Decorated initial M

ary Augusta Ward, née Arnold (1851-1920), is better known as the late Victorian novelist Mrs Humphry Ward. The eldest granddaughter of Dr Arnold of Rugby, she was born into the intellectual éite: her father Thomas would become an Oxford don; her uncle Matthew, the poet and literary and cultural critic, would become Professor of Poetry at Oxford; her sister Julia would marry into the Huxley clan. In her own time, under her formal married name, she would be as famous as any of these, probably more so: "It is impossible to estimate the number of people who have read Mrs. Ward's books," wrote a contemporary biographer, "and it is equally impossible to find an English man or woman, of fair education, who has never read any of them. There is therefore no need for wonderment at the enormous influence they have exerted, it is the natural outcome of an immense success" (Walters 202). As was the case with some of her contemporaries, Ward's reputation declined dramatically with the passing of the late Victorian era, but her novels are still fascinating for the light they throw on the period, and four or five of them, at least, are of considerably more than historic interest. Despite a lifelong battle with ill-health, Ward also engaged directly in social causes, and deserves recognition here too for some important legacies.

I: Childhood and Early Married Life

Mary Arnold, 1863 Fox Howe

Left: "Mary Arnold 1863." Source: Collins, frontispiece of A Writer's Recollections, 3rd ed., Collins, 1919. Right: "Fox How, the Westmoreland home of the Arnolds." Source: A Writer's Recollections, Vol.I, Harper ed., 1918, facing p. 80. [Click on all images to enlarge them.]

Despite her distinguished background, Ward's childhood was a difficult one. The eldest of Thomas and Julia Arnold's eight children, she was born in 1851 when her father, who had married in Tasmania, was still working there as an inspector of schools. He had to give up the post in 1856 when he converted to Catholicism, and on the family's return to Britain placed his eldest and apparently wilful and unruly daughter in boarding school. She was sent first to a little school in Ambleside in the Lake District, where her grandfather had his ten-bedroomed grey-stone country home, Fox How, then to establishments in Shropshire and Clifton, near Bristol. From what she says in her Writer's Recollections, she was very much like the rebellious eponymous heroine of Marcella (1894), and fared very much as that unfortunate heroine did, with "rough surroundings and primitive teaching" at the Shropshire establishment, and adolescent "agitations" at the next (Marcella, 21). "As far as intellectual training was concerned, my nine years from seven to sixteen were practically wasted," Ward wrote later, looking back on this period in her life as a "starved and rather unhappy" time Recollections (Harper ed. 129, 133).

However, when her father was received back into the established church and settled down to an academic life in Oxford, his eldest daughter was at last restored permanently to the family home. She now made up for lost time by studying at the Bodleian under the guidance of Mark Pattison, the erudite Rector of Lincoln College who was one of the curators of the library. Curiously, what she studied was early Spanish history and literature, perhaps because this was an area in which she could make her own discoveries, and, to a small extent, her own mark (see Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward, 34-35).

Lewis Carroll's photograph of Mrs Ward in her wedding gown, an albumen print of 1872. © National Portrait Gallery.

Ward also found congenial companionship of her own age in Oxford. Early in 1871, a bright young Fellow of Brasenose College was asked round to the house. His name was Thomas Ward, but he used his second name, Humphry. The two were married in the following year, on a date she affectionately recalled when dedicating her Writer's Recollections to "T. H. W. (In memory of April 6, 1872)." Aligning herself firmly with her husband, who had given her new status and a whole new start after an often lonely childhood, she now adopted not only his surname but his Christian name for her writing. Perhaps there was a lingering feeling that a woman needed the protection that a man's name could provide. Certainly, her choice was not at all uncommon: Mrs S[amuel] C[arter] [Anna Maria] Hall (1800-1881) and Mrs Henry [Ellen] Wood (1814-1887) also come to mind. But it does foreshadow her later anti-suffrage stance, a stance that would eventually lose her a good deal of support among a new generation of readers.

For Humphry too marriage involved a change of status. In those days, college fellows were required to be bachelors, and he was not offered any chance of getting round this. Perhaps, like Robert Elsmere, the eponymous hero of what was to be his wife's best-known novel, "[h]e was neither dull enough nor great enough for a striking Oxford success" (Robert Elsmere I: 111). Instead, he was left to depend on tutoring and whatever writing work he could get. This made the couple's early married years less comfortable than they might have been (see Sutherland 57-58).

The House in Oxford Somerville College

Left: "Mrs Ward's House in Oxford": No. 17 (formerly 5) Bradmore Road, where the Wards lived from 1872-81. Source: Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward, Vol. VIII, Houghton Mifflin ed., 1911, facing p.144. Right: Somerville College, as it was in 1903. [Click on this image for its source.]

Yet, despite this, and the demands of parenthood as their three children came along — despite even the failure of most of her early writing projects — Ward later described this as a happy time. She wrote nostalgically of the "[t]he joys of one's new home, of the children that began to patter about it, of every bit of furniture and blue pot it contained.... the life of the University town ... , those intellectual and religious movements, that were like the meeting currents of rivers in a lake; and the pleasure of new friendships, where everybody was equal, nobody was rich, and the intellectual average was naturally high" (Recollections, Harper ed., 201-02). Not wholly taken up with the family, and revelling in the heady ambience of progressive thought, she became deeply involved in the movement for women's access to higher education. She took an active and leading role in the founding of what began as Somerville Hall, and became Somerville College, serving as one of the Somerville Committee's two original secretaries. This was not a short-term involvement: Ward would be on the college council from 1881 to 1898, until her anti-suffrage stance alienated her from it.

Ward also rose to the challenge of preparing a large number of scholarly accounts of early Spanish ecclesiastics for the Dictionary of Christian Biography. This was not work that would put her on the literary map yet, but it gave her a useful training in doing research, organising material, and developing other writerly skills, and she credited it later with leading "directly" to her break-through novel of 1888, Robert Elsmere (Recollections, Harper ed., 202). With some justice, though, the blue plaque on the Wards' former home in Bradmore Road identifies her as "Social Reformer" first, "novelist" second. At this stage, her writing career had yet to take off.

Related Material


"Mrs Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward, née Arnold)." National Portrait Gallery. Web. 3 November 2013.

Sutherland, John. Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Print.

Walters, John Stuart. Mrs. Humphry Ward: Her Work and Influence. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1912. Internet Archive. Web. 3 November 2013.

Ward, Mrs Humphry. Helbeck of Bannisdale. 7th ed. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1908. Internet Archive. Web. 3 November 2013.

_____. A Writer's Recollections. 3rd ed. London: Collins, 1919. Internet Archive. Web. 3 November 2013.

_____. A Writer's Recollections. Vol. I. New York and London: Harper, 1918. Internet Archive. Web. 3 November 2013.

_____. Marcella, Vol. I. Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward. Vol. V. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 3 November 2013.

_____. Robert Elsmere, Vol. I. Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward. Vol. I. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 3 November 2013.

_____. Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward. Vol. VIII. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 3 November 2013.

Last modified 3 November 2013