Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/White, Joseph Blanco
WHITE, JOSEPH BLANCO (1775–1841), theological writer, was born at Seville on 11 July 1775, and christened José Maria. His grandfather, an Irish Roman catholic, as the heir of an uncle, Philip Nangle, had become head of a large mercantile house at Seville. His father, after some early misfortunes, carried on the business successfully, and married an Andalusian lady of noble descent and small property. Other Irishmen became partners in the house, and formed a ‘small Irish colony,’ in which some English was spoken; although the Whites translated their name into Blanco and became virtually Spaniards. Joseph was put into his father's office at the age of eight. He hated the business, and preferred lessons on the violin. His mother thought commerce degrading, and had him taught some Latin. At twelve he declared his desire to become a priest, in order to escape the counting-house. His mother induced his father to consent. He was allowed to attend a school, and at fourteen he was sent to study philosophy at a Dominican college. An accident led him to read the works of Feyjoo (1701–1764), who had attacked the scholastic philosophy still dominant in Spanish colleges. This induced the boy to revolt against the repulsive teaching of his masters. He was then allowed to enter the university (October 1790). He formed a friendship with a senior student of literary tastes, and they started a little society to read papers on ‘poetry and eloquence.’ He also gained some knowledge of French and Italian literature. He was, however, still studying theology with a view to the priesthood, and had taken the ‘four minor orders’ at the age of fourteen. At twenty-one he took subdeacon's orders, though with some misgivings. Both his parents were very devout, and he complains bitterly of the long services which he had been forced to attend, from the age of eight. From fourteen he had daily to read his breviary and to spend an hour in ‘pious reading’ and meditation. The ‘spiritual exercises’ in which he had afterwards to join had a powerful effect upon him. Though they excited him so far as to suppress his scruples about taking orders, his taste was shocked by the ‘cloying and mawkish devotion,’ and by the material imagery employed to stimulate the emotions.
While a subdeacon Blanco was elected fellow of the college of Maria à Jesu at Seville, a position of trifling emolument, but conferring some social advantages. He became reconciled for a time to his profession, and at Christmas 1800 was ordained priest. He gained some credit by performing public exercises as candidate for a stall in the cathedral of Cadiz; and in 1802 was appointed, in spite of some intrigues, to a chaplaincy in the Chapel Royal of St. Ferdinand at Seville. Meanwhile his religious scruples had been again awakened. He was popular as a confessor, and his experience convinced him that the system had demoralising effects especially upon the nuns. One of his two sisters had taken the veil, fell into bad health, and died in consequence of the unwholesome life in the convent. His indignation increased his doubts, and, though he endeavoured to confirm his faith by preaching a sermon against scepticism, he at last gave up his belief in Christianity. He made the acquaintance of two priests of similar opinions, who lent him freethinking books, carefully hidden for fear of the inquisition. His mental struggles led to a bad illness, and he was profoundly affected by the decision of his younger sister to enter ‘one of the gloomiest nunneries at Seville.’ She had already become hysterical; she soon developed mental and physical disease, and died a few years later. Blanco obtained leave to reside for a time at Madrid in order to escape his painful position. There he was appointed for a time ‘religious instructor’ to a newly founded Pestalozzian school. Meanwhile the French were entering Spain. Blanco hoped that the rule of Joseph Buonaparte would be fatal to the inquisition and the religious orders. He yielded, however, to his patriotic sentiments, and returned to Seville. There he was appointed as co-editor with a Professor Antillon of the ‘Semanario Patriótico,’ a paper established by the central junta. His political philosophy was not approved, and the paper was suppressed. He was appointed, however, to draw up a report on the constitution of the cortes, and compelled the inquisition to hand over to him some of the prohibited books in their possession. When the advance of the French forced the junta to leave Seville, Blanco White resolved to escape from the country and the priesthood. He fled with some of his friends to Cadiz, where he was in some danger, as the patriots thought that fugitives must be traitors. He claimed, however, to be a British subject, and conclusively demonstrated the fact by replying ‘damn your eyes’ to the official who inquired into his character. He was allowed to sail in the English packet, and reached Falmouth on 3 March 1810. A son of the painter, John Hoppner [q. v.], was carrying despatches by the same boat, and brought him to London. Hoppner the elder had just died, and Blanco White was at a loss in a strange city. He had thought of obtaining employment as a musician in a theatre. Some Englishmen who had travelled in Spain, especially Lord Holland, John George Children [q. v.], and Lord John Russell, received him kindly. He applied to Richard, son of Lord Wellesley, for employment at the foreign office. Wellesley introduced him to the French bookseller Dulau, and through Dulau he was introduced to one Juigné, a French refugee priest, who had become a printer in London. Juigné agreed to give him 15l. a month to conduct a monthly periodical to be called the ‘Español.’ Blanco (who now added White to his name) wrote the original matter, and filled the rest up with translated documents, to be circulated in Spain in defence of the national cause. The labour was considerable, and Blanco White gave offence to one party by supporting the independence of the Spanish colonies in America. He says that he was libelled and seriously threatened with assassination. Juigné also had tricked him into a very bad bargain. The paper was partly circulated by the English government, which, however, did not dictate his politics. He constantly consulted Lord Holland and Holland's friend, John Allen. The paper was carried on with success till after the final expulsion of the French, when he was rewarded by a life pension of 250l. a year from the English government. Blanco White's health, however, had broken down, and his life was ever afterwards tormented by repeated if not continuous illness. Besides writing, he had worked hard to improve his English and to learn Greek. He had also renewed his theological studies and become a Christian again, finding, as he thought, that the church of England had cast off the corruptions which had driven him from catholicism. He took the sacrament in his parish church in 1812; and, after dropping the ‘Español,’ signed the Thirty-nine articles on 10 Aug. 1814 to qualify himself for acting as an English clergyman. He settled at Oxford to pursue his studies. He read prayers occasionally at St. Mary's, and felt a revival of his religious enthusiasm. He left Oxford in 1815 to become tutor to Lord Holland's son. He led an ascetic life in the singularly uncongenial atmosphere of Holland House. The Hollands were personally kind to the last, but he found his duties as a tutor irksome, and finally retired from his position in June 1817. He lived for a time with his friend James Christie in London, then stayed for a couple of years with a Mr. Carleton at Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire; and in 1821 returned to London to live near the Christies. His ill-health depressed him, and he felt himself a burden to his friends, who, however, seem all to have been greatly attracted by his amiable character. In 1820 he was slowly improving, and was invited by Thomas Campbell, then editor of the ‘New Monthly,’ to contribute articles. The first part of his book, ‘Doblado's Letters,’ appeared in the ‘New Monthly,’ and made him generally known. He wrote the article upon ‘Spain’ in the supplement to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica.’ He was engaged at the end of 1822 by Rudolph Ackermann [q. v.] to write the chief part of a journal intended for Spanish America, called ‘Variedades.’ He was to have 300l. a year as editor, and carried on the work till October 1825 (Life, i. 225, 397). He gave it up upon becoming interested in the controversy between Southey and Charles Butler upon the merits of the Roman and Anglican churches. He published his ‘Evidences against Catholicism’ in 1825. It was warmly praised by his friend Southey. To prove his independence, he declared that he would never accept preferment. By this book and its sequels he became a protestant champion, and scandalised his friends at Holland House by turning even against catholic emancipation, though with some hesitation. In 1826 the university of Oxford conferred the M.A. degree upon him in recognition of his services to the church, and in October he settled at Oxford as a member of Oriel College, intending to pursue his studies. He was made a member of the Oriel common-room, and was welcomed by the men who were soon afterwards to be leaders of the Oxford ‘movement.’ Newman (who played the violin with him), Pusey, Hurrell Froude, and others were on very friendly terms; but his closest friendship was with Whately. Whately and his friend Nassau Senior were interested in a new quarterly which was started in 1828 as the ‘London Review.’ Blanco White was appointed editor, and Newman was one of his contributors. The ‘Review,’ however, was too ponderous, and died after two numbers. Meanwhile White's knowledge of the catholic church made him interesting to the rising party. He was officiating as a clergyman, and preached to the university. He explained the use of the breviary to Pusey and Froude (Life, i. 439). His knowledge of the scholastic philosophy, then hardly known at Oxford, interested his friends. When Hampden preached the Bampton lectures of 1832 upon the corruptions of the true faith introduced by the schoolmen, he was thought to have been inspired by Blanco White. Liddon says that the ‘germ’ of the book is in Blanco White's ‘Facts and Inferences’ (an early version of his ‘Heresy and Orthodoxy;’ see Life, iii. 362). Mozley in his ‘Reminiscences’ takes the same view, although Hampden's friends denied what appears to be at least a grave overstatement. The general argument was too familiar to require a special suggestion, though Blanco White may have drawn Hampden's attention to the particular line of inquiry. Blanco White's later career made it desirable for Hampden's opponents to attribute the book to heterodox inspiration.
Blanco White's singularly sensitive character made his Oxford residence uncomfortable. He was keenly annoyed by the attacks of the protestant party when he voted for Peel at the election of 1829. He thought that the university generally disliked him as a foreigner and an outsider. Not being a fellow, he was only on sufferance in the Oriel common-room; the servants were impertinent, and junior fellows took precedence of him. Rough raillery from old-fashioned dons stung him to the soul; and he was humiliated by civilities as savouring of charity. When his friend Whately left Oxford on becoming archbishop of Dublin in 1831, the position became intolerable (see Life, iii. 126, &c., and Mozley). Whately soon offered him a home. He was to live as one of the family and to act as tutor to two lads, sons of Whately himself and of their common friend Senior. Blanco White accordingly went to Dublin in the summer of 1832. He lived on the most friendly terms with Whately and his wife, and began to write a history of the inquisition (Life, i. 497). He found the subject too painful; but in 1833 he published an answer to Moore's ‘Travels of an Irish Gentleman in search of a Religion,’ calling it ‘Second Travels,’ &c. The name expressed his own history. He had been continually oscillating in his views, and his physical sufferings gave a morbid tinge to his mental troubles. He had been convinced by catholic writers that orthodox dogmas rested upon authority, and by protestants that the authority of the church was indefensible. As he was still a Christian by sentiment, the only solution was to accept a purely rational religion; and this, he finally concluded, was to be found in unitarianism. He could no longer live with an archbishop; and in January 1835 he left Dublin for Liverpool. There he attended the unitarians' services, and was especially delighted by the preaching of Dr. Martineau, whose views he thoroughly approved (Life, ii. 92). Newman, on hearing of his secession, sent him an affectionate letter, which, however, was nothing but ‘a groan, a sigh, from beginning to end’ (Life, ii. 117). Whately annoyed him by enormously long letters of severe remonstrance (Whately, Life, i. 250–90), but continued his friendly relations. Blanco White found congenial friends at Liverpool, including his biographer, John Hamilton Thom [q. v.] He settled there for the rest of his life. In October 1835 Whately sent him 100l., and repeated the gift annually, except in 1838, when Blanco White refused it upon obtaining, through Lord Holland, a sum of 300l. from the queen's bounty. Blanco White seems to have been always in want of money, in spite of his pension. On accepting the annuity he told Mrs. Whately that he was beginning for the first time in his life to be economical. His great temptation was to buy books. He had also spent much upon a son, Ferdinand White, who was patronised by Lord Holland, and became major in the 40th regiment (Life, i. 224, 395). Nothing is said of the mother, but a reference to an unhappy and clandestine attachment during his last years in Spain (Life, i. 117) probably explains the facts. Blanco White speaks of his son with great tenderness. During the Liverpool period White was able to do some desultory work, and he contributed to the ‘London and Westminster Review,’ then under J. S. Mill, with whom he had very friendly correspondence (Letters in Life, vol. ii., and Theological Review, iv. 112). He also corresponded with Professor Baden-Powell and the American unitarians Channing and Andrews Norton. His health rapidly declined, and he suffered great pain. He was removed in February 1841 to Greenbank, the house of William Rathbone the younger [see under Rathbone, William, 1757–1809], and died there on 20 May following.
Blanco White's sweetness of character is shown by the warmth and endurance of his friendships. Southey knew him before 1817, and later letters (given in Blanco White's Life) show a warm regard. Coleridge was another friendly correspondent. In later years some of his orthodox friends, such as Newman, were alienated by his secession, though retaining a kindly feeling. Thom says that when he left Dublin more than one clergyman offered him a home (Life, ii. 76 n.). His friends were always trying to provide for him. John Allen, master of Dulwich College, procured his nomination as a fellow in 1831; but the final decision was by lot, and Blanco White drew the blank (ib. i. 227, 471). He was frequently employed as tutor to children, but admits that ‘the impatience of an old nervous invalid’ unfitted him for the task (ib. ii. 10 n.) His ill-health prevented him from finishing any work worthy of the remarkable abilities which he clearly possessed. He complains that he had partly forgotten his Spanish without feeling completely at home in English. He applies to himself the speech of Norfolk (Richard II, act i. sc. iii.) upon the loss of his native language (Life, i. 176). Though the defect hardly appears in his style, it is the more remarkable that he wrote what Coleridge declared to be ‘the finest and most grandly conceived sonnet in our language’ (Letter of 28 Nov. 1827 in Life, i. 439). The sonnet (on ‘Night and Death’) had been published in the ‘Bijou’ for 1828, apparently through an oversight of Coleridge, without the author's approval (ib. p. 443). An amended version is given in Blanco White's ‘Diary,’ 16 Oct. 1838 (ib. iii. 47; see Main's Treasury of English Sonnets, p. 397, and Three Hundred English Sonnets, p. 304). Probably he will continue to be known by it when his other works, in spite of the real interest of his views, have been forgotten. Blanco White's works are: 1. ‘Sermon in Spanish on the Evidences of Christianity,’ (Thom, i. 113). 2. ‘Sermon in Spanish on the Slave Trade’ (Thom, iii. 174, 180). 3. ‘Oda á la Instalacion de la Junta Central de España,’ 1808. 4. ‘Preparatory Observations on the Study of Religion, by a Clergyman,’ 1817. 5. ‘Letters from Spain; by Don Leucadio Doblado,’ 1822, 1 vol. 8vo (partly published in ‘New Monthly Magazine’); 2nd edit. with name in 1825. 6. ‘Practical and Internal Evidence against Catholicism, with Occasional Strictures on Mr. Butler's “Book of the Roman Catholic Church,”’ 1825, 1 vol. 8vo. 7. ‘The Poor Man's Preservative against Popery,’ 1825, 1 vol. 8vo; several later editions. 8. ‘A Letter to Charles Butler, Esq., on his Notice of the “Practical, &c., Evidences,”’ 1826, 1 vol. 8vo. 9. ‘Second Travels of an Irish Gentleman in search of a Religion … not by the Editor of “Captain Rock's Memoirs”’ (i.e. Thomas Moore), 1833, 2 vols. 12mo. 10. ‘The Law of Anti-Religious Libel reconsidered in a Letter to the Editor of the “Christian Examiner,” by J. Search,’ 1834, 1 vol. 8vo. 11. ‘An Answer to some friendly Remarks’ (on the last), with appendix on an epigram of Martial supposed to refer to Christian martyrs, 1836, 8vo. 12. ‘Observations on Heresy and Orthodoxy,’ 1835, 1 vol. 8vo. Blanco White also translated into Spanish Porteus's ‘Evidences,’ Paley's ‘Evidences,’ the Book of Common Prayer, some of the Homilies, and Cottu's work upon the ‘English Criminal Law;’ and supervised Scio's translation of the Bible. A list of his contributions to the ‘Quarterly Review,’ the ‘New Monthly,’ the ‘London Review’ of 1829, the ‘Dublin University Review,’ the ‘London’ and the ‘London and Westminster Review,’ and the ‘Christian Teacher’ is given in Thom (iii. 468).
The ‘Rationalist a Kempis’ (1898) is a short selection of passages from the third volume of Thom's ‘Life,’ with a memoir by James Harwood.[The Life of the Rev. Joseph Blanco White, edited by John Hamilton Thom, 1845, 3 vols. 8vo. This consists of an autobiography, originally addressed in letters to Whately, ending at his arrival in England, and continued to his death by letters and extracts from full diaries. Thom wrote an earlier life in the ‘Christian Teacher,’ vol. iii. Whately, who was apparently afraid that some scandal might arise from his friendship with a unitarian, refused to give letters, and protested passionately against the life (see article by Thom in Theological Review, 1867, iv. 82–112). Memorials of R. D. Hampden, 1871, pp. 23, 27; Locker-Lampson's My Confidences, 1896, p. 68; Liechtenstein's Holland House, i. 142, ii. 183; Memoir of T. G. Children, 1853, pp. 90, 109; Mozley's Reminiscences, 1882, i. 56–62, 352–61; Newman's Letters, 1891, i. 132, 146, 192–6, 201, 206, 210, 219, 271, ii. 122, 129, 165; Life of Whately, 1866, i. 178, 248–90, 382, ii. 32, 123; Liddon's Life of Pusey, i. 165–6, 314, 360, ii. 109.]