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Unitarian Universalist Association

Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society

General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (UK)

Harvard Square Library

Mrs Humphry Ward

Mrs Humphry Ward Mary Augusta Arnold (Mrs Humphry Ward) (June 11, 1851-March 26, 1920) was an enormously successful novelist in her time, whose work is largely concerned with religious and political issues. She also pioneered modern child day-care. Never affiliated with the Unitarians, she nevertheless lectured at their churches, attended liberal services, and discussed with Unitarians their style of worship and the content of their faith. Her most famous novel, Robert Elsmere, 1888, telling of an Anglican clergyman's conversion to something like Unitarian belief, sparked much religious debate and was the best selling book of its decade. "It was, as reflected in contemporary conversation," wrote her friend Henry James, "a momentous public event."

Mary Arnold was born in Hobart, Tasmania, Her father, Thomas Arnold, was the second son of Dr Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School, and the younger brother of Matthew Arnold-Mary's "Uncle Matt"-the poet and cultural critic. In 1847 Thomas migrated to New Zealand in quest of a more egalitarian society. He made a romantic attempt at clearing a farm in the wilderness, worked as a schoolmaster for a year, and finally became inspector of schools in Tasmania. In 1850 he married Julia Kemp, the daughter of a previous governor of the island. Mary was their first child and they had eight others who grew to adulthood.

In 1856, to the great distress of his wife, Thomas Arnold converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and had to relinquish his position in Tasmania. With the help of John Henry Newman, he moved to Ireland to teach at the Catholic University in Dublin. Julia and their sons, who were to be raised as Catholics, accompanied him. Their one school-age daughter Mary, who was to be raised as an Anglican, was left with his mother, the widow of Dr Arnold, at Fox How, originally their holiday home, in Westmoreland. Thomas Arnold returned to Anglicanism in 1856 and reconverted to Catholicism in 1876, thus in turn opening and losing a career in Oxford.

For Mary 1856-67 was a decade of isolation from her family. At first she went to school at Ambleside, Westmoreland and spent her holidays at Fox How, neglected and misunderstood by her father's relatives. Physically active and exuberant, she possessed a strong temper and was dismissed as 'unmanageable'. She nevertheless romanticized the few years she spent at or near the Arnold estate. The beauty of the Lake District scenery is the richly-described background of much of Robert Elsmere.

From 1860-64 Mary was sent to the rather Spartan Rock Terrace School for Young Ladies in Shifnal Shropshire. After further exile at a school near Bristol, she joined her parents and siblings, newly reunited in the Anglican faith, at Oxford in 1867. 'As far as intellectual training was concerned', she later wrote, 'my nine years from seven to seventeen were practically wasted.'

Although she had no formal education at Oxford, Mary assisted her father in his research and, given a pass to the Bodleian Library, studied Spanish history and literature. These studies enabled her to enter the highest intellectual circles and she was soon famous as a remarkably intellectual young woman.

In 1872 Mary Arnold married (Thomas) Humphry Ward, then a fellow of Brasenose College. They lived in Oxford till 1881 when Humphry moved to London to work as a political leader writer on the Times, later being demoted to art correspondent. They had three children, all born 1874-79: Dorothy Mary, Arnold Sandwith and Janet Penrose.

In 1869, before her marriage, Mary Arnold had written several romantic stories, one of which, 'A Westmoreland Story', had been published in the Churchman's Companion, 1870. The next decade was, however, dedicated to scholarship. She published two articles on early Spanish literature in Macmillan's Magazine, 1871-72, contributed over two hundred entries on Visigothic Spaniards to the Dictionary of Christian Biography, 1878-82. Reading the primary works of early Church history led her to doubt the reliability of witnesses to, and hence to scepticism about, the biblical miracles. In 1881 she responded to a religiously conservative Oxford sermon with a pamphlet, Unbelief and Sin, A Protest, defending free thought against its association with sin. Later that year she published a children's book, Milly and Olly, 1881, based upon her own childhood, that of her children, and ancient British and Spanish tales.

In London, Mrs Ward contributed articles to a number of periodicals, including literary and theological reviews for the Times. In 1882 she met Henry James, who became her mentor. Indeed her first novel, Miss Bretherton, 1884, shows his influence. Shortly afterwards she published a translation from French of Henri Frederic Amiel's Journal Intime, 1885. In a review in Macmillan's, 1884, she explained her religious interest in the work: 'a mind like Amiel's, while intellectually it feels the force of the arguments urged by science, is yet practically persuaded that beyond and below phenomena there is a "deepest depth" in which love and duty have their source, a Divine consciousness which is the root of ours.'

Mrs Ward's second novel, Robert Elsmere, 1888, was an astounding success. It is the story of a Church of England rector who loses his faith in the miraculous events in the Gospels and feels morally obliged to resign his rectorship, to the dismay of his devout wife. Before doing so he seeks the advice of Henry Grey, a fellow of St Anselm's (Balliol), whose teaching had been inspirational for him, though until then he had not been able to follow him in his complete abandonment of Christian orthodoxy. Grey is a portrait of the idealist Oxford philosopher Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882), whom Mary knew and whose lectures she had attended. Green was the founder of a powerful form of philosophical idealism which sought to rescue a spiritual view of life from all threats from science while relegating everything supernatural in the Gospels to the status of a "beautiful fairy story". Mrs Ward's religious position seems to have remained essentially Green's.

Moving from his country living to a poor part of London Elsmere encounters a Unitarian minister, Murray Edwardes, who had broken out of the confines of Unitarianism and was delivering lectures to working men expounding a simple ethical creed. Elsmere has no thought of becoming a Unitarian himself. He has been long convinced that 'in the beliefs of a Channing no one once fairly started on the critical road could rationally stop.' Moreover, Unitarians, whose temper he thought to possess a certain 'thinness and aridity', were as a body cut off from the working classes. Edwardes tells him of an educational club for working men, which Elsmere joins and in which he soon becomes the leading figure. Elsmere starts giving regular Sunday afternoon lectures there, describing what the life and teaching of Jesus should mean 'to us today' when stripped of miracles and legends. He preaches a new religion: theism with Jesus as master teacher, 'at least for the West'. Eventually he founds an organization called 'The Brotherhood of Christ', committed to the ideals of Jesus and to the God of Green's idealist philosophy. Its purpose was to bring working class men and women to a religion which could raise their lives above their current moral and cultural level.

The novel soon created a sensation. Widely hailed as the book of the decade, it had numerous reviews, ranging from the enthusiastic to the totally condemnatory, and was harangued against in many a sermon. Pirated editions of it were bestsellers in America and Canada. Its most prestigious reviewer was Gladstone, who was both enthralled and horrified by it. '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?' he wrote, and further allowed that Robert Elsmere was 'a devout attempt, made in good faith, to simplify the difficult mission of religion in the world by discarding all the supposed lumber of Christian theology'. Nonetheless he was appalled at its basic message, in which he saw the ruin of Christianity, that the Gospel narratives were mere myth and he arranged two long and passionate conversations with her about it.

Mrs Ward became an immensely popular writer. She wrote 25 novels, concerned largely with religious, political, and social issues. The novel which followed Robert Elsmere, The History of David Grieve, 1892, is the story of how a young man from a poor farming family becomes a learned bookseller who, after a life full of tribulations, moves from total religious scepticism to a philosophy of life and religion remarkably like that of Thomas Hill Green. In Helbeck of Bannisdale, 1898, Mrs Ward narrates the disastrous, and eventually tragic, engagement of an almost fanatical Catholic man with a woman who had been brought up as an agnostic. While trying to sympathise with each, Mrs Ward emphasised the increasing distress of the woman at what she finds bizarre and unhealthy in Catholicism. Ward's concern with Catholicism, and with problems of religious faith in general, grew largely out of her father's chequered religious history. Indeed she consulted him on points of Catholic practice in writing this novel and toned down some things likely to offend him.

Many of Mrs Ward's novels compare well with those of the Victorian Greats. Besides those already described, Eleanor, 1900, stands out as a moving tragedy, while the two "political" novels, Marcella, 1894, and Sir George Tressady, 1896 give expression to her reforming conservatism. Unusual for its treatment of country people of the peasant class, and one of the best things she wrote, is the novella The Story of Bessie Costrell, 1895. There is nevertheless a decided decline in her later novels, written hastily to earn money to support the improvidence of her son and, to a lesser extent, husband (the former for his gambling debts, the latter for his unwise trading in paintings).

Her novels were written with great physical effort. Mrs Ward suffered from rheumatism, insomnia, eczema, gallstones, and chronic pain. Because of writer's cramp and her other maladies, the writing of her later novels was so physically painful that it is amazing how many she managed to produce.

Although in effect, a traditional Unitarian in her beliefs, Mrs Ward never joined the denomination and indeed had a somewhat negative, or at least ambivalent, attitude towards it. For a time, until its closure in 1895, she attended the credally unitarian but Anglican-style services of the former Anglican minister Stopford Brooke at Bedford Chapel.

In 1893 Mrs Ward stirred up controversy with Unitarians when she wrote to the Manchester Guardian criticizing the services at Manchester College, Oxford as barren relics of old Puritanism. However, she gave a number of lectures at Unitarian-sponsored events: for example, at Essex Hall in London, 1894; at the Octagon Chapel in Norwich, 1898; and at the Leicester Unitarian Conference, 1900. She strove to be controversial, especially in her religious lectures. Of her audiences she said, "I want to poke them up."

In her Essex Hall Lecture, 'Unitarians and the Future', Mrs Ward traced the development of Unitarian thought from Joseph Priestley to James Martineau. In her opinion, the position of Unitarianism as a denomination in Britain was discouraging. Although it was closer 'in point of cultivation and learning' to the established church than any other dissenting denomination, it had not become part of the fabric of national life. Unitarianism still suffered, she thought, from a puritanical 'jealousy of beautiful forms, a defective sense for what is delicate and lovely' which was repellent to the cultured. 'Unitarians must show a catholic power of adaptation in which they have not so far been fertile.' If it was to last the 'new faith' would need to express its great message by more beautiful forms of service. Moreover, she thought Unitarians too isolated and in danger of falling behind the advance of modern thought. Unitarians needed to shed the impression of being 'the remains of something else' and boldly and enthusiastically proclaim a fresh, modern message. She thought the Unitarian task was to teach a new kind of Christianity: Jesus as a historically real prophet, without supernatural powers, and the inspiration for improvement in the condition of human life.

Mrs Ward's ambivalent attitude to Unitarianism reflected her uncle Matthew's dislike of sects-he called them 'hole-and-corner religion'. Her increasing concern was rather that the Church of England should open itself to all who could be called Christians, unitarians included. In the words of her daughter, Janet Penrose Trevelyan, she had a '"hunger" for admission to the [National] Church (though always on her own terms!)'. She wished to be able to take communion without having to subscribe to catechisms and creeds. She became quite bitter that the Church of England would not admit those with unitarian beliefs. Her great hope-not unlike that of James Martineau-was that the Church of England would develop into a truly national church, with every shade of Christian opinion from the most traditionally orthodox to the most radically unitarian worshipping together.

Mrs Ward promoted her idea of a broader-than-broad-church fictionally in The Case of Richard Meynell, 1911. When an Anglican clergyman propounds liberal Christian views from the pulpit, he is tried for heresy. The novel concludes with the prayer that one day there will be room for such liberal Christians in the Anglican fold. The novel is something of a sequel to Robert Elsmere. Elsmere appears as a ghost hallucinated by his widow, advising her to be more tolerant of the heretic Richard Meynell, who eventually marries the Elsmeres' daughter. Less in tune with its time, it enjoyed nothing of the success of its forerunner.

Mrs Ward's involvement in public affairs was intense and varied. In 1878-79 she had played a key part in the founding of Somerville Hall (later College), the non-denominational of the two first Oxford colleges for women. She was on the Somerville Council, 1881-98. In 1883 she was invited to be the first woman examiner of men at Oxford.

Some ten years after publishing Robert Elsmere, Mrs Ward brought the social concerns of her fictitious hero to bear on real life. In 1897 her creation, the Passmore Edwards Settlement (named for the 'rags to riches' philanthropist she persuaded to finance it) in Tavistock Place, London, opened as a 'settlement' and an educational club for working class men and women. Later it included an innovative 'play centre' for children, the forerunner of after-school care in Britain, and soon also a special school for handicapped children from working class homes (who previously had stayed listlessly at home while their parents were out to work). Though loved by the children when she appeared, Mrs Ward's role was primarily that of organizer and fund-raiser. She was highly effective in persuading rich philanthropists, such as Passmore Edwards himself, to pay for it.

These privately-founded schools, which became government-funded during World War I, started the play school movement, and opened a new era in the treatment of the handicapped. Mrs Ward used her influence to insert a clause in the 1902 Education Bill, obliging Local Education Authorities to fund children's play centres, vocational schools, and other recreational facilities for children, and to add a clause on behalf of physically handicapped children to the Education Act of 1917. In 1919 she urged that the recently founded Save the Children Fund should not deny assistance to German children. Her influence on child-care and care for the handicapped gives her a significant place in social history.

Although the promotion of higher education for women was one of her great concerns, late in life, as president of the Anti-Suffrage League in 1908, she campaigned against votes for women. This surprised many who knew her as one of the most intellectually brilliant and socially-active women of her time. She felt that women influenced politics best by influencing their men-she wrote some of her son's speeches during his brief period as a Member of Parliament. She thought that, as women were not subject to military service, they should not be in a position to launch wars and, as women lacked experience in business, they ought not to make large scale economic decisions. She could not bear to part with the model of indirect feminine influence she had developed in her life and her novels. She nevertheless campaigned vigorously for women to be active in local government, both as voters and councillors. Shortly before her death she became one of the first seven English women magistrates.

The first woman journalist to visit the Allied Front during World War I, Mrs Ward was given special facilities for visiting the trenches by the War Office. This VIP treatment was extended to help her write England's Effort, 1916, which she had undertaken at the request of ex-United States President Teddy Roosevelt in order to encourage America to enter the war.

There is an unkind portrait of Mrs Ward as Mrs Foxe in her nephew Aldous Huxley's novel, Eyeless in Gaza, 1936. Virginia Woolf, who doubtless deplored her political opinions, was quite sneering about her novels. However, her negative reputation in the twenties and thirties-after which she was largely forgotten-was part of a general mood among intellectuals of despising the great and good of the Victorian era. The Christian values of repentance and self sacrifice, recurring themes of her novels, matched ill with the growing cynicism of those times. There is so much enthusiasm for neglected Victorian novels at present that there may well be a revival of interest in Mrs Ward's fiction. Marcella, for instance, has been recently republished. As studies of the phenomenology of the religiously troubled, her novels remain unequalled.

The largest collection of Mrs Ward's papers is at the Library of Pusey House, Oxford. Among the novels not mentioned above are novels are The Marriage of William Ashe (1905), Fenwick's Career (1906), Daphne, or Marriage la Mode (1909), Canadian Born (1910), Eltham House (1915), The War and Elizabeth (1918), and Harvest (1920). William Gillette made an unauthorized dramatic version of Robert Elsmere, produced in 1889. Mrs Ward helped to adapt two other novels for the theatre. She wrote two more books of non-fiction on World War I, Towards the Goal (1917) and Fields of Victory (1919). She wrote pamphlets, including A Morning at the Bodleian (1871) and Plain Facts on Infant Feeding (1874). Her journalism, lectures, and contributions to books of others is copious. There is a substantial bibliography, including these, at the end of William S. Peterson, Victorian Heretic: Mrs Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere (1976).

Mrs Ward's own memoirs are A Writer's Recollections (1918). Her daughter, Janet Penrose Trevelyan, wrote The Life of Mrs. Humphry Ward (1923). Another interesting early view, written during Mrs Ward's lifetime, is J. Stuart Walters, Mrs Humphry Ward: Her Work and Influence (1912). More recent biographies include Enid Huws Jones, Mrs. Humphry Ward (1973); William S. Peterson, Victorian Heretic; Esther Marian Greenwell Smith, Mrs. Humphry Ward (1980); Anne M. Bindslev, Mrs. Humphry Ward: A Study in Late-Victorian Feminine Consciousness and Creative Expression (1985); and John Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward (1990).

Article by Timothy Sprigge - posted June 9, 2004

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