Friday, April 25, 2008

‘A Wasted Life, Better Left in Silence’

(Above, the white sheep of the family.)

From the Catholic News Agency:

‘…The Vatican has approved the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the English convert and theologian who has had immense influence upon English-speaking Catholicism, the Birmingham Mail reports.

John Henry Newman was born in 1801. As an Anglican priest, he led the Oxford Movement that sought to return the Church of England to its Catholic roots. His conversion to Catholicism in 1845 rocked Victorian England. After becoming an Oratorian priest, he was involved in the establishment of the Birmingham Oratory.

He died in 1890 and is buried at the oratory country house Rednall Hill.

The Catholic Church has accepted as miraculous the cure of an American deacon’s crippling spinal disorder. The deacon, Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, Massachusetts, prayed for John Henry Newman’s intercession.

At his beatification ceremony later this year, John Henry Newman will receive the title “Blessed.” He will need one more recognized miracle to be canonized.

The case of a 17-year-old New Hampshire boy who survived serious head injuries from a car crash is being investigated as a possible second miracle…’

Most people take pride in their family history of having descended from one or more famous people, and although in many cases the stories don’t hold up, they often make for a good telling around a wine-fueled dinner table. My family really doesn’t have anyone famous in their background; we have many good stories of our ancestors, but none of them were famous. Except for Cardinal Newman.

My grandmother’s (on my father’s side) maiden name was Newman, and the story that I was repeatedly told growing up (assuming I remember it correctly) is that it is the same Newman as the family of the famous Cardinal Newman. Now, John Henry Newman, being a catholic cardinal, was not married, and didn’t have kids, so we obviously didn’t descend from him. No, we are descendants of one of his brothers.

Cardinal John Newman had two brothers (and three sisters). His youngest brother, Francis William Newman, was a Unitarian and a well respected professor of Latin in University College in London. We’re not descended from him. No, the story is that we’re descended from the middle brother, Charles Robert Newman. From ‘Charles Newman and His brothers,’ published 1956 by Martin Svaglic:

‘…Few, however, seem aware that there was a third Newman brother named Charles Robert, one year younger than John, the story of whose eccentric life has come to be known in any detail only since 1948…Francis Newman passed it over on one page of his strange little ‘corrective’ book on the Cardinal, calling it a “wasted life, better left in silence.” [Cardinal] John Henry did his best to keep hidden from public curiosity what he called the “aimless, profitless, forlorn” life of his brother, even to the point of buying up from a virtual blackmailer a batch of Charles’s letters, after his death in 1884, to prevent their coming to popular attention…’

Charles Newman was the family black sheep, an atheist and a reclusive hermit, who was pretty much ostracized by the family, although supported enough for him to spend most of his life by himself in a small cottage in Wales. He didn’t start out as a hermit; he started out as a school teacher. That didn’t end so well, as this reminiscing letter to the New York Times from an admirer of Charles in 1884 points out:

‘…At the time I am speaking of, [Charles] Newman was miserably poor, entirely dependent on his small pittance as an usher in a third-rate country school. The task of teaching rude Sussex louts was, as might be imagined, intolerably irksome to a man of [Charles] Newman’s high intellectual power. It was like chopping logs with a fine-edged razor. The relations between him and his principal soon became strained, and the connection did not last long. The engagement was suddenly terminated by a tussle between the usher [Charles Newman] and his class, in which, as might be expected, the usher got the worst of it. He was knocked down, and, unable to defend himself with his hands, he employed his teeth, inflicting a bite on some fleshy part of his assailant’s person with such effect that the boy fled howling. This act sealed Newman’s fate. He was instantly dismissed…

[Archbishop] Hare, I remember, used to make excuses for Newman’s religious and moral obliquities on the ground of partial insanity. There was a screw loose somewhere…’

Pretty soon, Charles ended up spending the rest of his 40 years living in a small cottage in the Welsh town of Tenby. Another reminiscence from an admirer:

‘…Dressed in a pea-jacket, with a shawl or a rug thrown over across his shoulders, and with a sou’-wester over his head, he marched along-rigid, erect, with staccato step, looking not to the right nor to the left. He wore shoes (sometimes slippers) and, as his trousers were short and wide in the legs, a considerable interval of his white socks was left exposed. I am sorry to say that the lads and lasses and the vulgar sort of folk regarded Charles Newman at Tenby much as the formerly did Tennyson at Farringford and Carlyle at Chelsea. Once, I recollect, when he came to me to tea, he was followed to the door by a crowd of gaping urchins, whom I had to disperse with the threat of a stick…’

Charles died in 1884, and his writings, which is what he busied himself with during those 40 years in Tenby, were mostly destroyed by the Cardinal and other members of his family. What remained was collected and published posthumously in 1891. Long out of print, his ‘Essays in Rationality’ (along with a good potted biography) has been scanned and is now available as part of Google’s effort to put every book ever printed on line.

The problem, as you may have noticed, is that nowhere in my (admittedly brief) research can I find any mention of Charles Newman ever marrying or having kids, which could obviously pose a problem to those in my family who tell the story of our being Charles’s direct descendants. But it’s a good tale to tell at a wine-fueled dinner table, being descended from the ne’er-do-well brother of a soon to be beatified Cardinal.