Fallen Woman

Mrs. Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian

by John Sutherland
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 432 pp., $29.95

Mrs. Humphry Ward
Mrs. Humphry Ward; drawing by David Levine

A hundred years ago, Mrs. Humphry Ward was one of the most famous women in Britain. She was highly paid, influential, and popular with an enormous readership on both sides of the Atlantic. And she was not only popular—she was taken seriously. She was no lightweight romantic, no Ouida or Marie Corelli or Elinor Glyn. Her novels were widely and warmly reviewed in the serious literary periodicals; they were discussed by prime ministers and professors and princes and archbishops. Her intellect was respected, her philanthropic projects were admired, and her political support was ardently canvassed. When she died in 1920, she was described by Dean Inge at the memorial service as “perhaps the greatest Englishwoman of our time.” Yet now she is out of print and largely forgotten. Feminist scholarship, which has disinterred so many unjustly buried reputations, has been content to let her rest in oblivion. Why?

The answers to this conundrum of vanished glory are contained, if not always fully explored, in John Sutherland’s gripping and alarming biography, Mrs. Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian. It is a story that unfolds with the fascination of high tragedy, of which the last act has been posthumous. It is easy to see now, with the hindsight of history, that Mary Ward’s fatal error, her tragic flaw, lay in her backing the wrong horse against the Women’s Suffrage Movement. For this she will not lightly be forgiven. Her contemporaries, who had with some reason seen her in her earlier years as a progressive force, did not forgive her, and posterity will not either. What more ridiculous, to post-1968 feminists, than the spectacle of a rich, articulate, independent, well-connected, manipulative woman campaigning vigorously from platform after platform to crowded halls against the woman’s right to vote? Some mistakes are mortal, and this was one of them. As Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw were never wholly to recover from their reputation of gullibility over the Soviet Union, so Mrs. Humphry Ward was seriously and lastingly discredited by her siding with the male enemy.

That, of course, is not the whole story. It is only one strand of it. The whole story, as told by Sutherland, is more complex and more curious, and as a fable of perseverence, success, and failure it makes compulsive reading. Mary Arnold (both of whose names were to be swallowed up by the brand name of her writing machine) was born in Tasmania in 1851, the first child of Thomas Arnold and Julia Sorell. Julia’s family claimed Spanish ancestry and had adulterous skeletons in its colonial cupboards; Thomas was one of the famous Arnolds, son of Thomas, headmaster of Rugby, and brother of the poet, Matthew. His life (and career) were dominated by his unhappy conversions to and from the Roman Catholic faith, and his spiritual torments were to embarrass his daughter and to provide material for her…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.