Rethinking Newman's Influence: The Female Sources

By Elizabeth Huddleston
Published in History & Theology
February 02, 2023
19 min read
Rethinking Newman's Influence: The Female Sources

When one thinks of the Oxford Movement, what often comes to mind is of a group of scholarly men, particularly John Henry Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey, but also John Keble, Richard Froude, and Robert Wilberforce, all of whom were fellows of Oriel College, Oxford. We also tend to think of those responsible for the Tracts for the Times—the “Tractarians”—namely: Newman, Keble, Pusey, as well as John Bowden, Hurrell Froude, Thomas Keble, Alfred Menzies, William Palmer, Benjamin Harrison, Arthur Perceval, Charles Eden, Thomas Wilson, Antony Buller, Charles Marriott, Henry Manning, and Isaac Williams.

Similarly, when we think of the reception history of the Oxford Movement, we tend to think in terms of categories, such as literary receptions or Catholic receptions of the movement. Or, we tend to think in terms of its reception by other movements, such as the reception of Oxford Movement texts, namely Newman’s texts by writers during the Modernist Crisis or by the Ressourcement movement or even by the Second Vatican Council. Yet, another common way to think of the reception history of both Newman and the greater Oxford Movement is in terms of the reception of particular texts or concepts, such as development, rituals, or the reception of Newman’s or Keble’s sermons, and the reception histories that are often reported on are primarily of the reception of the movement by male authors and academics, with a few exceptions, of course.1

There is a reasonable explanation for this. The Oxford Movement occurred forty years before women were allowed to participate in any kind of Oxford education, and ninety years before the first Oxford degrees would be awarded to women. Also, women at this time rarely participated in public life in the same manner as men. Most women writers were relegated to the literary realm, rather than the political or theological realm, and fought much harder for public recognition. It is for this reason that Marian Evans adopted the pen name George Eliot; she felt she needed a masculine identity for her work to be taken seriously. Being typically relegated to the domestic sphere creates a unique conundrum for historians who rely upon source material for our construction of narratives, as well as for our contextualization of historical episodes. Most women authors of the early to mid-1800s simply do not have the same types of published treatises, pamphlets, books, and essays that men from his era have, although some literary women do have collections of publications. Women of the same era as Newman primarily have letters, and it is only because these letters weren’t destroyed by the letter’s recipients or by the estate agents after their deaths that historians may have them today.

Adding an under-researched layer of voices and perspectives, namely those of women, is necessary for our work of contextualizing how the Oxford Movement was received at the time of its occurrence and in the greater Anglo-Catholic movement. This is especially true since nineteenth-century Anglicanism experienced a gender imbalance in which women made up the majority of those present in Anglican congregations, and it was often at the hands of women that the church functioned on a day-to-day basis, both financially and practically. Women were often the ones physically present for the sermons and passing along the High-Church message to their peers. To put it bluntly, the pastoral nature of the Oxford Movement wouldn’t have been so successful without women, who were the majority of those subject to the pastoring. These women also sought (as well as gave) spiritual and theological advice, kept the churches running, and disseminated the message of the Oxford Movement to their friends.

Introduced here are three examples of lay women who were deeply influenced by Newman in particular as well as by the greater Oxford Movement. These three women had varying degrees of interaction with Newman personally. The first is Newman’s mother, Jemima Newman, who was one of his greatest supporters in his ministry at Littlemore. As a beloved member of his family, Newman cared deeply for his mother, as he did also for his Aunt Elizabeth and sisters. The second, Mary Holmes, was a governess and musicologist to whom Newman provided spiritual direction at the height of the Oxford Movement, though the friendship would continue until her death in 1878. The final person discussed here is poet Christina Rossetti, who never corresponded directly with Newman, though she was quite influenced by Newman’s writings and the greater Oxford Movement’s ethos and body of literature, particularly after the movement had spread to London. Because of her stature as a published poet and relationship with the Pre-Raphaelites, much more scholarship exists on her life, what influenced her, and her work itself.

Biographical sketches of these three women are provided, followed by explanations of how Newman and the greater Oxford Movement were an influence on their thought and vice versa. What I am particularly interested in is what theological or spiritual ideas drew them to the Anglo-Catholic movement, as well as what influence these women potentially had on Newman.

Jemima Newman Memorial at Littlemore


Who was Jemima Newman?

Jemima Fourdrinier Newman was the wife of John Newman, a banker, and the mother of John Henry Newman. She descended from a family of Huguenot refugees who had settled in England. Meriol Trevor observes that Mrs. Newman “was a sensible woman, not a managing dominant type. She and her husband were intelligent and cultivated, but in no sense intellectuals, nor were they ambitious for themselves or for their children—they were content with their position in the world.” Continuing, Trevor notes how the Newmans brought up their children: “This [environment] created the best possible background for their clever, imaginative and lively children; there was no forcing, moral or intellectual, no strain living up to high adult standards. The memories were happy for all of them.”2

Mrs. Newman was supportive of her children and trusted her troubles to God, as is evidenced in a letter she composed to her daughter Harriet in 1824:

“He [God] it was who taught me the necessity of resignation ... the duty of silence on the only subject that [was] ever present to my thoughts. ... The effort and the resolution to persevere had been so much above human power, that I do not fear saying there is nothing too hard to be effected through His assistance.”3

Also witnessed in the correspondence between John Henry and his mother is a sense of openness and humor that we don’t always see in his other correspondences. Towards the end of her life, there is evidence that Mrs. Newman worried for John Henry’s seeming affinity for the Roman Church, though he would always try to assure his mother that he was not leaning toward Rome. Passing away in 1836, Mrs. Newman would not live to witness her son’s eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845.

Some of the most intimate correspondence between John Henry and his mother is witnessed in their letters concerning the people and church at Littlemore.

What was Jemima Newman’s role in founding the church at Littlemore?

Seen in Newman’s correspondence with his mother about Littlemore is the development of his pastoral opinion of how Littlemore ought to be run, as well as the growth of his enthusiasm for his responsibilities to the people of Littlemore, all of which were the encouragement of his mother and her love for the people at Littlemore. At the beginning of his tenure at St. Mary the Virgin—which originally included the people of Littlemore, who were located a couple of miles from Oxford City Centre—Newman would spend the vast majority of his time at Oriel and St. Mary the Virgin, while the people of Littlemore, who were without a chapel at the time, were often an afterthought. At the consistent encouragement of his mother, Newman would come to realize that the people of Littlemore had their own distinctive needs, which led to Newman’s founding of the chapel of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, as well as a school. Many of the letters exchanged between Newman and his mother at this time explained these particular needs, such as a governess to teach the children and someone to make sure the children had proper clothing and combed hair for Easter Sunday. Newman became deeply involved in the life of Littlemore and would eventually prefer it over the hustle and bustle of academic life in Oxford. Writing to his mother and sister, both named Jemima, Newman would eventually say how he wished he could spend all his time in Littlemore because he had become quite fond of the people, particularly the children.4

Much of what Newman did for the people of Littlemore was at the encouragement of his mother. In a letter dated 26 June 1836 Newman reminisced on his relationship with his mother shortly after her death, about which he said, “I can never repent it for the good she has done to Littlemore.”5 Newman dedicated the chapel he built at Littlemore to his mother, and we can observe the monument at St. Mary and St. Nicholas church still today.

How did Jemima influence her son’s theology and spirituality and vice versa?

As with many mothers, Mrs. Newman was quite influential in John Henry’s spiritual upbringing, especially when he was still living at home. Having descended from French Huguenots, Jemima was somewhat Calvinistic in her thinking and did not approve of the high-church tendencies of the Oxford Movement. Though Jemima would pass away in 1836, well before Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, we do see a tension in the correspondence between Newman and his mother about Newman’s leanings toward high churchmanship, which were seen by many as hedging upon the “popish.” Rather than hashing out the doctrinal issues they discussed, what I want to draw our attention to here is how John Henry did not react hastily or angrily toward his mother’s frustrations with him and vice versa. Rather, he mourned that he was bringing her any discomfort and mentions in a letter that her kindness toward him ministered to him. It would be this kindness and patience and the interest in her son and the people he ministered to at Littlemore, rather than doctrinal agreements and disagreements, that would sustain Newman in his mission to bring about his vision of Littlemore as its own parish, with its own chapel and school that ministered to the particular needs of the working-class people of the town.

Mary Holmes sketch


Who was Mary Holmes?

Mary Hester Holmes (1815–1878) was a convert to Tractarianism who eventually converted to Roman Catholicism in 1844, the year before Newman’s conversion. She was a published musicologist and governess, who corresponded frequently with the likes of Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackeray, and of course John Henry Newman. From an early age, she wasencouraged to become proficient in literature and languages, including French, German, and Latin. Mary Holmes was never married and tended to change jobs frequently, which caused both her and Newman trepidation at times, evidenced in their correspondence. Holmes inquired with Newman about help in publishing her first book, Aunt Elinor’s Lectures on Architecture, Dedicated to the Ladies of England (1843), which reflected the Tractarian interest in Gothic church architecture, as opposed to the neoclassical style common to England at the time. This would not be Mary Holmes’s sole publication.

From May 1850 until January 1851, the Lady’s Newspaper and Pictorial Times of London featured a series of Holmes’s articles entitled, “A Few Words about Music.” These articles were signed only by her initials “M.H.” In 1851, these articles were expanded into a book entitled, A Few Words about Music: Containing Hints to Amateur Pianists; to Which Is Added a Slight Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Art of Music, published by J. Alfred Novello. Like the newspaper articles before, Holmes published these articles under her initials M. H. As Christine Kyprianides discusses in her article, “A Few Words about Miss Mary Holmes,” despite Holmes’s accomplishments, she remains an elusive figure for historians. This is in part due to a cataloguing error, which attributed her publications to a “Mrs. Hullah,” rather than Miss Holmes. It took nearly one hundred years to notice this clerical error, and the error is still in place in many locations, as can be seen in the link directly above.

What was the nature of Holmes’s and Newman’s relationship?

Mary Holmes initiated correspondence with Newman in 1840 due to her growing interest in the Oxford Movement. Their correspondence became almost daily, sometimes even featuring multiple letters per day, for the subsequent four years. Holmes and Newman did not meet in person until two years into their friendship, though by the time they physically met they were well-acquainted with one another.

Their letters were often cordial, especially at first, though it is clear that Newman did become frustrated with Mary in the months leading up to her conversion to the Roman Church. This is especially so because Newman advised her against conversion and implored her to wait, though Mary went ahead and sought the advice of a priest and was received into the Catholic Church. Newman’s main source of frustration, aside from Mary’s conversion, was that she sought spiritual direction from both Newman and a Roman Catholic priest simultaneously. Sometimes comparing the advice, Mary followed the path in which she thought God was leading her, even though it caused some friction between herself and Newman.

The frustration that Newman felt toward Mary eased upon her conversion, and there is even an air of admiration in Newman’s tone as he wrote to Mary after his own conversion to Catholicism in 1845. While the letters after Mary’s conversion became less frequent, they remained friends until her death in 1878. Much of their correspondence is theological, in which they discuss the sacraments and the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. They also discussed architecture and liturgy, even the minutiae of liturgical performance and theology. The admiration for Mary Holmes that Newman felt likely led to his decision to transcribe the series of letters under the title, “The History of a Conversion to the Catholic Faith: In the Years 1840–1844.”

What spiritually or theologically drew Holmes to Newman?

As Mary Holmes’s interest in the Oxford Movement grew, she would eventually ask Newman to become a spiritual director for her. While Newman destroyed the more confidential letters exchanged between the two so as to preserve Miss Holmes’s privacy, in 1863 he transcribed the extant letters into a single document in order to preserve the story of her conversion, though he did not attach her name to it to maintain the confidential nature of their letters. The significance of this transcription, and what Newman seems to have wanted to preserve, is how Miss Holmes went from an interest in Anglo-Catholicism to Roman Catholicism. Holmes converted prior to Newman’s conversion, and what we have preserved in this series of transcribed letters is how she came to understand various doctrines from a Roman perspective, such as the communion of saints and transubstantiation. In these letters one feels both excitement for her faith transformation, yet betrayal when she speaks of conversion to the Roman Church—though this would be forgiven once she had actually converted, and Newman would even later agree conversion was the right decision after his own conversion to the Roman Church. We also experience in these letters doubt and frustration and joy from both Newman and Holmes as her spiritual journey unfolds.

My reason for describing this exchange in these broad strokes, rather than the minutia of her doctrinal exploration, is to demonstrate what Newman had invested in this woman whom he only met a handful of times in person. He cared deeply for her opinions and displayed an openness to her observations that we don’t see in all of his correspondences.

Photo portrait of Christina Rosetti


Who is Christina Rossetti?

Christina Georgina Rossetti was an English Romantic author and poet. Her major publications include “Goblin Market” and “Remember.” Her widest-reaching and best remembered poem today is a Christmas carol by the title “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which was later set to music by Gustav Holst. No doubt many of us who attend either an Anglican or Catholic parish in the English-speaking world around Christmas time will have heard this song sung in church at one point or another.

Christina Rossetti was the sister of poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Christina Rossetti is featured in many of her brother’s paintings and was intimately involved with the Brotherhood. A combination of her own publications along with her ties to the Pre-Raphaelites led to her fame, though her life was far from simple.

Beginning early in life, Rossetti would suffer from bouts of depression. She had a nervous breakdown at the age of fourteen, which led to her leaving school and returning home. It was during these bouts of depression in her teenage years that Rossetti became engrossed in the Anglo-Catholic movement sweeping the Church of England at the time, of which the Oxford Movement was one of the most prominent manifestations.

Rossetti spent her life in London, where she attended Christ Church, Albany Street, which wasknown as the leading Oxford Movement church in London. Along with her sister, Maria, Rossetti supported many Anglican sisterhoods, including The Society of All Saints, of which Maria would become a fully professed sister in 1876. Rossetti’s regular religious, devotional practices were encouraged by members of the Oxford Movement (such as confession and receiving Holy Communion) and would play a major role in her life and writings.

How was Rossetti influenced by the Oxford Movement?

Noted in the introduction to the 1925 edition of Rossetti’s Verses is that “Her [i.e., Christina Rossetti’s] religious views were Tractarian, that is to say, Anglo-Catholic without any leaning toward Roman Catholicism and strongly Puritan.”6 Seen in her private library is that she carefully illustrated her own copies of Keble’s Christian Year, as well as Isaac Williams’s The Altar.7 According to Diane D’Amico and David A. Kent, Rossetti held the writings of Isaac Williams in special esteem during the last years of her life, and in 1892 as she convalesced from cancer surgery, she enjoyed having her brother read from the Autobiography of Isaac Williams.

Elizabeth Ludlow demonstrates how “Tractarianism informed the early Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic and how Rossetti took this aesthetic forward and, in turn, used it to inform and disseminate Anglo-Catholic theology, contributing to the maturing of the Movement’s theology rather than being simply an [and I quote from Tennyson] ‘inheritor of the Tractarian devotional mode in poetry.’”8 This dissemination is demonstrated when, as Ludlow explains, “a number of her poems appeared in seminal Anglo-Catholic anthologies,” particularly, Orby Shipley’s Lyrica Mystica: Hymns and Verses on Sacred Subjects (published in 1865) and Lyrica Eucharistica: Hymns and Verse on the Holy Communion (1864). Ludlow argues that “the fact that Rossetti’s first volume of devotional prose was authorized by Burrows, a key Tractarian figure in mid-nineteenth-century London, strengthens the association between her writing and the Movement’s teaching still further.”

Much of Rossetti’s religious poetry can be seen as a typological depiction of “the church as a space prepared for an experience of divine revelation.” This is seen prevalently in the final lines of Rossetti’s unpublished poem “Yet a Little While”:

“We have clear call of daily bells,

A dimness where the anthems are,

A chancel vault of sky and star,

A thunder if the organ swells:

Alas our daily life—what else?—

Is not in tune with daily bells

You have deep pause betwixt the chimes

Of earth and heaven, a patient pause

Yet glad with rest by certain laws:

You look and long: while oftentimes

Precursive flush of morning chimes

And air vibrates with coming chimes.”9

According to James Pereiro, much of the ethos of the Oxford Movement “considered religion and poetry closely related, for God has used poetical language to communicate himself to man, employing symbolical associations—whether poetical, moral, or mystical—to reveal a world beyond sense perception.”10 This interplay between the earthly and the mystical can be seen in these lines of Rossetti’s poem.

How was Rossetti influenced by Newman’s writings in particular?

We know from her library that Christina Rossetti owned a copy of Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, and we also know that she admired Newman’s life and work, particularly the more poetic of his works.11 Demonstrating her admiration of Newman is her poem aptly entitled, “Cardinal Newman,” which was published on 16 August 1890, in honor of his death.

“O weary Champion of the Cross, lie still:

Sleep thou at length the all-embracing sleep:

Long was thy sowing-day, rest now and reap:

Thy fast was long, feast now thy spirit’s fill.

Yea take thy fill of love, because thy will

Chose love not in the shallows but the deep:

Thy tides were spring-tides, set against the neap

Of calmer souls: thy flood rebuked their rill.

Now night has come to thee—please God, of rest:

So some time must it come to every man;

To first and last, where many last are first.

Now fixed and finished thine eternal plan,

Thy best has done its best, thy worst its worst:

Thy best its best, please God, thy best is its best.”12

Many of the themes present in her poetry demonstrate the importance of aesthetics for our experience and understanding of the Christian experience, which are themes also found in the work of John Henry Newman, particularly within his Parochial and Plain Sermons. While Newman and Rossetti never physically crossed paths, it is important to take note of how Newman indirectly influenced her thought.


In conclusion, this article is only a part of a much larger project that seeks to understand the female reception of the Oxford Movement. Represented here are three “profiles” or “categories” of influence. The first includes the women family members of the core participants of the Oxford Movement. Represented here by Jemima Newman, John Henry Newman’s mother, these women can be sisters, aunts, wives, daughters, in-laws, or even grandmothers. The second category is represented by Mary Holmes and features those who were contemporaries of the Tractarians and had direct contact, but who were not family. As we see in the case of Mary Holmes, these women are often drawn to the movement for spiritual or theological reasons, and they sometimes sought spiritual direction or theological or religious advice from the Tractarians. The third category, represented here by Christina Rossetti, includesboth contemporaries and later generations of women who were influenced by the Tractarians, but who were never correspondents. The published authors, such as Christina Rossetti, Edith Stein, Sara Coleridge, and Maisie Ward to name just a few, are the easiest to study because the source materials are plentiful and easily attainable, and we are able to trace elements of influence within their published works.

More difficult to study, however, are those women in the pews, silently listening to the sermons of the Tractarians and maybe discussing with their friends, or those reading the Tracts and allowing the preaching to influence the way they conduct their lives and the lives of their families. The source materials for these women are often journals, personal letters, and parish registries and notes from parish council meetings, etc., which are often more difficult to track down, though the work is necessary in order to more fully comprehend the nature of the Oxford Movement and its reception history. The motivations of these women, who often made up the vast majority of those physically present in Anglo-Catholic parishes in the nineteenth century, are a major key to understanding what the Oxford Movement really was and how influential the movement was in its own day, as well as in the subsequent decades.

(This paper was originally presented at NINS’s 2022 Spring Newman Symposium, entitled “The ‘Earthly Light’ of Friendship: Newman’s Circle, Influence, and Integrity.”)

1 See, for example, Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King, eds., Receptions of Newman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) and Aquino and Kings, eds., The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

2 Meriol Trevor, Newman: The Pillar of the Cloud (London: 1962), 7.

3 LD ii, 373.

4 This becomes a frequent sentiment beginning around 1840. See LD vii.

5 LD v, 314.

6 Diane D’Amico and David A. Kent, “Rossetti and the Tractarians,” Victorian Poetry 44, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 93.

7 See Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Christina Rossetti and Illustration: A Publishing History (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2002).

8 Elizabeth Ludlow, “Christina Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement, ed. Stewart J. Brown, Peter B. Nockles, and James Pereiro (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 427–38.

9 Quoted in Ludlow, “Christina Rossetti and the Oxford Movement,” 434.

10 James Periero, ‘Ethos’ and the Oxford Movement: At the Heart of Tractarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 98.

11 See Rebecca Rainof, “Victorians in Purgatory: Newman’s Poetics of Conciliation and the Afterlife of the Oxford Movement,” Victorian Poetry 51, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 227–47.

12 Christina Rosetti, “Cardinal Newman,” in New Poems by Christina Rossetti, hitherto unpublished or uncollected (New York: Macmillan, 1896), 261–62.

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Elizabeth Huddleston

Elizabeth Huddleston

Associate Editor, Newman Studies Journal

Elizabeth Huddleston is Head of Research and Publications at the National Institute for Newman Studies and is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Catholic Studies at Duquesne University.


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