Mirabile Does Middlebrow: The Fabulousness of Mrs. Humphrey Ward

She could see no good reason to act her ageI read the classics.

I read Ovid, Balzac, and Doris Lessing.

But for years I have read mostly books by women, many of whom are considered second-rate.

I conceived of “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” as a monthly “column” on middlebrow women’s novels.

I have written my share of “women’s columns” this year on subjects like bicycling, cooking, and shopping,  but I haven’t written a “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” since July.

Perhaps it is because middlebrow women’s books are passed around by word of mouth, not the written word.

I think of many women writers I have discovered in bookstores:  Mrs. Gaskell, Mrs. Oliphant, Ellen Glasgow, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Dodie Smith, Rose Macaulay, Dorothy Baker, Martha Gellhorn, and Sue Kaufman.  Each has written at least one classic. Surely their exclusion from the canon is partly a gender thing.  Just as women themselves are pruned  from the culture when their fertile years are over (and men enter their prime), women’s books are severely weeded.  Many books simply disappear, to be replaced by books by younger writers.   (And this happens to men, too, to be fair.)

Women writers wonderfully convey the invisibility of older women.  In Emma Tennant’s hilarious Confessions of a Sugar Mummy, a sixtyish woman falls passionately in love with a younger man.  She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain, and considers Botox and selling her flat to buy a house so she could live with Alain and his wife.  She’s out of control, but very, very funny.

in The Summer Before the Dark, Doris Lessing wrote about the marginalization of middle-aged women.  Kate, in her mid-forties, spends the summer on her own while her husband is in the U.S.:  he is having an affair with a younger woman.  Kate works as a translator at a conference and has an affair herself.   But afterwards she has a breakdown.  She walks back and forth in front of a construction site, dressed first in nondescript clothes, then wearing more fashionable clothes.  She is invisible one way, whistled at another.  She gradually realizes what middle age is.

Mrs. Humphry Ward

Mrs. Humphry Ward

Mrs. Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward, 1851-1920), is my new idol:  she was very productive in middle age.   A niece of Matthew Arnold, she began writing  compulsively after her marriage to Thomas Humphry Ward, a tutor and fellow at Brasenose College, and after she had three children.  Fortunately she had hired help:  she spent her mornings at the Bodleian library and wrote three hours every night.

She was at the height of her powers at 43 when she wrote Marcella, a stunning political novel, an almost-classic, in 1894.  It is comparable to George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career, with the difference that Ward sympathizes with the conservatives while Meredith favors the radicals.

Now I am a radical type, and Ward was founding president of the National Anti-Suffrage League, which does not go down well with me.

But Marcella is so engrossing I dismissed Ward’s politics. Like Mrs. Gaskell (North and South, Mary Barton) and Charlotte Bronte (Shirley), she is passionately interested in social justice. The spirited, beautiful heroine,  Marcella, becomes an adamant socialist while studying art in London, and when her father inherits Mellor Park, she is both happy to have status and determined to help the poor.  She loves being bowed to as lady of the manor, but also formulates a sensible scheme to teach the women a straw braiding method that will help them earn more money (this is never carried out, though). She wants her father to improve the cottages; and she opposes gamekeeping laws. She is horrified when Hurd, the husband and father of a poor family she has visited often, is condemned to death for killing a gamekeeper during a poaching confrontation.

Aldous Raeburn, a Conservative landowner running for a seat in Parliament, falls madly in love with Marcella.  Yes, we also fall for the sensible, strong, handsome, thoughtful 30ish hero, to the extent that who cares he’s a conservative?  But Marcella is strong-minded, and doesn’t quite love him:  she feels she cannot go on with him when he will not sign a petition to help Hurd.   And handsome Wharton, a Radical running for Parliament, who plays with his cooperative farm and radical newspaper, charms her.  He defends Hurd, though it costs him very little.  He knows Hurd is doomed.

Marcella is very naive politically.  She makes statements like:

Property!” said Marcella, scornfully.  “You can’t settle everything nowadays by that big word.  We are coming to put the public good before property.  If the nation should decide to curtain your ‘right,’ as you call it, in the general interest, it will do it, and you will be left to scream.

After the hanging of Hurd, she is depressed.  She goes to London and works as a nurse.  This is by far the most fascinating part of the book.  Marcella ceases to romanticize the poor and regrets her breaking of her engagement with Aldous.  She dramatically dislocates her arm when she intervenes in a man’s beating of his wife. She also transports Mrs. Hurd and her family to live with her in London.  And she sees her Socialist friends.

Parts of the novel focus on Wharton, the radical, who has won men’s hearts, but owes a lot of  money and is willing to do almost anything to pay his debts and keep his seat in Parliament.  Ward also documents  the complexity of class differences (which I probably don’t understand properaly since I’m not English, so I’ll let someone else analyze that).  Marcella’s father, though he is of good family ,is a social outcast due to a long-ago scandal; her mother hates the life at Mellor Park and longs to go to London and read novels; and Marcella increasingly sees Aldous’ side, though she herself remains more radical than he.

Not beautiful writing, but good enough.  I can’t wait to read more Mrs Humphry Ward.  How I love these Victorian women writers.

5 thoughts on “Mirabile Does Middlebrow: The Fabulousness of Mrs. Humphrey Ward

  1. I join you in having enjoyed many of the writers you mention: Elizabeth Gaskell, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Rose Macaulay. They all write women’s lives as women see them — and maybe that’s why they don’t get more respect.


  2. Nancy, I think you’re right. We do like to read about women’s lives, especially when they don’t commit suicide in the end, like some of my favorite men’s novels, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Many of these women writers are underrated.

    Karen, it’s a Virago, too! I think you’d like it.


  3. Pingback: George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical | mirabile dictu

  4. Pingback: February Giveaway: Two Viragos and a DESSIE | mirabile dictu

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