decorated initial 'W'e first meet the eponymous heroine of Mrs Humphry Ward's Marcella (1894) at a major turning-point in her life. She has just left her students' boarding-house in London to join her parents at Mellor Park, which her father has recently inherited. She can now put behind her a difficult childhood — one that sounds very similar to her author's. But in London she has been involved with the "Venturists" (Ward's name for the Fabians, see Walters 152, n.), and she remains something of a "little spitfire outsider" (I: 11) with a strong social conscience. Despite their differences, she wins the love of the conservative Aldous Raeburn, son of the wealthy Lord Maxwell. The differences, however, impinge on the relationship. Much of the first half of the novel is concerned with the game laws, a key political issue with symbolic resonance because, of course, these were preservation laws that protected the landowner against the encroachment of the workers (see Wilt 88-89). Everything comes to a head when Jim Hurd, the crippled father of a poor family, is charged with murder after a violent encounter with a threatening gamekeeper and his night-watcher, while poaching on the Maxwell estate. Marcella has taken a keen but unfortunately counter-productive interest in the Hurds, for example, by getting Jim employment which provokes resentment among his mates. Now, seeing him merely as "the victim of unjust, abominable laws" (I: 401), she fails to understand Lord Maxwell and his son's attitude to the case. Accordingly, she breaks off the engagement, and determines to live with the poor, "work for them, find out what I can do for them" (I: 513).

A district nurse

"A district nurse with her outdoor uniform and bag." Watercolour drawing. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

At the beginning of Book 2 of the 1911 edition, we learn that Marcella's life has changed dramatically again. She has spent a year acquiring nursing skills at St Edward's Hospital, and is now a fully trained, uniformed district nurse of the St Martin's Association, living in rooms in a model housing complex called Brown's Buildings in Bloomsbury (none of these names is the real one: the first probably refers to St Thomas's, where Ward's sister-in-law Gertrude had trained, and the last to the recently erected Peabody estate on Herbrand Street in Bloomsbury). Marcella's uniform, of cap, dress and apron, sounds much less elegant than the one shown alongside, but the Wellcome Library picture does support Lady Selina Farrell's throw-away remark earlier in the novel about how fashionable this occupation had become: "It [nursing] is what all the women do nowadays, they tell me" (II: 8). This is confirmed by census returns: "Between 1851 and 1891 the number of nurses recorded ... more than doubled to 53,057, while the number of nurses under age 35 had increased nearly seven-fold" (Sutton-Ramspeck and Meller 24). Another high-spirited heroine who turns to nursing is George Meredith's Carinthia in his almost contemporaneous Amazing Marriage (1895), said in that novel to represent "a new idea of women" (80). Again, however, Marcella has carried forward into her new life some of her more recent past, this time in the very tangible form of Jim Hurd's widow and children, for whom she has found lodgings next to hers, in return for light domestic duties.

In the chapter from which the following passage is taken, Marcella returns to see a woman who has fallen ill after childbirth. She had sat with her all the previous night, and has just gone home briefly to have breakfast and change her clothes. The house is one of the many old Georgian ones in the locality, now terribly dilapidated and squalid — the author notes the "delicate ironwork of the broken balustrade" (II: 46). The people living here are Jewish immigrants, and Marcella is met on her return by the woman's son, Benny, "a small bandy-legged boy in shirt and knickerbockers" (II: 45) who is manfully trying to sweep the floor, his sleeves rolled up in a business-like way over his thin arms. The lad amuses her with his touching solicitude and sense of responsibility. Taking the candle he has thoughtfully given her, she hurries down to the dismal depths of the house for water and coal. As she struggles up again, she recalls the events of the preceding night, when she had had to shoo away a bevy of well-meaning but noisy female neighbours from the mother's bedside, and had set to work herself to calm the delirious woman and make her as comfortable as possible.

II. Excerpt from Chapter XXVIII

decorated initial 'I't was a task to test both muscular strength and moral force to their utmost. After her year's training Marcella took it simply in the day's work. Some hours of intense effort and strain; then she and the husband looked down upon the patient, a woman of about six- and-twenty, plunged suddenly in narcotic sleep, her matted black hair, which Marcella had not dared to touch, lying in wild waves on the clean bedclothes and night-gear that her nurse had extracted from this neighbour and that she could hardly have told how.

"Ach, mein Gott, mein Gott!" said the husband, rising and shaking himself. He was a Jew from German Poland, and, unlike most of his race, a huge man, with the make and the muscles of a prize-fighter. Yet, after the struggle of the last two hours he was in a bath of perspiration.

"You will have to send her to the infirmary if this comes on again," said Marcella.

The husband stared in helpless misery, first at his wife, then at the nurse.

"You will not go away, Mees?" he implored; "you will not leaf me alone?"

Wearied as she was, Marcella could have smiled at the abject giant.

"No, I will stay with her till the morning and till the doctor comes. You had better go to bed."

It was close on three o"clock. The man demurred a little, but he was in truth too worn out to resist. He went into the back room and lay down with the children.

Then Marcella was left through the long summer dawn alone with her patient. Her quick ear caught every sound about her the heavy breaths of the father and children in the back room, the twittering of the sparrows, the first cries about the streets, the first movements in the crowded house. Her mind all the time was running partly on contrivances for pulling the woman through for it was what a nurse calls "a good case," one that rouses all her nursing skill and faculty partly on the extraordinary mis- conduct of the doctor, to whose criminal neglect and mismanagement of the case she hotly attributed the whole of the woman's illness; and partly in deep, swift sinkings of meditative thought on the strangeness of the fact that she should be there at all, sitting in this chair in this miserable room, keeping guard over this Jewish mother and her child! (II: 47-48)

III. Commentary

decorated initial 'T'his whole episode shows how unfair it is to accuse Ward of humourlessness, and of not being able to cross the "invisible barrier" between "poor and rich, educated and uneducated" (Gwynn 7, 44). True, she is almost invariably earnest, and blamed herself once for not having "more humour" (qtd. in Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward, 151; emphasis added). But she treats both Benny and his father with affectionate amusement, as well as warm compassion. Her heroine relates easily to each of them, and has evidently grown up considerably. Newly practical, she copes well with the situation, and tries to work out the best way to manage it — feeling confident that it can be managed. She is still ready to fight her corner, fuming over the evident incompetence of the doctor who has been attending the woman, but she has also spent part of her watchful night in a not unpleasing reverie, very much aware of the life around her, and of her own usefulness in circumstances quite different from any she has previously encountered.

Despite being, as Marcella is, "under the control of a central office and superintendent" (II: 49), a district nurse had more leeway, and more power to exercise her authority, than a hospital nurse. Marcella is able to prove this by dismissing the incompetent doctor, who turns up later in the morning already the worse for drink, and sending for a better one. But the woman becomes feverish again, lashing out at Marcella in her delirium, and has to be taken to the infirmary. There is a touching scene as the husband leans over to talk "brokenly" to his wife of eight years, who has never been ill before (II: 56); and then, with "his face convulsed with weeping" and his children clinging to him, watches as she is taken away to the infirmary by stretcher-bearers from the ambulance, "the figures of the straining men heavily descending step by step, their heads and shoulders thrown out against the dirty drabs and browns of the staircase" (II: 56-57).

The interest and poignancy of the scene are both increased by the fact that the people in this tenement are Jewish. The new doctor is just as bothered by the swarm of neighbours as Marcella had been, because they make it hard for him to give the necessary instructions to the ambulance men. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that both Marcella and her author have boundless sympathy for the immigrant family. They represent the many such Jews who fled to London in the early 1880s onwards, quite a number of whom settled not in the East End, but in the small streets around Red Lion Square in Bloomsbury (see Ashton 153). Ward's understanding of this community must have been helpful, especially considering the immense popularity of the book, which was announced "on the noticeboards of most of the evening papers" (Recollections, II: 162).

Marcella and Aldous Raeburn

"You are to hear me confess." Marcella sits Aldous down, placing herself at his feet, to confess the whole history of her feelings for him. Aldous makes his own passionate confession, and the pair are finally reconciled and reunited at the very end of the novel. Source: II: facing p. 422.

Marcella is still hemming "muslim strings" for her nurse's bonnet when she attends her father's sick-bed (II: 319), but his death leaves her mistress of Mellor Park. Her life is taking yet another turn. This is confirmed when, despite having been involved with a racy socialist, Harry Wharton (loosely based on Parnell), she and Aldous are finally reconciled. Is it fair to see the abandonment of nursing and the conventionally happy ending as a kind of capitulation, a return of the "adventurous heroine" to the "domestic sphere" (Swenson 61)? Marcella will undoubtedly lose some degree of independence, but her marriage will give her new and more potent ways of furthering her philanthropic ideals. Lady Selina had said earlier, on hearing of the couple's broken engagement: "How much more she might have done for the poor with thirty thousand a year!" (II: 8). Well, now she can do all she wants to do, and we find her in the sequel, Sir George Tressady (1896), doing it. Far from simply engaging in "traditional upper-class female duties" (Swenson 61), she interests herself and others in the problems of sweated labour, rescues an old house in the Mile End Road where she holds "evenings," and exerts considerable influence on the campaign for factory reform. Admittedly, true to her author's anti-suffragist philosophy, she exerts this influence indirectly: her one public speech is faltering and in the main unimpressive, endangering her very life when a mob turns nasty. It is enough to persuade her that "public life and public success make one stand separate — alone" (II: 327), and are not right for her. But she helps scupper the opposition by converting even the recalcitrant Sir George to her own point of view. At the last minute he votes against his own party. A mine-owner as well as an M.P., he goes on to die nobly in a pit rescue, with a vision of a transcendent Marcella to comfort him.

When she first comes to Mellor, Marcella's meddling in the villagers' lives only makes trouble. Her nursing experience plays a key role in giving her a better understanding of the lives of the poor, and increasing both her competence and confidence. As a result, Marcella not only focuses "many of its author's ambivalences about philanthropy," as John Sutherland puts it (Longman Companion, 408), but manages to resolve them, too. Ward was never a nurse, but, as mentioned earlier, her sister-in-law was, and she herself had by now acquired first-hand knowledge of slum conditions. Even as she was writing the novel, she was engaged in establishing the settlement at University Hall, Gordon Square, which would eventually move to its own purpose-built premises, the Passmore Edwards Settlement, now the Mary Ward House, in Herbrand Street. Like Marcella, it seems, she saw the chance to "ride the two horses" of a propertied Tory lifestyle and socialist principles (Marcella I: 275), and seized it. In this way, "Marcella's painful drift from radicalism to pragmatic Toryism honestly reflects Mary Ward's own emerging sense of herself as helper of London's poor and mistress of Stocks [the country house in Hertfordshire, which she had just settled into when she started the novel]" (Mrs Humphry Ward, 146).

Related Material


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

Gwynn, Stephen. Mrs. Humphry Ward. London: Nisbet, 1917. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

Meredith, George. The Amazing Marriage. New York: Scribner's, 1910. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, 1988. Print.

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

Sutton-Ramspeck, Beth, and Nicole B. Meller. Introduction. Marcella. Ed. Sutton-Ramspeck and Meller. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002. 11-26. Print.

Swenson, Kristine. Medical Women and Victorian Fiction. Columbia: Univrsity of Missouri Press, 2005. Print.

Walters, John Stuart. Mrs. Humphry Ward: Her Work and Influence. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1912. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

Ward, Mrs Humphry. Marcella, Vol. I. Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward. Vol. V. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

_____. Marcella, Vol. II. Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward. Vol. VI. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

_____. Sir George Tressady. London: Smith, Elder, 1897. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

_____. A Writer's Recollections. Vol. I. New York and London: Harper, 1918. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

_____. A Writer's Recollections. Vol. II. New York and London: Harper, 1918. Internet Archive. Web. 12 November 2013.

Wilt, Judith. Behind Her Times: Transition England in the Novels of Mary Arnold Ward. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2005. Print.

Last modified 12 November 2013