Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: Blessed John Henry Newman in Fiction

Ignatius Press has a sale on this summer as always and I bought two books last week: Meriol Trevor's Shadows and Light: A Novel and Evelyn Waugh's A Bitter Trial, which I'll read and review soon. Meriol Trevor wrote a great two part biography of John Henry Cardinal Newman, so she had great preparation for this novel, which Ignatius reissued in 2012. I added it to my reading list then.

This is excellent historical fiction--since Trevor knows Newman's life so very well--with the requisite mix of fictional and historical figures. The protagonist, Clem (Clemency) is the daughter of a rather jaded Anglican clergyman. She knows Mary Newman and thus meets John Henry, Jemima, Harriet, and Mrs. Newman--she keeps hoping she'll meet Frank because he looks so handsome in his portrait!

When her father dies, Clem movies in with her relatives to help take care of their daughter. She meets one of their cousins, suspected as ne'er-do-well rich dandy, Augustine--and he guesses her secret and offers her an escape from her hopeless predicament. As Clem and Augustine grow closer together, John Henry Newman begins to move further away from his life and career in Oxford. Trevor's plot brings Newman and Clem together often enough for us to see his progress in the Oxford Movement--from Keble's "National Apostacy" sermon to Newman's life in Littlemore after Tract 90 raises such a controversy--as he moves closer to joining the Catholic Church.

Clem moves closer to becoming a Catholic herself through her marriage to Augustine and her travels in Europe: in fact, it is the anti-Catholic bigotry she encounters in England that drives her to defend the Church (and her husband's Catholic faith). She discovers more and more how misunderstood her husband is: his family has never known his drive and will, but Clem at last sees his charity, faithfulness, and loyalty.

The novel continues through great historical upheavals like the loss of the Papal States, the Restoration of the Hierarchy and anti-Catholic riots, the growth of industry and transportation--and the unfolding of Newman's life as a Catholic, enduring so many failures, including the Achilli trial, the Irish University, the Rambler crisis, reaching its high point with the Apologia pro Vita Sua and the Cardinalate. Clem and Augustine live in Birmingham, so they see his struggles and help him as much as they can, defending him from attacks and misunderstandings. Leonie Caldecott in her foreword notes that Trevor tried as often as she could to use Newman's own words from letters and other writings, for Newman's dialogue--this adds verisimilitude to the novel.

This a wonderfully readable book--with strong supporting characters and a warm and interesting protagonist. I highly recommend it as good historical fiction and a good introduction to the life of Blessed John Henry Newman.

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