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Spotlight on...Mrs Humphry Ward (1851 - 1920)



In 1915 the best-selling novelist Mrs Mary Humphrey Ward published Delia Blanchflower. In many ways it’s typical romantic fare: a stern guardian to a wilful young heiress must save her from bad influences before their love can blossom. Much of the plot revolves around a beautiful old mansion called Monk Lawrence. It belongs to an anti-suffrage Government minister. A militant suffragette called Gertrude Marvell has her eye on the old place. Gertrude is a harsh, ruthless woman who is unmoved by Delia’s pleas to spare the “beautiful and historic” house. The inevitable happens: the house goes up in smoke and with it the “beauty of four centuries”. A crippled child also dies in the fire, as does Gertrude herself.

Behind the melodrama is a very real sense of loss, and although Monk Lawrence is fictitious, Delia Blanchflower expresses something of people’s actual experiences of suffragette militancy. Begbrook Mansion in Frenchay, near Bristol was a fine old house until it was destroyed by arson. The ancient church of Wargrave, Reading was wrecked by fire, to the profound grief of the parishioners. When Mary Richardson slashed a painting known as the Rokeby Venus, artist Laurence Housman, a long-time supporter of the suffrage campaign, said he felt it like “a stab in the back”.

Wargrave Church, Reading, 1 June 1914
 So there’s nothing remarkable in Mrs Ward’s opposition to suffragette militancy. Many people who supported the female franchise detested militant tactics. But Mrs Ward was not only opposed to militancy: she did not want women to have the vote. In 1908 she accepted an invitation from anti-suffrage leaders Lords Curzon and Cromer to join the National Women’s Anti-Suffrage League. The Women’s League later combined with the Men’s League to form the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. Mrs Ward’s opposition to votes for women has baffled many biographers, who describe her involvement with the anti-suffrage movement as a mistake, or account for it in psychological terms as a desire to please father figures – her own father having been a distant presence in her childhood.

That childhood was spent first in Tasmania. She was born in Hobart on 11 June 1851, the granddaughter of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby, and niece of Matthew Arnold. Her family returned to England in 1856, and Mary Arnold spent the next few years at a series of boarding schools offering the sketchy education considered suitable for girls. One of these was in Clifton, Bristol, between 1864 and 1867, when she returned to her family in Oxford. She married Thomas Humphry Ward, a newly elected fellow at Brasenose College, in 1871. Ward had to relinquish his fellowship on marriage. He later joined The Times as a leader writer and art critic, and the family moved to London in 1881. The Times was to be a useful outlet for Mrs Ward’s anti-suffrage views, and published her articles and letters on the subject.

She campaigned energetically for the anti-suffrage movement, travelling up and down the country to make speeches. She spoke in Bristol’s Victoria Rooms in 1909, and was one of the speakers at a major anti-suffrage meeting in the Colston Hall in Bristol in 1912. On that occasion, Bristol MP Charles Hobhouse, a fellow anti-suffrage campaigner, was heckled by a suffragette who was found, after some confusion, hiding in the organ loft. After her ejection other women interrupted him with cries of “Rubbish!” and “Votes for Women!”

Mrs Ward was not heckled on that occasion, although many of her other speeches were not greeted with such forbearance. She was interrupted at a meeting in Queen’s Hall, London in 1909, during which she announced that the Anti Suffrage League had collected 250,000 petitions on an anti-suffrage petition. In 1910 in an article in The Times she said much of this support came from working-class women. She refused to speak at the Albert Hall in 1912 because of suffragette threats to interrupt the meeting with megaphones and stink bombs.

She led an anti-suffrage deputation to Prime Minister Henry Asquith in 1911 which had the satisfactory result of prompting the Prime Minister to voice his opinion that the inclusion of women’s suffrage in his forthcoming reform bill would be a disaster. She pushed her son Arnold into politics, and as a Member of Parliament he campaigned against the female franchise. In 1913 he introduced a resolution to reject a suffrage bill; the bill was rejected by forty seven votes.

Yet Mrs Ward had been an early campaigner for women’s right to education. She was involved in the Lectures for Women Committee in Oxford, which led to the establishment of Somerville College in 1879. She was secretary of the College between 1879 and 1881. She also carried out pioneering work for the education of disabled children, and founded a settlement in London devoted to offering education to working class children. She was a “self-made woman” who earned a fortune from her writing. Her work was highly valued by William Gladstone and Theodore Roosevelt, and she counted amongst her friends Henry James and Henry Asquith.  

For a woman who achieved so much, Mrs Ward’s belief that the Parliamentary vote would inflict “lasting injury” on women is at first sight perplexing. Yet it was a view she held consistently over many years. As early as 1889 she collected signatures for a petition against a suffrage bill, which declared that women had reached the limits of their emancipation. She argued that men and women moved in complementary spheres, and although she opposed women’s involvement in national politics she encouraged women to get involved in local government. But the crux of her argument was that the women’s franchise would put the country in danger. We live, she declared in The Times (4 June 1910), in “a complicated and dangerous world”. The nation could not afford to let women’s political inexperience interfere with the “executive power of men, and therefore the strength and safety of our country”.  

Mrs Ward suffered for the stance she took. She was forced off the Board of the National Union of Women Workers when it took up a pro-suffrage stance, and her links with Somerville College became untenable. Perhaps there was an element of retaliation in her accusation that girls’ schools and colleges – Cheltenham Ladies’ College amongst them – were staffed by strident suffragists. But she did not waver from her opinions. When other anti-suffragists like Henry Asquith, politician Walter Long, who had been Conservative MP for South Bristol between 1900 and 1906, and Lord Curzon, then President of the National League for Opposing Women Suffrage, had abandoned their opposition, she continued to argue against votes for women.

Mrs Ward went on to offer the services of her pen to the war effort, in particular with her 1916 book England’s Effort: Six Letters to an American Friend, written to encourage America to join the war. In the book Mrs Ward, who had described suffragette arsonists and bombers as rash and disgusting, eulogised the “young and comely” girls who were making fuses, detonators and cartridge cases, and packing bombs with “death-dealing” explosives. As “to the problem of what is to be done with the women after the war,” she said airily, “one may safely leave it to the future.”

Her son Arnold’s gambling losses all but bankrupted her in 1919. Critics usually attribute a failure in her powers as a novelist to the fact that she was forced to churn out books in order to earn money to pay his debts. In 1919 she was awarded the CBE. She died in London on 24 March 1920 and was buried at the church of St John the Baptist, Aldbury, near the mansion she had bought years before with the proceeds of her novels.    

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