Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “Helbeck of Bannister”

After I read Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Marcella in 2013, I wrote here:

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.

Like the popular Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward was a brilliant and prolific writer:  she was the author of 26 novels, and I can attest that three are excellent, Robert Elsmere (1888), Marcella (1894), and Helbeck of Bannister (1898).

I recently found a Penguin copy of Helbeck of Bannister, the novel considered her masterpiece and often described as Ward’s VilletteI curled up with it on a gloomy day, and found it very Bronteish.  In Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, the Protestant narrator Lucy Snowe teaches at a school in Villette (a fictitious city based on Brussels) and spars with  M. Paul, a Catholic teacher, who becomes her informal French tutor.   Eventually they fall in love, though Lucy will never convert to Catholicism. A similar drama unfolds in Ward’s Helbeck of Bannister, in which Alan Helbeck, a Catholic aristocrat, and Laura Fountain, an atheist, fall in love.

The novel opens on a chilly, desolate March day.  Helbeck has invited his newly-widowed sister, Augustina, and her stepdaughter, Laura, to live with him at Bannisdale. The weather is unwelcoming, and the house is cold and bare.  Helbeck, a devout Catholic, has gutted it of its valuables to support the Catholic orphanages he has established.

There is one valuable item left:  a gorgeous Romney portrait of a girl in white, one of the Helbeck ancestors.  And this painting becomes a symbol of the differences between Helbeck and Laura.  She believes it is wrong not to keep this beautiful portrait in the family, wrong to give everything away to charity.  What of beauty?  What of history? Does he not appreciate these?

The Catholic asceticism is oppressive to Laura, but she stays at Bannisdale because she is devoted to her sweet but silly stepmother Augustina.  Augustina has reverted to Catholicism now that her atheist husband is dead.

Ward is an intelligent writer, whose style serves but does not overshadow her narrative, and I especially like her interweaving of  keenly-observed nature writing with the momentum of her narrative.  In the spring Helbeck is surprised to find himself thinking so much of Laura, and when he comes upon her sitting with the dogs  he sees her almost as if she is his ancestress in the painting.

…Something in his own movement reminded him of another solitary walk some five weeks before. And at the same instant he perceived a small figure sitting on a stone seat in front of him. It was Miss Fountain. She had a book on her knee, and the two dogs were beside her. Her white dress and hat seemed to make the centre of a whole landscape. The river bent inward in a great sweep at her feet, the crag rose behind her, and the great prospect beyond the river of dale and wood, of scar and cloud, seemed spread there for her eyes alone. A strange fancy seized on Helbeck. This was his world—his world by inheritance and by love. Five weeks before he had walked about it as a solitary. And now this figure sat enthroned, as it were, at the heart of it. He roughly shook the fancy off and walked on.

Mrs. Humphry Ward

At first Laura loathes Helbeck and finds him very cold. But gradually she is drawn to the chapel, with its beautiful paintings.  And she becomes fascinated by Helbeck, though she dislikes the priests.

But she needs a break from religion, and insists on visiting her cousins. In a sort of homage to  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Ward describes Laura’s visit to her rough country cousins, the Masons, who live seven miles away on a farm. They are of a different class, and are adamantly anti-Catholic, and do not speak to Helbeck.

Unfortunately, her cousin Herbert, who reminds me slightly of Hareton in Wuthering Heights,  becomes obsessed with her: when he gets a job in town, he persuades his sister Polly to bring Laura up for the day.  They tour his workplace, and then the steel mill, and observe a tragic accident where a man falls into the furnace.   Laura is strong–she takes care of the victim’s small daughter, who is brought to the factory bewildered and is terrified.   Laura stays with the child for hours, and then misses her train, and  has difficulty getting away from Herbert.  She takes care of herself and manages to find her way home, but it is this incident that leads her to admit her love for Helbeck.

Although this book is often compared to Villette, the mood is more like that of Jane Eyre.  Helbeck is a gentlemanly version of Rochester, and Laura a willful woman who refuses to conform to religious custom.  Of course Laura has a little money and does not have to work as a governess/teacher, but she is intelligent, independent, and scrupulous.

By the way, Ward’s own father converted to Catholicism and eventually deserted his Protestant wife and children.  As you can imagine, Ward had strong anti-Catholic feelings, but Helbeck is an attractive character and she is very fair, I think.  Some of her critics thought she made Catholicism too attractive.

It takes a while to get into this, but I absolutely loved it.