Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Mary Augusta Ward (1851–1920)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE HISTORY of the growth of English fiction, from Richardson and Fielding to the present day, is the history of the increasing attention given to character. The modern novel studies personality, and depends for its interest mostly upon the inter-relations of men and women in the social complex, subjectively viewed. The main stream of story-telling has set stronger and stronger in this direction for a hundred and fifty years; although cross-currents, even counter-currents at times, have seemed to deflect it from its due course. The adventure tale, caring more for incident and action and for the objective handling of character than for the subjective analysis of motive, has had since ‘Robinson Crusoe’ a vigorous if sporadic life. Romantic fiction has had always its makers and its wide public. Some of the extreme developments of the analytic school, too, have been such that the parent is hardly to be recognized in the children. One such offspring is the kind of realistic fiction, which errs in laying over-emphasis upon relatively unimportant detail, and in forgetting that life is no more all-sour than it is all-sweet. And much of what is known as naturalism shows how much the analytic method may be abused in the hands of those who divorce theory from life, and have a penchant for the merely physical.  1
  But the higher and nobler conception of fictional art, recognizing the heart and soul of man as the most tremendous possible stage for the playing out of social dramas, has been held and illustrated by a line of gifted modern writers, among whom Thackeray, Dickens, George Meredith, Hardy, and George Eliot are major stars. In this literary genealogy Mary Augusta (Mrs. Humphry) Ward belongs by taste, sympathy, and birthright of power. She is one of the few contemporaneous novel-writers whose work is in a sound tradition, and has enough of lofty purpose and artistic conscientiousness to call for careful consideration. Had Mrs. Ward failed, she would deserve respect for her high aim, in a day when tyros turn off pseudo-fiction as easily as they do business letters.  2
  Mrs. Ward’s first story, ‘Miss Bretherton,’ which appeared in 1884, made no great stir; but it was a charming and thoroughly well-done piece of fiction, revealing marked ability in character study, and a comprehension of English society. The theme chosen, the slowly generating love between a brilliant young actress and a middle-aged man of letters, is developed with delicate idealism, with sympathy and imagination. The writer of the later and greater novels is foreshadowed if not fully confessed in the tale; which in its pleasant ending, and its absence of definite special pleading, declares itself a younger book. To some, the fact that ‘Miss Bretherton’ is a straightaway love story will make it all the better. But to one who understands Mrs. Ward’s intellectual and artistic growth, the book will be seen to be tentative.  3
  By the publication of ‘Robert Elsmere’ four years later, in 1888, its writer defined her position and gave a clear idea of her quality. The book made a deep impression. The fact that it dealt with the religious problem, tracing in the person of the hero the intellectual change undergone by a mind open to modern scholarship and thought, gave it for many the glamour of the dangerous, and no doubt helped its vogue. It was a story which people took sides for or against, and fought over. But ‘Robert Elsmere’ would never have achieved more than a critical success if it had been nothing but an able polemic against orthodox views. It was far more: a vital story full of human nature, intensely felt, strong in its characterization, and in some of its scenes finely dramatic,—this last implied in the fact that the novel was dramatized. Elsmere is not a lay figure to carry a thesis, but an honest human brother, yearning for the truth. His wife is an admirable picture of the sweet, strong, restricted conservatism of a certain type of nature. And Rose and Langham—to mention only two more personages of the drama—are real and attractive creations. The nobility of intention in this, the first of Mrs. Ward’s full-length social studies depicting the tragedy of the inner life, must be felt by every receptive reader. The charge of didacticism commonly preferred against this novel has some justification, though the artistic impulse was present in large measure,—indeed prevailed in the work. And in the next book, ‘The History of David Grieve,’ given to the public after another four years had intervened (1892), the human elements are broader, the life limned more varied, and hence the impression that the author has a nut to crack is not so strong. Yet David’s experience, like Robert’s, with all its difference of birth, position, training, and influences, is one of the soul: the evolution of personal faith may be said to be the main motive of the tale. The art of it is finer, the interpretation of humanity richer. The story is a somber one,—Mrs. Ward’s work as a whole, and progressively, may be so described,—but it is far from pessimistic. The teaching is that men and women may conquer through soul stress; that the world is an arena for the most momentous of all things,—character training. Parts of ‘David Grieve’ have a convincing fervor and sweep, and an imaginativeness of conception, which denote the writer’s highest accomplishment. The opening sketches of English country life, as David and his sister grow up together, and the storm-and-stress phase of his development, are superbly conceived and carried through. In the Parisian episode particularly, the Bohemianism of the situation, which in some hands would have been excuse for sensational vulgarity, is touched with a romantic idealism, lifting it to a far higher plane, and making the scenes typical, elemental. Mrs. Ward never drew a more distinct, impressive figure than that of David’s fierce, strange, deep-hearted sister Louie. But aside from particulars, and judging the novel as a whole, the later works are perhaps superior.  4
  Since ‘David Grieve,’ Mrs. Ward’s stories have represented political, social, and economic, instead of religious interests. The love motive is always given due place, and the display of character in a certain milieu is steadily the intention. ‘Marcella’—a volume which dates from 1894—is a truthful and noble study of woman nature: the novelist’s sex should be grateful to her for portraying in this and the companion story, ‘Sir George Tressady,’ the organic development of so rich and representative an English gentlewoman as Marcella. She is taken in the vealy stage, when her ideals involve much foolishness, young selfishness, and false romanticism. She irritates and even antagonizes at first. But under the fructifying and clarifying influences of love and life, she works out into a splendid creature, and one feels that the evolution is absolutely consistent. Marcella was always Marcella potentially, after all. Very seldom has the nobleman in politics and as land-owner been done with so much clearness and justness as in Aldous Raeburn, Marcella’s lover. The parliamentary and socialistic scenes are drawn with knowledge and power, by a writer sensitive to the most significant drift of thought of our day. Modern London in its most important streams of influence is photographed with rare fidelity in this very strong broad story, and the photographic reality is softened by artistic selection and the imaginative instinct. The quivering humanitarianism with which Mrs. Ward portrays the struggles and hardships of the English poor is another admirable trait.  5
  In the year between ‘Marcella’ and ‘Tressady,’ came the most relentlessly realistic of all this author’s works,—the novelette called ‘The Story of Bessie Costrell.’ One can but think that Mrs. Ward’s mood in making it was one of temporary exasperation and gloom; for the tale—a sordid bit of peasant life, whose ugly dénouement does not seem inevitable—leaves the reader depressed and dubious, with cui bono? on his lips,—which cannot be said of any of the longer stories. As a work of art, it is one of the closest-knit and best-constructed things she has written; and the impression it makes is as powerful as it is unpleasant.  6
  In ‘Sir George Tressady’ (1896), Mrs. Ward returned to her true métier, and furnished another proof of her mature grasp on art and life. The book compels interest in several ways. It reveals Marcella as Lady Maxwell; a superb woman of the social world, a regal leader of men, who wields an influence all the more potent in that it is social and indirect, not professional or of the polls; reveals her as she walks unscathed through an intimacy with Tressady, perilous for any woman save one of exceptional dignity and purity. Then the relation of Tressady to his pretty, shallow little wife is a subtle study of mismated temperaments, whose unhappiness is logical and self-sought, since the two rushed into marriage with no serious appreciation of what it is and should be. Another facet of life reflected in the story is a phase of the labor-capital conflict. Tressady’s position as a mine-owner brings up one of the burning modern questions, and his tragic death in the mine explosion seems the only solution of the trouble. Socio-political activities, whose phenomena have been well assimilated by this writer, form the warp and woof of a novel which one trusts in its scenes and characters. One is assured that it is real, for under its absolute contemporaneity are working the elemental springs of human action. Mrs. Ward has done nothing more complete and satisfying to the æsthetic and moral senses than this fiction.  7
  During the last twenty years Mrs. Ward has written much—perhaps too much—and though she has continued to do conscientious work, she has at times shown signs of fatigue, and the attitude of the reading public towards her has become distinctly more critical. With the loss of some of her original vigor, her deficient sense of humor was remarked as the defect of her quality of high seriousness.  8
  Mrs. Ward’s birth, education, and social environment fit her to do this high serious work. Born Mary Arnold, she is the granddaughter of Dr. Arnold of Rugby, the niece of Matthew Arnold, the wife of a cultivated editor and essayist. Her natal place was the Tasmanian Hobart Town, with its extra-insular viewpoint: she was reared in a social atmosphere in the best sense stimulating, and productive of fine thought and enlightened activities. Like George Eliot, her contact with literature and life has been broad and fruitful, her outlook has not felt the restriction of a limited nature. Her scholarship was indicated thirty years ago by the admirable translation of the ‘Journal’ of the French thinker, Amiel. Mrs. Ward has done two important and serviceable things: she has proved that the content of fiction is wide enough to include politics and religion as legitimate artistic material; and she has drawn modern women who have brains as well as hearts, and the capacity to keep even step with men in the higher social activities. She has done this as George Meredith and Ibsen have done it, and has shown thereby that she grasps one meaning of the late nineteenth century. The New Woman is a dubious phrase; but after all, the type exists in its purity and power, and demands expression in literature. Mrs. Ward is a woman of the world who comprehends the gravest issues of the time; she is a woman of books without being a blue-stocking. She is a banner-bearer of the current analytic school. She believes in the aristocracy of intellect, the interest in character-building. In her art she has not forgotten that the heart counts for more than the head; that love is eternally in fiction, because it is in life, a grand mainspring of action. “After all,” she says in ‘Miss Bretherton,’ “beauty and charm and sex have in all ages been too much for the clever people who try to reckon without them.”  9

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.