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John Henry Newman: Patron Saint of Novelists?

October 13, 2021


St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, famous for his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, is widely known as a gifted thinker and writer, with his powerful and incisive intellect demonstrated in closely argued scholarship, such as Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, A Grammar of Assent, and The Idea of a University. He was also a powerful preacher and writer of prayers and devotional pieces (many collected in Meditations and Devotions) that are readily engaging to any reader. What is perhaps slightly less well known is that he was also a poet and novelist. Newman is the author of Loss and Gain, an autobiographically-inspired story of a young man at Oxford becoming convinced of the truth of Catholicism, and of the historical novel Callista, set in the days of early Christianity under the persecutions of the Roman Empire.

The Church has quite a few saints who were poets, but in John Henry Newman we have very probably the first canonized saint who wrote a modern novel. This is more than just an interesting bit of trivia; it speaks to a profound insight for evangelization in the modern day.

The novel is relatively new as a literary form. Poetry and song are as old as human civilization; as soon as writing was invented, people wrote down the epics that had already been circulating by oral tradition for many centuries. The composition of ancient poems like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad considerably pre-dates their written form. Drama is likewise ancient; again, we can note the Greek dramas by authors such as Sophocles, whose Oedipus Rex is still admired today. Sagas and epics, the lives of the saints, parables, and tales of marvels and wonders all found their way into written form, and then into printed books, long before the invention of the literary form called the “novel.” Long prose works, usually called “romances,” were hugely popular in the Middle Ages and into the early modern period; the very first book printed in England was Sir Thomas Malory’s massive Morte D’Arthur (1485), containing stories about the adventures of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.

But the novel as a literary form appears very late, fully so only in the eighteenth century. To be sure, there were interesting precursors. St. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) is a philosophical work in the form of a romance (in the literary sense, not the “love story” sense) that has definite hints of the literary form of the novel, while the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605) is usually named as the first exemplar of the novel.

But what exactly is a novel? The Oxford English Dictionary sets it out very helpfully as “a long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity.” It adds that “in the 17th and 18th centuries [the novel was] frequently contrasted with a romance, as being shorter and having more relation to real life.”

The novel, then, as a literary form, begins to take its modern form with eighteenth- century writers such as Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe. It fully came into its own with authors such as Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, 1813), Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist, 1839), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre, 1847).

John Henry Newman’s novel Loss and Gain was published in 1848, when the English novel had fully hit its stride.

Newman was himself a highly literate and culturally engaged man; for instance, he enjoyed the novels of Anthony Trollope. In writing Loss and Gain, he was not appropriating the form of the novel in a utilitarian way, as a mere practical vehicle to express his views. Rather, he chose to apply himself to a literary form that he knew and enjoyed in itself, with a serious end in view, to be sure, but with a sure sense of the way that a novel works as a piece of literature. That’s why Loss and Gain is so engaging, and why it has endured when so many other works of moralistic or propagandistic literature have quietly faded into oblivion. It’s a good novel, as a novel. (Readers should note that the many allusions to topical issues and people can make it slightly difficult; the Ignatius Critical Edition of Loss and Gain, with its helpful footnotes for allusions, makes it the best edition to read.)

And in choosing to write a novel, John Henry Newman was working in a form that was, at that time, relatively new. He didn’t write a “philosophical romance” (though he could have done so), but rather a work of realistic fiction, with three-dimensional, finely drawn characters and naturalistic dialogue.

What can we learn from this as evangelists? Two things, I would suggest.

First, we should be alert to the ways that ideas are expressed in creative forms—the spoken word, poetry, fiction, drama, visual arts, film, video, and so on—and be ready to take them up. But as we do that, we should be careful not to drop forms out of a misplaced idea that they’re out of fashion.

Trends come and go, but literary forms tend to be stable over much longer time periods. The novel came into being when the printing press made it possible for long works of fiction to be published inexpensively and read by a wide popular audience. Today, changes in technology have made it possible to create and distribute video content with an ease that parallels the shift from manuscript copying to the printing press: it’s not necessary to have a massive television or film studio. However, the rise of video and the accessibility of internet content has not killed off the printed book, and interactive media has not replaced novel-reading, even though a few years ago many people were ready to write the obituary of the printed word and the novel as a genre. Quite the contrary. Novels are alive and well, and they intersect with, and generate content for, video and film content. Therefore, we mustn’t forget about the novel as a valuable form, even while we appreciate and make use of other forms as well.

Second, as we engage with literary or other creative media for evangelization, we must do so from a position of appreciative engagement, not cynical utilitarianism. Those who create in a form must appreciate that form and its characteristics.

I’ll close by observing that reading fiction is also good for us as evangelists in this modern era. Reading a printed book creates a distinctive and positive experience. (eBooks are useful and have their place, but the reading experience is not the same: it is less physical, less incarnational, and it does not permit the reader to get away from the busy world of media and technology.) Reading fiction helps to strengthen one’s imagination, which is an important human faculty, but one that can become enfeebled by the passive stimulation of videos and images. Reading fiction, especially in a printed book, allows one to physically unplug from the constant stream of distractions supplied by the media and our technology (turn off notifications on your phone!). And it cultivates sustained attention—the very thing that is so fragmented by our distracting media environment but that we need if we are to attend to God and to each other.