The Good Life

Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents

by Wilfrid Sheed
Simon and Schuster, 296 pp., $17.95

One can’t easily write about the lives of one’s parents without memorializing oneself, as for example Edmund Gosse does in Father and Son. Such a task is not at all like writing the life of a public figure, and this is true even if one or the other or both of the parents should be well known outside the family circle. Memory is one of the tools to be used, perhaps the principal one, and, given the savagery and tenderness—the sweet and sour—of life in most families, the bringing to the surface of memories that have lived deeply will certainly be disturbing and may even be painful. The story of one’s relations with one’s parents, and also with one’s brothers and sisters, is a vehicle for making a reckoning of some kind, at least where the teller of the tale is middle-aged or old. It is also impossible to judge the mother and the father—John Stuart Mill got rid of half of this problem by never mentioning his mother at all—unless its being a fundamental act of impiety should give it a special relish; but self-judgment can’t be avoided.

Wilfrid Sheed loved his parents and was loved by them in their two quite different styles. They were an improbable pair. She was English Catholic gentry, a grandchild of “Ideal” Ward, the genial rollicking character who contributed the comic note to the generally more solemn Tractarian music of the 1830s and 1840s. She grew up knowing a lot about history, literature, and Catholicism but didn’t really become educated about the world until she met a singular young man from the antipodes and married him.

A young man, devout without show or affectation, Frank was early interested in loosening up the world of Anglo-Hibernian Catholicism and in talking defensively about Catholicism, especially in public, and especially in London’s Hyde Park. He and Maisie became the great stars of the Catholic Evidence Guild, and it is said that those who never heard Frank talking about Alexander VI, the tortures of the Inquisition, castrati in the papal choir, or Henry VIII’s marriage affairs never heard Catholic apologetics at its best. Frank was more interested in the central themes of religion, and when he and Maisie set up, first in England, later in the United States, the publishing firm of Sheed and Ward, a firm whose whole reason for existence was to advance the intellectual lives of Catholics by introducing them to the best work of European Catholics, Frank began to reach his full stature.

He was always an original. He had a background in which Presbyterianism as well as Catholicism was important; he married into the gentry without being excessively impressed by them. His whole life was to serve Catholicism but he was the least priest-ridden of men. The clergy were often puzzled by him, some came to love him; but it is clear that his attitudes to religion and to …

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