The Great Mary

Dinah Birch

  • Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian by John Sutherland
    Oxford, 432 pp, £16.99, August 1990, ISBN 0 19 818587 1

‘No Arnold can write a novel; if they could, I should have done it.’ That was Matthew Arnold’s reaction to his niece’s first significant attempt at fiction, Miss Bretherton, published in 1884. It can’t have been very encouraging. But Mary Ward was used to the magisterial arrogance of the Arnold men. Her father, Tom Arnold, had demolished the prosperity of his family and the happiness of his wife by his conversions and unconversions and reconversions to and from the Catholic faith. He took small interest in the upbringing of his oldest and most unruly daughter – ‘A child more obstinately self-willed I certainly never came across’ – and Mary was exiled from the family in a succession of more or less unhappy boarding-schools. She was briskly despatched to relatives for the holidays, and only reunited with her parents at the age of sixteen. It’s not altogether clear why she was so disfavoured. Perhaps her stormy resentment of restraint was to blame. Revisiting her infant school in later life, she proudly pointed to the wooden panels she had ‘bashed in with my fists in my fury when I was locked in the cloakroom’. Whatever the reason, Mary’s dismal childhood marked her for life. She never lost the stubborn self-will that had so displeased her still more self-willed father. But it was always accompanied by an eating insecurity, a covetous desire to earn acceptance and approval from those in authority.

John Sutherland points to this paradox as the driving force behind Mary Ward’s extraordinary career. He isn’t inclined to condone the various obstinacies that made ‘The Great Mary’ (Pound’s term) so scorned among the writers who followed her. Her moral tirades in the Times, her propaganda for the First World War, and the showy opulence of her houses, servants and shooting parties brought her few friends among the young, and contributed as much to her drooping reputation as the steady stream of trite romances she published after the turn of the century. And women have not been ready to forgive her relentless championship of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, the factor which has done more than anything else to ensure her continuing unpopularity. But Sutherland is both shrewd and sympathetic in his treatment of the tensions that led her to take up these unprepossessing positions. This is a marvellously informative book, with much to say about the cultural context which produced the fiction of Mrs Humphry Ward. But it is also an unexpectedly poignant account of what is now remembered (if at all) as a complacent or even repellent life.

It looks as though it ought to be a success story. Largely through her own exertions, Mary Ward made herself one of the most famous and highly paid women of her day. Robert Elsmere was a publishing prodigy (Sutherland has called it ‘probably the most popular novel of the century’), and it was followed by books that earned an apparently interminable flow of adulation and royalties. She used her literary status to make herself a public figure, campaigning for women’s education (though never their emancipation), and for a richer life for working people (though never higher wages). She helped found the first child-care centres in Britain. She was the first woman reporter to visit Allied trenches in France, and her eyewitness response helped bring America into the conflict. But these public triumphs were perpetually undermined by private distress, as she wrestled with ever-increasing illness, financial insecurity, and the demands of her luckless or feckless dependents. She wanted independence and power, but couldn’t do without safety and affection. ‘There is only one goodness – the surrendered will,’ she has one of her spiritually embattled characters say on his deathbed. Mary Ward believed that, but could no more surrender her own rampant will than lose her need to gratify the expectations of others.

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