IV. Death and Later Reputation

Mrs Humphry Ward with children of the Settlement Mrs Humphry Ward

Left: "Mrs Humphry Ward," photograph by H. Walter Barnett. Source: frontispiece of Walters. Right: "Mrs Humphry Ward with some of the children of the settlement." Source: Hamel 146. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Mary Augusta Ward died of heart failure in London on 24 March 1920, after three months' illness, just a day after hearing that she had been granted her honorary LL.D. by the University of Edinburgh. She was buried in the churchyard at Aldbury, a short walk from her Hertfordshire country home, Stocks. Her husband, whose recent sudden illness must have added to the strain on her, was too ill to attend but survived her for another six years, and she was also survived by her three children. The youngest of these, Janet, who had married the eminent historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, grandson of Charles Edward Trevelyan of Wallington in Northumberland, published an affectionate biography of her mother three years later.

The day after she died, the Times obituary of Ward acknowledged that "[s]he had lived on into an age indifferent to the controversies and conflicts which were the basis and background of her best works." But, it added, "even before her death the tide had turned; and there was a growing tendency to accept or renew the earlier and more favourable judgement upon her novels" (20). Maybe, though only a year or so earlier the outspoken journalist, biographer and politician Stephen Gwynn had professed astonishment that writings with "no pretension to humour or to wit," and lacking "almost entirely the quality of suggesting passion" (7), should have been so popular, relegating her to the ranks of those whose output was just one step removed "from that uncongenial thing, the 'symposium' in a review" (9-10). A little later, when Janet wrote her biography, she too acknowledged that there had been a period of relative neglect:

It was as though she had lived through the period, some ten years before, when the public had tired somewhat of her books and younger writers had to a large extent supplanted her, until, towards the end, she found herself taken to the heart of her countrymen in a manner that had hardly been her lot in the years of her greatest literary fame. They loved her not only for all that she had done, but for what she was, divining in her, besides her intellectual gifts, besides even the tenderness and sympathy of her character, that indomitable courage that carried her through to the end, over difficulties and obstacles at which they only dimly guessed. They loved her for wearing herself out, at sixty-seven, in visits to the battle-fields of France, that she might bear her witness to her country's deeds; they loved her for all the joy that she had given to little children. Two months before her death the Lord Chancellor, making himself the mouthpiece of this feeling, had asked her to act as one of the first seven women magistrates of England, and later still, when she was already nearing the end, the University of Edinburgh invited her to receive the Honorary Degree of LL.D. These acts of recognition gave her a passing pleasure, and when she herself was beyond the reach of pleasure, or of pain, it stirred the hearts of those who went with her, for the last time, to the little village graveyard to see awaiting her, at the drive gate, a file of stalwart police, claiming their right to escort the coffin of a Justice of the Peace. (Trevelyan, Ch.XV)

Here, it is noticeable that the re-evaluation she describes is largely focused on Ward's personal qualities, rather than on the novels.

But, granted that there was at least some degree of reassessment in those last few years, how much of Ward's oeuvre actually survived her death? This deserves a more positive answer. U. C. Knoepflmacher pointed out long ago that we tend to separate the "middle-class, humanist, nineteenth-century tradition" too distinctly from the modern period (141). He sees some truth in Ward's own sense of herself as carrying on from where George Eliot left off. Noting the unmistakable similarities between Lady Connie and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, he suggests that we should be grateful to this continuity for rescuing the novel from the "standstill brought about by the formalistic tradition of [Henry] James, Conrad, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce" (158). Not everyone would agree, but it is always healthy and fruitful to have a compromise, and indeed some tension, between tradition and experiment.

In our own times, several factors have helped to put Ward on the literary map again. Easily the most important is Sutherland's biography, which brings out all those "difficulties and obstacles" at which her readers had "only dimly guessed," and brilliantly evokes the drama in her novels' publication histories. For instance, he recounts in detail both the travails of writing Robert Elsmere, and the phases of its reception, which culminated in nothing short of a "buying and reading mania in Britain, America and even Europe" (130), as people responded to its ideological iconoclasm. His chapters on the novel are entitled "The Elsmere Ordeal, 1884-1888," and "Elsmere Mania: 1888" respectively. He also sifts out the best of her work and explores its qualities, calling David Grieve "one of her handful of great works" (136), and recommending particularly Marcella ("one of Mary Ward's best," 146) and Helbeck of Bannisdale, the novel that "most readers consider her finest" (153). While he skates over the lesser-known titles, he does not forget to give a boost to the all-but forgotten Lady Connie ("surprisingly good.... a fine novel," 349), Missing and Harvest.

Then, Ward's reputation has been helped by a fairly recent willingness to understand her position on suffrage, to look at some of her heroines' struggles and to see in them "a searching, 'assaying' intellectual enterprise, which functioned in genuine recipcrocity with the evolving Woman Question" (Argyle 954). Important too is the fact that enthusiasts of this neglected novelist no longer have to plead for reprints, as Boris Ford did in 1990 in the London Review of Books, after reading Dinah Birch's review of Sutherland's biography. Ward's works are now available on the web, on Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive and so on, and can all be downloaded as e-books.

Finally, as for Ward's contributions in other spheres, Rosemary Ashton's research into education in Bloomsbury, and the handsome Bloomsbury Project on the web, give serious attention to her pioneering provisions for the children of working mothers, and handicapped children, in that part of London. Her influence here not only spread throughout the country but continues to be felt to this day. Perhaps nothing would have pleased her more than this. Stephen Gwynn had, after all, come to the conclusion that she would "sooner found an influential sect than write a supremely good book" (120). All the same, almost a hundred years on from his rather severe account of her, there is a growing feeling that her literary accomplishments should not be underestimated.

Related Material


Argyle, Gisela. "Mrs. Humphry Ward's Fictional Experiments in the Woman Question." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 43. No. 4 (Autumn 2003): 939-957. Accessed via Jstor. Web. 4 November 2013.

Ashton, Rosemary. Victorian Bloomsbury. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.

Birch, Dinah. "The Great Mary" (Review of Sutherland's biography of Ward). London Review of Books. 13 September 1990, 13-14. Online Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

The Bloomsbury Project: Institutions: The Passmore Edwards Settlement. Web. 4 November 2013.

Gwynn, Stephen. Mrs. Humphry Ward. London: Nisbet, 1917. Internet Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

Joannou, Maroula. "Mary Augusta Ward and the Opposition to Women's Suffrage." 1-24. Anglia Ruskin Research Online. Web. 4 November 2013.

"Mrs Humphry Ward: Her Art as a Novelist. Public-Spirited Activities." Times. 25 March 1920, p. 16. Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

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

Trevelyan, Janet Penrose. The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1923. Project Gutenberg. Web. 4 November 2013.

Walters, John Stuart. Mrs. Humphry Ward: Her Work and Influence. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1912. Internet Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

Last modified 4 November 2013