di Luca Fumagalli

Several inaccuracies continue to circulate regarding Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), the great Archbishop of Westminster who defended papal infallibility during the Vatican Council and who was among the inspirers of modern Catholic social doctrine. Due to the rivalry with the more celebrated Newman, Manning, when not ignored, is stereotyped as a careerist cardinal, solely interested in power. Obviously, this is a grotesque deformation of reality, at the origin of which there is the work of a biographer animated by the worst intentions.

After Manning’s funeral, the task of producing an official biography was claimed by Edmund Sheridan Purcell, who, according to his own account, had been commissioned by the cardinal himself. It was not a lie but it was not a truth either.

Purcell had been the founder and editor of «The Westminster Gazzette», a Catholic periodical that Manning had helped finance. At the time he was a supporter of the cardinal. However, he gradually distanced himself from Manning and in 1879, when the newspaper was forced to close, he had to resign himself to finding employment with other publishers.

However, in 1886 he found himself involved in projects – later abandoned – to reconstitute a new Catholic newspaper. Manning, as a consolation, then decided to offer him the opportunity to write a first biographical volume about him. Despite this, the cardinal refused to grant him interviews and also denied him access to his private correspondence. The reason for such an attitude, manifestly contradictory, is soon said: Manning, in truth, rather wished that his friend JEC Bodley, Sir Charles Dilke’s private secretary, would publish an official book on his life (among other things he had already started to assist him in the onerous task). Since Bodley was not a Catholic, he also arranged for a priest, Father Butler, to work alongside him as an aid in dealing with matters relating to doctrine.

However, the cardinal made the mistake of allowing Purcell not only to consult his 1848 diary – which contained an account of his stay in Rome – but also to read portions of other documents and make a copy. The latter interpreted it as a further seal of the official nature of his position, considering himself authorized to snoop around. Manning, of course, had no intention of giving him such freedom, and when he learned that the journalist had one of his diaries with him, he wrote to him in order to retrieve the precious notebook. Why, at this point, he did not put a final stop to Purcell’s aspirations remains a mystery: most likely he believed he was sufficiently safe after the agreement with Bodley.

Purcell, for his part, had no intention of abandoning the project, so much so that after the cardinal’s death he cleverly convinced everyone that he was his official biographer (although there was no mention of him in Manning’s will). It was only when a good half of Manning’s papers had been stolen that the subterfuge came to light.

Purcell’s two-volume biography entitled Life of Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, was published in 1895 and was an instant best-seller. Although the book was patchy and full of inaccuracies, the immediacy of the prose conquered readers. The real problem was that Purcell portrayed the cardinal as an ambitious, unscrupulous man eager to impose his ideas in every way.

If the enthusiasm with which the Protestants received the biography was predictable, the timid reaction of most Catholic intellectuals was not (with hindsight it is possible to explain what happened in the light of the fact that many of them were disciples of Newman and therefore they did not have a high regard for Manning’s views and actions). Only Herbert Vaughan, the new Archbishop of Westminster, dared to criticize Purcell and his work.

The reputation of the late cardinal was definitively ruined in 1918 with the publication of Eminent Victorians. The biographical essay on Manning, the first and longest of the four that make up the volume, had in fact been compiled by Lytton Strachey, mixing various passages from Purcell’s biography, all characterized with the poisonous irony typical of the Bloomsbury Group.

Since the release, in 1921, of Cardinal Manning: His Life and Labor, an excellent apologetic work by Shane Leslie, several texts were printed with the desire to restore the truth about the life and works of the cardinal. These efforts, however, were evidently not sufficient, since even today the figure of Manning continues to be wrapped in a cloak of prejudice and slander.