Eminent Victorians Themes

Themes

Ambition
Strachey’s portrait of Cardinal Manning moves relentlessly along a single track. Unlike the pious and good man perceived by the masses, Manning was ruthlessly ambitious. He pursued his own selfinterest in a calculated path of career advancement. This character trait was apparent, according to Strachey, from Manning’s early years, and the pattern continued throughout his life. The earliest hint is a subtle one. When Manning was a schoolboy, he was caught out of bounds by a master. By a clever trick Manning temporarily evaded the pursuing master, thus giving ‘‘proof of a certain dexterity of conduct which deserved to be remembered.’’ The dexterity of conduct was the way in which Manning always sensed the best way to advance his own cause.

Thwarted in his political ambitions by his father’s bankruptcy, Manning transferred his hopes to the sphere of religion. Thereafter he always had an ear for when opportunity might come knocking. When he was a country curate, for example, he married the rector’s daughter. Strachey implies this was because that gave him a better chance of advancement within the Church of England hierarchy, even though he was really in love with another girl.

With a promising career in the Anglican Church, Manning distanced himself from the Oxford Movement not over any theological issues but simply because his association with the Movement might damage his chances of advancing beyond his position as Archdeacon of Chichester. After all, ‘‘Nobody could wish to live and die a mere Archdeacon.’’

Strachey has to face a challenge to his thesis when discussing Manning’s departure from the Church of England, at a time when his star was on the rise, to become a lowly new convert to Catholicism. This might appear to contradict the picture of a man who coveted worldly ambition and achievement. Recognizing this, Strachey states, with some artful qualification, that ‘‘it is difficult to feel quite sure that Manning’s plunge was as hazardous as it appeared.’’ He then uses innuendo to suggest that Manning had already reached an understanding with the pope that ensured he would be looked after in his new religious home.

The theme of worldly ambition reaches its climax when Manning is appointed Archbishop of Westminster, the head of England’s Catholics. As Strachey puts it:

Power had come to him at last; and he seized it with all the avidity of a born autocrat . . . . He was the ruler of Roman Catholic England, and he would rule.

But even that position of absolute power was not enough to satisfy Strachey’s Manning. There was ‘‘something that irked him still.’’ That something was Newman, the only man who could challenge Manning’s preeminence. And so, from his position of power, Manning crushed Newman’s hopes of returning to Oxford and building an oratory there.

In spite of this lust for power, however, there was another, contradictory strain in Manning’s personality, that of self-abnegation. The man who acted so astutely in his own self-interest was also a man who felt the call to submit passively to a higher, divine authority; to distrust worldly ambition, and simply to accept what came along in life. Much of this, Strachey...

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