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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 the Church permeated English and still more American intellectual life, partly through the books his firm published, partly through his perpetual journeys throughout the English-speaking world, chiefly to lecture but often incidentally to encourage and reprove.

He was a great wit and a sharp one. Wilfrid Sheed records many instances. I liked especially his remark to a priest who had preached on marriage: “I was edified, Father, that you seemed to know so little about it.” He was pernickety about decent English and was a severe critic of syntactical blunders and stylistic vulgarisms. He saw and deplored the coming of psychobabble into American religious writing; but he, and Dorothy Day through the Catholic Worker, kept psychobabble at a distance and broke with the bad Catholic tradition of neoscholastic jargon. For Frank anything that was worth saying was worth saying as plainly as the subject matter permitted.

Wilfrid Sheed sees Frank and Maisie as challenging the fundamental ethos of American Catholicism, an ethos represented by “Father (or Sister) knows best,” an ethos which presupposed that whatever was enunciated by the clergy about Catholic doctrine, and most of the things advanced by the clergy at the level of practical wisdom, were to be swallowed down and not even chewed with relish lest what made up the mouthful should come to be analyzed with too much curiosity. They were able to do this because their historical information was excellent, they had thought in an original way about the theological topics embodied in the jejune local pronouncements, and they were able to summon up witnesses of undeniable orthodoxy in the form of the books on their list as publishers: Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Karl Pfleger, the French Dominicans, the Lyon Jesuits were powerful and intimidating writers.

Wilfrid Sheed weaves his own autobiography—or rather sketches for it—into the narrative of his parents’ lives with skill and tact. How it felt to be a boy, and then an adolescent, and then a young man, now in England, now in the United States, is given to us con brio, and some of the painful transitions are given with an economy that carries its own pathos. This is especially marked in his treatment of his attack of polio and its physical and psychological consequences.

All this is pleasant and worth having, both in itself and as a contribution to the social and intellectual history of Anglo-Hibernian Catholicism in and out of the United States. Those who want to study this history in depth won’t be able to neglect Sheed’s book or, for that matter, Frank Sheed’s own volume of memoirs, The Church and I.* But there is all the same something a little unsatisfactory about Sheed’s treatment of Frank and Maisie. He is sympathetic and affectionate, never rude or curmudgeonly; he attributes no great crimes to them in their ways of bringing him up; he doesn’t doubt their qualities as thinkers and scholars. But there is something wrong in the way he comes to his task; and what is wrong is represented by what I can only call his unrelenting facetiousness.

Now Sheed is indeed, as he himself emphasizes, a writer of comedy. He tells us that when he found himself the secretary of the junior common room of his college at Oxford and had to write minutes of meetings, “I needed…to put spin on everything to get it to move at all, so I stuck to comedy, not out of choice, but of necessity.” It may be that he can’t think of another way of telling his story, or telling it in such a way as not to bore the reader. I think he is mistaken. It is true that from time to time the vicissitudes of Sheed and Ward demand a comic treatment and it is also true that American Catholic life in the period in which they flourished offered scope for comedy. Some of it is black comedy. It is hard to smile indulgently at the memories of Cardinal Spellman and Father Coughlin. But much of it is knockabout stuff.

All the same, serious matters were in question. This is the very premise on which the lives of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward were erected. The truth or otherwise of Catholicism, the nature of the Church and its relations to the men and women who compose it, the implications of the Gospel for matters of personal morality and for questions of social justice, all these are matters of some seriousness. Now, readers who are Wilfrid Sheed’s contemporaries or elders know their way around such questions; but those who are younger often lack the elementary information Wilfrid Sheed takes for granted. I am not sure that on all the episodes he touches any reader under thirty-five could pass even a simple examination.

For example, there is a brilliant sketch of Father Leonard Feeney S.J. but the development of his thought and the reasons for his collisions with ecclesiastical authority are not made clear. This is an episode of some importance in the settling of opinion in the pre-Conciliar Church in the United States. A zealous Boston priest, Feeney was condemned by Rome for insisting on an especially savage interpretation of the principle that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” Almost certainly there was sympathy with his rigorism among some of the clergy. But the swift Roman action was an uncovenanted piece of good fortune for American Catholicism. Many other persons and events are touched upon with some sharpness, but Sheed doesn’t give enough historical information to make the persons and episodes plainer for the contemporary reader. More solid history into which the lives of Frank and Maisie could have been inserted would have made the book profitable and more useful.

Frank comes out as an extraordinarily simple person, Maisie as a woman who belonged in many ways to the end of the Victorian period rather than to her own time. Her literary work—her book on Chesterton is quite the best ever written about him—was unaffected by new ways of writing and is stylistically and spiritually close to the work of her father, Wilfrid Ward, the biographer of Newman. Frank’s simplicity shows itself in his never-failing confidence in the power of reasonableness. In his autobiography he wrote of the Modernist crisis during the reign of Pius X: “Their [the Modernists’] questions remained—to explode sixty years after. If only the question had been discussed fully and freely then, the explosion of the seventies might not have occurred.” This is like the things believed by so many good people—for instance, that if only ordinary people knew the members of other nations better, through, say, sharing in holidays or games, wars would be less likely to occur. The thought of Pius X and his curial officials sitting down to discuss the synoptic problem with such scholars as Alfred Loisy or Marie Joseph Lagrange, both parties coming to an agreed conclusion, is so bizarre as to be scarcely conceivable. That Frank Sheed could conceive it is evidence of his sweetness of character and general amiability, but shows he lacked political sense. Perhaps only such simplicity made it possible for him, with Maisie, to do so much, more than anyone else, to prepare the English-speaking world for the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council. It also made him a wonderful father, for simplicity and unworldy hope are shining domestic virtues.

I have already mentioned what strikes me as the excessively facetious tone that pervades so much of this memoir. Perhaps it is strong evidence of how Wilfrid Sheed’s English education has shaped him. It is the English, not the Americans, who try to disguise the expression of deep feeling with irony, to diminish excessive praise with “not bad” and “quite good.” But when he comes to give us an account of Frank’s final days the sheer force of the events compels him to pull out a few more stops and to move us, as he himself is moved. Frank had to face, and in a way accept, in his own family and in the families to whom he stood in a quasipaternal relationship, the fragility of marriage and the existence of sexual unions for which the standard moral theology made no provision. He was made very uncomfortable by much of this but he overcame his discomforts and strove to keep lines of communication open. He had never lived in a world of mock-heroics and fist shaking, so that his adaptation to the new disorder of the personal lives of those around him was not so difficult as it might have been for a stiffer Catholic with a less agile mind and a harder heart. What made him so lovable to the end was not only his own sweetness of character but his love for Maisie. This seems to have remained always fresh. They loved each other and admired each other; and remembered to praise each other. As Wilfrid Sheed remarks, “This mutual star-struck quality was the dynamo that made the whole thing work, family, publishing house and all.”

We feel privileged to be brought within such a family. Despite the facetiousness, and the occasional failure to fill in as much of the historical detail as the picture needs, Wilfrid Sheed’s memoir is amusing and in the end affecting, a witness to times that will soon seem as remote as the world before the internal combustion engine. However remote they may be, they are alive in Frank and Maisie.

  1. *

    Doubleday, 1974.

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