Ward, Mrs. Humphry (1851–1920)

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Ward, Mrs. Humphry (1851–1920)

Prolific English novelist, critic, journalist, memoirist, settlement house organizer, and opponent of women's suffrage who was the author of Robert Elsmere (1888), one of the most famous religious novels of the 19th century . Name variations: Mary Augusta Arnold (1851–1871); Mary Augusta Ward (1871–1920); Mrs. Humphry Ward (in all publications). Born Mary Augusta Arnold in Hobart Town, Tasmania, on June 11, 1851; died in London, England, on March 24, 1920; eldest of eight children of Thomas Arnold (second son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster at Rugby) and Julia (Sorrell or Sorell) Arnold (1826–1888); sister of Julia Arnold Huxley (1862–1908); married Thomas Humphry Ward, in 1872; children: Dorothy Ward (b. 1874); Arnold (b. 1876); Janet Ward (b. 1879).

Selected writings:

(translation) Journal Intime of Henri Frederic Amiel (1885); Robert Elsmere (1888); Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898); The Testing of Diana Mallory (1908); Daphne (1909); Delia Blanchflower (1914); England's Effort (1916); A Writer's Recollections (1918, 2 vols.) and many others—40 books in all.

In her heyday, 1890–1910, Mrs. Humphry Ward was one of the most influential novelists in the English-speaking world. She published 25 novels and 15 other books of social and literary criticism, played a prominent role in the settlement house movement, was an active society hostess, and a leader in the campaign against women's suffrage. Tolstoy declared her the greatest English novelist of her day; William Dean Howells, the dean of American letters, ranked her fiction as almost the equal of George Eliot's (Mary Anne Evans ) and most other Edwardian critics agreed that she stood in the honorable line of women novelists from Jane Austen through the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell , and Eliot. By the end of the 20th century, however, while these others remained honored figures, central to the canon of English literature, Mrs. Ward was forgotten. Even her best novel, Robert Elsmere (1888), was regarded by most critics more as an illuminating historical document than as a work of literature in its own right.

Mary Ward came from a distinguished family. Her grandfather was the famous Dr. Thomas Arnold, a pioneer of English educational reform and headmaster of Rugby School; one of her uncles was Matthew Arnold, the leading Victorian essayist, and the family was connected to Britain's political and intellectual elite. Her father Thomas Arnold was also a successful scholar as a young man but an impractical dreamer. After graduating from Oxford, he emigrated to New Zealand where he tried to clear wild land and create a homestead farm. The physical labor was too much for him, however, and he accepted, instead, the job of educational advisor to the governor of Australia and Tasmania, where Mary herself was born in 1851.

When she was an infant her father fell under the spell of John Henry Newman's writings. Newman, a prominent Anglican minister and Oxford don, had horrified many of his contemporaries ten years before by converting to Roman Catholicism, after concluding that it represented the genuine line of theological descent from St. Peter to the present. In 1856, when Mary was five, her father converted to Catholicism, in Hobart, Tasmania. Her mother Julia Sorrell Arnold , a devout Protestant, was furious and threw a brick through the window of the Catholic church in which the ceremony was taking place. This conversion caused him to lose his job—public education in British colonies was a strictly Anglican preserve, and the family migrated back to Britain. Her father found a job working with Newman himself, first in Dublin, then as a teacher at Newman's Birmingham oratory school for Catholic boys. Mary lived partly at home, torn in affection between her parents but always loyal to the Church of England, and partly at an Anglican boarding school near Bristol. In 1869 at the age of 18, she published her first story, having already drafted numerous (never published) novels as a teenager.

After nine years as a Catholic, meanwhile, Thomas Arnold had reverted to Anglicanism and won a job as an Oxford don—he was an expert in Early English. But after another decade, just when he was about to be appointed to the coveted Rawlinson Professorship of Anglo-Saxon, he became a Catholic for a second time, and lost his chance. The family's fortunes fell on hard times again and Julia Arnold, enraged for a second time, separated from him, with the result that young Mary experienced one of the jarring religious controversies of the century in the midst of her own family life. (Her parents were never reconciled, and her mother died of cancer in 1888.) This fraught religious situation of her childhood provided material for several of Mary's later novels, particularly Helbeck of Bannisdale.

Growing up in Oxford, Mary proved to be exceptionally gifted intellectually but was denied the chance of formal higher education because Oxford was then an all-male university. In the 1870s, she contributed to the foundation of Somerville Hall (later the College at which Dorothy Sayers and Margaret Thatcher studied), the first women's educational institution there. At the age of 20, in 1872, she married T. Humphry Ward, a fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, and from then on always took her husband's name. At that time, Oxford fellows had been forbidden to marry, and Humphry still needed to get permission from the university's proctors and surrender his fellowship, becoming a tutor instead. The couple continued to live in Oxford for another decade, where she gave birth to their two daughters and one son, but then they moved to London where he switched to a successful career as art critic for Britain's most influential newspaper, the London Times. Both spouses contributed regularly to the leading journals, with whose editors they were on friendly terms, including the Manchester Guardian, Pall Mall Gazette, Nineteenth Century, and Macmillan's Magazine. Mary, despite her lack of formal higher education, was invited to write a book on Spanish history for an Oxford series, and contributed dozens of learned articles to the Dictionary of Christian Biography.

Her first book, Millie and Ollie, a lighthearted story for children, appeared in 1881 when she was 30. Her second, Miss Bretherton (1884), much more serious, was a study of the theatrical and intellectual development of an actress in the form of a novel, and was filled with learned discussion of aesthetic theory. She began it after going with Henry James, one of her many literary friends, to see the performance of a famous American actress, Mary Anderson . She followed it the next year with a translation from French of Henri Frederic Amiel's IntimateJournal, the self-exploration of a Swiss agnostic who found himself unable to believe in literal revealed Christianity in light of modern Biblical criticism and the scientific revolution. This book, along with her own experiences and her studies in ancient and modern philosophy, notably the works of Hegel, all contributed to her next and greatest book, Robert Elsmere. It was one of the dozens of religious theme novels published in 19th-century Britain. Newman himself had written a fictional transfiguration of his own conversion in Loss and Gain (1848), and it is clearly a forerunner of Ward's book, with each character representing a distinct set of religious ideas, and the drama of the book arising out of these theological views in conflict.

She is an aristocrat—not a vulgar aristocrat but an intellectual aristocrat, one whose ideal is of a small governing class of exquisite souls who would behave nicely to the poor, make just laws for them, and generally keep them in their proper station with a firm but gentle hand.

—Alfred George Gardiner

Published in 1888, Robert Elsmere was an explosive bestseller and remained in print almost without interruption for the next century. It describes sympathetically the plight of an Anglican cleric who loses his faith after studying modern science and Biblical criticism. He tries to create a new form of religion, the New Brotherhood, which takes Jesus as an inspiring human example instead of a supernatural figure. Elsmere's intellectual voyage paralleled Ward's own. Her studies in ancient history had introduced her to the idea that Biblical literature should be scrutinized with the same dispassionate care as all other ancient texts, and that much of it could be shown to derive from a primitive and magical world-view, which was no longer convincing to sophisticated minds in the progressive 19th century. In the same way Mrs. Ward puts into Elsmere's struggles the scientific revolution brought about by Lyell's geology and Darwin's biology, which showed the Earth to be far older than mankind, and the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden to be no more than a myth or allegory.

The novel's dramatic tension comes from the fact that Elsmere's wife Catherine, despite her deep love for him, is unconvinced by his arguments and clings to the severe evangelical Protestant faith she had learned as a girl from her father. A respectful but argumentative 23-page review by William Gladstone, the former Liberal prime minister, in the prestigious Nineteenth Century, gave the novel a crucial boost. Sales reached 30,000 in Britain in the first year, and four or five times as many copies (mostly pirated editions) sold in America. The book, widely discussed (pro and con) in the newspapers and learned journals, went through dozens of editions over the next decade, first in English, then in numerous translations. In The Case of Richard Meynell (1911), Ward reintroduced Catherine Elsmere and her daughter, 26 years on, to a second trial between traditional and modern Christianity, and in this sequel, as in the original, showed every character preoccupied with religious issues. As critic William Peterson notes, however, "she had not taken sufficiently into account the growing secularization of the contemporary world, the decline of all institutional forms of Christianity … and the widespread indifference to theological questions" by the second decade of the 20th century.

From Robert Elsmere onwards, Ward never ceased from regular publication of fiction, half of it straight romance, the other half organized around issues and causes in contemporary life. She also wrote literary criticism, including introductions to a new edition of the works of the Brontë sisters (whose influence is evident in much of her own work). Immensely hard working despite a growing number of ailments (rheumatism, gallstones, nervous exhaustion), she gathered around herself a growing entourage of helpers. Lizzie Smith , her maid, served her from 1880 until Ward's death in 1920, and Ward's daughter Dorothy Ward also devoted most of her young adult life to her mother's many causes. In 1893, Ward helped establish a social settlement house, the Passmore Edwards Settlement, in the poor East End of London, which was later renamed Mary Ward House in honor of her. The idea of settlement-house pioneers was to introduce the example of healthy middle-class living into the slums in the hope that they could uplift the poor and reform their vicious habits. Passmore Edwards specialized in giving poor children a place to play safely while their parents were at work, and in giving care to disabled children, for whom there was then no public education available. It remained a lifelong interest, for which she lobbied hard among her numerous political acquaintances.

Mrs. Ward's second outstanding novel was Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898), a story of Catholic conversion and the social and personal stress it caused in 19th-century England. Its central figure, Laura Fountain, is a young liberal

Protestant who falls in love with Alan Helbeck, the head of an old Catholic family from the north of England. Her relatives have the common anti-Catholic prejudices of the day, but she defies them and plans to convert to Catholicism and marry him. Eventually, however, she finds the Catholic Church dogmatic, inflexible, and intolerant of individuality. Unable to deny either her love for Alan Helbeck or her Protestant liberty, she commits suicide by drowning. Helbeck becomes a Jesuit priest. The novel, didactic but ingenious, makes a careful case for the Catholic religion in its first half, but builds up an anti-Catholic momentum as the possibility of the marriage increases. Ward was drawing from her own family history, and partially rewrote the book for the sake of her father's approval before publishing it. She had never been tempted to convert herself, despite her love for her father, but remained throughout her life a "progressive" Broad Church Anglican, taking the view that the Church of England should accommodate itself to a wide variety of intellectual and theological positions.

Among her friends were Gladstone, Henry James, Walter Pater (her next-door neighbor in Oxford), the mathematics don Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland), Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf 's father), and many others prominent in British political and intellectual life. With her family, she visited the United States and Canada in 1908, finding the British colony more to her liking than the independent republic to its south. Her novel Canadian Born, published in 1910, drew on her visit to famous Canadian landmarks. Her fame had preceded her to America, however, and President Theodore Roosevelt invited her to dinner at the White House, where they became friends. They corresponded regularly after that, he visited her in England in 1910, and in 1916 her "open" letters to Roosevelt were published in the American press, explaining Britain's role in the First World War and urging the United States to join in the conflict against Germany. Her novel Daphne (1909) was an attack on the relative laxity of American divorce laws, which offended her sense that marriage was a sacrament, not merely a social arrangement.

Among the more dramatic social movements of the early 1900s was the campaign for women's suffrage. Mrs. Ward was horrified by suffragism and became one its most outspoken opponents. She was not, in her own eyes, against the advancement of women—indeed, she was an active exponent of higher education for women at the universities. But she believed that political rights for women would be more likely to hinder than help. Her first foray into the anti-suffrage cause was an 1889 article in Nineteenth Century entitled "An Appeal Against Female Suffrage." She argued that men and women were different by nature, that they had complementary roles to play in the world, that their differences ought not to be diminished, and that votes for women would undermine the moral foundations of family life. She also believed that women were too ignorant, even though her own life belied the claim. "It is of course true," she admitted in one newspaper article, "that many men in a democracy are politically ignorant. True; it is the great risk of democracy. But men are not necessarily ignorant." Her novels The Testing of Diana Mallory (1908) and Daphne (1909) introduced the issue of women's suffrage and depicted it in a harshly negative light.

In 1908, alarmed to find the idea of women's suffrage becoming more respectable in society, Ward became a founding member and the first president of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League. Meanwhile the pro-suffrage forces, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia , were organizing marches, arson attacks, shop-window smashing campaigns, and other forms of political direct action. They hoped to force the Liberal government to grant women's suffrage, though it actually retaliated by imprisoning Emmeline Pankhurst and her colleagues and force-feeding them when they went on hunger strike. Ward denounced them in dozens of speeches around Britain and wove her arguments into an anti-suffrage novel, Delia Blanchflower (1914), in which Gertrude Marvell, the suffragist leader (modeled on Mrs. Pankhurst), is burned to death in one of her own arson attacks.

Although she suffered from a wide variety of ailments as she aged, Ward continued her writing and publishing career at an exhausting pace. Her son Arnold, a brilliant scholar at Oxford but, like her father, an impractical man, was briefly a member of Parliament (1910–11) and later worked as a foreign correspondent for the London Times, but gambled recklessly and accumulated immense debts, which she tried valiantly to pay off. Humphry, her husband, suffered increasingly from amnesia and spent the last 15 years of his life largely as an invalid. She wrote three exuberantly patriotic books about the First World War while it was in progress, England's Effort, Towards the Goal, and Fields of Victory. The most famous poetry and fiction about the First World War, such as Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, are written from the point of view of disillusionment at the futility of the struggle. Mrs. Ward's books, by contrast, are full of vigor and propaganda pep: she took seriously the idea that it was a war for civilization and against German barbarism. Knowing personally the leading members of the government, she was able to visit munitions factories, the British fleet, and even the trench lines in northeastern France and Belgium. In effect she was, by these travels, becoming the first female war correspondent in British history. She also used the war as setting for three more novels, Missing, The War andElizabeth, and Cousin Philip, which followed the conventions of her earlier romances and intensified them with the danger of war and the heroic self-sacrifice of the men.

Despite her opposition to women's suffrage, Ward was impressed on visiting factories where women were now doing industrial work previously confined to men, and doing it well for the sake of the war effort, and she recognized that the war was causing a social revolution in gender relations that was not entirely bad. When, at the end of the war, British women were finally given the vote and other political rights, she benefited in an unexpected way, by being one among the first seven women to be appointed magistrates. By then, however, she was too sick to take up her duties. Suffering nervous disorders and bouts of temporary paralysis and rheumatism since the 1890s, worsened by eczema, and often necessitating morphine, she was ultimately diagnosed with a heart condition and died in March 1920. The 1920s vogue for D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce and the other daring modernists meant that her reputation, already (as she knew) in decline, faded rapidly. A revival of scholarly interest in the 1970s and 1980s has restored to historians and literary critics an awareness of Mrs. Humphry Ward and an appreciation for her novels, but it has not restored her to the pre-eminence she enjoyed in her lifetime.

sources and suggested reading:

Bindslev, Anne M. Mrs. Humphry Ward: A Study in Late Victorian Feminine Consciousness. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1985.

Colby, Vineta. The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. NY: New York University Press, 1970.

Jones, Enid Huws. Mrs. Humphry Ward. London: Heinemann, 1973.

Smith, Esther M.G. Mrs. Humphry Ward. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1980.

Sutherland, John. Mrs. Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian and Preeminent Edwardian. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Thesing, William B. and Stephen Pulsford. Mrs. Humphry Ward: A Bibliography. St. Lucia: University of Queensland, Australia, 1987.


Humphry Ward Manuscript Collection: Honnold Library, Claremont College, California; Pusey House, Oxford, UK; Mary Ward Center, Tavistock Place, London, UK.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia