‘NEWMAN COLLEGE, founded 1892 in memory of the theologian John Henry Newman (1801-90). Located on the Woodstock Road between Somerville and Green Templeton Colleges on the former site of the John Radcliffe Infirmary, Newman is the smallest and perhaps the most appealing of Oxford’s Victorian colleges. The austere classical facade conceals a wealth of rococo gardens and a number of annexes whose gothic brickwork far outshines that of Keble and the Oxford Union. Newman has a well-deserved reputation as much for junior common room pranks – in one recent ‘rag’ the men’s eight bumped their great rivals Somerville in a banana boat – as for Norrington-table-topping academic endeavour.’
Excerpted from ‘Oxford: A Rough Guide’ (Dorling Kindersley, 1986)

Just in case you were wondering, I made everything in that last paragraph up. As anybody who has ventured further north than Husayn’s kebab van outside the Taylorian will know, there is no Newman College between Somerville and Green Templeton. There is, in fact, an attractive building which used to be a hospital and now backs out onto an enormous construction site. Rumour has it that the University is going to build its new Linguistics faculty there.

But it could so easily have been different. Theology may not grab many headlines today, but in a less secular age a hundred and fifty years ago it was as big as politics. Oxford was the site of a battle for the soul of the nation. The group of Anglican theologians who came to be called ‘the Oxford Movement’ were demolishing the individualist foundations of their Church. They saw salvation in the Via Media, a reconciliation with the teachings of the earliest years of Christianity. With Catholicism in its purest sense. They left an indelible mark on the University: John Keble had the great Legoland palace that is Keble College founded in his memory, while Edward Pusey had a PPH and a road.

Yet there is no evidence of the most brilliant of the Tractarians to be seen in Oxford, except a bronze bust in Trinity and a modest plaque outside St Aloysius, the city’s Catholic cathedral. John Henry Newman could have had it all. Newman College. The Newman Library. Hell, why not Newman Square down by OUSU and the Westgate? But in 1845 he overturned his life’s work – and jeopardised the credibility of the Movement – by converting to Roman Catholicism.

Never has there been such opprobrium since Anakin Skywalker went over to the Dark Side. Newman traded a reputation as one of the finest minds and certainly as the finest writer in the Church of his day in exchange for peace with his conscience. The deal worked out better than you might have expected, though: he received a Cardinal’s red hat in his own lifetime, and on September 19th of this year he will become the first Englishman to join the Communion of Saints since the seventeenth century.

It’s about time, then, for a new portrait of the man who did more than anybody else to bring Britain in line with Catholicism and the Church in line with modern science. Enter ‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave’ by John Cornwell. What this is not, in spite of its subtitle ‘The Reluctant Saint’, is a discussion of Newman’s beatification. What it is is a welcome attempt at a literary biography.

James Joyce may have thought of Newman’s ‘cloistral silverveined’ prose as the best ever written in English, but most modern readers will find even his more accessible works long-winded and oversubtle. Cornwell acts as a kind of oracle for Newman, decoding his major works into clear, simple English. It is a joy to watch him filleting important books like the ‘Apologia pro vita sua’ and the ‘Grammar of Assent,’ setting all the meat on the reader’s plate with none of the Victorian grease and gristle. He summarises Newman’s ideas beautifully, and yet he is always happy to let his subject speak for himself in moments where he is simply inimitable.

Cornwell is a vigorous writer in his own right; the front cover suggests a Channel 4 documentary (maybe Time Team), and he has the television presenter’s lightness of touch, leavening his intellectual account with a fair sprinkling of anecdotes. He is stylish, astute, and above all easy to read. Take his summary of the Apologia, for instance: ‘[it] becomes not just a history of his opinions, but a dramatised psychology of philosophy of mind, fraught with intellectual, historical and spiritual anxiety.’ His literary approach really comes into its own in sections on Newman’s presentation of himself and his influence on James Joyce.

That said, Cornwell can fall away into obscurity at times, especially when he is describing one of his pet theories about Newman and the Romantic poets. ‘Newman’s Unquiet Grave’ is also spoiled by some chimpanzee-level editorial mistakes, ranging from the petty – Cornwell manages to misquote a line of the Aeneid in two different forms in the same paragraph – to the downright bizarre, as every reference in the book to Newman’s spiritual home at Littlemore (near Cowley) has been replaced with the word ‘littletons’ [sic]. But in doing what he sets out to do – to present Newman’s thought to a new world with fresh importance and fresh urgency – Cornwell succeeds brilliantly. Newman has serious questions to pose to the twenty-first century, and you will find them at their most forceful in this book.