Book Review : A Son Sheds Light on His Parents’ Radiance

Times Book Critic

Frank and Maisie: A Memoir of Parents by Wilfrid Sheed (Simon & Schuster: $17.95)

To write about larger-than-life parents is like bumping a small raft down the rapids with a splintery paddle. Wilfrid Sheed’s account of life with Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward goes through eddies and erratic near-spills, and it is sheer exhilaration virtually from start to finish.

Sheed is a novelist, essayist and critic possessed of large wit and intelligence, and a rather constricted range of spirits. Writing this memoir has evidently caused him a great deal of self-confrontation and some pain. But far from inducing penitential introspection, this has enlarged his wit and fortified it with boldness and gaiety.


Who were Sheed and Ward, you may ask? You may ask, that is, unless you are an American Catholic over the age of 40. They were not a vaudeville team. Or maybe they were, in a way. For 30 years or so, they were major figures in a movement that would lead American Catholicism out of an intellectual ghetto into a heady and sometimes shattering involvement with the political, social and cultural currents of the time.

Only a few days ago, I mentioned to a middle-aged friend who is priest and a professor--of criminology, as it happens--that I was reviewing “Frank and Maisie.” “Frank Sheed,” he said. “He came up to the seminary to speak. Before I knew it, he had spirited 30 of us away, and I found myself standing on a soapbox on lower Broadway giving a talk about Aspects of the Trinity.”

Working-Class Family

Frank Sheed was the son of a working-class Australian Catholic family. Maisie Ward was the daughter of English gentry. Her grandfather had gone from High Anglican to Roman Catholic, chivvying his friend John Henry Newman along with him. He was, as the expression goes, more Catholic than the Pope, let alone Cardinal Newman. As Sheed quotes someone, “His ideal was a Papal Bull for breakfast every morning along with his Times.”

Sheed and Ward met, appropriately, at a church jumble sale. Both were caught up in the Catholicism of Chesterton and Belloc and took on their gleefully literate and embattled stance against the secular times. Frank’s bent was toward theological disputation, and Maisie’s toward literature; but with an energy that would last their lifetimes, they joined the Catholic Evidence Guild and spoke out in parks and on street corners. Sheed, in fact, only slowed down at 60 when, in the course of a characteristic theatrical flourish, he fell off his Hyde Park platform and suffered a concussion.

The couple founded the publishing house that bore their twinned names. From the ‘30s to the ‘60s with offices in London and New York, Sheed & Ward became the great reflecting mirror of Catholic thought--at a time when it was changing rapidly. The publishing made them celebrated but Frank, in particular, fortified the house’s influence and sometimes shaky exchequer by becoming a tireless and fiery lecturer, particularly in the United States. No major Catholic college or university, no major gathering of clergy or laity, was satisfactorily slated with speakers without his periodic presence.

The impact was formidable. It was because Sheed was a liberal; if anything, he was on the conservative side of the great transformation that would propel the church into Vatican II and some of the transformers, when it slowed down, right out of the church. What he possessed was playfulness of spirit, an openness that filled Sheed and Ward’s list with all kinds of thought more advanced than his own, and above all a conviction that laymen were at least equal to the clergy in arguing religion and church affairs. It was a European tradition, quite alien in the America of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

“In the land of Sister Says,” as Wilfrid Sheed puts it, Sheed & Ward “gave Catholics permission to think without benefit of clergy.” It was scandalous, enjoyable and a revolution waiting to happen.

Wilfrid’s portrait is loving in spirit, and lucid in setting his parents’ work in the context of the times. It teeters slightly and altogether winningly, as if Frank and Maisie’s energy were still blowing about his ankles. The subtitle “A memoir with parents” fits perfectly; it is a record of them, of himself, and of how he survived.

Wilfrid was brought up spending his early childhood in England, his later childhood and early adolescence near Philadelphia, and then back and forth to schools and universities in both countries.

Frank was off traveling a lot of the time, and Wilfrid remembers his returns as hilarious festivals. Maisie was more abstracted, absorbed in her biographies of Chesterton and Browning. During the long summers, when the house was filled with a rustle of turning pages, Wilfrid was bored to the point of near-suicide.

Devastating Attack of Polio

He turned to baseball, instead; but this was cut short by a devastating attack of polio. Maisie nursed him devotedly and Frank spent long hours drilling him in Latin and French so he wouldn’t miss anything. Wilfrid remembers the teaching as brilliant and good-humored, but intimidating. If your father is your teacher, “Soon he is only your teacher,” he writes. “He remains my editor even in death.”

The times that Frank and Maisie had got moving began to move beyond them. “I’m at such a disadvantage when faced with reality,” Maisie told Wilfrid when he informed her of his divorce. The couple’s work in “elucidating” the church, Wilfrid writes, revealed to a number of promising minds “the escape plans for the whole compound.” Frank would tell him sardonically: “I’ve had a good week. I haven’t heard a single major doctrine denied from the pulpit.”

If Sheed & Ward’s light dimmed as time went by, their wit and courage remained. Their son recounts the dimming as if it were only one more variation, after all, on the radiance.