Ward, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911)

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Ward, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911)

American author and social reformer . Name variations: Mary Gray Phelps; Lily. Born Mary Gray Phelps on August 31, 1844, in Boston, Massachusetts; died on January 28, 1911, in Newton, Massachusetts, of myocardial degeneration; daughter of Austin Phelps (a minister) and Elizabeth Wooster Stuart Phelps (1815–1852, a writer); attended Abbott Academy and Mrs. Edwards' School; married Herbert D. Ward (a writer), in October 1888; no children.

Selected writings:

Ellen's Idol (1864); Up Hill; or, Life in the Factory (1865); Mercy Gliddon's Work (1865); Tiny (1866); Gypsy Breynton (1866); Gypsy's Cousin Joy (1866); Gypsy's Sowing and Reaping (1866); Tiny's Sunday Nights (1866); Gypsy's Year at the Golden Crescent (1867); I Don't Know How (1868); The Gates Ajar (1868); Men, Women, and Ghosts (1869); The Trotty Book (1870); Hedged In (1870); The Silent Partner (1871); What to Wear? (1873); Trotty's Wedding Tour and Story Book (1873); Poetic Studies (1875); The Story of Avis (1877); My Cousin and I (1879, published as An Old Maid's Paradise, 1885); Sealed Orders (1879); Friends: A Duet (1881); Doctor Day (1882); Beyond the Gates (1883); Songs of the Silent World and Other Poems (1884); Burglars in Paradise (1886); The Madonna of the Tubs (1886); The Gates Between (1887); Jack, the Fisherman (1887); The Struggle for Immortality (1889); The Master of the Magicians (with Herbert Dickinson Ward, 1890); Come Forth (with H.D. Ward, 1890); Fourteen to One (1891); Austin Phelps: A Memoir (1891); A Lost Hero (with H.D. Ward, 1891); Donald Marcy (1893); A Singular Life (1895); Chapters from a Life (1896); The Story of Jesus Christ: An Interpretation (1897); Loveliness: A Story (1899); The Successors of Mary the First (1901); Within the Gates (1901); Avery (1902); Confessions of a Wife (as Mary Adams, 1902); Trixy (1904); The Man in the Case (1906); Walled In: A Novel (1907); Though Life Us Do Part (1908); The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Others (with others, 1908); Jonathan and David (1909); The Oath of Allegiance and Other Stories (1910); Comrades (1911).

Elizabeth Phelps Ward was the eldest child and only daughter of the Reverend Austin Phelps and his first wife Elizabeth Stuart Phelps , a noted writer. She was baptized Mary Gray Phelps and nicknamed "Lily" by the family; however, after her mother's death from a lengthy illness when Elizabeth was only eight, she chose to be known thereafter by her mother's name. She grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, where her father, a Congregational minister and professor of sacred rhetoric at the local seminary (and later the president of Andover Theological Seminary), carefully guided her education. According to Mary Bortnyk Rigsby , as a child, Elizabeth considered herself a tomboy and displayed "willful disregard for proper behavior." Although life in Andover was pervaded by rigid Calvinistic doctrine that relegated women to the domestic realm, Elizabeth was encouraged to pursue academic studies. She attended Abbott Academy, a private girls' school, and Mrs. Edwards' School for Young Ladies, an institution that offered a curriculum similar to men's colleges except for Greek and trigonometry. She also received a religious education, which taught her to value hard work and eschew worldliness.

Influenced by her mother's love of writing, the young Elizabeth wrote several short stories for Sunday school readers during her early years, none of which survive. At age 16, she encountered Elizabeth Barrett Browning 's blank verse novel Aurora Leigh, about a young woman artist, and later attributed her own literary aspirations to it. Concurring with Browning's assertion that poets should represent the age in which they live, and should not allow imagery to compromise that vision, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward helped to usher in the genre of literary realism in the 19th century.

Ward's opportunities to write were significantly hindered when her father became an invalid in 1861 and she was compelled to devote her time to the household duties she disdained. She still managed to write, often in unheated, out-of-the-way rooms of the house, while wrapped in her mother's old fur cape. After losing a close friend in the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War, Ward turned the event into the story "A Sacrifice Consumed," which was subsequently accepted for publication in the January 1864 issue of Harper's New Monthly. Earning $25 and her father's approval, Elizabeth felt encouraged to continue.

Ward penned two series of Sunday-school books ("Tiny" and "Gypsy"), which she considered necessary to support herself. Rigsby suggests, however, that although these volumes are "conventional and undistinguished" when considered with her other books for young girls, they "indicate her emerging interest in critiquing social expectations of how women lived their lives." A pivotal point in Ward's intellectual development had occurred in 1860 with the disastrous fire at Andover's Pemberton Mill in which 88 young women died. Elizabeth researched the event thoroughly and, in 1866, wrote a fictional account of the fire, which was published in the March 1868 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, earning praise from such literary figures as John Greenleaf Whittier and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

The year 1868 also brought Ward's most significant success with the publication of The Gates Ajar, which became a literary and cultural phenomenon. The novel posits her own view of heaven as a paradise comprising all the best aspects of life on Earth. Largely a series of conversations between the two main characters—Mary Cabot and her aunt Mrs. Forceythe—as they deal with the re cent deaths of loved ones, the book tapped into the religious current of the time, which rejected the harsh Calvinistic doctrine of predestination in favor of a more merciful God who admitted the truly repentant into heaven regardless of their transgressions. Not only was the novel an immediate bestseller, its popularity endured for almost 30 years. Rigsby notes that by 1897, the book had sold more than 81,000 copies in the United States and more than 100,000 copies in England, in addition to translations into French, German, Dutch, and Italian. It also inspired a wide range of products that were marketed bearing its name, everything from patent medicines to Gates Ajar floral arrangements and musical compositions for funerals. "The success of the novel in the United States," writes Rigsby, "can be attributed to the emotional needs of a readership suffering from the pain of Civil War, but this explanation cannot be so easily applied to international sales." She adds that other critics have suggested that the novel comforted the "spiritual disquiet" that had resulted from an increasingly scientific perspective of the human condition. In the midst of the religious controversy that ensued, Ward was accused of heresy by the church, but for most readers who wrote to her, the book had been a comfort.

The success of The Gates Ajar secured Ward's writing career and enabled her to rebuild the summer house, used by her mother as a study, into a studio. For the next 20 years, observes Rigsby, Ward "honed her understanding of American patriarchal culture, writing in support of women's political rights, educational and occupational opportunities, dress reform health concerns, and financial independence." Although her books were widely read, none repeated the triumph of The Gates Ajar. Most of her novels concerned simple New England girls going about their daily lives. Her second novel, Hedged In (1870), defended fallen women, relating the story of factory girls in a mill town near Andover. She published a series of articles in The Independent magazine in which she advocated for dress reform and suffrage and expressed her scorn at the confinement placed on women by domesticity. She also expressed these views in her fiction, patterning the idealized heroine of her 1877 novel The Story of Avis after her own mother, who had struggled to combine her writing with married life. Rigsby points out that "The Story of Avis was the first American novel, to focus exclusively on the subject of a failed marriage." Ward, who had professed a desire never to marry for most of her life, revisited that theme in Doctor Zay (1882). Despite her stated desire to remain single, in 1888, Elizabeth married Herbert Dickinson Ward, a writer 17 years her junior, who was the son of her longtime friend and frequent publisher William H. Ward, managing editor of The Independent. Except for the early years, their marriage was not happy; the couple spent much of their time apart and had no children. However, they did collaborate on three unsuccessful Biblical romances: The Master of the Magicians (1890), Come Forth (1890), and A Lost Hero (1891). Ward continued her own writing after her marriage, producing, among other works, a biography of her father, Austin Phelps: A Memoir (1891), and her autobiography, Chapters from a Life (1896).

In later life, Ward suffered from chronic insomnia and was an invalid for many years preceding her death from myocardial degeneration, which occurred at her home in Newton, Massachusetts, on January 28, 1911. Her ashes were buried in Newton Cemetery. During her career, she produced more than 150 short stories and 20 adult novels, in addition to poetry, plays, essays, and children's books. And although her literary stature diminished after the 19th century, contemporary studies in American culture are revisiting her work. As Jean Ferguson Carr writes: "She is gradually being rediscovered … [and] valued for her ardent investigations, in fiction and prose of the unarticulated lives of the industrial poor, of the elderly, and of women."


Carr, Jean Ferguson. "Elizabeth Stuart Phelps," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 74: American Short-Story Writers Before 1880. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 1988, pp. 288–296.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Rigsby, Mary Bortnyk (assisted by Heidi L.M. Jacobs and Jennifer Putzi). "Elizabeth Stuart Phelps," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 221: American Women Prose Writers, 1870–1920. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 294–304.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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Ward, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911)

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