Mary Augusta Ward (née Arnold) was born in Hobart, Tasmania into a veritable Victorian dynasty: the Arnolds. Her grandfather was the infamous Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby and her uncle was Matthew Arnold, affectionately known as Uncle Matt. Dr Arnold had an astonishingly strong work ethic, much parodied by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians, and this both inspired and alarmed his family. Although he rather undermined his own teachings by dying at the age of just 47, he continued to exert a powerful influence over the other Arnolds.
As is often the case, his strength of character was not inherited by his eldest son, Tom (Mary’s father), who was permanent state of vacillation. His conversion to Catholicism scuppered his chances of a plum job in Australia, and the family were forced to move to England. His outraged wife vented her frustration by hurling a brick through the window of the local Catholic cathedral. Although Tom finally landed a job in Oxford and set up home there, Mary was banished to boarding school for eight years, while her siblings were allowed to remain in the bosom of the family. There appears to be no evidence to suggest why she was effectively quarantined, but her tempestuous nature might have been deemed to be a bad influence. There is one documented incident where she was discovered flinging buttered slices of bread at her governess. This exclusion during her formative years unsurprisingly left its mark on Mary, and she craved affection and approval throughout her life.
Denied the opportunity to attend university, Mary instead married Humphry Ward, through whom she enjoyed a vicarious higher education. Although not quite the useless cipher of a husband with whom many Victorian women novelists were lumbered, Humphry had an unremarkable career, and the family soon became reliant on Mary’s writing. He managed to eek out a living as a journalist, but would fritter away more money than he earned on largely unsuccessful art speculations. Perhaps to compensate for his failure, Mary was keen to subsume her identity into that of her husband – styling herself throughout her career as Mrs Humphry Ward, what her biographer John Sutherland calls her “chattel name”.
Ward’s status as a writer was finally endorsed when she established that all-important room of her own when the family moved to London in 1881. It was here in 1885 that she conceived her most famous work, Robert Elsmere. She wrote to her publisher that she had the novel all planned and that she would take “five quiet months in the country to write it. It will be in two volumes.” The gestation period of what she referred to as her “baby” was actually three years, and the first draft weighed in at an eye-watering 1,358 pages – around three times the length of the average triple decker. Pruned to a more manageable 800 pages, Ward’s story of religious doubt soon ignited debate. The Times called it “a clever attack upon revealed religion”, and William Gladstone’s copy was annotated with objections to Mrs Humph’s heterodoxy.
In the Victorian age, nothing was more likely to generate publicity than religious controversy, and Robert Elsmere became a runaway success. Mrs Humph made around £4,000 in royalties, which would today put her in the millionaire author bracket. She would have earned more if it weren’t for the absence of international copyright laws when Robert Elsmere was first published. Many cheap US editions were hurriedly produced to cash in on its success. Some were sold as loss leaders for just 4 cents, and other copies were given away free with every cake of Maine’s Balsam Fir Soap, conveying the idea that cleanliness was next to godliness. Estimates vary, but it is likely that Robert Elsmere sold in excess of one million copies. This extraordinary success enabled Ward to command huge advances for her subsequent novels. For Sir George Tressady (1896), Ward received £10,000, equalling Disraeli’s record advance for Endymion. David Grieve (1892) brought her a whopping £9,425, although disappointing sales meant a more modest advance of £5,000 for Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898). During this productive decade, Ward is likely to have banked around £45,000 (nearly £3m).
Her body finally gave up on her in 1920, after many years battling debilitating pain and gynaecological problems for which she took liberal quantities of cocaine (“It works like magic”). Virginia Woolf commented: “Mrs Ward is dead; poor Mrs Humphry Ward; and it appears that she was merely a woman of straw after all – shovelled into the ground and already forgotten.” There is perhaps an element of truth in this characteristically unkind assertion, but Mrs Humph has left a legacy as powerful as that of her grandfather. Aside from her variable literary output (some of it truly great), she made laudable progress in the field’s of women’s education and the treatment of disabled children. The Passmore Edwards Settlement still exists, now as the Mary Ward Centre, and Somerville College enabled women to educate themselves for paths other than marriage.
In addition to maintaining her prodigious literary output, Mrs Humph was also involved with a number of causes. She was the moving spirit behind the establishment of Somerville College, and chose the name as an homage to the mathematician Mary Somerville. She also masterminded the establishment of the Passmore Edwards Settlement, an invalid school, and by 1906 there were 23 special schools for disabled children. Unfortunately, her extraordinary achievement in this hitherto neglected area was greatly undermined by her rather repellent views in other areas. Like many people, she became increasingly conservative with advancing years and became manifest in her anti-Boer, anti-Home Rule and anti-female suffrage stance. It was the latter position that severely affected her transition from Victorian to Edwardian. Somerville College was eventually moved to disown her, as her ante-diluvian views were hardly compatible with an institution seeking the advancement of women.
Unperturbed, Ward helped establish The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908 and campaigned extensively against the suffragists, also using several of her novels, including Daphne and Delia Blanchflower, to criticise them. Through writing patriotic propaganda, Ward enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during World War One, but her novels were not to the taste of the new generation. Falling sales and the new super tax relieved her of much of her fortune; her husband and son did their best to relieve her of the rest. Her body finally gave up on her in 1920, after many years battling debilitating pain and gynaecological problems for which she took liberal quantities of cocaine (“It works like magic”). Virginia Woolf commented: “Mrs Ward is dead; poor Mrs Humphry Ward; and it appears that she was merely a woman of straw after all – shovelled into the ground and already forgotten.” There is perhaps an element of truth in this characteristically unkind assertion, but Mrs Humphry Ward has left a legacy as powerful as that of her grandfather. Aside from her variable literary output (some of it truly great), she made laudable progress in the fields of women’s education and the treatment of disabled children. The Passmore Edwards Settlement still exists, now as the Mary Ward Centre, and Somerville College enabled women to educate themselves for paths other than marriage.
Although contradictory, and often frustrating, Mrs Humphry Ward left a strong legacy and was one of the most successful writers of the Victorian age.
Victorian Secrets publishes Robert Elsmere.
For a Mrs Humphry Ward bibliography, please see the Victorian Fiction Research Guides.