When Print Is Too Small: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere & Others


…the afternoon sun, about to descend before very long behind the hills dividing Long Whindale from Shanmoor, was still lingering on this May afternoon we are describing, bringing out the whitewashed porch and the broad bands of white edging the windows, into relief against the gray stone of the main fabric, the gray roof overhanging it, and the group of sycamores and Scotch firs which protected it from the cold east and north.”–A lovely descriptive passage from Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere

I was raised on Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Hardy, and cannot get enough of Dickens.

In recent years, after reading and rereading my favorite nineteenth-century classics,  I have turned to the “third-rate” Victorians.  Call them minor, but they are better writers than your average 21st-century computerized pisseur de copie. Mrs. Humphry Ward, the author of 25 novels,  is intellectually and stylistically in the same class as George Meredith, Mrs. Gaskell, and Mrs. Oliphant.   I recently read  and loved  Robert Elsmere, Ward’s most famous novel.

Yes, it is a religious novel, but don’t be put off:  the characters are vivid and surprising, love and marriage don’t always work out, and the plot doesn’t go where you think it will.  At the center is Robert Elsmere, an inspired but delicate clergyman whose body  breaks down when he works too hard.  He tells stories and lectures on history to the poor, nurses the sick with the help of his wife, and insists on the importance of good drains.  But his contact with an intellectual atheist changes his  own beliefs.

The print is small….

Women play a big role in this 1888 novel and are more sympathetic than the men.  My favorite characters are the Leyburn sisters, who really dominate the book:  Catherine, who marries Robert, a very bright and diligent but rigid woman whose vicar father entrusted to her the religious care of her mother and sisters before his death; Agnes, a smart, witty, tactful spinster who unfortunately drops out of the narrative far too soon; and the youngest, Rose, a wild, beautiful, talented pianist who worries Catherine with her penchant for the arts. Although there is much intellectual discussion of church history, Christianity, and atheism  (see the introduction!),  there is also plenty about love, art, and the value of social work.  What I love most:   the way Ward creates an atmosphere.  I love her country walks, idyllic woods and pastures, and later the ugly smoky vividness of 19th century London.

Alas,  the print in my out-of-print Oxford World’s Classic edition, which was large enough when I first tried to read it pre-bifocals, is now too small for me.  There is almost no space between the lines. I was exasperated.   I read much of it on an e-reader.  Do your eyes ache after hours on an e-reader? Mine do.

Old books last, but some of mine have seen better days.


A curly book!

J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement is a charming, lively novel,  but after one read my used paperback copy began to curl.  There is nothing wrong with it, but why do covers curl?   I loved the book, the story of a group of sad, desperate people who work in an office, Twigg & Dersingham.  (I wrote about it in 2014 here.)


Chewed by a cat.

The Moon-Spinners is my favorite book by Mary Stewart, though this 1964 paperback is  bunged-up.  My cat ate a corner of the cover,  but I love the photo of Hayley Mills in what the blurb calls the “spine-tingling Walt Disney motion picture.”

This has seen better days.

This has seen better days.

The binding of this nineteenth-century edition of An Old-Fashioned Girl, my favorite book by Louisa May Alcott, is falling to pieces.  Thank God paperbacks are cheap and e-books are free.

A Greek dictionary

A Greek dictionary

The cover of this scholarly nineteenth-century Greek dictionary, bought for $29 when I was in school, is turning from a book into wood and dust.  Just look at that cover.   The pages are still readable, though.


Held together with tape.

The Needle’s Eye is my favorite novel by Margaret Drabble.  My paperback is held together with tape.  I love the picture of Drabble on the cover!

Have your books suffered from small print, curled covers, etc.?  We can’t replace our books!

13 thoughts on “When Print Is Too Small: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere & Others

  1. Thank you so much for this delightful blog entry. I, too, have too many curled covers and no explanation for the phenomenon. There are very few contemporary novels I read; I prefer to reread the works of the 19th century and the Edwardians and early modernists. I love your phrase about the pisseur de copie.


  2. I’ve never read a thing by Mrs. Humphry Ward. Your review made me want to find a copy and see what else she’s written. I’ve enjoyed many of the third-rate Victorians, although I rate the best of Mrs. Gaskell, especially Wives and Daughters, more highly than that. I also am very fond of George Gissing.

    I don’t get headaches from e-reading, but I do from small print!


    • I do love Gaskell and her reputation has gone up. George Gissing is one of my favorites and I class him a little above, but classifications mean nothing. It just means I like some better than others!
      The e-readers really do help. I could not have read Robert Elsmere without it.


  3. When I was a chit of a girl, I read everywhere and my parents were mas at me because I read in the car while I was supposed to look at the scenery and comment on the landscape. “You will have weak eyes”, I was regularly told. Of course, I have weak eyes and glasses and I am only 23! But I have not subscribed to e-readers and I stick to faithful Gutenberg books. Therefore, as I use most of Mother’s books, I have the very same copy as yours of Robert Elsmere and suffer with the small print. As the masochist I am, I love big fat books with small print as well!
    I agree that third rate Victorians are much better than more of our contemporary writers (at least the French ones and some of the English-speaking I know) but the very worst may have been forgotten by now – as our contemporaries will. Robert Elsmere is interesting. I read it in a fit of religious string of thoughts, starting with the Tractarians and going through muscular Christianity to atheism. Mrs Humphrey Ward is sometimes in her writing but so is Mrs Oliphant: they needed potboilers as well as masterpieces.
    I have no money to buy new books so I rely on the old copies that I find in the library at home. Some are beautifully kept, others are curling, yellowing. It depends on when they were printed and to which edition they belong. The newest are the worst. But as long as I am able to read them…


    • Oh, the big Victorian books are great! The bifocal problem defeated me in reading that Oxford paperback. Yes, some books are only for their time. It’s so hard to find the good ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am also a happy patron of library book sales. Their de-accessioned books are often library editions in hard, but uninteresting covers. But not musty! Never buy musty, and I trust your deteriorating paperbacks do not emit offensive smells.

    Of the second-tier Victorians I like Wilkie Collins, Margaret Oliphant and Arnold Bennett (not technically a Victorian but he writes like one).


    • Oh, I’ve had the musty problem. Library sales are some of my favorite placings but the bindings are usually a little dicey by the time I buy them. I like all three of those writers you mention. I do need to read more Arnold Bennett.


  5. At 64, lots of print is too small for me. I like the option of enlarging print on my Kindle (also makes me feel like I’m reading fast when I flip the pages of enlarged print). Some of my most cherished books are those my first dog, Sinya, chewed. I’ll never get rid of those. And I like those forgotten mid-last-century writers, too. I read almost no contemporary fiction.


    • Joan, the e-readers are a blessing. So many classics are available free. And I couldn’t have read Robert Elsmere without it. So frustrating to have had to read the ebook instead of the books, though.


  6. Small print- arggghhhh! I used to have no problem with reading anything, but with age my eyesight has certainly deteriorated (I have more new glasses on the way). I love my old and frail paperbacks but often re-reading is an issue because of the print and I end up getting a second, more modern and bigger version. Perhaps I should just get a magnifier!


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