Ward was a popular and prolific novelist who is closely identified with the Victorian era in English life and literature. In her numerous novels she examined the social and moral issues that occupied Victorian readers, including women's role in society and the clash between science and evangelical theology. A dominant figure in late-Victorian public life who was known as much for her political activism and philanthropic activities as for her novels, Ward is chiefly remembered for providing a literary record of the intellectual life of England during a period when many long-held social values and public policies were being challenged.
Ward was the granddaughter of Thomas Arnold, the influential headmaster of Rugby School, and the niece of the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold. Her father, also named Thomas Arnold, moved to New Zealand in 1847 and later accepted a position as a school inspector in Tasmania, where he married Julia Sorrell and where Ward was born in 1851. Ward's father resigned his post in 1856 after his religious conversion to Roman Catholicism and moved his family to England. Ward attended a series of boarding schools and joined her family in Oxford in 1865, when her father became a tutor there during a temporary return to Protestantism. In Oxford, Ward pursued independent studies, particularly in Spanish history, and later contributed sketches on that subject to a biographical reference work. Through her family Ward became acquainted with leading intellectuals and philosophers at Oxford University, among them Walter Pater, Mark Pattison, and T. H. Green. In 1872 she married Thomas Humphry Ward, an academic, and subsequently moved with him to London. During the 1870s Ward contributed articles on literature and history to such periodicals as Macmillan 's, the Saturday Review, and the Pall Mall...
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