From the goosebump-producing thrills of Wilkie Collins’s fiction and the melodramas on offer at the Royal Princess’ Theatre to the headlines blaring in the Illustrated Police News, the Victorians savoured the sensational. The attention-seeking title above is patently untrue, yet, for more than five decades, John Henry Newman (the Cardinal) was emotionally, spiritually, and textually connected with a woman who just happened to be linked to the family of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet. The woman in question, Maria Rosina Giberne, was and is a wholly intriguing figure.
Granted, she is never mentioned by name in Hopkins’s diaries or letters. Never. But Maria Rosina Giberne (originally de Giberne, a Hugenot family name) was, in all likelihood, the first convert to Roman Catholicism Hopkins ever met; a person who recommended Newman’s advice; an artistic role model; and an example to Hopkins’s family that a papist who has taken religious vows was not necessarily the anti-Christ.
The connections begin with George Giberne, who served the British Empire as a judge in India. In July 1846, after retirement from the East India Company, he married Maria Smith, the younger sister of Hopkins’s mother, Kate. The couple then moved to Epsom. Biographers mention that Hopkins was ‘the favourite nephew’ of Maria and George Giberne, visiting them often. The artistic influence of the couple is significant: his aunt took him sketching; his uncle, an accomplished photographer, introduced Gerard to photographic theory and practice, and used him as a model. (George Giberne’s photos are the only known records of Hopkins’s youthful appearance.) Not only did the Gibernes encourage Hopkins’s interest in drawing (many of the architectural features sketched in his diaries are modelled on George’s photographs), but it was at Epsom that Hopkins met George’s younger sister, Maria Rosina, also an artist. Maria Rosina Giberne became an Evangelical at twenty, then a Tractarian, then, with Newman as her spiritual adviser, she converted to Roman Catholicism in December 1845. In Newman’s company, she was presented to Pope Pius IX in autumn 1846; she lived in Rome until 1855, earning her living as a portrait artist (in later years, she copied religious paintings for English churches). In 1863, she became a nun, Sister Maria Pia (in honour of the Pope who encouraged her), as part of the Order of Visitation at Autun, France. She died of a stroke in December 1885 (when Hopkins was “at a third remove” in Dublin).
Giberne’s bonds with the Newman family were created by a marriage and cemented by suffering. Her elder sister married Walter Mayers, the Anglican clergyman and schoolmaster who introduced John Henry Newman to “a living faith”, in 1816. Maria Rosina became part of their interconnecting social circles. In January 1828, she was visiting the Newmans when Mary, the youngest daughter, suddenly took ill and died. (Fifty years later, Newman vividly recalled the event in a letter to Sister Maria Pia, the grief still fresh.) Francis Newman, the proverbial “difficult” son, proposed to Maria Rosina at least twice, but it was her relationship with John Henry that endured. The latter refers to Maria Rosina in one extant letter to Hopkins, sent 26 September 1870, on the occasion of Hopkins taking his first vows as a Jesuit. After congratulating Hopkins “on an event, so solemn and so joyful to you”, Newman observes: “Miss Giberne is very happy, I find, at Autun, but just now in sore distress… Indeed, who cannot be in distress about France[?].” (He was referring to the Franco-Prussian War, and the Communards’ assassination of the Bishop of Paris and fellow clergy.)
Why was it too challenging to eke out even this bare-bones biography of a minor but significant figure in the lives of two eminent Victorians, Newman and Hopkins? First, there is the anti-feminist factor, so common in the historiography of any era. Because the well-trodden “paths of male entitlement” were unavailable to Maria Rosina Giberne, there are no easily-recovered traces of her in the records of, for example, Highgate School, or Eton, or Oxford, or the Inns of Court, or the Royal Academy, or the National Gallery. (Giberne made several drawings of the Newman circle, and created at least three portraits of her dear friend: one in which he wears his Oratorian collar and cassock (c. 1846‒47); one in which he is seated, in Rome, with Ambrose St. John (c. 1846‒7); and Newman Lecturing … in Birmingham (c. 1851). All are owned by the Birmingham Oratory, as is her watercolour self-portrait in a nun’s habit (c. 1863), which continues to hang in Newman’s room.) Her textual and artistic ‘remains’ survive because of one man she knew—Newman—and a great-nephew, Lance de Giberne Sieveking, famous for the people he knew or could write about.
Secondly, there is the stigma factor. The Newman biographical industry has been prodigious since his death in 1890, but Maria Rosina Giberne has been something of a persona non grata presumably because acknowledging a profound emotional bond with a woman would somehow detract from his saintliness. (The exception is Joyce Sugg, Ever Yours Affly: John Henry Newman and His Female Circle, 1996.) No established Newman scholar apparently knows that Sister Maria Pia is Hopkins’s aunt by marriage. And yet—there she was, painting well-regarded portraits of significant nineteenth-century figures in three countries, illuminating Newman’s life, gracing Hopkins’s. In the words of the Latin inscription Newman chose for his memorial tablet: “Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem”, “from shadows and images to truth.”
Featured image credit: ‘Newman’s desk in the Birmingham Oratory’ by Lastenglishking. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.