The media never pass up an opportunity: every big event or anniversary nowadays leads to a landslide of books, newspaper features and television documentaries. Last year, the media's favourite Victorian was Charles Darwin, given the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. This year, the mantle may pass to John Henry Newman, due to be beatified - a vital stage on the path to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church - by the Pope on his visit to Britain in September.
It is entirely appropriate that Newman should follow Darwin. Both left behind their original faith - Darwin in Christianity as a whole, Newman in the Church of England. Newman was one of the earliest Christian supporters of Darwin's theory of evolution outlined in Origin of Species, which so spectacularly challenged the assumptions of Victorian Christians about creation. Newman's own masterpiece, Apologia pro vita sua, was about another evolution, that of his own beliefs from evangelical Protestantism to High Church Anglicanism and eventually to Roman Catholicism. Even as the tide of faith may have been receding for many Victorians, it flooded in for Newman.
But will non-Catholics care as much about Newman as non-biologists do about Darwin? Certainly English Catholics need no persuading, both progressives and the more conservative claiming him as their own. Cornwell makes a strong case that so should non-Catholics.
Newman's path to Rome can be traced to his leadership of the Tractarian movement when he gathered around him acolytes who aimed to renew the Church of England, seeking to resist the influence of evangelicals on the Church and then to recover ancient Catholic faith and practice. By 1845, however, Newman abandoned hope of reform within Anglicanism and was received into the Catholic Church. Although he was eventually appointed a cardinal, Newman's influence was not because of high office. That he is one of the Church's greatest figures is because of his literary achievements.
As well as his remarkable Apologia, he was the author of the Grammar of Assent, an enduring account of the origin and development of religious belief, and The Dream of Gerontius, a poetic exploration of death, a copy of which was found on the body of the assassinated Gordon of Khartoum. But arguably his most important work, which took his influence well beyond the realm of the Catholic Church, was The Idea of a University.
This book owes its origins to discrimination against bright Catholics in England and Ireland in the 19th century. They were barred from English universities. By 1851, Pope Pius IX and Cardinal Cullen of Armagh asked Newman to set up a Catholic university in Dublin. Out of this invitation came a series of lectures in which Newman demonstrated powerfully the vital importance of the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of the Church or employers, but for its own sake.
Cornwell writes about Newman and his time with verve and lucidity. Great spats and spite prevailed in the Church and beyond it, and Newman was both a victim of viciousness and a master of sarcasm. His introspection and self-absorption are not always attractive, but Cornwell usefully highlights that Newman, as much as Wordsworth, was part of the Romantic tradition that saw the imagination as the means to understanding the sublime. Out of introspection comes meaning.
Cornwell's exploration of this 19th-century context serves as a reminder of the pitfalls besetting anyone who tries to make a historical figure fit a contemporary mindset. Gay campaigners, for example, have sought to claim Newman as their own, given his relationships with other men, particularly Ambrose St John, with whom he asked to be buried. While there is evidence of love, proving a sexual element is almost impossible. But it is certainly true that Newman prized friendship, a gift undervalued today by both the religious and the secular.
Above all, this is a portrait of a complex man who fits neither the progressive nor the conservative template. It was Cardinal Manning, not Newman, who cared passionately for Irish migrant workers and for striking dockers. Yet the cardinal with a social conscience was the one who was notably obsequious to the Pope, while Newman displayed greater independence of mind. That free mind caused Newman to insist on the importance of the laity in a highly clerical Church and to focus on the paradox of the informed conscience versus dogma and Church authority. As Newman himself put it: "I shall drink - to the Pope, if you please, - still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards." For that alone, many Catholics think him heroic.
Newman's Unquiet Grave: the Reluctant Saint
Continuum, 288pp, £18.99
Catherine Pepinster is editor of the Tablet