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.

It was the Arnold family, high-minded and frosty, that Mary most wanted to please. When she finally managed to claim a place under her parents’ roof, Tom (in a temporary Protestant phase) had established himself in Oxford. Mary’s starved intelligence, coupled with a vehement wish to prove herself the equal of scholarly Arnold males, made the academic charisma of Oxford seem infinitely seductive. She set about giving herself an education. Ten years before the foundation of the first colleges for women in Oxford, that was no easy business. Fortunately for her, childhood belligerence had softened into something that could be interpreted as spirited charm, and she soon attracted the attention of men with the power of patronage. She was taken up by Mark Pattison, never slow to foster the hopes of personable girls, and his influence won her a pass to the stacks of the Bodleian. It was a rare privilege for a young woman in the 1860s. Mary made the most of it. She picked on the history and literature of early Spain as her subject (there was some romantic talk of a Spanish ancestry for Mary’s Tasmanian mother), and tried out the life of a scholar. No monumental book emerged, though there were some pedestrian articles in due course. Mary didn’t find an academic vocation among Bodley’s shelves. But she did begin to build up a sense of confidence as a writer.

Pattison was not the only model for her aspirations, though he was one of the most persistent. Scholarship could, after all, only take her so far. It gave her a certain status – Benjamin Jowett, another early patron, used to introduce her as a ‘very clever’ young woman. But there was no prospect, as Mary very well knew, of winning an Oxford fellowship. A Victorian woman could not be a don. She might, however, even if she were an Arnold, be a novelist. The earliest tentative forays into fiction began in these eager years at Oxford, and at 19 Mary achieved her first publication with a short story in the Churchman’s Companion. In the same year there was an awed meeting with George Eliot in Pattison’s house. But George Eliot was not the woman that Mary Arnold wanted to be. She was learned enough for anyone, but her unsanctioned union with Lewes meant that she was hardly respectable. As usual, Mary wanted both. How else could she satisfy her parents, now keen to see her safely married and permanently off their hands?

If she could not be a don, she could be a don’s wife. There seems to have been a thriving academic marriage market in the Oxford of the early 1870s. Here Sutherland’s gift for excavation comes into its own. His sardonic account of the intricate manoeuvrings that accompanied the music and the parties makes irresistible reading. Mary’s romantic adventures were erratic and chancy. But they bore fruit. In 1872, she married Humphry Ward, a hopeful young fellow of Brasenose College. A protégé of Walter Pater, Humphry seems not to have been an embodiment of assertive masculinity, and his ardour for Mary was initially less than fierce. Later, he became devoted to her. And Mary’s gratitude never faltered. At last she had been publicly favoured, irrevocably chosen. For the rest of her life, she buried her name within his. She was no longer Mary Arnold. She was Mrs Humphry Ward.

The marriage could be seen as a kind of professional advancement for Mary, but it was a step backwards for her husband. Brasenose did not permit married fellows. Humphry had to resign his fellowship, and take on the humbler role of college tutor. The work was exacting, and the pay skimpy. There were soon children to feed: Dorothy (to be Mary’s most constant supporter), Arnold (his mother’s favourite, and finally her ruin) and Janet (the baby of the family). Humphry felt bound to a treadmill. But Mary’s nine years in Oxford’s academic community were among the most contented of her life. Wifehood had given her the security she craved, and she used it to further her friendships with men whose thinking was to direct her work – principally the idealistic J.R. Green, with his aspiration to regenerate London’s East End, and the humanist T.H. Green, who with Jowett was making Balliol the most sceptical and dynamic college in Oxford. Against all expectations, the university was proving itself capable of change. Mary Ward wanted to be part of a new Oxford. In 1873, she became joint secretary of the ‘Lectures for Women’ committee, and found the work exhilarating. Later, she was a tireless secretary for the Association for the Education of Women. Somerville Hall (Mary suggested the name) was the result. Exasperated by her opposition to women’s suffrage, Somerville came to repudiate its association with Mary Ward. Nevertheless, her work to make women’s education in Oxford happen was the first and not the least of her many achievements.

Meanwhile, Humphry was getting tired of the place. His only real success had come from an anthology of English poetry, hardly a work to set the common rooms on fire. And the family’s situation had been complicated by another of Tom Arnold’s dramatic conversions – this time back into Catholicism – leaving a bitter and estranged wife alone in Oxford. When the chance came to work on the Times, Humphry jumped at it. The family moved to London. There Mary found new goals – and new mentors. Pattison’s place was taken by ‘beloved Henry James’, who took to her, in a puzzled sort of way – ‘somehow, I don’t, especially when talking art and letters, communicate with her worth a damn. All the same, she’s a dear.’ James inspired un-Arnoldian tastes (America, the theatre) which Mary Ward was never to lose. Miss Bretherton is her act of homage to the great American master. It didn’t sell, but it showed her what she could do. James made her a novelist.

It was Oxford that made her a successful novelist, however. Her next book, Robert Elsmere, sounds unpromising as material for a literary sensation. It’s an account of the courtship and marriage of an earnest young clergyman, who loses his faith and goes on to found a New Brotherhood amidst the working people of London. What makes it compelling is its sense of unremitting struggle – intellectual, spiritual and emotional. Robert Elsmere presents a world in which every kind of progress, every moment of happiness, must be fought for and paid for. It is a book about the ideas Mary Ward had absorbed in her years at Oxford, and the story of Robert’s grim combat with the utterly sceptical Squire Wendover (a modified Mark Pattison) is written from within the intellectual contours of the 1860s and 70s. But it is also about division, endurance and suffering. It took Mary Ward three hard years to produce it, and the labour left her wholly exhausted. So much of it was her own history. The account of the marital misery between Robert and his Evangelical wife, separated by religion, was an expression of her family’s unhappiness; Robert’s uncertainty and toil was a reflection of what she had gone through. Eventually Robert, like Mary, manages to have it both ways. Rejecting the authority of Christian miracle, he salvages his belief in the power of Christ as an exemplary man. He is finally of the Church, but not in it – and he annihilates himself in the process, dying of consumption brought on by strain and overwork.

Robert Elsmere was a sombrely prophetic tale for its author. But the novel-reading public couldn’t get enough of its pained compromises, especially when it was denounced by an affronted Gladstone in the Nineteenth Century. It sold by the thousand. American readers were enthralled, and clamoured for their pirated editions – one enterprising store gave a free copy with every cake of Maines ‘Balsam Fir Soap’. Mary became famous, and started to become rich. Not, however, rich enough. The bonanza produced by Robert Elsmere pointed to the agreeable possibility of real wealth for the Wards, and the family rapidly committed themselves to expensive tastes. Modest austerity had never held much appeal for Mary: now that she’d made herself matter, she wanted everyone to know about it. But continued affluence would depend on her efforts. Humphry, with a taste for dubious Old Masters, was a spender rather than an earner. After the Elsmere phenomenon, Mary was never free from the need to write the next book, in a relentless sequence of commissions (there are 26 novels in all) whose spectacular beginnings ended in drudgery.

The best books came first. Like Elsmere, they were written out of Mary Ward’s own life. Sutherland, who can claim to know them all, calls Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898) her ‘masterpiece’. Another tale of religious dilemma, it is rooted in Tom Arnold’s Catholicism. Helbeck, an ascetic Catholic, is loved by a free-thinking and resourceful young girl who cannot reconcile her submissive passion with her need for autonomy, and is at last driven to suicide. It’s an intriguing reversal of the conventional pattern of masculine lawlessness redeemed by feminine piety. Sustained emotional intensity, together with an astute analysis of the position of Catholics in England, makes Helbeck an impressive performance. It was written for her father, first and most intransigent of all the dominant men Mary had spent her life trying to appease. It seems, predictably, not to have had that effect. And in 1900 Tom Arnold died, leaving his daughter with no chance of finally winning him over. It was a turning-point in her life. Who was there left to please now?

Mary continued to turn out novels: the household bills had to be paid. But her creative years as a writer were behind her. Other forms of creativity, however, could take the place of fiction. One of the consequences of Robert Elsmere had been an active interest in the ‘settlement’ movement, which sent missionary members of the middle classes to live in the slums of London in order to civilise the benighted inhabitants. Toynbee Hall was the most celebrated product of the movement. Mary directed her fund-raising genius to the foundation of another: the Passmore Edwards Settlement, established in 1897. It soon incorporated ‘play centres’ for children, together with a school for handicapped children which was the first of its kind. Mary was interested in charity rather than social change, but it was charity of a kind that always put children first. Her support for the Passmore Edwards Settlement was a continuing drain on resources already over-taxed, as the never-ending need to earn weighed upon her more and more heavily. Mary’s health began to break down.

A major disadvantage of the Wards’ fortune was that it enabled them to employ fashionable doctors. Mary Ward’s proliferating ailments were at various times treated with arsenic, strychnine, morphia and cocaine (‘works like magic,’ she observed with satisfaction). For neurological problems in later life, Humphry was prescribed a cocktail of ether drops, brandy, strychnine and valerian. Unsurprisingly, they were never well. But neither illness nor the publishing grind was the heaviest burden that Mary Ward had to carry in her last years. Far more grievous was the fall from grace of her only son. Arnold (the name may not have been propitious) was the hope of the family: a gifted, athletic boy, he was to be the shining vindication of all she had worked for. Nothing went right. He failed to gain a fellowship at Oxford, he couldn’t win the heart of the woman he loved, he was shamed as a politician and dishonoured as a soldier. He drank, and became a helplessly compulsive gambler. Mary wanted Arnold to have everything she had been denied, and her overwhelming devotion destroyed him.