he reader first encounters the protagonist of the novel through the thoughts of Mrs. Thornburgh, the wife of the local vicar to whom Ward has devoted several pages, showing her personality, economic worries, and relation to her husband in passages about her foiled attempt to procure delicacies for tea that a prestigious member of local society will attend. In chapter II, after Elsmere and her husband return from a walk, the young man takes his place on a carpet the maid has brought into the garden. At this point, “Mrs. Thornburgh studied him; her eye caught first of all by the stubble of reddish hair which as he shook off his hat stood up straight and stiff all over his head with an odd wildness and aggressiveness. She involuntarily thought, basing her inward comment on a complexity of reasons — 'Dear me, what a pity; it spoils his appearance!'” Next, we learn both that the cropped hair was caused by the young clergyman's illness and that he has a pleasing personality: “'I apologize, I apologize, cousin Emma, once for all,' said the young, man, surprising her glance, and despairingly smoothing down his recalcitrant locks. 'Let us hope that mountain air will quicken the pace of it before it is necessary for me to present a dignified appearance at 'Murewell'” (22) After Robert looks up at her “with a merry flash in his gray eyes” she realizes that he “was a most attractive creature” (22).
Immediately after declaring that Emma Thornburgh finds Robert attractive despite his close cropped hair, Ward's omniscient narrator emphasizes his physical weaknesses and shortcomings:
Not that he could boast much in the way of regular good looks: the mouth was large, the nose of no particular outline, and in general the cutting of the face, though strong and characteristic, had a bluntness and naïveté like a vigorous unfinished sketch. This bluntness of line, however, was balanced by a great delicacy of tint—the pink and white complexion of a girl, indeed—enhanced by the bright reddish hair, and quick gray eyes.
The figure was also a little out of drawing, so to speak; it was tall and loosely-jointed. The general impression was one of agility and power. But if you looked closer you saw that the shoulders were narrow, the arms inordinately long, and the extremities too small for the general height. Robert Elsmere's hand was the hand of a woman, and few people ever exchanged a first greeting with its very tall owner without a little shock of surprise. [22-23]
Ward obviously connects his physical and spiritual characteristics of the young man whose deathbed she dramatizes in her closing pages. What are we to make of the remark that “Robert Elsmere's hand was the hand of a woman,” and what are we to make of the author's notions of gender?
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Last modified 16 July 2014