John Henry Newman has been in my Twitter feed a lot lately. Apparently, when this Victorian cardinal wasn’t writing his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the nineteenth century’s longest and driest autobiography (sorry, Newman), he wrote religious commentary that some people still find instructive. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Newman was in the news for very different reasons.
Just before his beatification in 2010, gay-rights activists protested the Vatican’s exhumation and relocation of Newman’s remains from the grave he shared with his dear friend, Ambrose St. John, to a chapel for public veneration. Claiming Newman as one of their own, protestors pointed his written command that his body join his friend’s in death: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”1 To the protesters, the Vatican’s flouting of this will was a deliberate erasure of what they perceived to be a same-sex relationship from public memory in order to “sanitize” Newman’s biography before sainthood.2
In response, the Vatican commissioned an article that, in reactionary fashion, proceeded to do just that. Ian Ker, a professor and priest, insisted that Newman and St. John’s relationship was purely platonic; that Newman had fought off heterosexual lust as a youth and remained committed to continent celibacy as a priest; and that had Newman been alive today, he would surely have submitted to the wishes of the Church, even if She wanted him reburied away from his dearest friend.3 Ker also would claim that none of Newman’s human remains had been discovered in the exhumation.4 With these four claims, Ker discredited the possibly homosexual nature of Newman’s relationship with St. John at the same time as he called into doubt the enduring existence of the relationship itself.
The public debate over Newman’s identity—saint or sinner, homosexual or celibate5—in 2010 echoes the public debate over Newman’s identity nearly 150 years earlier. In 1864 Newman responded to the criticism of Charles Kingsley, a popular author and adherent of “Muscular Christianity” who publicly accused Newman of displaying perversion in his converting from the Church of England to the Church of Rome—which, since the Reformation, had in England been popularly associated with sodomizing popes and the Whore of Babylon. Curiously, this exchange has today led to scholarly and non-scholarly speculation about Newman’s sexuality.
When I researched Newman for a class on Victorian life-writing, I was struck by how Newman constantly battled public misinterpretation of his life choices and writings during his lifetime. Hence, his publication of that autobiography—an attempt to definitively set the record straight on his supposed perversity. The way in which readers still endeavor today to read between the lines of his writing for evidence of sexual preference seems to me to unravel his endless work to prevent others from commandeering his self-narrative.
This potential for misinterpretation is a problem with declaring historical figures to be “lesbian/gay/bi/trans*.” To call George Washington Carver simply “gay” erases the whole history of slave castration in the American South. To call Joan of Arc simply “trans*” ignores the complexity of early notions of sartorial gender transmutability. Likewise, searching for Newman’s active (homo?)sexuality overwrites not only his stated longtime personal preference for celibacy but also the value of romantic friendship as a relationship that doesn’t have to be hetero–, homo–, or any kind of– sexual.7
To counter this tendency, queer-studies scholar Sharon Marcus advocates a reading process she terms “just reading” as a means of avoiding falling into the trap of “symptomatic reading”—that is, reading our modern versions of sexualities into earlier texts. For her, “‘just reading’ … attends to what texts make manifest on their surface.”8 The symptomatic readings of Newman’s supporters in 2010 looked for “symptoms” of homo– or heterosexuality in Newman’s life. A just reading would take Newman’s text at its word, perhaps with an eye to understanding what it meant for him, as a Catholic priest in nineteenth-century England, to be a celibate man in a romantic friendship. For this reason, “just reading” helps to do justice to the text, its author, and the full spectrum of queer possibilities across the centuries.
Next week: Queering LGBT history
- Ian Ker, “Oxford and Rome Again,” in John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 698.
- Robert Verkaik, “Plan to Exhume Cardinal is ‘Homophobic’,” Independent (London), August 25, 2008.
- Ian Ker, “Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Exhumation Objectors,” L’Osservatore Romano, September 3, 2008, weekly edition in English.
- Ibid., afterword to John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 747.
- This is their strange set of false dichotomies, not mine.
- John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua & Six Sermons, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 137.
- Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 3.
Images of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John’s grave marker found here: http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2010/09/pope_to_beatify_cardinal_newma.html
Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”