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Like Newman’s troubled journey towards Rome, Gladstone’s agonized change of mind in 1845 over the Maynooth grant for the training of Catholic priests in Ireland is charted in letters that reveal his vulnerability and uncertainty, and a nervousness that is uncannily reflected in the mechanics of the uniform penny post. One of Browning’s letters was left in the Barretts’ letterbox and one of Newman’s was dropped on the road. In Gladstone’s case, heightened tension leads to the blunder of a unsealed ‘secret’ letter being sent to the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. And with a blizzard of such correspondence surrounding Gladstone’s concerns about the Maynooth grant, it seems to have been a leaked letter that enabled The Times to report his imminent resignation from the cabinet. This Gladstonian drama is played out in two acts, the first in private, the second in public through printed open letters regarding Maynooth.
The private letters exchanged between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett provide a dramatic contrast to the open letters discussed in Part I, the tone of which tends to reflect the robust nature of the political debates associated with three public scandals. The confidential letters exchanged between two highly gifted and sensitive poets explore themes, such as liminality, and contain symbols, such as those of sight and blindness, of a kind that also features in their poetry. These letters are intimate, focused and exclusive, gradually relaxing in style as mutual trust grows between the lovers and a long series of nuanced exchanges establishes a private set of shared associations and references. All this is made possible through the security of the uniform penny post that was so fiercely defended during the Mazzini scandal. References to the mechanics of letter writing, descriptions of the rooms in which the writers sit and references to delays in the delivery of letters ground the correspondence in the material culture of the day, enhancing a sense of immediacy and sometimes of synchrony.
The fascination of the early Victorian period lies in the fact that it is at once close to and distant from us. It is distant not least because its politics were undemocratic, with unpaid white male MPs and cabinets largely drawn from the upper classes, and its Christian beliefs and practices shaped what can described as a shared religious culture. (Ruskin’s prose and Barrett’s poetry are ‘illegible’ in Carlylean terms without a working knowledge of the bible.) Norman Gash describes the ‘vast mass of static forces in the country’ in the age of Peel, ‘the great aristocracy, the country gentry, the Anglican Church, the universities, the legal profession, the established financial and commercial interests, the fighting services, the permanent civil service’, that ‘underpinned the traditional structure of the State’.1 On the first Reform Act he adds, ‘The middle-class banking, mercantile, and industrial elements were no stronger after 1832 than before.’
Public engagement with the twin scandals associated with the railways was much more direct, as most of the victims were ordinary citizens. These individuals shared their experiences by writing eyewitness accounts of crashes, or of approaches made by speculative stags, in letters to the press. Some of the newspapers that published these letters of protest were themselves caught up in the politics of the ‘railway interest’, occasionally engaging in internecine warfare through statements written by their editors. And Sir Robert Peel, whose government was responsible for the control of the railways, was prepared to address the nation directly, if anonymously, by drafting text for a Times leading article in a letter to his chancellor of the exchequer.
A third scandal of 1845 was associated with the poor law, one of the most controversial aspects of the ‘Condition of England Question’. When appalling abuses in a workhouse in rural Hampshire led to a public enquiry, MPs and their constituents alike were riveted by reports in the national press. The poor law was administered from the metropolis through official correspondence that ran to tens of thousands of letters each year. Press reports and a later select committee of the House of Commons revealed that the boundaries between official (semi-public) and private letters were sometimes blurred at critical moments in the Andover story. As in the Mazzini debates in the Commons, however, such letters were often the most solid evidence available. Troubling parallels between all three scandals of 1845 that are under review in this part were used by the Revd Sydney Godolphin Osborne, the most lively contributor of letters to The Times on the subject of the Andover workhouse, thus twisting the tail of Sir James Graham, the beleaguered home secretary of the day.
This chapter considers John Henry’s Newman’s correspondences from when he turned his face Romeward, in 1843, through to his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. First, I relate the six-year delay in his converting both to his late release of news of his true religious opinions to three close friends and colleagues and to the way in which, when finally written, the most painful letters enact delay syntactically. Behind these delays lay a reluctance to inflict pain on others by leaving what he called ‘the English Church’, abandoning the struggle to reclaim its catholic identity through the Oxford Movement, attaching himself to what many regarded as the Antichrist and thus cutting off his closest friends and relations. Second, I contrast two correspondences that came to a head in 1844 and 1845, one with two of his disciples, the other with his sister Jemima. Finally, I examine some letters from the time of Newman’s reception. Intimacy involves honesty, and in the letters of 1843–45 Newman was torn between confiding in a correspondent and endangering their own settlement of mind. He warned his friend Henry Edward Manning, the other future ‘convert cardinal’, about engaging in a ‘dangerous correspondence’.
While Ruskin was in Italy, writing home to his father, his future mentor, Thomas Carlyle, was corresponding with individuals about their Cromwell letters and asking for information on the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. He was also keeping friends and family informed by letter about the agonies of editing and writing, as he wrestled with the difficulty of making Oliver Cromwell ‘legible’ to a modern audience. Meanwhile he seemed to be oblivious to the fact that his infatuation with a wealthy aristocratic woman was driving his wife Jane towards nervous collapse. In a letter of 17 April 1845, Jane Welsh Carlyle, famed for her wit and kindliness as an informal literary hostess and for her brilliance as a letter-writer, shared her agony with her own family in Scotland. She told John Forster that her husband was ‘too much occupied with the Dead just now to bestow a moment on the Living’. The emotional crisis Jane experienced that month proved to be the turning point in a protracted drama within her marriage, which played out between 1844 and 1846. At the heart of that drama lay conflicting ideas relating to life and death, both in reality and symbolically.
The scandal associated with the opening of Giuseppe Mazzini’s private letters by the Post Office, on the orders of the government, fuelled a series of debates in the cockpit of the House of Commons. Those outside the House relied upon press reports on the debates for information, reports that included accounts of private letters and secret dispatches being brandished as evidence by both the home secretary, Sir James Graham, and his opponents. Two open letters to newspaper editors – Carlyle’s of June 1844 and Mazzini’s of February 1845 – were influential in their commentary upon the central themes of political honour and public morality. And Sir James Graham, leading statesman and devout evangelical, was humiliated when the ‘Grahamizing’ of letters became a craze, encouraged by Punch. But the general public remained on the outside, looking in upon the parliamentary hurly-burly.