Mrs. Humphry Ward Criticism - Essay

W. E. Gladstone (essay date 1888)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Gladstone was a prominent English statesman and author who served four times as Prime Minister and wrote numerous learned essays on such diverse subjects as politics, theology, classical history, and literature. In his literary criticism, Gladstone often uses criteria based on his deep commitments to Christian religious and moral beliefs to judge the plausibility of characters or actions. In the following excerpt from his influential, favorable review of Robert Elsmere, Gladstone challenges theological issues presented in the novel.]

Human nature, when aggrieved, is apt and quick in devising compensations. The increasing seriousness and strain of our present life may have had the effect of bringing about the large preference, which I understand to be exhibited in local public libraries, for works of fiction. This is the first expedient of revenge. But it is only a link in a chain. The next step is, that the writers of what might be grave books, in esse or in posse, have endeavoured with some success to circumvent the multitude. Those who have systems or hypotheses to recommend in philosophy, conduct, or religion induct them into the costume of romance. Such was the second expedient of nature, the counterstroke of her revenge. When this was done in Télémaque, Rasselas, or Coelebs, it was not without literary effect. Even the last of these three appears to have been successful with its own generation. It would now be deemed intolerably dull. But a dull book is easily renounced. The more didactic fictions of the present day, so far as I know them, are not dull. We take them up, however, and we find that, when we meant to go to play, we have gone to school. The romance is a gospel of some philosophy, or of some religion; and requires sustained thought on many or some of the deepest subjects, as the only rational alternative to placing ourselves at the mercy of our author. We find that he has put upon us what is not indeed a treatise, but more formidable than if it were. For a treatise must nowhere beg the question it seeks to decide, but must carry its reader onwards by reasoning patiently from step to step. But the writer of the romance, under the convenient necessity which his form imposes, skips in thought, over undefined distances, from stage to stage, as a bee from flower to flower. A creed may (as here) be accepted in a sentence, and then abandoned in a page. But we the common herd of readers, if we are to deal with the consequences, to accept or repel the influence of the book, must, as in a problem of mathematics, supply the missing steps. Thus, in perusing as we ought a propagandist romance, we must terribly increase the pace; and it is the pace that kills.

Among the works to which the preceding remarks might apply, the most remarkable within my knowledge is Robert Elsmere. It is indeed remarkable in many respects. It is a novel of nearly twice the length, and much more than twice the matter, of ordinary novels. It dispenses almost entirely, in the construction of what must still be called its plot, with the aid of incident in the ordinary sense. We have indeed near the close a solitary individual crushed by a waggon, but this catastrophe has no relation to the plot, and its only purpose is to exhibit a good deathbed in illustration of the great missionary idea of the piece. The nexus of the structure is to be found wholly in the workings of character. The assumption and the surrender of a Rectory are the most salient events, and they are simple results of what the actor has thought right. And yet the great, nay, paramount function of character-drawing, the projection upon the canvas of human beings endowed with the true forces of nature and vitality, does not appear to be by any means the master-gift of the authoress. In the mass of matter which she has prodigally expended there might obviously be retrenchment; for there are certain laws of dimension which apply to a novel, and which separate it from an epic. In the extraordinary number of personages brought upon the stage in one portion or other of the book, there are some which are elaborated with greater pains and more detail, than their relative importance seems to warrant. Robert Elsmere is hard reading, and requires toil and effort. Yet, if it be difficult to persist, it is impossible to stop. The prisoner on the treadmill must work severely to perform his task: but if he stops he at once receives a blow which brings him to his senses. Here, as there, it is human infirmity which shrinks; but here, as not there, the propelling motive is within. Deliberate judgment and deep interest alike rebuke a fainting reader. The strength of the book, overbearing every obstacle, seems to lie in an extraordinary wealth of diction, never separated from thought; in a close and searching faculty of social observation; in generous appreciation of what is morally good, impartially exhibited in all directions: above all in the sense of mission with which the writer is evidently possessed, and in the earnestness and persistency of purpose with which through every page and line it is pursued. The book is eminently an offspring of the time, and will probably make a deep or at least a very sensible impression; not, however, among mere novel-readers, but among those who share, in whatever sense, the deeper thought of the period.

The action begins in a Westmoreland valley, where the three young daughters of a pious clergyman are grouped around a mother infirm in health and without force of mind. All responsibility devolves accordingly upon Catherine, the eldest of the three; a noble character, living only for duty and affection. When the ear heard her, then it blessed her; and when the eye saw her, it gave witness to her. Here comes upon the scene Robert Elsmere, the eponymist and hero of the book, and the ideal, almost the idol, of the authoress.

He had been brought up at Oxford, in years when the wholesale discomfiture of the great religious movement in the University, which followed upon the secession of Cardinal Newman, had been in its turn succeeded by a new religious reaction. The youth had been open to the personal influences of a tutor, who is in the highest degree beautiful, classical, and indifferentist; and of a noble-minded rationalising teacher, whose name, Mr. Grey, is the thin disguise of another name, and whose lofty character, together with his gifts, and with the tendencies of the time, had made him a power in Oxford. But, in its action on a nature of devout susceptibilities as well as active talents, the place is stronger than the man, and Robert casts in his lot with the ministry of the Church. Let us stop at this point to notice the terms used. At St. Mary's 'the sight and the experience touched his inmost feeling, and satisfied all the poetical and dramatic instincts of a passionate nature.' He 'carried his religious passion … into the service of the great positive tradition around him.' This great, and commonly life-governing decision, is taken under the influence of forces wholly emotional. It is first after the step taken that we have an inkling of any reason for it. This is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a key to the entire action. The work may be summed up in this way: it represents a battle between intellect and emotion. Of right, intellect wins; and, having won, enlists emotion in its service.

Elsmere breaks upon us in Westmoreland, prepared to make the great commission the business of his life, and to spend and be spent in it to the uttermost. He is at once attracted by Catherine; attention forthwith ripens into love; and love finds expression in a proposal. But, with a less educated intelligence, the girl has a purpose of life not less determined than the youth. She believes herself to have an outdoor vocation in the glen, and above all an indoor vocation in her family, of which she is the single prop. A long battle of love ensues, fought out with not less ability, and with even greater tenacity, than the remarkable conflict of intellects, carried on by correspondence, which ended in the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. The resolute tension of the two minds has many phases; and a double crisis, first of refusal, secondly of acceptance. This part of the narrative, wrought out in detail with singular skill, will probably be deemed the most successful, the most normal, of the whole. It is thoroughly noble on both sides. The final surrender of Catherine is in truth an opening of the eyes to a wider view of the evolution of the individual, and of the great vocation of life; and it involves no disparagement. The garrison evacuates the citadel, but its arms have not been laid down, and its colours are flying still.

So the pair settle themselves in a family living, full of the enthusiasm of humanity, which is developed with high energy in every practical detail, and based upon the following of the Incarnate Saviour. Equipped thus far with all that renders life desirable, their union is blessed by the birth of a daughter, and everything thrives around them for the formation of an ideal parish.

But the parish is adorned by a noble old English mansion, and the mansion inhabited by a wealthy Squire, who knows little of duty, but is devoted to incessant study. As an impersonated intellect, he is abreast of all modern inquiry, and, a 'Tractarian' in his youth, he has long abandoned all belief. At the outset, he resents profoundly the Rector's obtrusive concern for his neglected tenantry. But the courage of the clergyman is not to be damped by isolation, and in the case of a scandalously insanitary hamlet, after an adequate number of deaths, Mr. Wendover puts aside the screen called his agent, and rebuilds with an ample generosity. This sudden and complete surrender seems to be introduced to glorify the hero of the work, for it does not indicate any permanent change in the social ideas of Mr. Wendover, but only in his relations to his clergyman.

There is, however, made ready for him a superlative revenge. Robert has enjoyed the use of his rich library, and the two hold literary communications, but with a compact of silence on matters of belief. This treaty is honourably observed by the Squire. But the clergyman invites his fate. Mr. Wendover makes known to him a great design for a 'History of Testimony,' worked out through many centuries. The book speaks indeed of 'the long wrestle' of the two men, and the like. But of Elsmere's wrestling there is no other trace or sign. What weapons the Rector wielded for his faith, what strokes he struck, has not even in a single line been recorded. The discourse of the Squire points out that theologians are men who decline to examine evidence, that miracles are the invention of credulous ages, that the preconceptions sufficiently explain the results. He wins in a canter. There cannot surely be a more curious contrast than that between the real battle, fought in a hundred rounds, between Elsmere and Catherine on marriage, and the fictitious battle between Elsmere and the Squire on the subject of religion, where the one side is a paean, and the other a blank. A great creed, with the testimony of eighteen centuries at its back, cannot find an articulate word to say in its defence, and the downfall of the scheme of belief shatters also, and of right, the highly ordered scheme of life that had nestled in the Rectory of Murewell, as it still does in thousands of other English parsonages.

It is notable that Elsmere seeks, in this conflict with the Squire, no aid or counsel whatever. He encounters indeed by chance Mr. Newcome, a Ritualistic clergyman, whom the generous sympathies of the authoress place upon the roll of his friends. But the language of Mr. Newcome offers no help to his understanding. It is this:—

Trample on yourself. Pray down the demon, fast, scourge, kill the body, that the soul may live. What are we miserable worms, that we should defy the Most High, that we should set our wretched faculties against His Omnipotence?

Mr. Newcome appears everywhere as not only a respectable but a remarkable character. But as to what he says here, how much does it amount to? Considered as a medicine for a mind diseased, for an unsettled, dislocated soul, is it less or more than pure nonsense? In the work of an insidious non-believer, it would be set down as part of his fraud. Mrs. Ward evidently gives it in absolute good faith. It is one in a series of indications, by which this gifted authoress conveys to us what appears to be her thoroughly genuine belief that historical Christianity has, indeed, broad grounds and deep roots in emotion, but in reason none whatever.

The revelation to the wife is terrible; but Catherine clings to her religion on a basis essentially akin to that of Newcome; and the faith of these eighteen centuries, and of the prime countries of the world,

Bella, immortal, benefica
Fede, ai trionfi avvezza,
[Manzoni, Cinque Maggio.]

is dismissed without a hearing.

For my own part, I humbly retort on Robert Elsmere. Considered intellectually, his proceedings in regard to belief appear to me, from the beginning as well as in the downward process, to present dismal gaps. But the emotional part of his character is complete, nay redundant. There is no moral weakness or hesitation. There rises up before him the noble maxim, assigned to the so-called Mr. Grey (with whom he has a consultation of foregone conclusions), 'Conviction is the conscience of the mind.'

He renounces his parish and his orders. He still believes in God, and accepts the historical Christ as a wonderful man, good among the good, but a primus inter pares. Passing through a variety of stages, he devotes himself to the religion of humanity; reconciles to the new gospel, by shoals, skilled artisans of London who had been totally inaccessible to the old one; and nobly kills himself with overwork, passing away in a final flood of light. He founds and leaves behind him the 'New Christian Brotherhood' of Elgood Street; and we are at the close apprised, with enthusiastic sincerity, that this is the true effort of the race, and

Others I doubt not, if not we,
The issue of our toils shall see.

Who can grudge to this absolutely pure-minded and very distinguished writer the comfort of having at last found the true specific for the evils and miseries of the world? None surely who bear in mind that the Salvation Army has been known to proclaim itself the Church of the future, or who happen to know that Bunsen, when in 1841 he had procured the foundation of the bishopric of Jerusalem, suggested in private correspondence his hope that this might be the Church which would meet the glorified Redeemer at His coming.

It is necessary here to revert to the Squire. Himself the μoιρα πεπ ρωμενη the supreme arbiter of destinies in the book, he is somewhat unkindly treated; his mind at length gives way, and a darkling veil is drawn over the close. Here seems to be a little literary intolerance, something even savouring of a religious test. Robert Elsmere stopped in the downward slide at theism, and it calms and glorifies his deathbed. But the Squire had not stopped there. He had said to Elsmere, 'You are playing into the hands of the Blacks. All this theistic philosophy of yours only means...

(The entire section is 6367 words.)

Walter Pater (essay date 1888)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, originally published in The Guardian in 1888, Pater praises characterization in Robert Elsmere but questions the validity of Elsmere's theological conversion in the novel.]

Those who, in this bustling age, turn to fiction not merely for a little passing amusement, but for profit, for the higher sort of pleasure, will do well, we think (after a conscientious perusal on our own part) to bestow careful reading on Robert Elsmere. A chef d'oeuvre of that kind of quiet evolution of character through circumstance, introduced into English literature by Miss Austen, and carried to perfection in France by George Sand (who is more to the point,...

(The entire section is 3118 words.)

The Bookman (London) (essay date 1892)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[The following excerpt assesses Ward's works from her early essays to the publication of The History of David Grieve.]

[Mrs. Ward's] popularity is a significant fact to the student of the English life of to-day. Not that any single page of hers is stamped with that seal of faithfulness and art that would make of it a historic document for time to come. But round all she has written there clings an aroma which distinctively belongs to the thought and ideals of a very large part of the national life. It lurks in her phrases, in her modes of thinking, and literary historians might well wish Mrs. Ward all the power with which her admirers credit her, that the durability of the material which...

(The entire section is 2168 words.)

Lionel Johnson (essay date 1894)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, originally published in The Academy in 1894, Johnson reviews Marcella.]

That Marcella is a good novel, and a very much better novel than Robert Eismere or David Grieve, would seem to be the unanimous verdict of its readers. It may be not amiss to consider the reasons of this clear superiority to its predecessors.

Mrs Humphry Ward, in a quaint preface to David Grieve, defended with great energy her choice of theme and treatment in that book, and in Robert Elsmere. Undoubtedly fiction in prose has been successfully written with so infinite a variety of aims and ideals, written so lightly and loosely, so...

(The entire section is 2393 words.)

A. St. John Adcock (essay date 1903)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[An English author whose works often concern the city of London, Adcock served as editor of the London Bookman from 1923 until his death in 1930. In the following excerpt, he presents an appreciative survey of Ward's career to 1903.]

To think over the successful problem or purposeful novels of the last fifteen years is to indulge in what is very much of a meditation among the tombs. Books of their week, of their season, of their year, selling in tens of thousands, read and discussed by everyone, extravagantly praised and extravagantly condemned, so long as they lived they were intensely and aggressively alive; but "whom the gods love die early," and they are, most of them, already...

(The entire section is 3702 words.)

William Lyon Phelps (essay date 1910)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, Phelps challenges Ward's high literary reputation.]

It is high time that somebody spoke out his mind about Mrs. Humphry Ward. Her prodigious vogue is one of the most extraordinary literary phenomena of our day. A roar of approval greets the publication of every new novel from her active pen, and it is almost pathetic to contemplate the reverent awe of her army of worshippers when they behold the solemn announcement that she is "collecting material" for another masterpiece. Even professional reviewers lose all sense of proportion when they discuss her books, and their so-called criticisms sound like publishers' advertisements. Sceptics are warned to remain silent,...

(The entire section is 4003 words.)

Arnold Bennett (essay date 1908)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Bennett was an Edwardian novelist who is credited with bringing techniques of European Naturalism to the English novel. He is best known as the author of The Old Wives' Tale (1908) and the Clayhanger trilogy (1910-1916), realistic novels depicting life in an English manufacturing town. In the following excerpt, originally published in New Age in 1908, he offers a negative appraisal of Ward's works, particularly criticizing the heroines of her novels.]

That a considerable social importance … attaches to the publication of a novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward may be judged from the fact that the Manchester Guardian specially reviewed the book on its leader page. This...

(The entire section is 1102 words.)

Herbert L. Stewart (essay date 1920)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, Stewart examines Ward's theological novels.]

There are few of [Mrs Ward's] books from which the religious interest is wholly absent, and there are at least five in which it may be said to predominate. Robert Elsmere is the best known, but in any such general survey we must not omit The History of David Grieve, Helbeck of Bannisdale, Eleanor, and The Case of Richard Meynell. The first point which calls for notice is one that all of these novels exhibit alike, and that constitutes a notable merit in the authoress when compared with many others who have imported speculations about faith into a work of fiction. We all know with tolerable exactness...

(The entire section is 4429 words.)

Edward Wagenknecht (essay date 1943)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, Wagenknecht characterizes Ward's works as typifying conservative Victorian tastes in literature.]

Life is always much less systematic than histories of literature; and there are currents and counter-currents in every period. During the latter end of Victoria's reign in England some writers were already giving their allegiance to the ideals of the age that was to come, while others, not necessarily inferior to them, were still finding their creative inspiration in the old patterns.…

Mrs. Humphry Ward is the first [among the literary conservatives of the late Victorian era]. It is the fashion nowadays to see her in a light very similar to...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)

Vineta Colby (essay date 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Colby is an American educator and critic who has written several studies of Victorian literature. In the following excerpt, she examines the appeal of Ward's works to Victorian readers.]

It is a telling comment on Victorianism that one of its leading family dynasties was not Marlborough, Medici, Borgia, Fugger, or Rothschild, but Arnold. The founder of this line was not a warrior, a statesman, a banker, or a patron of the arts, but a clergyman and schoolmaster. Though some of his descendants practiced the arts of criticism, poetry, and fiction, not one of them deviated from the family mission of public service and education.…

The Arnolds were not a royal dynasty, but early...

(The entire section is 4226 words.)

William S. Peterson (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[Peterson is an American educator and critic who has written extensively about the poet Robert Browning. In the following excerpt, Peterson offers a detailed, volume-by-volume analysis of Ward's Robert Elsmere.]

Archibald Tait once observed, 'The great evil is—that the liberals are deficient in religion and the religious are deficient in liberality.' This was the profound religious dilemma of the Victorian age to which Mrs Ward addressed herself in Robert Elsmere. How could a young man like Elsmere be both religious and liberal (i. e., intellectually enlightened)? The solution which she offered to her contemporaries was based upon the familiar Amoldian dialectic: the destruction of...

(The entire section is 7550 words.)

Mildred L. Culp (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, Culp considers the relationship between the artistic and the ideological in Robert Elsmere.]

Two recent studies of the Victorian religious upheaval have drawn considerable attention to Robert Elsmere—published in 1888 by Mary Augusta Ward, the niece of Matthew Arnold and granddaughter of Rugby's Thomas Arnold. Neither of them, however, fully treats the issue of closure and ideological crisis in the novel. In Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England Robert Lee Wolff rightly recognizes that Mrs. Ward's book, with its emphasis on philanthropy as a cure for the unbelief caused by biblical criticism and skepticism toward...

(The entire section is 2880 words.)

J. E. Sait (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

[In the following excerpt, Sait discusses Ward's works of the First World War era.]

Undoubtedly the Great War was recognised as the Great Subject by commercially minded writers of fiction and non-fiction. However, few writers achieved any major work in the battlefield and much of the non-combatant literature which did appear has suffered from critical neglect. Neither of the two major critical studies of literature in the Great War, Bernard Bergonzi's Heroes' Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War and Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory refers to Mrs. Humphry Ward. This neglect is justified to a certain extent in that both male writers are concerned only...

(The entire section is 10243 words.)