Literary Notes: A writer who was too famous too early

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THE VERY name of Mrs Humphry Ward suggested to subsequent generations an old-fashioned notion of the great and the good. Not only was she born an Arnold but she actually did carry out a great deal of charitable work. She was mildly satirised by Aldous Huxley in Eyeless in Gaza as well as by Ezra Pound: "And he talked about `the Great Mary' / and said `Mr Pound is shocked at my levity' / When it turned out he meant Mrs Ward." He also paints her as an awesome personality meting out good to "her cripples". In fact Mrs Humphry Ward was practical rather than lofty.

She knew, for example, the ways in which committees work; they taught her that ideas were only interesting in terms of the way in which they were talked about or otherwise connected to the wider world. Her attitude towards them was as equivocal as her attitude towards society:

Lady Barbara was a committee woman, indefatigable and indiscriminate. She lived and gloried in a chronic state of overwork for which no one but herself saw the necessity. (The Mating of Lydia)

The problem is that this portentous reputation also clings to her novels. This is a pity. And it is also completely inaccurate. As a result all the novels that were so admired by Henry James remain out of print.

Mrs Humphry Ward reflects the fate of one too famous too early and for the wrong reason. Her first book, Robert Elsmere, was published in 1888. It was reviewed earnestly and at length by W.E. Gladstone, who dwelt almost exclusively on the philosophical argument. The book deals with enlightened doubt, with the question of the extent to which morality and spirituality can be separated from the Christian faith. It is a novel of ideas rather than a good novel. Its fame dominated Mrs Ward's subsequent reputation so that even her lightness of touch was read as if she were still as weighty, and as faintly ridiculous, as in this book.

The novels that Mrs Humphry Ward wrote from Lady Rose's Daughter in 1903 to Eltham House in 1915 are ironic and acute satires on Edwardian society. They analyse not political ideas but the way that people use and manipulate them. They trace the decay of the landed families and their political influence. They delineate difficulties in relationships, especially in marriage. Even though she took on the propriety of her husband's name, her actual view of intimate relationships remained sharp and bleak.

Mrs Ward analyses the way in which ideas depend on personal relationships, and the way that politics depends on personal ambition. She depicts the "necessary" social hypocrisies that keep society intact:

Lady Grossville made no excuses for her own sex. But she was a sufficiently ambitious hostess to know that agreeable parties are not constructed out of the saints alone. The men therefore must provide the sinners; and of some of the persons then most in vogue she was careful not to know too much. (The Corystone Family)

Unhappy marriage is not a rare gesture in Mrs Ward's novels; heroines marry an unsatisfactory man more often than not, in a society in which little could be done about it, not that she believed in divorce. She is one of the earliest novelists consistently to explore the deterioration of a marriage because of unsuitability of temperament. Daphne, ostensibly about divorce, is really about a selfish, limited woman and an indulgent, stupid man.

Whilst Mrs Humphry Ward's novels are out of print they are still widely available in second-hand bookshops, not only in Hay-on-Wye. Several deserve to be reprinted but first it must be recognised that what she offers is not like Robert Elsmere. She offers irony, lightness of touch and intelligent analysis. It is no wonder that Henry James admired her.

Cedric Cullingford is the author of `Children's Literature and its Effects' (Cassell, pounds 15.99)