Now that John Henry Newman is a saint, many of us hope his already significant influence will continue to grow. Many people know the story of his conversion through his great memoir, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, but far fewer people have read his conversion novel, Loss and Gain. Published just as Newman entered the Catholic Church in 1845, it is a fine specimen of Victorian prose. Some people may consider just a little too churchy; but when you scratch the surface, you may discover it is highly relevant to today’s culture, just like Newman’s theological works.Loss and Gain is a good novel by a great saint. Here are ten reasons you ought to read it.
(All citations are from the excellent Ignatius Critical Editionfrom 2012, edited by Trevor Lipscombe.)
1. It’s about young people.
This book is dominated by youth, including some memorable young fogies. It’s mostly men, but some women too. Miss Charlotte Bolton is rebellious by her traditionalism, declaring, “I hate all reforms” (p. 56). Although an Anglican, one can imagine her making her way to the women of #WeirdCatholicTwitter eventually.
2. It’s about campus life.
Oxford University in the 1840’s does not seem so distant from our own era of “safe space” at elite universities. The main character, Charles Reding, is sent home, lest his supposedy anti-establishment, papist tendencies become dangerous to impressionable minds. “You will corrupt their minds, sir,” the old Principal tells him. There are relatable storylines about studying for exams and worrying about careers too.
3. It’s about family drama.
Most of us have had to deal with family expectations, and Charles feels the weight of his father’s hope for his future Protestant ministry acutely. When Charles’s father suddenly dies, it is a catalyst for deeper soul searching. There is interesting sibling stuff, and a heartbreaking mother-son farewell. Jesus says, “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?” Sometimes we really must decide, and it makes for a gripping read.
4. It’s about the heart.
Charles gets weary keeping big questions in the realm of the intellect. Like Newman himself, Charles believes these things are ultimately about the heart. Newman writes, “The heart is a secret with its Maker; no one on earth can hope to get at it or to touch it” (p. 11). In our own era of “I feel like…,” the sentimental Victorian age offers us a mirror. Newman’s novel acknowledges the power of feelings and opinions, while also reminding us they point to something more important. He says of people’s private judgment, “they use it in order ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home” (p. 174).
5. It’s about searching for truth in a world with endless options.
The first third of Loss and Gainis full of intellectual conversations among college students. Their topic is always religion, and everyone has a “view.” We are told, “it may be as well to state more distinctly what a ‘view’ is, what it is to be ‘viewy,’ and what is the state of those who have no ‘views’” (pp.24-25). One dominant view is a form of relativism called “Latitudinarianism,” embodied in the novel by Charles’s friend Freeborn and a distinguished cleric named Dr. Brownside. We rarely use the term “Latitudinarian” today, but what it stands for is still with us: Believe whatever you want, but not too strongly. Just like the young Newman, the protagonist of Loss and Gain comes to realize that not all views are created equal, and “dogmatism gradually became an essential element in Charles’s religious views” (p. 63).
6. It’s funny!
Resolved to convert to the Catholic Church, Charles finds that the London newspapers have gotten wind of his intentions, and have published his story as a scandal. He suddenly receives dozens of visitors, all pitching him one esoteric cult or fringe spirituality after another. After all, if he’s leaving the established Church, why not try to recruit him before he is lost to Rome forever? One young visitor represents an alternative “Holy Catholic Church, assembling in Huggermugger Lane” (p. 321). It is almost a foretaste Marx Brothers. In the end, Charles, like Newman himself, eschews all hilarious alternatives and makes his way into the real Catholic Church.
7. It’s about the adventure of believing.
Sometimes today’s world caricatures devout Catholics as having a “blind” faith, or embracing something boring or lifeless. When Charles finally has a conversation with a Catholic priest, he is told, “You must take a venture; faith is a venture before a man is Catholic; it is a gift after it” (p. 317). G.K. Chesterton would say many decades later, and before he was Catholic: “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.” Hooah! We all want something to give our all to, and Christ and his Church are worthy above all else.
8. It’s about identity.
In Hamlet, Polonius gives his son the trite advice, “To thine own self be true.” Or in today’s parlance, “You do you.” Our world, not unlike in Newman’s day, fetishizes individual choice. Even the basics of being human are up for grabs. In Loss and Gain we experience Charles’s relief at arriving at a place where he is free from the anxiety of self-construction. He can finally be himself, because he obeys God. “God calls me, and I must follow at the risk of my soul” (p. 303). In fact, when he obeys the call, his soul flourishes. We’re told in the final sentence of the book that Charles is “so happy in the Present, that he had no thoughts either for the Past or the Future” (p. 354).
9. It’s about friendship.
You may have an intense relationship with a friend for a while – a college roommate, for example – but then it wears off. Or maybe you go away and bump into someone from home. Maybe you think you have everything in common with someone, only to reach separate conclusions about a particular matter, and you grow apart. Or what about that person you’re not sure of at first, or even for a long while, but you later discover to be a kindred spirit? Charles Reding’s friendships come and go, but he finds an unexpected BFF in the end. It’s normal stuff that tugs on all our heartstrings, because we’ve been there.
10. It’s elegantly written.
There are some long, well-wrought nineteenth century sentences, and some pithy zingers like this one: “It was altogether a great testification.” Newman is an undisputed master of the English language. Get ready for some splendid turns of phrase.