Melissa Wilkinson, Frederick William Faber, A Great Servant of God, Gracewing Leominster, 2007.

Melissa Wilkinson, Frederick William Faber, A Great Servant of God (Gracewing, Leominster, 2007) £20, ISBN 0 85244 135 5 (hardback), xviii + 322pp


Reviewed by Paul Shaw, SMG Central Congregational Archivist, April 2009


The case of the famous Victorian Catholic preacher, writer and Oratorian Father F. W. Faber is a fascinating one, and this extremely thoroughly researched biographical study is therefore very welcome. A reviewer in The Tablet in 1860, writing of the leading Oxford Movement converts, asked whether amongst contemporary ‘ascetic theologians’ there were any ‘whose writings are so voluminous, so original, so full of piety…as those of F. Faber?’ Those familiar with the libraries of nineteenth-century female religious will perhaps, like me, be aware of the prevalence of multiple copies of his once-acclaimed works such as Bethlehem and The Foot of the Cross, now largely unread.

Faber’s works were once immensely popular, but his reputation seems to have been heavily eclipsed.  His literary reputation had apparently already collapsed by the time of the centenary of the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1950, as evidenced by the volume of essays edited by Bishop Beck (The English Catholics, 1950). His mission work in Brompton is praised, but the opportunity was not lost to record Newman’s acerbic comment that Faber’s The Blessed Sacrament was the work which would be most likely to turn him into an infidel. The ubiquity of references to Newman in the historical literature means that Faber seems often now to be viewed through the prism of their relationship, primarily in relation to the dispute which led to the break between Faber’s London Oratorians and their distinguished founder in Birmingham.

There have been modern biographical studies of Faber and his milieu by Ronald Chapman (1961) and others, and also work by Sheridan Gilley, including his very balanced biographical sketch in the New Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford DNB, vol. 18, pp.871-3), but none of this seems to have done a great deal to restore interest in Faber’s abilities or reputation. Thus in the comprehensive study of Catholicism in England and Wales from 1850 From Without the Flaminian Gate (ed. by Hodgetts and McClelland, 1999), a brief mention is all that Faber receives.

One might hope, therefore, that a new biography would attempt to utilise new research to re-explore Faber’s life, and to place it in the context both of current scholarly debates and the concerns of his own time. Such a study might in particular be expected to try to analyse those features of his literary works which were so powerfully appealing to his contemporaries, and yet which, as a totality, have so signally failed to make an appeal to subsequent generations.

Melissa Wilkinson has found and utilised in great detail a mass of new archival material not utilised by Chapman, as a comparison of their bibliographies easily demonstrates. This includes the Rule of the ‘Wilfridian’ order which Faber founded abortively in 1846, and which is subjected to a very useful and detailed analysis. The book is based on the author’s own doctoral thesis on Faber’s ‘intellectual and spiritual development’, and as one might expect it is very effectively referenced, indexed and illustrated. The author’s avowed aim is to ‘present as complete a picture …as possible’ drawing on all available sources, in order to make a ‘comprehensive picture of Faber’s life and spiritual development’ (p.xvii).

Approximately half of the book consists of a chronological biographical account, the remainder being an analysis of Faber’s most important books, including published hymns, and a section on his sermons, followed by a summary conclusion. In this format and structure may be said to lie many of the virtues and some of the drawbacks of the book as a study of Faber’s life. Wilkinson’s careful use, in particular, of Faber’s letters to his close friend J. B. Morris is immensely useful in discussing in detail the nuances of Faber’s thinking. The development of Faber’s theological outlook is charted with admirable thoroughness. A close analysis of Faber’s sermon notes are particularly revealing when used for this purpose.

The author explores in fascinating detail Faber’s ambivalent relations with Newman, one of the most significant and successful elements of the book. A very valuable outcome of Wilkinson’s research comes from her description of the effect of Faber’s ill-health on his relations with Newman and others, which previous biographers of the latter have perhaps been happier to regard as evidence of hypochondria or mental instability. The author also claims that due to his admiration for St. Philip Neri, which pre-dated that of Newman, Faber was the originator of the idea of the establishment of the Oratory in England (p.124). This had, in fact, been noted previously by Ian Ker (John Henry Newman, 1988, p.437). Given Faber’s uncertain health and mercurial temperament, it is difficult to know how seriously to assess the suggestion that he may himself have successfully founded the Oratory in England, had circumstances allowed.

Unfortunately, the author is not always entirely successful in dealing with the external events of Faber’s life. A good example of this is where the author describes Faber’s important visit to Rome in 1843 (pp. 75-81), giving a much more convincing account of his intellectual position than Chapman; but it is to the latter that one needs to go to for an actual account of his very important meeting with the Pope, and also for the admiration of Philip Neri which seems to originate with this visit. This lack of external detail can at times be somewhat bewildering and disorienting, in the context of very sustained and dense exegesis.

Some of the less successful elements of the book would appear to relate to the very specific focus of the author’s doctoral research. The result of this is that matters which would loom large in a standard ‘life and works’ biography seem to be absent or to be curiously truncated. We are told for instance of Faber’s relationship with William Wordsworth (p.39) but the focus on his spiritual development means that the author does not feel able to discuss this in detail. In general the sections on Faber’s literary works suffer from a lack of context and detailed quotation, the absence of which makes any assessment of the particular effects of Faber’s protean and extravagantly individualistic style on his contemporaries, including religious, difficult to arrive at.

The author’s conclusion largely consists of a summary and recapitulation of the overall thesis, and it may perhaps be said that this was something of a lost opportunity to provide an overall assessment of Faber’s life and career. It seems somewhat insufficient to say as Wilkinson does that the reason for Newman’s current popularity lies largely with the effectiveness with which his works have been presented by his advocates (p.284). In his study of Victorian hymns (Abide with Me, 1997, p.139), Ian Bradley records the rather touching story that Newman in his final years had come to prefer the joyous certainties of one of Faber’s hymns to his own Lead Kindly Light. However, the atmosphere of sobriety and doubt characteristic of Newman’s hymn is in notable contrast to the combination of perfumed excess and dogmatic assertion which is typical, as the author admits, of much of Faber’s work. Despite the many strengths of Wilkinson’s study, there is still room for a longer and more comprehensive biography of Faber, which has a more outward-looking gaze the better to account for his appeal to his contemporaries, and thereby assess the full nature and extent of his legacy.