossamer. Some might seek to justify its examination of these bizarre confections as showing a lively scepticism of those in authority. Others of us never underestimate the gullibility of swathes of our fellow subjects and are one with the late A.T. Rowse and his contempt for the ‘idiot people’ whose capacity for swallowing one nonsense after another no longer surprises. Historians know that the problem with conspiracy theories is that the less evidence that there is only goes to prove how successful the conspiracy was. But they are invariably variations on a theme of smoke and mirrors, of half-truths, surmises and tittle-tattle dressed up in its Sunday clothes. It should be a worrying thought that some of our fellow-countrymen and women apparently share their IQs with a semi-comatose gerbil.
Damian Thompson has written a sharp and robust polemic whose sub-title tells it all. This is a short book, but a vigorously argued demolition of what he terms ‘counterknowledge’ – a very apt neologism. It is bracing and provocative with touches of Swiftian parody: he wears his contempt on his sleeve.
Of course, he identifies the internet as a prime purveyor of these theories and
to justify its examination of these bizarre untruths. Although there is much that is
improving on the worldwide web, it stands accused and condemned for its obvious failings. At worst it has become a home to neo-Nazis, vicious racists and anti-Semites. But it also provides a base for those who seek to make mischief; sometimes amusing, sometimes hateful, the mischief spills over into something no less absurd but much more chilling and dangerous.
The Enlightenment provides Mr Thompson with his template and with the mechanism and methodology by which we can make empirical observations of the world and of the human environment and human behaviour. The Enlightenment is not in conflict, he asserts, nor at variance with religious belief because religion does not provide human beings with explanations that can be or ought to be tested empirically. This does not deal adequately with the challenges that come from the likes of Professor Dawkins who would use the scientific method to disprove, as he would see it, the existence of God. Rather, Mr Thompson gives the impression of sliding out of a confrontation that he could easily deal with in the same robust way that he lambasts other foes. The Enlightenment provides a rational critique of the world but does not touch on the mystery of God and so, Thompson argues, ‘at a time when our techniques for evaluating evidence are subtler than ever before, counterknowledge is not only fooling the public but also corrupting intellectual standards across a range of disciplines.’
In his sights are creationism, The Da Vinci Code and pseudo-history, alternative or complementary medicine, dieticians and nutritionists, and publishers of all this nonsense.
As much as he attacks creationism, he is equally scornful of those in schools and universities who avoid talking about it or demolishing it because there is a fear among the liberal establishment not to offend ethnic minority pupils and parents; he points out that in 2006 a poll indicated that under 10% of United Kingdom Muslims accepted the theory of evolution. They are suffering, he says, from the disease of rationality.
Not surprisingly, when he turns his attention to fake history, The Da Vinci Code comes in for a severe kicking. It is admittedly a work of fiction (a not very well-written one) but it has been elevated by the credulous to the ludicrous status of pseudo-history Dan Brown was not the first in the field. Years ago The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published and, at first glance, it looked a reasonable enough piece of popular history. It would not have passed academic scrutiny but the first half of the book was a potted history of the Templars. The second half, however, spiralled into something different, something more slippery. At its heart was the contention that it was ‘not inconceivable’ that the Knights Templar had found documentation ‘proving’ the marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Several pages later, this has elided into an accepted fact and the fact that the Bible is silent about such a marriage becomes proof that it had happened. All this went with the trappings of a priest, mysterious wealth, the existence of a secret society of some of the most notable people of several ages, and a hidden key to the mystery in a Poussin painting, Et in arcadia ego. It was tripe, and was exposed as based on a hoax several years later, but it was sufficiently convincing tripe to satisfy the insane gullibility of some people. For historians the book fell at the first fence, that of Ockham’s razor. A similar test might well be applied to the inquest of Diana, Princess of Wales. Mr Thompson also cites the more recent book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, as being in the same dubious camp and rightly concludes that these and similar authors employ the rhetoric of authentic history, but not its method’.
There is a particularly good section on alternative medicine and complementary healing, and several media practitioners are dismissed as ‘quacks of the modern age’. Their claims and sales techniques are mercilessly exposed. It is worrying that so
many are so taken in by all of this quackery and even more outrageous that the media panders to such an audience, giving these hucksters airtime and treating them as significant. The expediential growth and endless proliferation of television channels requires more and more programmes to fill the airtime and there is clearly little thought given to quality. Naturally, the BBC is never far behind in the scramble to undermine values and societal morality. Publishers are no better, as trees are felled to propagate so much tosh.
All this comes about in the wake of the fragmentation of traditional structures of authority, not least the collapse of the Church as a touchstone of morality. Between 1980 and 2005, church attendance fell from 4.7 million to 3.3 million and is still falling, no doubt. This collapse has left a vacuum that has been filled by the twin heresies of democracy and egalitarianism where all points of view (except right-wing ones) are given equal weight and validity. This may also be an unintended consequence of the capitalist system where in the marketplace of ideas the bad too often drives out the good. He identifies ‘creative destruction as integral to a capitalist economy.
THE NEW ATHEISTS
The Twilight of Reason & The War on Religion Tina Beattie DTT, 209pp, pbk 978 0232527124, £8.99
Rarely might one expect to find parallels between the thought of Sts Anselm and Thomas Aquinas on the one hand, and a twenty-first-century feminist theologian on the other. But in The New Atheists Tina Beattie, Reader in Christian Studies at Roehampton University, undertakes her defence of religious belief in the awareness firstly that theology and the philosophy of religion are always, for Christians, the result of fides quaerens intellectum; and also that encountering God in religious experience is historically prior to the arguments which explain his existence. To the ‘new atheists’ against whom her work is directed – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Polly Toynbee et al. – Beattie attributes a fundamental ignorance of this.
Reading this book one quickly realizes that Beattie is a serious theologian and thinker; fortunately, her career in academia has not blunted her capacity to produce
entertaining invective: among the epithets which she lands upon her opponents is the wonderful claim that the ‘new atheism is a puritanical brand of godless Protestantism, full of moral bombast and preachy rhetoric, but intellectually limited and culturally parochial’. This quotation reveals one of the central contentions of Beattie’s argument: that the new atheists are railing against a God created in their own image: ‘Dawkins’ God is as much a thoroughly modern English bully as an ancient supernatural tyrant.’
Throughout the eight chapters of her book Beattie conducts a wide-ranging evaluation of the intellectual and social histories which have culminated in the present campaign against religious belief by militant scientific atheism. She does this from the critical perspective of feminist theology, but does not fall prey to the academic ill-discipline for which this school of thought has acquired an unfavourable reputation.
Beattie ably exposes the poverty of the new atheists’ knowledge of theology, showing them to be ignorant of many of the fruits of contemporary scholarship in this field. She offers a response to the challenge of rising secularism in today’s society that is obviously not from the same stall as the religious extremism and scriptural literalism from which the new atheists, along with most religious believers, rightly distance themselves.
However, the most important contribution of this title to the current debate is Beatties critique of scientific rationality. Intellectum has always been subservient to fides, and this holds true in the scientific sphere as much as in the theological one: the realities to which the scientist and the theologian attend are lived and experienced as much as they are analysed and systematized. Thus rationalism can never be separated from the experiential material to which it is applied: any theory, therefore, which ‘offers too reductive an understanding’ of experience – which is the truly fundamental aspect of life – ought to be rejected. So-called ‘reductive materialism’ is an empty theory of the meaning of life, because it denies what one might term ‘the encounters in irreducibility’ of which our lives consist.
After his mystical experience while saying Mass, Thomas declared, ‘I can no longer write, for God has given me such glorious knowledge that all contained in my works are as straw – barely fit to absorb
the holy wonders that fall in a stable.’ Let us nevertheless hope that Dr Beattie’s contribution to the debate is not yet quite over.
Richard Norman is reading Philosophy & Theology at Christ Church, Oxford
CHARACTERS AND SCENES
Studies in Charlotte M. Yonge Edited by Julia Courtney and Clemence Schultze
Beechcroft Books, 240pp, pbk
Available from Beechcroft Books, Faringdon Road, Abingdon OX14 1BQ
Charlotte Mary Yonge was born in 1823 and died in 1901. To mark the centenary of her death the Charlotte M. Yonge Fellowship, a small group of some one hundred and fifty members, determined to publish a book of essays. Although it seems to have been a long time coming, it is now here and is a welcome reappraisal of this once famous and prolific English novelist. She produced a huge number of books during a long creative life, few of which have survived in print to our own day, although they can be picked up in second-hand bookshops and through several admirable second-hand websites.
She is often referred to as the novelist of the Tractarian Movement, or of the Oxford Movement and it is odd, given the criticism of Anglo-Catholicism for its male-dominated ethos, that the sisterhood has not sought to reclaim and rediscover this estimable and intelligently imaginative woman. Perhaps one of the feminist publishing houses may see her as a cause for rehabilitation.
She was born in the village of Otterbourne in Hampshire, a little distant from Winchester, and the next door village to Hursley She was born into and brought up in an established High Church family which had links with the non-jurors and found no difficulty in assimilating the beliefs and doctrines of the Oxford Movement, not least when John Keble came to be Vicar of Hursely in 1836 when Charlotte was sixteen.
She began her writing career in 1848 and published about one hundred works, mainly fiction. She gained success, both financial and critical with The Heir of Redclyffe in 1854, and devoted thereafter much of her wealth derived from her writing to good causes and missionary endeavours. She counted Lord Tennyson, Henry James and William Morris among her admirers, as well as distinguished Tractarians. Robert Moberley preached a moving sermon (reproduced in this volume) on the Sunday following her death in Otterbourne Church. All her works were published for the Church of God and the furtherance of the kingdom of God and the inculcation of Tractarian ideals, central of which was the holiness of living. Her books have a moral seriousness but she seeks to achieve her aims more by stealth than with a bludgeon.
Tractarian principles were rarely explicit in her books. She took seriously the concept of ‘reserve’ in the transmission and communication of Christian knowledge. Isaac Williams had written about such reserve in one of the Tracts for the Times which caused a stir in the dove-cotes of the University of Oxford and beyond. There is a very good and clear essay in the book which outlines her career and the principles which animated her and underpinned her fiction.
Some of the other essays repay some familiarity with the books discussed although contributors are not unaware of the difficulty in obtaining copies of her books and the fact that she is no longer a household name, even in many Anglo-Catholic households. There are also genealogies which cover the relationships in several of her novels and those few pages can be a dizzying experience for those inexperienced in the ways of family trees to sprout and expand.
She also exerted a personal influence in her village and community and is buried in Otterbourne at the foot of a memorial cross to John Keble, who is himself buried at Hursley. Beyond her fiction she published a few works on history, on the missionary
bishop John Coleridge (her god-daughter was Alice Mary Coleridge), and on the etymology of Christian names, something of a pioneering study, which, although not as rigorous as such volumes as the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names, was a useful and acknowledged precursor.
Amy de Gruchy writes a piece seeking to correct the impression that Charlotte Yonge was inflexible in her outlook and unable to respond to social change. Indeed, her books cover the several phases of the Oxford Movement and their social engagement with some fidelity. Wendy Forrester takes issue with Georgina Battiscombe’s (the biographer of Keble) charge of plagiarism of her earlier novels for later ones and seeks to show a continued imaginative engagement and originality in her output. Cecilia Bass thoroughly scours journals and periodicals and surveys contemporary critical responses to her work, highlighting the fact that she was counted as among novelists who depicted social realism.
Although Charlotte Yonge could not be called a militant feminist, Jane Sturrock argues that she tackles the ambitions of women and their economic significance in her novels. Barbara J. Dunlap analyses several of her domestic novels, including one of her most renowned, The Daisy Chain, to discuss her narrative drive and how physicality and the real sense of things propels the narrative. Other essays take a wider perspective and place her within a wider social context. Maria Poggi Johnson examines her historical novels, particularly The Armourer’s Prentices, set in 1517, where she adumbrates the opposing forces in the Reformation and personifies the Anglican via media in a swordsmith. Clemence Schultze looks at the classical background to Charlotte Yonge’s work, which was much more pervasive and widespread among the literate than it is now. Julia Courtney looks at some of those who followed Charlottes Yonge’s example and whose work also evinces her social and religious concerns. For many, these essays will be a fascinating voyage of discovery and they are accessible guides to much neglected work. Perhaps they will signal an opportune reappraisal and re-assessment, and even a re-publication of some of her most famous works, if not a new complete edition. Given some of the unmitigated celebrity dross that is churned out from the publishers’ presses, an edition of Charlotte Yonge’s work would be a good act in a naughty world. More information about the Charlotte M. Yonge Fellowship maybe obtained from
EARLS OF PARADISE
England and the Dream of Perfection
Harper Press, 400pp, hbk
978 0 00724 052 4, £25
Sir Anthony Van Dyke is the quintessential artist of the English Renaissance and of what might be called the Anglican Counter-Reformation under King Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. In Wilton House, not far from Salisbury in Wiltshire, hangs a large portrait of the Fourth Earl of Pembroke and his family. This has been and still is the seat of the Herbert family. The magnificent portrait defines the themes of this book.
The Earl and his family are portrayed in a great hall or salon, hung with rich draperies, swags of silk, standing on ornate carpets. The Earl and his countess sit on a raised dais beneath a huge coat of armours, multi-quartered, outlining in the vocabulary and symbolism of heraldry the intricate ancestry of this noble family, the coming together at this moment in time of a substantial lineage. The Earl is a man of power and political influence with a place at Court: he carries his wand of office as Lord Chamberlain, he is dressed soberly with a good chain of office set off by the most delicate filigree lace at his neck and wrists. He was a favourite of King James I and VI, and he rebuilt Wilton House. But there is a remoteness and tiredness in his face that signals a waning of power. With his brother William he was one of the ‘incomparable paire of brethren to whom Shakespeare dedicated his First Folio. He was at the heart, not only of a political elite, but of a literary and cultural refulgence as well. The depiction of his wife in the portrait is relatively dour and plain; she sits with her arms folded, unsmiling and self-contained, a subtle painterly hint that not all is well with the marriage; but the children are vividly rendered. His heir is dressed in the most sumptuous crimson silk and satin with long flowing golden locks; a golden boy with a golden inheritance. His younger son stands next to his brother in gold; the other brothers are more soberly dressed with dogs at their feet, both boys and animals in animated poses. The Earl points to Mary Villiers, the daughter of an even wealthier family, who was betrothed to the eldest Herbert son. She, however, was in love with the younger brother, whose gaze is fixed upon her. Perhaps the Earls gesture advertises her, as it were, as quite a catch. The elder daughter stands hand in hand with her husband.
At the upper left of the picture several plump cherubs float past Grecian pillars into the scene, trailing clouds which seem too dark to be clouds of glory but speak of things beyond the worldly and the material, and out towards the left of the picture is an idealized picture of the countryside, the Wilton estate, some of the finest agricultural land in England. Sheep farming provided much of the family income. Here is a family that has arrived and is at the height of its potency, but with shadows of things to come looming in the picture: the Civil War was not far away and when the Earl of Pembroke pleaded for some calm, restraint and accommodation, he was told with the chilling brutality of the fanatic, ‘The laws of the land, being but mans invention, must not check Gods children in doing the work of their heavenly Father. Let us proceed to shed the blood of the ungodly’ The story is told of how the family came to be so stunningly immortalized, how it came to its wealth and how it had a place in the cultural Renaissance of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Much was due to an earlier generation and Wilton, once an Abbey of fabulous wealth, was a gift to the First Earl from the rapacious Henry VIII. The estate was acquired by force and the rigorous pursuit of the law, with a few killings of recalcitrant tenantry on the way. It was the marriage of the Second Earl to Mary, the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, the poet, and herself intelligent, cultivated and educated, that introduced the literary element into the Herbert gene pool. She may be the cause of Shakespeare’s sonnets as, Nicolson argues with some persuasiveness, she commissioned the sonnets as a present for her son William’s birthday. (William was the Third Earl; his brother Philip was the Fourth). So, we are urged to believe, Mr WH. is the onlie begetter’ of that incomparable set of poems: but, surely there is some hesitation here, some reticence to follow Mr Nicolson the whole way. Would the son of an Earl be addressed as Mr?
This literary and cultural milieu at Wilton House is, so it is argued, the centre of an Arcadian cult, an idealized vision of the countryside and of the relationships that existed in a pre-industrial age, a paradise that was swept away in the eighteenth century. It is difficult, a priori, to accept that such a concept did not originate in Italy, and the case is not made out sufficiently convincingly that it began in Wilton. But Mr Nicolson discerns an inter-reliance and an ease of relationships between the social castes of Renaissance England, and posits something he calls ‘communal wisdom’ and sees it worked out in the Arcadian ideal, articulated by Sir Philip Sidney. We also need to accept that the Civil War was an aberration and occurred in a society almost temperamentally incapable of such destructive violence. But that is not the story of Tudor England, in which maelstrom the Herberts played a part. Even if the main thrust of the argument does not work, there is much to enjoy in this book, not least the splendid evocation of landscape and a charming lyricism that is only occasionally marred by some passages too purple by half.
The Peoples Bible Commentary Richard Burridge
BRF, 250pp, pbk 978 1841015705, £8.99
This popular Bible commentary has been out for ten years now, but it has been chosen as the official commentary for the Lambeth Conference, and so comes with a foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a reading plan for the whole Communion: the Conference Bible studies will focus on the T AM’ sayings in this gospel.
This particular commentary has been chosen because it is ‘both accessible and academically reliable’. It is certainly safe and clear, and divided into 107 sections covers a demanding text in a manageable form. If such study is part of your prayer life – as it should be – consider seriously this call to share with others in the run-up to what may prove a difficult and challenging conference.
THE GIFT OF CONFESSION
Michael de Stoop
Gracewing, 160pp, pbk 978 0852445143, £7.99
Twenty-five positive reasons for going to Confession, with six appendices that answer any further questions on the subject. There is a straightforwardness in the presentation (which may have something to do with its Australian origin) but above all a cheerful confidence, that I found most engaging. Still a youngish priest Fr de Stoop speaks with a clear authority gained from experience.
What else can one say? The subject is the Sacrament of Confession. You may know what you need to know already, but if you have a parish library, this really should be in it. Or, if as a laymen you feel your priest is not teaching sufficiently or sufficiently fervently on the subject, this might provide him with the material he needs.
JOHN HENRY NEWMAN IN HIS TIME
Edited by Philippe Lefebvre and Colin Mason
Family Publications, 252pp, pbk 987 1871217 69 8, £11.95
Can there really be anything left to say about Newmans life and times? Has not his career been exhaustively worked over? The answer is that people in our age find Newman as fascinating as did his contemporaries, and so books about his life and thought will continue to be written. This excellently produced collection of essays examines the main aspects of Newman, though concentrating more on his life as a Roman Catholic. Those familiar with the details of Newmans biography will not find a great deal here with which they are unfamiliar, but the stated purpose of this collection is to introduce the man to those who know little about him. It does this successfully, and it is illustrated with well-chosen pictures, some of which will be new even to seasoned Newmanites.
In the main, the topics for the essays have been picked with discernment, five of them dealing with Newmans connection with particular places, and the remaining nine commenting on aspects of his work. There are effective portraits of Newman as a preacher and educator, and also a reminder of his powers as a correspondent. One might question whether we needed a piece on Newman the Poet. Newman had a small gift for writing verse, but nothing more. Who today except scholars would plough through the turgid-ities of The Dream of Gerontius were it not for Elgars music? The essay on Newman as a novelist, however, gives an interesting view of his largely forgotten novel, Callista. Peter Nockles writes a characteristically scholarly article on Newman and Oxford, which is particularly welcome in giving a slightly more favourable picture of Edward
Hawkins, the Provost of Oriel with whom Newman clashed. The blame for that situation did not lie entirely with Hawkins, who is long overdue for a full-length study in his own right.
The quality of these essays is generally good, but the book as a whole raises two important issues. To begin with, there is a tendency, as in so much writing about this period in English Church history, to see the Oxford Movement solely in terms of Newman. It would be ludicrous to deny his importance to the Movement, but he did not work alone. Our picture of the Oxford Movement will continue to be distorted until scholars engage seriously with the role of Pusey, most of whose letters and papers remain unedited and unpublished. Furthermore, this book, which is confessedly a contribution looking forward to the day when Newman will be canonized as a Doctor of the Church, reflects a contemporary trend for Newman studies to be written by his avowed admirers. Without wishing in any way to lessen his stature unfairly, the price paid for this trend is works which can be uncritical of the man and his ideas. Newman had awkward facets to his personality as well as holy ones, and it would be good to see him being approached with greater detachment.
In 1991 David Nicholls and Fergus Kerr op edited a challenging collection of essays called John Henry Newman: Reason, Rhetoric and Romanticism. In their introduction, they referred to ‘a growing Newman cult’ and commented, ‘once great thinkers in the history of the Church…receive the status of’holy doctors’ our perception and presentation of their work, perhaps inevitably, become over-simple and even something of a caricature. Their complexity, the necessarily fragmented and lacunary character of their work, even what is interestingly inchoate and ambiguous, all such features too often fade from our attention.’ There is no lack of evidence that this process is already at work in Newman’s case.
The same editors also observed, that ‘just as the Anglican Newman could not resist making malicious attacks on Rome, so the Catholic convert could not desist from vindictive remarks on the Church of England’, and therefore ‘the canonisation of Newman would be interpreted in many quarters as giving official support to a triumphalist ecclesiology and would be seen as something of a blow to the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and to the cause of Christian unity’ Whatever may have happened to disturb the work of ARCIC since 1991, it does not diminish Newman’s greatness to suggest that these concerns deserve renewed attention.