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A Writer’s Recollections!

By (November 5, 2012) No Comment

Our book today is the two-volume final word Mrs. Humphry Ward had on her personal and professional life: A Writer’s Recollections, written by Mary Augusta Ward in 1912 very near the end of a muscular, triumphant writing career spent championing women’s causes while simultaneously arguing that they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Mary Ward was born Mary Arnold in Australia (she left for England when she was just a child, but she nevertheless very annoyingly referred to herself as a “colonial child” for the rest of her life) in 1851, daughter of a very bookish couple and niece of the famous Matthew Arnold. Once she and her family were settled back in England, she was sent to the stereotypical run of nearly-useless Victorian boarding schools before returning to her parents’ home at Oxford in 1868. She was just a teenager, wandering those glorious precincts, and in A Writer’s Recollections, the magic lingering around those memories is still vivid:

It was not, however, ’till two years later that I left school and slipped into the Oxford life like a fish into water. I was sixteen, beginning to be conscious of all sorts of rising needs and ambitions, keenly alive to to spell of Oxford and to the good fortune which had brought me to live in her streets. There was in me, I think, a real hunger to learn, and a very quick sense of romance in things and people. But after sixteen, except in music, I had no definite teaching, and everything I learned came to me from persons – and books – sporadically, without any general guidance or plan. It was all a great voyage of discovery, organized mainly by myself, on the advice of a few men and women very much older, who took an interest in me and were endlessly kind to the shy and shapeless creature I must have been.

That shy and shapeless creature met a young tutor named Humphry Ward and married him not long after. After a while, there began tentative steps toward a writing career – feather-weight sketches, indifferent responses, and, crucially, a bit of a pause, an incubation period for the mature writer who would emerge. Then as the Edwardian era dawned, she began writing novels that displayed a flowery gusto entirely distinct to herself – and they started selling, both in England and in the United States (better in America, in fact, thanks to that country’s new and very enterprising idea of actually selling books, as opposed to sort of leaving them out on a shop table hoping somebody would make a genteel offer – Americans were starting to use tactics like mail-order catalogues and discount pricing, and Mrs. Ward wasn’t the only author to notice some of the salubrious effects of being sold like corn flakes). She needed the money – her husband’s various jobs were never sure things, and she eventually had a son who had ambitions to go into parliament, and there were two households to keep up, and all of this became the responsibility of the Lady Novelist.

There’s very little of this in A Writer’s Recollections, of course. We get several charming anecdotes about her childhood, hanging around Fox How, the lovely Westmoreland home of the Arnolds, and of Woodhouse, the quaint country place of other family members, which was “another fairyland to me and my cousins. Its ponds and woods and reed-beds; its distant summer house between two waters, where one might live and read and dream through long summer hours, undisturbed.” Family and friends parade through these pages, each taken up with a novelist’s relish for description. Of that great teacher and theologian, the irrepressible Arthur Stanley, she pens a portrait in full awareness of how perishable the man himself will be in the face of all his later, awe-inspiring official portraits:

And then, what a joy he was to the eye! His small spare figure, miraculously light, his delicate face of tinted ivory – only that ivory is not sensitive and subtle, and incredibly expressive, as were the features of the little Dean; the eager, thin-lipped mouth, varying with every shade of feeling in the innocent great soul behind it; the clear eyes of china blue; the glistening white hair, still with the wave of and spring of youth in it; the slender legs, and Dean’s dress, which becomes all but the portly, with, on festal occasions, the red ribbon of the Bath crossing the mercurial frame: there are still a few pictures  and photographs by which these characteristics are dimply recalled to those at least who knew the living man.

As might be expected in an impressionistic autobiography by such a sentimental writer, there’s a persistent refrain here of the fading past, of many great and good things vanishing under the onslaught of the insistent present. When Mrs. Ward relates the time she met George Eliot (and George Henry Lewes, to whom she took “a prompt and active dislike”), she’s very consciously bringing to life a character from the past (in Eliot’s case, as in most cases, the portrait is winning but too brief – we’re told, for instance, that Eliot could never be a great talker – “she was too self-conscious, too desperately reflective, too rich in second-thoughts for that”).

Which isn’t to say Mrs. Ward wasn’t also keenly attuned to the remarkable era in which she lived. The times were changing all around her – with a speed we in the 21st Century have come to consider normal but which in the mid-19th Century was only just beginning to break from the rhythms it had held for the previous ten centuries – and she knew it and thought a lot about it, especially because of the freedom it gave her personally:

With railways and a cheap press, in the second third of the nineteenth century, there came in, as we all know, the break-up of a thousand mental stagnations, answering to the old physical disabilities and inconveniences. And the break-up has nowhere had more startling results than in the world of women, and the training of women for life. We have only to ask ourselves what the women of Benjamin Constant, or of Beyle, or Balzac, would have made of the keen school-girl and college girl of the present day, to feel how vast is the change through which some of us have lived.

Mrs. Ward could be brittle and strident in person, although also quick to warm to people, and something of that combination very much comes through in A Writer’s Recollections. She viscerally believed that women shouldn’t enjoy the same social roles – or rights – as men, but she was equally passionate about improving lives of women in England (she set up and financed a string of help-centers for young women, for instance, and despite her crowded schedule, she was always willing to talk with any young female aspirant to better things). It’s the kind of thoroughly modern paradox that had its first real birth in the Edwardian era, and it had a quintessential representative in Mrs. Ward, who could argue on the one hand that public life on par with men would ‘coarsen’ women but who could brutally dicker with (male, of course) publishers for every last shilling her books were worth.

In the end, simple time smooths out some of these seeming contradictions. In A Writer’s Recollections, our author isn’t fighting any of her old causes – she’s just looking back on a long and crowded life, telling us about Arthur Balfour or Henry James, recalling idyllic childhood moments … and defending it all in her inimitably direct way (a family trait among the Arnolds):

Do we all become garrulous and confidential as we approach the gates of old age? Is it that we instinctively feel, and cannot help asserting, our one advantage over the younger generation, which has so many over us? – the one advantage of time!

It’s perhaps understandable that Mrs. Ward’s books are now unknown (although John Sutherland, bless him, tried his best – and although there was, comparatively recently, a nice Oxford World’s Classics paperback of her masterpiece, Robert Elsmere), speaking so clearly as they do to a thoroughly vanished time. I think on some level she knew such a fate awaited her literary productions – and I think she looked to A Writer’s Recollections to counter that. It didn’t – it’s gone too (except at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course, and the handful of bookish oases like it) – but it’s a marvel just the same: the reader walks in on the most wonderful, multi-faceted conversation, going full-swing.