Frank and Maisie
A book written by a child about his parents tends to be either an exposé revealing dirty little secrets that show the famous politician, actress, or writer to be a terrible parent, or an unbridled hymn of praise for a parent who could do no wrong. Wilfrid Sheed’s Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents avoids both of these extremes to present a loving but understanding portrait of two remarkable persons, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward Sheed. The first thing to be noted is that Frank and Maisie were unusual parents and that they had many eccentricities. For example, they spoke on street corners in defense of their Catholic faith, which made young Wilfrid think that they were crazy. But however confused Wilfrid was—he is very amusing about his bewilderment—the relationship with his parents remained close through street oratory, a number of moves to different cities and countries, and serious illness. The reader comes to see the book as not only a biography of Frank and Maisie but also a memoir of Wilfrid Sheed’s boyhood and youth. The most important element in that period was, naturally, his relationship with his parents.
Sheed begins with a brief introduction to the “world” of Sheed and Ward, the famous Catholic publishing house that came out of the marriage of Frank and Maisie. That world was surrounded by Catholicism but did not have a trace of dull piety. Sheed describes it well: “But what we had was never quite religion. It was a whole life and a merry one, and it never occurred to me not to live it. It was simply the thing we did.” His parents put their faith into practice at every moment in their lives. They argued for their faith at Hyde Park and other less well-known places. As a result, Wilfrid thought that his parents were outsiders and “gypsies.” Sheed captures very well the point of view of a young child; this is not the fifty-year-old son confidently assessing the role and place of his parents—this is a young child who had no idea what was going on.
Sheed then traces the history and background of each parent. He is especially good on Frank Sheed. Frank was an Australian with a Presbyterian-Marxist father and an Irish-Catholic mother. To make the combination even more unlikely, Frank attended a Methodist Sunday school. His father, however, was an alcoholic, and he beat his wife and child when he was drunk. As a result, his wife, Mary “Min” Maloney Sheed, left him and took the children with her. Frank admired his father’s intelligence, and his social ideals may have had a great influence on Frank later, but his mother’s influence on his choice of a religion was even more important. Frank became an underground Catholic for a few years because his father’s family was strongly anti-Catholic. Thus, the influence of Min and her family, coupled with a desire for something he had not yet found in Methodism or Marxism, was crucial.But what got him hooked in the first place? The frontier-style Protestantism he had seen lacked a certain charm: the Presbyterianism seemed harsh, the Methodism bland. This left the field clear, since his father’s droning Marxism had made even rationalism a thankless chore. But of course it takes more than an absence of anything else to make one an ardent believer. The personal heat required for this came originally from Frank’s feelings for his mother.
Frank was also a scholarship boy. He won several awards and one of the first scholarships to Sydney University. He studied law, and both sides of the family expected him to become a great man in Australia, even a high judge. Frank, however, began to have some doubts about the law as a career, and, although he did complete a law degree, he never practiced. What finally convinced him that the law was not for him was his perception of how the law worked. “As soon as I realized that some lawyers were paid more than others, I knew there was no justice.” It obviously took a lot of character to resist not only the material rewards of the law but also the pressure from friends and relatives. Moreover, he left the law for the badly paid profession of publisher. Nevertheless, his sense of what was right would not let him continue in the law.
Wilfrid Sheed is very good on the religious and intellectual development of his father, but he is brilliant in capturing Frank’s personality. Frank loved music and dancing and was always heard singing a song or humming one. He also loved the sun and beaches of Australia and the fellowship he found there. He decided, however, that he would always be a “big fish in a small pond” in Australia, so, after much conflict, he set out for England, where he met Maisie Ward.
The picture the reader has of Frank Sheed is very sharp; he is seen struggling with a monstrous father; he is heard singing or playing the piano. Maisie Ward, however, remains an evanescent figure. Instead of describing her personality and interests, Sheed focuses on her family and her background. Her family was gentry and had converted to Catholicism during the controversy of the Oxford Movement. Her grandfather William Ward decided to become a Roman Catholic like his friend John Henry Newman rather than remain in an Anglican church that would not change. Her father, Wilfrid Ward, was the editor of the Dublin Review, and he fought against Modernism in the Church. It is clear that the Wards, including Maisie, were dedicated to their church; this may have been, perhaps, because of their recent conversion. Maisie did not attend a university, as it was the custom of women not to at the time, and she did not have a specific career in mind. So she became secretary to her father, and she helped him in his work on the Dublin Review. She later would write biographies of G. K. Chesterton, whom she met and admired at this time, and Robert Browning.
What, then, brought Maisie Ward together with Frank Sheed? She not only was from a very different background than Frank, but she was also eight years older than he. As might be expected, their Catholicism brought them together—perhaps the one thing they had in common. They both became speakers for the Catholic Evidence Guild and began to see each other. Wilfrid Sheed is rather sketchy about his parents’ courtship. One of the few points he does mention is that friends thought that Maisie would dominate Frank, but it is clear that Frank was the stronger figure, and he was to remain so throughout their marriage.
In addition to speaking, Frank and Maisie became more closely involved with the Ward publishing house, and they would eventually make it into the famous house of Sheed and Ward. It was the time of the Catholic literary revival, and Sheed and Ward published books by Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson, Hilaire Belloc, and G. K. Chesterton.
Wilfrid Sheed effectively contrasts the intellectual world of his parents to his world of Robin Hood, military games, and fights with his sister. It is clear that no matter how high-minded the parents were, the children had a...
(The entire section is 2876 words.)