[Ward begins Book II, “Surrey,” by contrasting Westmoreland, where the novel opened, to the tamer nature of the south, and in her second paragraph she introduces the “rectory of Murewell” where we find Robert Elsmere and his now-pregnant wife Catherine as they await the visit of his university friend and mentor Langham and her sister Rose. Like Dickens and Hardy, Ward has a gift for word-painting, but does she like her predecessors use setting symbolically? — George P. Landow]
he heaths and woods of some districts of Surrey are scarcely more thickly peopled than the fells of Westmoreland; the walker may wander for miles, and still enjoy an untamed primitive earth, guiltless of boundary or furrow, the undisturbed home of all that grows and flies, where the rabbits, the lizards, and the birds live their life as they please, either ignorant of intruding man or strangely little incommoded by his neighborhood. And yet there is nothing forbidding or austere in these wide solitudes. The patches of graceful birch-wood; the miniature lakes nestling among them; the brakes of ling—pink, faintly scented, a feast for every sense; the stretches of purple heather, glowing into scarlet under the touch of the sun; the scattered farmhouses, so mellow in color, so pleasant in outline; the general softness and lavishness of the earth and all it bears, make these Surrey commons not a wilderness but a paradise. Nature, indeed, here is like some spoilt, petulant child. She will bring forth nothing, or almost nothing, for man's grosser needs. Ask her to bear corn or pasture flocks and she will be miserly and grudging. But ask her only to be beautiful, enticing, capriciously lovely, and she will throw herself into the task with all the abandonment, all the energy, that heart could wish.
It is on the borders of one of the wilder districts of a county, which is throughout a strange mixture of suburbanism and the desert, that we next meet with Robert and Catherine Elsmere. The rectory of Murewell occupied the highest point of a gentle swell of ground which sloped through cornfields and woods to a plain of boundless heather on the south, and climbed away on the north toward the long chalk ridge of the Hog's Back. It was a square white house pretending neither to beauty nor state, a little awkwardly and barely placed, with only a small stretch of grass and a low hedge between it and the road. A few tall firs climbing above the roof gave a little grace and clothing to its southern side, and behind it there was a garden sloping softly down toward the village at its foot—a garden chiefly noticeable for its grass walks, the luxuriance of the fruit trees clinging to its old red wars, and the masses of pink and white phloxes which now in August gave it the floweriness and the gayety of an Elizabethan song. Below in the hollow and to the right lay the picturesque medley of the village-roofs and gables and chimneys, yellow-gray thatch, shining whitewash, and mellowed brick, making a bright patchwork among the softening trees, thin wreaths of blue smoke, like airy ribbons, tangled through it all. Rising over the rest was a house of some dignity. It had been an old manor-house, now it was half ruinous and the village inn. Some generations back the squire of the clay had dismantled it, jealous that so big a house should exist in the same parish as the Hall, and the spoils of it had furnished the rectory: so that the homely house was fitted inside with mahogany doors and carved cupboard fronts, in which Robert delighted, and in which even Catherine felt a proprietary pleasure.
Altogether a quiet, English spot. If the house had no beauty, it commanded a world of loveliness. All around it—north, south, and west—there spread, as it were, a vast playground of heather and wood and grassy common, in which the few work-a-day patches of hedge and ploughed land seemed engulphed and lost. Close under the rectory windows, however, was a vast sloping cornfield, belonging to the glebe, the largest and fruitfulest of the neighborhood. At the present moment it was just ready for the reaper—the golden ears had clearly but a few more days or hours to ripple in the sun. It was bounded by a dark summer-scorched belt of wood, and beyond, over the distance, rose a blue pointed bill, which seemed to be there only to attract and make a centre for the sunsets. [151-52]
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Boston: DeWolfe, Fiske & Co., n.d. Project Gutenberg E-Book produced by Andrew Templeton and David Widger. Last Updated: February 7, 2013. Web. 20 July 2014.
Last modified 20 July 2014