Thursday, February 3, 2011

Eminent Victorian

For they stood in one of the famous wood and common lands of Southern England – great beeches towering overhead – glades opening to right and left – ferny paths over green turf-tracks, and avenues of immemorial age, the highways of a vanished life – old earth-works, overgrown – lanes deep-sunk in the chalk where the pack horses once made their way – gnarled thorns, bent with years, yet still white-mantled in the spring: a wild, enchanted no-man’s country, owned it seemed by rabbits and birds, solitary, lovely and barren – yet from its furthest edge, the high spectator, looking eastward, on a clear night, might see on the horizon the dim flare of London.

I think this is a lovely description. I particularly like the sense of history on the landscape, the “old earth-works, overgrown” and “avenues of immemorial age”. It evokes for me coming across the grassy remains of mine shafts or pits for washing ore in the lead lands near Charterhouse in the Mendips, or stumbling on the embankment of a long-gone tramway that once served the Somerset Coal Canal. There’s a fine, ghostly feeling about walking through “ferny paths” that once rang with industry, the clatter of trams, the cries of workers. You can go further back too, to other vanished lives: tramping along sections of the Fosseway near Radstock; standing on the edge of an iron-age hill fort at Cadbury Camp.

The description is from Mrs Humphry Ward’s novel The Testing of Diana Mallory (1908). John Sutherland thinks the novel marks a “distinct decline in the quality of her writing”, and it certainly isn’t the best novel in the world. But it’s far from being the worst, and I think it’s a shame that Mrs Ward is not more widely read. Her authorial name is enough to put off the modern reader: a woman who doesn’t even have her own identity but hides – or is hidden – behind her husband. And of course she made the huge mistake of backing the reactionaries in the struggle for women’s suffrage, being a firm “anti” even when other opponents of votes for women had begun to accept the inevitable.

Her views did, of course, permeate her novels. In Diana Mallory suffragist Isabel is a most unpleasant woman who would in other times “have been a religious bigot of the first water”. But I don’t think Mrs Ward can be too glibly dismissed as a bigot herself for creating such a monstrous feminist. In the same novel socialist Marion, challenging Diana’s opposition to votes for women (it would unsex us) utters the “very same ideas which Isabel Fotheringham made hateful, clothed in light, speaking from the rugged or noble faces of men and women who saw in them the salvation of their kind”. (Elaine Showalter includes a brief discussion of the tensions in Ward’s views – a woman who campaigned for education for women and the disabled and whose books show sympathy between and for women yet who opposed the female franchise – in A Literature of Their Own.)

Mrs Ward may have been old fashioned in her own time – Virginia Woolf thought so – but her books are still worth reading. Diana Mallory has a page-turning melodramatic mystery at its heart and if the paeans to “England” do not sit well with us these days, nor the earnest political discussions, there’s still much to enjoy. Indeed, I’m fascinated as much by these elements of the novel as the story and characters. It seems odd to me to read a Victorian or Edwardian novel while at the same time wanting to discount its “Victorianism” or “Edwardianism”; they are as much a part of the book as plot and setting. So, on to my next Mrs Humphry Ward – her anti-suffrage novel Delia Blanchflower! And I’m putting John Sutherland’s Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian on my reading list.

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