St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, famous for his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism, is widely known as a gifted thinker and writer, with his powerful and incisive intellect demonstrated in closely argued scholarship, such as Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, A Grammar of Assent, and The Idea of a University. He was also a powerful preacher and writer of prayers and devotional pieces (many collected in Meditations and Devotions) that are readily engaging to any reader. What is perhaps slightly less well known is that he was also a poet and novelist. Newman is the author of Loss and Gain, an autobiographically-inspired story of a young man at Oxford becoming convinced of the truth of Catholicism, and of the historical novel Callista, set in the days of early Christianity under the persecutions of the Roman Empire.
The Church has quite a few saints who were poets, but in John Henry Newman we have very probably the first canonized saint who wrote a modern novel. This is more than just an interesting bit of trivia; it speaks to a profound insight for evangelization in the modern day.
The novel is relatively new as a literary form. Poetry and song are as old as human civilization; as soon as writing was invented, people wrote down the epics that had already been circulating by oral tradition for many centuries. The composition of ancient poems like Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad considerably pre-dates their written form. Drama is likewise ancient; again, we can note the Greek dramas by authors such as Sophocles, whose Oedipus Rex is still admired today. Sagas and epics, the lives of the saints, parables, and tales of marvels and wonders all found their way into written form, and then into printed books, long before the invention of the literary form called the “novel.” Long prose works, usually called “romances,” were hugely popular in the Middle Ages and into the early modern period; the very first book printed in England was Sir Thomas Malory’s massive Morte D’Arthur (1485), containing stories about the adventures of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.