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 writing. More formatively, they condemned her to a lonely ill-attended childhood at dreary English boarding schools where her misery (also recorded in her fiction, notably in the opening chapters of Marcella) almost reached the intensity of the young Brontës at Lowood. A child of acute intelligence and violent temper, she understandably felt herself rejected by both parents, and when the family fortunes improved enough to launch her upon the marriage market of Oxford, she promptly engaged herself to Humphry Ward, a fellow of Brasenose, whom she married in 1872.

Much fun has been had at the expense of this character, who was obliged by university rules to resign his fellowship on marriage; he became tutor, then editor, then art critic of The Times, and dabbled happily but not very brilliantly in the Old Master art market. He loved a gamble on an undiscovered Rembrandt, a Velasquez, or a Tintoretto, and although several of his discoveries turned out to be fakes, his friends and colleagues seem to have regarded him as nothing worse than an amiable old buffer. His real misfortune in public terms was his wife’s resolute annexation of his name, which inevitably made him appear a tame lapdog: many of those (including myself) who were educated on his still useful series of anthologies, The English Poets, did not even realize who T.H. Ward was.

But the evidence is that at least in the early years, before the balance of power swung so decisively toward Mary, they had a good time together. Their married life in Oxford, with blue china and Liberty dresses and dinner parties on the cheap, is affectionately recalled in her own autobiography, and their move to London in 1881 was initially a success. They were a popular, lively, sociable couple on the make, willing to turn their hand to anything. They produced three children, Dorothy, Arnold, and Janet, and a prodigious quantity of journalism. Mary espoused the cause of women’s education and taught herself Spanish. Her contributions to The Dictionary of Christian Biography and her translation of Amiel’s Journal Intime were scholarly; her children’s book, Milly and Olly, was an unsuccessful potboiler.


As late as 1884, when her first novel, Miss Bretherton, was published, there was still no sign of the literary and commercial phenomenon that would emerge from the struggling Woman of Letters. It was Robert Elsmere that unexpectedly launched her in 1888 into a new orbit. This morbid and prolix tale of faith, doubt, and public service was a spectacular success; its now tedious theological disputes and heterodoxies became headline news, and, more astonishingly, it sold an estimated 100,000 pirated copies in the US. The piracy enraged the high-minded Mary, and the rest of her life may be seen as a doomed drama of greed, ambition, and social climbing.

As Mary Ward goes into orbit as a novelist, so does John Sutherland as biographer, for the finance of Victorian and Edwardian fiction has long been his specialty, and his previous laborious investigations of many dusty transactions must have revealed to him the great riches of his present subject. He brings us here the choice pickings of years of study. Year by year, he follows her advances and retreats, her royalties and her hagglings with publishers. He notes the increasing expenses, the extravagant indebted son, the ill-judged purchases of the husband. And, most vividly, he brings before our eyes the lurid vision of the country house. O novelists, beware the country house! Its mortgage will chain you forever to the treadmill of talent. Do not strive to join the upper classes. Mix not with the landed gentry. Stick to your blue china and your middle-class Bohemia. Pheasants are not for you.

Mary Ward first rented Stocks, a large 120-year-old country house in Hertfordshire, in 1892, and bought it from its owner Sir Edward Grey four years later. She had always had a romantic and expensive passion for Old England, and some of the best passages of her very mixed oeuvre capture the faded, shabby, decaying grandeur of aging farmhouse and country estate—many of them echoing her feelings for the Arnold family home, Fox How, in the Lake District. As Sutherland points out, she had good reason to fear the contamination of the nouveaux riches, and was unhappy in her previous “new” country house in Surrey, deploring its conspicuousness and its lack of “old trees.” Stocks was, she assured her father, “not grand in any way”—“and promptly went on to extol its grandness. It had ‘old-walled and yew-hedged gardens, a small bit [i.e., three hundred acres] of beautiful park, an avenue of limes like a cathedral aisle.’ ”

The danger signals are clear, at least to her biographer, who follows the whole sorry cautionary tale to its dying fall. Mrs. Ward did not crash as a property, she did not go bankrupt or end up in court: she slowly dwindled, as her stock fell and Stocks became more and more of a burden. She strove for more and more extortionate deals with publishers, but the tide of fashion had turned and she had to accept less and less. Ironically, it was in part the First World War that saved her from the humiliation of selling Stocks, as it temporarily saved her from the unpopularity of her antisuffrage campaign; the hardships of war made everybody retrench and start digging up flowerbeds for vegetables. Conspicuous consumption was out: thrift and industry were back in favor.

Nevertheless, nothing could disguise the fact that Mrs. Humprhy Ward’s reputation had slumped disastrously in the last fifteen years of her career, and that she had been driven to write inferior work to maintain her own living standard and that of her dependents. Cause and effect are not clearly distinguishable here. In this later period many of the younger writers were turning against her, and not only because her political views were out of date. Her aesthetics too were becoming increasingly unacceptable. To her nephew Aldous Huxley, to Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West, she was the dead hand of the past. Woolf wrote in her diary a week after her death, “Mrs. Ward is dead; poor Mrs. Humphry Ward; and it appears that she was merely a woman of straw after all—shovelled into the grave and already forgotten”; and one of the books found at her bedside was Huxley’s first published story, “The Farcical History of Richard Greenow,” which contains a “hilarious (and transparent) spoof” of his aunt and godmother as the florid novelist Pearl Bellairs. It was probably one of the last books she read, and as Sutherland drily remarks, “it cannot have given her any pleasure.” Perhaps luckily, she did not live to see herself portrayed as the smothering Mrs. Foxe in Eyeless in Gaza (1936), in which she is mysteriously made responsible for the suicide of Aldous’s brother Trevenen. (It is worth nothing that Aldous claimed to love his aunt, and that he and his brothers spent many happy holidays at Stocks.)


The dawn of modernism had broken, and the stuffy old realist late-Victorian novel, with its weighty religiosity, its sentimentality, its prudish and uneasy coupling of romance and politics, was no longer acceptable. Mrs. Humphry Ward, through her very ascendancy, had the misfortune to represent all that was most dated in the fiction of her generation, and by 1918 vilification of her had reached “the level of a minor art form.” Perhaps such a reaction was inevitable. But the fact remains that her reputation, unlike that of many other writers of her period, has never recovered. She who was compared favorably in her day to George Eliot and Henry James has gone, it would seem, for good.

And here we come to perhaps the least satisfactory part of Sutherland’s account. He seems to be uncertain whether or not she deserves this fate. He boldly tackles the subject of her increasing conservatism, as she declared herself successively anti–Home Rule, anti-Boer, and anti-Postimpressionism, and explores the psychological drives that may have impelled this strong-willed woman so puzzlingly and disastrously to choose the antisuffrage line, even though most of her immediate family were profsuffrage; he suggests that they sprang from her inability to resist wanting to please and serve father figures, which had originated in her sense of debt to her Oxford mentors, Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Green, and J.R. Green, and lingered on in her willingness to succumb to the flattery of Lords Curzon and Cromer when they asked her in 1908 to spearhead the Anti-Suffrage Assocation.

But she had long been active against increasing the rights of women: in 1889 she had helped to draft “An Appeal against the Extension of the Parliamentary Franchise to Women,” which had argued that women were biologically “lacking in sound judgement” and that “the emancipating process now reached the limits fixed by the physical constitution of women.” The conclusions drawn by Sutherland from her stubbornly maintaining this position are clear: she was doomed, as a political activist, to be harshly judged and then forgotten.

But he is less clear when he comes to the value of her novels. It is possible to argue one thing as polemic and write another as fiction—as some claim Woolf herself does. Has Ward perished as a writer because she was a bad writer? Sutherland does not commit himself. He freely (and often wittily) criticizes her later potboilers, but he is less clear about the works on which her reputation (had she got one) would now rest. Occasionally he uses the word “great” of them. But are they great? Are they worth the resurrection? He has nobly made his way on our behalf through all her forgotten fiction, venturing where few alive have done before, and he is better placed to judge than we. But he tends to evade the issue, and to return, as did Macmillan and Smith, Elder, to the account books.

One or two publishers have taken a chance on her recently, but none have managed to keep her in print. In 1984, the invaluable Virago Press produced one of her most renowned works, Marcella (1894), and in 1987 the Oxford University Press brought out Robert Elsmere. Of the two, Marcella is incomparably better, which is not saying much. It is the tale of a New Woman, the beautiful eponymous heroine, who is torn between the love of the landed lord (the world of Stocks) and the love of the ideals of the ambitious socialist (the world of the philanthropic London working-class settlements, in which Mary Ward herself played a considerable part). There is a powerful attack on the game laws, inspired by an incident shortly before her arrival at Stocks which resulted in the murder of two gamekeepers and the execution of two poachers; and there are some efficiently executed power-juggling parliamentary scenes which show an inside knowledge of political wheeling and dealing. But the book is profoundly flawed by its admiring descriptions of Marcella’s beauty and goodness and white neck and masses of cloudy hair and tragic splendor and fierce heroism—and by a lack of any sense of humor or irony. Here is the socialist hero, after snatching his first illicit moonlit embrace:

He remained where she had left him, leaning against the latticed wall for some time. When he moved it was to pick up a piece of maidenhair which had dropped from her dress.

“That was a scene!” he said, looking at it, and at the trembling of his own hand. “It carries one back to the days of the Romantics. Was I Alfred de Musset?—and she George Sand?”

Well, no. Conveniently for Marcella, the lustful socialist turns out to be an embezzler, which leaves her free to marry the landed lord.

The indulgence shown toward Marcella resembles that shown by George Eliot to the not dissimilar Dorothea Brooke, but magnified a thousand times. A more plausible heroine appears in Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898), claimed by most as her best work: here we find young orphaned Laura Fountain, brought up in a world of Cambridge free-thinking, and transported with her dying stepmother, Augustina, to an ancient remote decaying Catholic homestead in Westmoreland. She falls in love with Augustina’s devout ascetic brother, Alan Helbeck, and undergoes all the torments of doubt and divided loyalty that overshadowed the Arnold household. There is a touching intensity in the tragic denouement, and what Ward calls “the egotism of religion” is portrayed as a real and formidable opponent to the pleasures of this world. The landscape of the lakes is evoked without excessive verbiage, and the house itself (based on the Elizabethan manor, Levens Hall, at Milnthorpe, which the Wards had rented for three months in 1897) is a powerful physical presence in the novel: Laura’s grim farming fundamentalist cousin Elizabeth is also a far more vivid and interesting character than the wretched humble dialect-hampered tenantry of Marcella.

Yet Helbeck too has some characteristic Wardian flaws, among them the obligatory deathbed scene, introduced here to prevent the heroine from catching the last train home. It hardly seems fair to kill off a grown workman in a pot of molten steel simply in order to embarrass Laura and test the faith of her lover. But Mrs. Humphry Ward had no compunction when it came to killing for pleasure. In real life, she herself suffered from robust ill health, and seems to have relished the details of death, which she enjoyed reproducing for the entertainment and edification of her readers. In this, of course, she was a daughter of her time, and her weakness for morbid melodrama was shared by Dickens, Gaskell, Hardy, and others more durable than she.

Indeed, Helbeck has several interesting echoes of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, including the missed-train motif: Laura is not an unworthy younger sibling of Sue Bridehead, who had appeared in the world four years earlier, in 1894. But, having conceded this much, one is brought up sharply against the very real difference of talent and originality that marks Ward off from her great contemporaries. However hard she tries to create the New Thinking Woman as heroine, however many discussions of socialism or faith she puts into the mouths of her female characters, they remain obstinately pure, virginal, pleasing, and at heart conventional. She never allows herself to use the rages of her own childhood. They were beaten out of her, literally: and she cannot give her characters the freedoms she was denied. She cannot create a Jane Eyre or a Maggie Tulliver, and twentieth-century emancipation she rejects. She triumphed over neglect and repression by making herself rich and powerful, but in doing so she allied herself with stasis, not with change, and her heroines, although dressed in some of the fashions of modernity, are stuffed with straw.

One must admit that the life of Mrs. Humphry Ward is more interesting and more original than her work, and we owe a debt to Mr. Sutherland for making it so accessible. One or two small quibbles arise: the organization by chapter-subject (“The Fiction Machine,” “Health,” “Homes,” etc.) involves several irritating repetitions and occasional chronological confusion, and some of the financial information is unnecessarily detailed. I would have forfeited the American returns on Sir George Tressady for some account of precisely how and when she was rejected as patron by Somerville College, Oxford, which in her more progressive youth she had helped to found. And I must speak up on behalf of Arnold Bennett’s mother. Sutherland aptly quotes Bennett as one of the first of the younger generation to turn upon her and her influence; in one of his “Books and Persons” columns in 1908 he described her heroines as “harrowing dolls” and happily imagined them besieged in a foreign city by a “brutal and licentious soldiery.” The curve of Bennett’s career was not, in fact, unlike that of Ward’s—he too bought a country house (and a steam yacht), he too wrote for money, fell from popular favor, and was hustled into his grave by Virginia Woolf. But he was a far better writer than Ward, and some of his works will last. And, for the record, he was not, as we are told here, mother-dominated. He was notoriously father-dominated, and his objections to Mrs. Ward’s work were artistic, not sexual. Mrs. Humphry Ward may have been responsible for a great deal of prudery and philistinism and castrating cant, as were many other bustling Victorian and Edwardian matrons, but Mrs. Enoch Bennett was innocent.

This Issue

February 14, 1991