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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward (1844–1911)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
ELIZABETH STUART PHELPS WARD was born in Andover, Massachusetts, August 31st, 1844; the daughter of Professor Austin Phelps of the Andover Theological Seminary, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, the author of ‘Sunnyside,’—one of the pioneer stories of New England life after the naturalistic manner.  1
  Miss Phelps’s education, a classical and scholarly one, was under the supervision of her father, supplemented by studies in theology and miscellaneous reading. The influence of the Civil War tended to excite and develop the literary faculty. She began to write at an early age; and before she was twenty was the author of the much-discussed ‘The Gates Ajar,’ a speculative treatise in the form of a story, depicting the problematic experiences of the soul after death. Besides the fact that the subject was interesting, and the book intimate and in a peculiar manner an appeal to the imagination, the time was well chosen for its production; and an undoubted piquancy was added that such a revolt from cast-iron tradition should have emanated from the stronghold of orthodoxy. But the subject, though interesting, was not novel. The success of ‘The Gates Ajar’ was therefore due to the author’s striking characteristics, and the novelty and originality of her way of expressing her ideas.  2
  ‘The Gates Ajar,’ and its successors ‘Beyond the Gates’ and ‘The Gates Between,’ cleverly described as “the annexation of heaven,” portray the celestial world as a sublimated earth; human nature and its peculiarities occupying a prominent foreground, and Divine personages appearing only in the distance. In this Utopia, innocent likings of individuals become laws: the sportsman is made happy by the presence of his horses and dogs, and the good little girls nurse their dolls. If, however, a profound theme is treated as a scheme of color, and the composition is not disturbed in the treatment, the gravity of the subject does not exclude it from works of art. These books are consistent, and take a certain possession of the reader, bereaved or speculative. The humor is largely that of section and environment, with a fidelity to the admixture of sentiment and common-sense which is characteristic of New England; the style, a marked one, displays not so much subtlety of expression as the use of unusual terms laden with esoteric meaning.  3
  The success of ‘The Gates Ajar’ was phenomenal: the sale in England alone reached one hundred thousand copies, and translations appeared in five Continental languages; at one step Miss Phelps had arrived at fame. Other works followed in rapid succession,—two volumes of poems, several of short stories, one of essays, and ten novels.  4
  The tone of thought and the way of writing are so peculiarly Miss Phelps’s own that no one who has read one of her books has the right to feel impatient with another. Her characteristics are marked in the slightest sketch: a high susceptibility to tragic situation, an impassioned human sympathy, and a noble familiarity with the sorrows of the lowly.  5
  In consequence, she is so much the novelist of emotion that she may be said to write with her soul instead of her pen. In her short stories (as ‘The Madonna of the Tubs’ and ‘The Supply at St. Agatha’) she touches the high-water mark of religious melodrama. A single thought seizes and possesses her till she has dramatized it and proclaimed it. Her mind, as ready to take impressions as the sensitive plate of a camera, has been quickened by a life of ministry. And as there is more of misery than joy in the world which she best knows, and as she is too sincere an artist to paint other than what she knows, she presents a series of shipwrecks, figurative and literal, for which only her ability compels our patience.  6
  Now and then she has written a novel of purely human passion, like ‘The Story of Avis’; but with Miss Phelps, human passion is generally making desperate efforts to assert its rights in a conflict with altruism or fidelity, and life is too serious to waste time and paper on any subject less vital than temperance, the wrongs and rights of women, the common-law system and its iniquities, or the evils of modern dress. Her belief in “the cause,” whatever it may be, and in herself as its exponent, carries her audience with the force of conviction, and makes it patient with her prolonged analyses of psychological conditions.  7
  When the tension becomes so strained that disaster is threatened, the author takes a swift leap downward into the everyday world, and all concerned draw a long breath. The palpitating heroine generally has a safety-valve in a practical Down-Easter like Mrs. Butterwell in ‘Doctor Zay’; whose sayings, slightly profane, are not lacking in humor or common-sense.  8
  No better example of her power in possessing her reader is to be found than in the novel ‘A Singular Life,’—a direct appeal to the spiritual nature, whose end is the significance of the Christian life as portrayed in the New Testament. The noble and beautiful hero fights his hard fight among the drunkards and murderers of the New England seaport town, with the booming ocean for a background; but we do not cease to suffer with him till he is hidden from our sight “wrapped in his purple pall.”  9
  If her genius is emotional, it is also essentially feminine. When she strikes she strikes hard, if not directly, with italics. With feminine adroitness she makes a slave of nature, whose ardent votary she is: and knowing to a throb when the blooming of the lilies or the light on the sea will wave or blaze as background for partings or meetings, she does not disdain to use them. “The hall was dark, but the light of the lily was upon her;” “When she lifted her face, rose curlews hung over her, palpitating with joy.” She makes the outer world, with its patient inner meaning, the orchestral accompaniment to her favorite airs.  10
  The quality of Mrs. Ward’s genius is as unusual as her theories of life are out of the common. But to adapt the saying of one master of contemporary fiction concerning another, “Sentimentality is the dominant note of her music, but her art has made her sentimentality interesting.” Mrs. Ward’s later work includes ‘Within the Gates’ (1901), ‘Though Life Do Us Part’ (1908), ‘The Empty House’ (1910), and ‘The Chariot of Fire’ (1910). She died on January 28th, 1911.  11
  In 1889 Miss Phelps was married to Mr. Herbert D. Ward. They collaborated on two novels: ‘Come Forth,’ and ‘The Master of the Magicians.’  12
 
 
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