Correspondence of Cardinal Newman and Lewis Carroll

By August A. Imholtz, Jr.

One scarcely thinks of John Henry Cardinal Newman and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) as having much of anything of substance in common; but, despite their deep differences, they did. Some well-known commonalities in the lives of these two eminent Victorians may be briefly noted: both men were mathematicians and classicists; both were educated at the University of Oxford (Newman was first a student at Trinity College and later a fellow of Oriel, whereas Carroll remained at Christ Church for almost his whole life); both were clergymen profoundly committed to their religious beliefs; both wrote poetry (Newman  The Dream of Gerontius and many shorter poems and Carroll The Hunting of the Snark along with many other shorter verses); both were novelists (although Newman’s Callista is read today surely far, far less than even Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno); both knew wine (Carroll as curator of the Christ Church Common Room and Newman, as evidenced in his advice to Dean Richard Church on wine prices); both were eulogized not only in The Times but in newspapers around the world upon their deaths eight years apart (Newman in 1890 and Carroll in 1898); and both have been part of our culture for more than a century and three quarters. And both wrote letters to children

By 1841 Newman’s long relationship with the University of Oxford and the Anglican Church had almost reached a breaking point.   In that year Newman, long the champion of the Tractarians, published in Tract 90, the final tract of the series, his arguments against the Thirty-Nine Articles.  He left Oxford the following year to write and lead a quasi-monastic life with several followers at Littlemore.  In 1845 he became a Catholic.  He was ordained in Rome in 1846, given an honorary doctorate of divinity by Pope Pius IX, founded the Birmingham Oratory in 1848 in Maryvale on the city’s outskirts and then relocated the Oratory to Edgbaston Road in 1852, and by 1879 had been raised to the rank of Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.   
Newman first met the daughters of Richard Church, Dean of St. Paul’s and a lifelong friend, when he visited the Church family at Whately on June 21, 1870. Helen, the oldest of the three girls, was twelve at that time.  In a letter to his friend Frederick Rogers, Dean Church described Newman’s visit:

‘He was very well and happy, walking and even running, though it was very hot weather.  I took him to Longleat, and you know how he lets himself go when he enjoys being out in the air on a fine day, and looking at what he thinks beautiful; and Marston and Longleat looked their best for him.  He made himself quite at home with Helen and the children; with the children he compared notes about children’s books, which has ended in their sending him, and his very heartily accepting, one of their books of nonsense, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which he did not know, and they thought he ought to.’

A few years later, the three daughters of Dean Church, Helen, Mary, and Edith, sent Newman a copy of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. Here is Cardinal Newman’s letter to Helen Church, April 19, 1876, in response to that gift:

My dear Helen,
Let me thank you and your sisters without delay for the amusing specimen of imaginative nonsense which came to me from you and them this morning. Also, as your gift, it shows that you have not forgotten me, though a considerable portion of your lives has passed since you saw me. And, thanking you, I send you also my warmest Easter greetings and good wishes.
The little book is not all of it nonsense, though amusing nonsense; it has two pleasant prefixes of another sort. One of them is the “Inscription to a Dear  Child,” the style of which, in words and manner, is so entirely of the School of Keble, that it could not have been written had the "Christian Year" never made its appearance.
The other, “The Easter Greeting to Every Child, etc.,” is likely to touch the hearts of old men more than those for whom it is intended. I recollect well my own thoughts as I lay in my crib in the early spring, with outdoor scents, sounds and sights wakening me up, and especially the cheerful ring of the mower's scythe on the lawn, which Milton long before me had noted; and how in coming downstairs slowly, for I brought down both feet on each step, I said to myself “This is June!” Though what my particular experience of June was, and how it was broad enough to be a matter of reflection, I really cannot tell.
Can't you, Mary, and Edith, recollect something of the same kind, though you may not think so much of it as I do now?
May the day come for all of us, of which Easter is the promise, when that first spring may return to us, and a sweetness which cannot die may gladden our garden.

Ever yours affectionately,

John H. Newman

Carroll was so pleased with that letter, presumably sent to him by Dean Church, that he wrote to another Helen, Helen Feilden, on May 14, 1876:

My dear Helen,
I am going to give myself the pleasure of copying for you (what I hope will also give you some pleasure to read) a letter written by Dr. Newman to a young lady thanking her for sending him a copy of the “Snark.”  I do not copy it for what he says about the book, but about the Easter Letter – I value very much more any appreciation of it than of the book – and I think it will interest you, as you are one of the few who have taken any notice of the Letter.  The name of the young lady is Helen, which give you an additional claim to have a copy of the letter.
[Carroll here quotes Newman’s letter printed above.]
Is it not beautiful?
Give my kindest regards to your Mother, I have thought many times of her letter, but feel no hope of writing such a book as she suggests.  And now, humbly imitating Dr. Newman, I will sign myself to my “Helen,” as he does to his,
Ever yours affectionately,
C.L. Dodgson 

  Carroll obviously was deeply touched by Newman’s remarks even though he may not have held Dr. Newman in great esteem as an arbiter of literary nonsense like that of his  Snark.  Nor did he always mention Newman by his “Dr.” title, for in his diary entry for May 24, 1880 he recorded:

Percival, President of Trinity College, who has Cardinal Newman as his guest, wrote to say that the Cardinal would sit for a photo, to me, at Trinity.  But I couldn’t take my photography there, and he couldn’t come to me: so nothing came of it.  Percival had asked me to come and meet him on Saturday, but I didn’t go.

Here is another example of a Newman letter to a child, this one written to one of the daughters of Mrs. F.J. Watt, Feb. 21, 1878:

My dear Child,
It is pleasant to find that Mama has so old a daughter that she can write letters instead of her, (and yours is a very nice letter), -- but still I am very sorry that the reason why Mama employs you is that she is ill.  Give her my love and thank Grandmother for her letter, and wish you and the rest all blessings that are best,
I am,
My dear Child, yours affectionately,
John H. Newman

In their respective letters to children, Newman seems touching and solicitously friendly yet he maintains an avuncular tone often with a hint of a religious subtext; whereas Carroll in his letters to his child friends seems playful, almost always placing himself on an equal footing with his young correspondents.


1James Morris wondered whether Carroll’s verses didn’t sound like “something naggingly familiar to the style of the verses Newman himself addressed to his friend Pusey, ten years before the poetical debut of Humpty Dumpty?”  Here are the lines Morris meant:

    I saw thee once, and naught discerned
    For stranger to admire;
    A serious aspect, but it burned
    With no unearthly fire.

    Again I saw, and I confessed
    Thy speech was rare and high;
    And yet it vexed my burdened heart,
    And scared, I know not why.

Oxford. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World: 1965) p. 242
2 ‘I enclose the Wine Merchant’s prices.’ The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman. Edited by Charles Stephen Dawson and Thomas Gornall, S.J. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973) Vol. XXV, p. 149.

3As Edward Wakeling commented: “The Oxford Movement founded by Keble and Newman, and supported by Pusey…was gaining momentum at this time.  Clergymen were developing and adopting theological ideas based on the early Christian Fathers, medieval philosophers and High Church principles.  The ground was set by the Tractarians who systematically translated many of the texts of the early Christian Fathers; Dodgson’s father contributed by publishing in 1841 a translation of Tertullian which provided much historical information on early Christianity.  Dodgson’s own views did not always coincide with his father’s high church ideals; essentially, he was Broad Church in his outlook.  Hence, he probably looked with some skepticism at moves to recover old ritual in public worship, many still practiced by Roman Catholics.” -   Lewis Carroll’s Diaries: The Private Journals of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. (Luton: The Lewis Carroll Society, 1997) Vol. IV: May 1862 to September 1864, pp. 10-11.

 4 ‘Frederic Rogers, 1st Baron Blachford (31 January 1811 – 21 November 1889), British civil servant, eldest son of Sir Frederick Leman Rogers, 7th Baronet (whom he succeeded in the baronetcy in 1851), was born in London.  He was educated at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, where he had a brilliant career, winning the Craven University scholarship, and taking a double first-class in classics and mathematics. He became a fellow of Oriel College in 1833, and won the Vinerian Scholarship (1834), and fellowship (1840). He was called to the bar in 1837, but never practised. At school and at Oxford he was a contemporary of William Ewart Gladstone, and at Oxford he began a lifelong friendship with J. H. Newman and R. W. Church; his classical and literary tastes, and his combination of liberalism in politics with High Church views in religion, together with his good social position and interesting character, made him an admired member of their circles.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Accessed online 20.6.2012.
 5 Meriol Trevor. Newman: Light in Winter.  (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1962) p. 490.

 6 Helen Beatrice Church (1858-1900) married Francis Paget in 1883, who was successively Dean of Christ Church and Bishop of Oxford.  Paget delivered the funeral eulogy for Dean Liddell in 1898.

 7 Newman. Letters and Diaries. Vol. XXVIII. 1975, pp. 52-53.
 8The Letters of Lewis Carroll. edited by Morton N. Cohen. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) Vol. I, pp. 250-251.

 9 Carroll Diaries. Vol 7. p. 272.

 10 Of course not every Newman letter beginning “My dear Child” was in fact addressed to a child –  letters to servants, nuns like his friend Emily Bowles, and congregants often began with that pastoral salutation.

 11 Newman. Letters and Diaries. Vol. XXVIII, p. 317.

Further Notes.

Whatley, where William Church was the incumbent from 1858 - 1871, is near Frome in Somerset. Holy Trinity, (right) , was designed by Gilbert Scott and consecrated in 1846. The village, where Newman visited Church in 1870, had a population of not more than 300. (See Page 18) Church turned down a canonry at Worcester in 1869 but reluctantly accepted the post of Dean of St. Paul’s when Gladstone offered it in 1871. Dean Church was at Henry Parry’s Liddon’s funeral in St. Paul’s cathedral in September 1890, Lewis Carroll did not go to the funeral. This funeral in September 1890 was the last time Church was seen in public as he died in December 1890 aged 75. He is buried at Whatley.

It is significant perhaps that Church was not buried in St. Paul's as William Church was put into the place as dean in order to rescue it from the mess it had supposedly sunk into at that time. Liddon, who is buried there, raised attendances by his lunch time preaching which brought thousands of people into the building.

August A. Imholtz, Jr.