The following is a thoughtful response to my commentary on an extract from Ward's Robert Elsmere. In particular, Whittemore examines the idea that Ward "underplayed Catherine's intellectual capacity" by not allowing her to yield to her husband's scepticism. — JB

decorated initial 'I''m not sure I agree that Mary Ward has "relegated Catherine to the realm of the emotions." Yes, Catherine says she knows little of books, but as pointed out here, she reads St Augustine and other devotional literature. She knows Wordsworth (though not the atheist Shelley), George Herbert, Jeremy Taylor, and Keble's Christian Year (expurgated of its Tractarian leanings!). I think Ward makes it clear that she's not lacking in intellectual capacity; but simply that she chooses to read only literature which supports her faith.

It seems to me that this was the typical approach of devout believers in her father's generation: if you want to hold on to your faith, you should not read or think too much, even if doubts come, but just pray, and accept the authority of the Church. As late as 1871 or 1872, this is how Pusey advised the young doubt-ridden Annie Besant. It's true that women, more than men, were likely to be given this sort of advice, with the idea that they shouldn't trouble their pretty little heads with deep study of controversy. And of course some women (George Eliot for example) and men ignored such advice; by the 1870s, fewer and fewer people took it. Doubt had become too much the tenor of the age. Annie Besant, like Robert Elsmere, could not believe, unless there were solid intellectual grounds to believe. She says Pusey had " conception of the struggles of a sceptical spirit." He told her: "It is not your duty to ascertain the truth. It is your duty to accept and believe the truth as laid down by the Church." (1)

Pusey is mentioned in Robert Elsmere as still alive, but very old, and a voice from a former time; he died in 1882. (The action of the book is set just a few years before Mary Ward started writing it.) She herself, of course, like Annie Besant but perhaps in a less tormented way, had already been delving thoroughly for years into the question of Christian origins and testimony. Her character Elsmere's researches had been her own.

Even Elsmere, when he first begins reading Squire Wendover's work, shuts the book in horror, sensing the threat to his faith. At that stage he still wants to protect his beliefs. Even more does Catherine wish to do so, to be true to her father's memory and to the faith he nurtured in her. Important clues to Catherine are given in Book 1, Chapter VI, where the Vicar, Thornburgh, explains her background to Robert. Her father "drew the most rigid line between belief and unbelief." He would not eat with a Unitarian, nor allow his children to know any unbelievers. He taught them that they must cherish the faith, and showed them that this meant not associating with anyone outside it. This is not just prejudice on his part. Like Pusey, he felt it a duty to submit to the church unquestioningly. It was a moral imperative.

Later in Chapter VI, as Catherine and Robert discuss "books, movements, leaders of the day," she becomes distressed. Why was he talking " if opinion were a purely personal matter..."? He did not seem to see that "right belief" was not just a privilege, but "a law and an obligation." For her, keeping one's belief "right" was a moral question, a duty, as Pusey and her father (though so different in stance) both saw it.

As Catherine had been very close to her father, and as he had died early when she was at an impressionable age, his beliefs were the more precious to her. It was a way of holding on to him. This was a very different background from that of her creator, who absorbed her uncle Matthew Arnold's freer-thinking approach, and watched her father Tom Arnold's long pursuit of "the truth" regardless of the pain his conclusions might bring to himself and his family. Her mother loathed Tom's Roman Catholic phases, and so from an early age Ward had models of opposing beliefs and differing "truths."

Catherine is clearly portrayed as old-fashioned even in the context of the novel. In Book 1, Chapter IX, when Catherine is wondering if she can possibly allow herself to leave her mother and sisters to marry the man she loves, Ward addresses the reader:

Her struggle was one with which the modern world has perhaps but scant sympathy. Instinctively we feel such things out of place in our easy and indifferent generation. We think them more than half unreal. We are so apt to take for granted that the world has outgrown the religious thirst for sanctification, for a perfect moral consistency....

If the world of 1885, when Ward began the book, had changed so much, how much harder today does the reader find it to understand Catherine!

Related Material


Besant, Annie.Annie Besant: An Autobiography. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893. Available here in the Internet Archive. Chapter V: "The Storm of Doubt."

Created 9 August 2015