'You know, Agnes,' she [Rose] said presently, looking up, 'there are drawbacks to having a St. Elizabeth for a sister.' [ch 1, 13]

Alas, poor Catherine! How little room there is for the heroic in this trivial everyday life of ours! [ch 9, 125]

The whole gist of the matter for Elsmere lay really in this question—Hidden in Catherine's nature, was there, or was there not, the true stuff of fanaticism? [ch30, 374]

Illuminated initial D

espite the title of Robert Elsmere, Catherine Leyburn, who becomes Robert's wife, is as much as a protagonist of the novel as is its eponymous hero. Ward creates Catherine with two earlier authors very much in mind — the George Eliot of Adam Bede and Middlemarch and Charles Kingsley of The Saint's Tragedy. Ward devotes much of the first book to this modern-day would-be St. Elizabeth who wants to renounce marriage for self-conceived sainthood.

In addition, Catherine and Robert obviously parallel Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, with a few twists, the most important of which is that when Robert dies, the fiercely evangelical Catherine remains in London to help continue her husband's heretical work — as if, in other words, Dorothea had continued working on Causabon's Key to All Mythologies! (Another twist: the atheistical Squire Wendover, in many ways parallels Causabon, though his work is as up-to-date as Causabon's is old fashioned; he may not complete his trilogy on the nature of evidence in Western civilization, but he does publish the first two books, which have a great impact!) Ward also alludes to Adam Bede in the scene in which Catherine defends her Christian belief against the scoffers in Madame de Netteville's salon: “Poor brave goaded soul! She had a vague idea of 'bearing testimony' as her father would have borne it in like circumstances. But she turned very pale. Even to her the word 'Christian' sounded like a bombshell in that room.” One of Madame de Netteville's guests sees “something indescribably noble and unusual in her whole look and attitude. She looked like a Quaker prophetess—like Dinah Morris in society,” and when the langorous Langham, who cannot summon the energy to marry her sister, encounters her, he thinks, “‘She is the Thirty-nine Articles in the flesh!’” (ch 11, 163).

We first become acquainted with Catherine in her own little room that embodies of her life of service. After taking care of her annoyingly helpless, childlike mother, “perform[ing] all a maid's offices,” she goes to her room and works into the night

arranging a large cupboard containing medicines and ordinary medical necessaries, a storehouse whence all the simpler emergencies of their end of the valley were supplied. She had put on a white flannel dressing-gown and moved noiselessly about in it, the very embodiment of order, of purity, of quiet energy. The little white-curtained room was bareness and neatness itself. There were a few book-shelves along the walls, holding the books which her father had given her. Over the bed were two enlarged portraits of her parents, and a line of queer little faded monstrosities, representing Rose and Agnes in different stages of childhood. On the table beside the bed was a pile of well-worn books—Keble, Jeremy Taylor, the Bible—connected in the mind of the mistress of the room with the intensest moments of the spiritual life. There was a strip of carpet by the bed, a plain chair or two, a large press; otherwise no furniture that was not absolutely necessary, and no ornaments. And yet, for all its emptiness, the little room in its order and spotlessness had the look and spell of a sanctuary. [ch 1, 14]

Later, in Chapter Six, the local vicar explains to her future husband that Catherine is very much the product of her her late father, a devout Evangelical Anglican clergyman — “he made her and trained her. He poured all his ideas and convictions into her.”

'Uncommonly. For all his gentle ethereal look, you could neither bend nor break him. I don't believe anybody but Richard Leyburn could have gone through Oxford at the height of the Oxford Movement, and, so to speak, have known nothing about it, while living all the time for religion. He had a great deal in common with the Quakers, as I said; a great deal in common with the Wesleyans; but he was very loyal to the Church all the same. He regarded it as the golden mean. George Herbert was his favorite poet. He used to carry his poems about with him on the mountains, and an expurgated "Christian Year"—the only thing he ever took from the High Churchmen—which he had made for himself, and which he and Catherine knew by heart. In some ways he was not a bigot at all. He would have had the Church make peace with the Dissenters; he was all for up setting tests so far as Nonconformity was concerned. But he drew the most rigid line between belief and unbelief. He would not have dined at the same table with a Unitarian if he could have helped it. I remember a furious article of his in the "Record" against admitting Unitarians to the Universities or allowing them to sit in Parliament. England is a Christian State, he said; they are not Christians—they have no right in her except on sufferance. . . .

Catherine took all these ideas from him. He wouldn't let his children know any unbeliever, however apparently worthy and good. He impressed it upon them as their special sacred duty, in a time of wicked enmity to religion, to cherish the faith and the whole faith. He wished his wife and daughters to live on here after his death, that they might be less in danger spiritually than in the big world, and that they might have more opportunity of living the old-fashioned Christian life. There was also some mystical idea, I think, of making up through his children for the godless lives of their forefathers. [ch6, 76-77]

Meeting this beautiful young women, Robert, like her sister, “mentally compared her to Saint Elizabeth. He could almost have fancied the dark red flowers in her white lap.” Although Catherine would not talk about herself, showing him “a certain austerity and stiffness of fibre in her which for the moment chilled him,” she opens up a bit, as it were, when describing the neighborhood. “Austerity, strength, individuality, all these words indeed he was more and more driven to apply to her. She was like no other woman he had ever seen.” Her uniqueness certainly doesn't lie in intellectual or artistic accomplishments, and, “indeed, as their talk flowed on, he noticed in what she said an absence of a good many interests and attainments which in his ordinary south-country women friends he would have assumed as a matter of course.” When Robert compares “some peasant story” she had told him with an episode in one of George Sand's novels, she admits that she understands little French and never reads any French literature, but then, perhaps to his surprise, she turns out to be a passionate Wordsworthian, who seems to know “her Wordsworth by heart. And her own mountain life, her own rich and meditative soul, had taught her judgments and comments on her favorite poet which stirred Elsmere every now and then to enthusiasm—so true they were and pregnant, so full often of a natural magic of expression.” Not surprisingly considering her strict evangelical upbringing, she knows nothing of Shelley. “She seemed to him deeper and simpler at every moment; her very limitations of sympathy and knowledge, and they were evidently many, began to attract him. . . . what purity, what refinement, what delicate perception and self-restraint! [ch 3, 36-37]

When Catherine, who wishes to remain a celibate St. Elizabeth of Westmoreland dedicated to the holy, sanctifying service of others, she receives a terrible shock to her self-image when her mother — apparently completely unaware of her daughter's idea of her life —  makes clear that she thinks there's no reason Catherine should not marry and move away. 'Oh, I should come and see you,' said Mrs. Leyburn, brightening. 'They say it is such a nice house, Catherine, and such pretty country, and I'm sure I should like his mother, though she is Irish!' She and her daughter apparently live in different imaginative worlds, and the confirmation that her own mother sees her as just like other young marriagable girls stuns and almost crushes this would-be St. Elizabeth. “It was the bitterest moment of Catherine Leyburn's life. In it the heroic dream of years broke down. Nay, the shrivelling ironic touch of circumstance laid upon it made it look even in her own eyes almost ridiculous. What had she been living for, praying for, all these years? She threw herself down by the widow's side, her face working with a passion that terrified Mrs. Leyburn” (ch 9, 129). Later when Catherine walks alone in “the stormy light of the afternoon” on her way to help the dying Mary Backhouse,

She had the bruised feeling of one who has been humiliated before the world and before herself. Her self-respect was for the moment crushed, and the breach made in the wholeness of personal dignity had produced a strange slackness of nerve, extending both to body and mind. She had been convicted, it seemed to her, in her own eyes, and in those of her world, of an egregious over-estimate of her own value. She walked with hung head like one ashamed, the overstrung religious sense deepening her discomfiture at every step. How rich her life had always been in the conviction of usefulness—nay, indispensableness! Her mother's persuasions had dashed it from her. And religious scruple, for her torment, showed her her past, transformed, alloyed with all sorts of personal prides and cravings, which stood unmasked now in a white light. [ch 10, 130]

Robert Elsmere convinces her to become his wife, in part by explaining the major role she will have in his parish, and the young women finds herself happy and fulfilled until Robert loses his belief in the miraculous elements in Christianity. Unlike other Victorian novels that dramatize loss of religious belief, Ward's devotes a great deal of attention not just to the agonies of the man questioning his childhood religion but to the effect of that questioning on those around him. Saintly as ever, this young women who has been raised not even to share a meal with unorthodox believers does her best to support her husband: “‘I will not preach to you—I will not persecute you!’ Catherine had said to her husband at the moment of her first shock and anguish. And she did her utmost, poor thing! to keep her word. . . . she did her best to soften Robert's grief; she never once reproached him with her own” (ch 32, 401). Nonethless, despite her best efforts, this “inevitable separation of their inmost hopes and beliefs had thrown her back on herself, had immensely strengthened that Puritan independent fibre in her which her youth had developed, and which her happy marriage had only temporarily masked, not weakened” (ch 32, 401). She desperately, quixotically hopes to bring him back to Evangelical belief, and enforces “barriers of silence” that prevent Robert from explaining his position. “It was,” the narrator tells us, “in some ways a pathetic repetition of the situation between Robert and the Squire in the early days of their friendship, but in Catherine's mind there was no trembling presence of new knowledge conspiring from within with the forces without” (ch 32, 401). With “a gentle persistency she withdrew certain parts of herself from Robert's ken; she avoided certain subjects, or anything that might lead to them; she ignored the religious and philosophical books he was constantly reading; she prayed and thought alone—always for him, of him—but still resolutely alone” (ch 32, 401).

Finally, Catherine realizes that she had acted wrongly — “The shock, the storm, had come” — and she experiences “the greatest moral upheaval she had ever known—greater even than that which had convulsed her life at Murewell” 43, 520). She undergoes, the narrator explains, “that dissociation of the moral judgment from a special series of religious formulæ which is the crucial, the epoch-making fact of our day” (ch 47, 558). In other words, unlike her father, she accepts that someone who holds different beliefs can be a good person.

'I have seen things as they are, Robert,' she said very simply; . . . You were right—I would not understand. And, in a sense, I shall never understand. I cannot change,' and her voice broke into piteousness. 'My Lord is my Lord always—, but He is yours too. Oh, I know it, say what you will! That is what has been hidden from me; that is what my trouble has taught me; the powerlessness, the worthlessness, of words. It is the spirit that quickeneth. I should never have felt it so, but for this fiery furnace of pain. But I have been wandering in strange places, through strange thoughts. God has not one language, but many. I have dared to think He had but one, the one I know. I have dared'—and she faltered—'to condemn your faith as no faith. . . . But oh! take me back into your life! Hold me there! Remind me always of this night; convict me out of my own mouth! But I will learn my lesson; I will learn to hear the two voices, the voice that speaks to you and the voice that speaks to me—I must. It is all plain to me now. . . . 'But I am past thinking. Let us bury it all, and begin again. Words are nothing.' [ch 44, 530]

Is this change in Catherine convincing, or is it the weakest element in the novel? I'm not sure. What is clear, however, is that although Ward presents it as both her spiritual growth and the final development of her love for her husband, it also includes an obvious element of subservience to him, which does not seem to fit with the rest of the novel.


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