Illuminated initial W

ard uses the death of Mary Backhouse as a way of showing her readers several things — first, the self-sacrificing saintliness of Catherine Leyburn, second, the plight of the dying countrywoman who had fled to London after having been seduced and abandoned by a handsome local farmer, and third, the force of the superstitions of uneducated Westmoreland peasants. Mary “had seen the ghost or 'bogle' of Deep Crag; the ghost had spoken to her, and she had reached home more dead than alive, having received what she at once recognized as her death sentence” (132). The narrator immediately asks,

What had she seen? An effect of moonlit mist—a shepherd-boy bent on a practical joke—a gleam of white waterfall among the darkening rocks? What had she heard? The evening greeting of a passer by, wafted down to her from some higher path along the fell? distant voices in the farm enclosures beneath her feet? or simply the eerie sounds of the mountain, those weird earth-whispers which haunt the lonely places of nature? Who can tell? Nerves and brain were strained to their uttermost. The legend of the ghost—of the girl who had thrown her baby and herself into the tarn under the frowning precipitous cliffs which marked the western end of High Fell, and who had since then walked the lonely road to Shanmoor every Midsummer Night with her moaning child upon her arm—had flashed into Mary's mind as she left the white-walled village of Shanmoor behind her, and climbed upward with her shame and her secret into the mists. To see the bogle was merely distressing and untoward; to be spoken to by the phantom voice was death. No one so addressed could hope to survive the following Midsummer Day. Revolving these things in her mind, along with the terrible details of her own story, the exhausted girl had seen her vision, and, as she firmly believed, incurred her doom. [132]

Mary, we then learn, ran away to London, where she gave birth to her baby, who died, after which she returns home.  She believes she is dying because she saw the “bogle,” but the local physician and Catherine (and the narrator), who know that she has tuberculosis, reject Mary's belief in a Westmoreland curse.

Ward also uses this episode to create a melodramatically romantic proposal scene on the darkened heath, as she creates a Christian version of the landscape in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Catherine's acceptance of Robert's proposal closes Book I, providing a crucial element in the plot that ends with her husband’s death and her continuing charitable work.

This deathbed scene that comes immediately before the proposal prefigures and in some ways parallels Robert's own death with which Ward closes the novel. Mary's death is marked by superstition —  in other words, by a false version of spirituality — and Robert's death is marked by two apparently false visions: Catherine has what the narrator describes as a “hallucination” in which she sees Christ calling to her to come with Him and abandon her dying husband — she refuses —  and then Robert dies, not with the Christian good death accompanied by a Pisgah Sight, vision of salvation and a blessed afterlife, but with the hallucination that he is back in that happy moment when Catherine's pains of childbirth ended and his child was born. Since Robert Elsmere tells the Victorian story of loss of orthodox religious belief, these two deathbed scenes — so different from those presented in Christian hymns — underscore the book's themes.


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