on 24 May 2010
at last we have a portrait of this wonderful man Newman which is not dry as dust. Cornwell's vivid life of Newman takes us from his youthful scepticism, through evangelicalism, to Catholicism. Newman believed that one should not just accept the teachings of family, church and school, everything should be questioned and argued through. the guiding principle of his life was conscience: "conscience first, the pope afterwards." Newman was a new voice in Christian teaching and spirituality: he lies in wait for all of us to study anew. The pope's visit in September will be a great occasion for all English speaking Christians, and Cornwell's book is a suitable introduction to this much neglected figure.
on 3 June 2010
John Cornwell's book is superb.It is scrupulously fair and intensely illuminating.He writes as someone very familiar with the catholic world ,but what emerges is a flesh and blood man whose exceptional stature is too great ,too loving ,too intense and sincere for his time ;someone who continually and continuously EVOLVES.
The first part makes a wonderful picture of Newman's early life ,its pains ,loves and successes;the culture around him also comes clear .
For example the whole question of sexuality and the conflict with Kingsley are put into a totally convincing framework .This is not just a biography but a work of art seeing Newman under different lights.
The second part ,detailing the transition to Catholoicism and all it entailed is gripping; and more ,you can feel the struggles he underwent without in any way feeling any whitewash around.
The last part is fairly brief but very moving.The Ambrose St John issue is most intelligently approached and convincingly covered.
This is just what good biography should be ,a means of bringing the subject to life without seeking to prove a point or merely recount facts.
J H Newman seems like a figure who continuously evolved, beyond limited versions of Christianity into something much more universal,more CATHOLIC than ever the Roman catholic church has been; maybe ever .
The book ends with a fair account of what seems to be going on among Roman Catholics to make Newman an authorised saint which to an impartial view feels like an effort to "bottle the wind ".
Maybe the one remark one might question is that of Newman "coming to rest " in the RC Church.It is impossible to think of this spirit not ACTIVE.
But for a compact accurate and loving biography one could not do better.
on 24 May 2010
Cornwell's new portrait of Newman is by far the most readable biography ever written of his fascinating thinker and writer. Cornwell breaks out of the constraints of dry theology and Victorian Church history to provide a flesh and blood real life character who taught the fullness of christianity through powerful imaginative writing. He also tells us why Newman has something to say to young people in the 21st century, of all faiths and of none. The carping of Peter Jenning's review is typical of the hide-bound self-referential partisanship which has closed off Newman to the wide reading public that he deserves. Readthis book it will change your mind about religion, about Christianity, and renw your spirituality whichever creed you professs
on 13 June 2010
Mr. Cornwell acknowledges his debts to the works of Meriol Trevor and Fr. Kerr, which is quite right, since the narrative depends heavily upon those works. One wonders, however, quite what the fuss is about?
As with everything Mr. Cornwell writes is it well-written. Where he does add to his exemplars it is usually to the good: his comments about Newman's writings, especially his analysis of the Dream of Gerontius is well done. His more polemically inclined comments are, as one expects from Mr. Cornwell, designed to tweak the ears of the traditionalists, and no doubt some of the latter will come up to his expectations. It would be better for them to desist, as that would tend to obscure the book's nature. Very little of the space is taken up with polemic, and the reader wanting that will be disappointed.
Mr. Cornwell's comments about Newman and Ambrose St. John are actually more nuanced than some of the reviews in the press imply. He does not state, indeed he draws back from stating, that there was anything homosexual in it; if the impression is left that he thinks there may have been such undertones in it, that will no doubt spark protests from the careless reader, which can then be refuted by reference to the text; it is a good trick, and not the first time Mr. Cornwell has played it. He is more subtle and nuanced than his critics give him credit for.
The chapter on Dcn. Sullivan's miracle isn't, truth to tell, up to the standard of the rest of this, and he really adds nothing more than his own speculations which one can take for what they are worth - about the same as those of any one else.
In short, a decent and well-written run through a familiar story with a few asides to add a little frisson and a few sales. Those unfamiliar with Newman's story will find it a good enough place to start; those familiar with it won't find themselves going back to it often.
I came to this book wanting to know more about John Henry Newman, having heard of the Oxford Movement, and knowing of Newman's conversion to the Catholic Church, but knowing little else. Despite some criticisms by other knowledgeable reviewers I have to say that I found this book a sheer delight to read. It is beautifully written with a lucid style. The many erudite religious discourses, which led Newman to publish a wealth of material, are carefully explained and weighed against contrary opinions. This is particularly helpful for those new to the subject as we have the problem of Newman changing his views on a number of important issues as he developed his theological studies, and in addition it can sometimes require an excellent writer like Cornwell to clearly explain the finely argued and sometimes esoteric expositions. Newman was not a writer for the casual reader, despite his frequent use of metaphor, his work was nevertheless multi-layered and laden with historical, classical, and literary references.
John Cornwell cleverly intermingles the practical changes in Newman's life with his religious development and significant literary works. Thus, the first part of the book deals with his education and the growth of the Oxford Movement, and the second part deals with his conversion, the Oratory, the Irish University, and the published works; 'Apologia', 'The Dream of Gerontius' and 'The Grammar of Assent'. Finally the author deals with Newman's death and legacy.
I cannot overstate the pleasure in being in the hands of such an accomplished guide as Cornwell and having the wonderful intellectual mind of Newman revealed, and the whole exercise done in such an elegant and sophisticated writing style. A book that will repay great dividends to the serious inquirer.
on 25 May 2010
Given the huge interest and importance - to Catholics and non-Catholics - of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to England this summer and the beatification of John Henry Newman, the publication of Newman's Unquiet Grave is timely and welcome. This intelligent book shows the author tackling a difficult, fascinating - and today controversial - subject with rigor, courage and respect. Combining his skills as an academic, author and expert in religious affairs and literature, Cornwell writes with intellectual honesty and, critically, a modern readership in mind; Newman doesn't feature on many reading lists nowadays - what greater tribute to his memory than to encourage new generations to read him. This book helps uncover the genius and complexity of one of the great figures of 19th century English history and letters, and of the Roman Catholic Church more broadly. In the year of his beatification, a new biography of Newman will arouse the intense interest and scrutiny of many - not just those keen to learn about Newman for the first time, but also the individuals devoted to Newman's canonisation, some of whom who would find fault with any account of their man which strays from the righteous path bordered on one side by pedantry and on the other by hagiography. But, rather than simply listen to me or the opinions of autodidacts and saintly spin doctors, get hold of a copy and decide for yourself. For an independent, objective review, I'd recommend Edward Norman's article in Standpoint. Norman is an ecclesiastical historian, former Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge and of Christ Church, Oxford and observes `What this new study does is to ask penetrating questions of the existing body of information, and, by extremely pertinent cultural cross-reference, and apposite deployment of modern insights into human conditioning, to give the reader a richer interpretation of Newman's extraordinary genius.'
on 21 June 2012
Newman's complex personality are well portrayed in this entertaining biography. As a man of his time he espoused unpopular views and his honesty often aroused bitter condemnation. This sometimes came from within the religion he adopted. He pursued truth, as he saw it, although the flaws in his thinking are more apparent in a modern context than they were in mid 19th century. He was a brilliant writer and his literary abilty seemed, to me, to be used to construct both a public persona as well as a defence of his views.
He liked the company of men and was distressed when those within his close male circle married. He had at least two very intimate, and I do not mean sexually, male friends. So close indeed that suggestions of homosexuality have been made. Whatever his liking for men there seems no reason to think that this included physical intimacy. In his pursuit of God he compared poorly with, for example, Charles Kingsley's (a vicar) desire to improve the lot of the poor. Kingsley and Newman had a famous literary spat.
This is a sympathetic and highly readable biography. Newman comes across as a man with much in his behaviour to like. His enthusiasm, passion even, for the Roman Catholic religion often seems at odds with the appalling behaviour of his colleagues within it who were as much products of that religion as himself. His reason to believe, described at length, often seems laboured and depending much on personal insights and imagination. As a biography reflecting Newman's literary and spiritually creative thinking this is a tour de force. A pleasure to read, an education into Newman's time and a sympathetic portrayal of the man. Difficult to imagine any biography being done better.
on 1 May 2015
John Cornwell never fails to interest me and is for me, a page turner, as well as a read again author. He starts with a mystery about this Cardinal's grave, and proceeds to do what any good biography does, paint his subject warts and all so that the man comes right off the page alive and real. His times, struggles, how he changes from Anglican to Catholic and how that affects those around him, kept me turning pages. His little foibles illuminate him as do his experiences of Italy, and Britain, also illuminating his day and age and all the prejudices that were there. For anyone who is interested in history and religion this is a must. I have yet to be disappointed by this author or regret buying his work..
on 15 June 2016
I was given this book otherwise I would not have read it. As a broad church C.of E. parson I began as a "reluctant reader", hardly sympathetic to Newman though my views of Newman a bit more positive than those of another broad churchman, Charles Kingsley. I acknowledge Newman's importance, for example, in relation to the idea of a university and the subject of conscience, etc, And I learnt much from this book, even in small ways. For well over 70 years singing "Lead, kindly Light", I did not know of the title Newman gave this poem or hymn with its reference to the pillar of fire by night seen in the wilderness story. And, as one would expect, it is very well-told story.
However, enough information is provided by the author to make one think he should not have been made Blessed JHN, let alone becoming "Saint" in the future - reluctant or otherwise. (He himself would not have wanted that.) Rather ironically, however, since 1978, Newman and Keble have both been in the alternative authorised Calendars of the Anglican Church of Australia, and Newman is among the "Commemorations" in the Calendar of the Church of England's Communion Worship.)
One reviewer, involved in pushing his cause is very critical of the book, but mainly just mentioning small factual errors. And there are a few other errors one could mention. For example, Dr Pusey was condemned for preaching about the "Real Presence" of Jesus in the Sacrament but, without referring to the sermon, I would be sure he did not promote the doctrine of transubstantiation (p.79). Dr Eric Mascall is the only prominent C.of E. theologian to my knowledge who was a Thomist though no doubt there were others. And in my copy (1st edition), instead of Littlemore - the village near Oxford (except when it is a sub-title on p.74), throughout we have "littletons", a rather bizarre phenomenon!
I remain quite unsympathetic to Newman but I am glad to have encountered him in what is a very well written and interesting book.
on 9 August 2010
Possibly surprisingly, I took this book on a beach holiday. I didn't look up. John Cornwell's gift is in combining serious and dense information with regular anecdotes which make the book especially insightful and especially readable. I've copied out Newman's description of the labour of writing and have it above my computer; it makes me laugh and weep and feel encouraged! Cornwell at his best - don't miss.