Mary Ward’s Robert Elsmere was the most popular novel of its time in England and in the United States. It was widely read and discussed and became the subject of innumerable sermons. Its author had interesting family connections, as she was the niece of the eminent Victorian essayist and poet Matthew Arnold and the granddaughter of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School. Robert Elsmere aroused more interest among readers, however, than Matthew Arnold’s writing ever had. William Gladstone, Britain’s former prime minister, called it “eminently an offspring of the time” and wrote a much-quoted critique of its treatment of orthodox Christianity. Robert Elsmere, Ward’s second novel, launched her career as one of the most successful novelists of the late Victorian era. By the early twentieth century, though, she came to be seen as the epitome of everything a younger generation of writers wanted to reject in their Victorian heritage, particularly given her role as a leader in the battle against women’s suffrage. After World War I, her work sank into obscurity.
Of her Victorian predecessors, Ward said she greatly preferred Charlotte Brontë to George Eliot. There are several references to Brontë in Robert Elsmere, but in form, style, and themes the book is actually much closer to Eliot’s novels. It resembles Eliot in its organization into seven books, in the central role that ideas play in the characters’ lives, in its moral earnestness and preoccupation with problems of vocation, and in the detail with which it represents the changes taking place in nineteenth century society. Like many earlier Victorian novels, Robert Elsmere also owes a debt to Romantic poetry. The novel’s first section includes lyrical descriptions of the Lake District landscape celebrated in William Wordsworth’s poems, and Elsmere and Catherine Leyburn quote Wordsworth to each other.
The novel’s central subjects are Elsmere’s spiritual crisis and his marriage. Ward makes Elsmere a receptor of major developments in Victorian thought, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and German historical study and biblical “higher criticism”—the effort by nineteenth...
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