Skip to main content

My Month in Books: 2021

I've picked out two of the books I read this month which look, in their different ways, at issues around women's agency in a patriarchal society. First is The Invader, a novel by Hilda Vaughan. It's followed by John Sutherland's biography of Mrs Mary Ward. 

The Invader, Hilda Vaughan (William Heinemann, 1928)

The Invader is Welsh author Hilda Vaughan’s (1892–1985) third novel. Daniel Evans is a sheep farmer whose Welsh hill farm is centred around the eighteenth-century house, Plas Newydd. The farm belongs to an absent English landlord who has no interest in it apart from receiving the rents. Daniel passionately loves his house and his land and has been saving up for years to buy the property. He is one lambing season short of raising the capital.

Disaster strikes when the owner dies and the property is inherited by English woman Miss Webster, who teaches in an agricultural college. Miss Webster decides to farm the land herself, and Daniel is ousted and relegated to a poky Welsh farmhouse. She brings with her a former student, Monica, whose once wealthy father has died leaving her penniless, compelling her to accept work as Miss Webster’s assistant. 

Daniel determines to force out Miss Webster and, with the help of his neighbours, embarks on a campaign of intimidation and sabotage. A succession of horrible tricks are orchestrated by a horrible man. Daniel Evans is a brute (and a dog-beater), a bully, a liar, and dishonest in his business dealings. But there’s nothing attractive about Miss Webster either. She despises the Welsh, and makes no secret of the fact. She works Monica to exhaustion, and incessantly scolds and criticises her. She is arrogantly convinced that a theoretical knowledge of agriculture makes her an expert in the very specialised business of sheep farming in the Welsh hills.


There is scarcely a redeeming feature about either of them, nor, for that matter, is there much likeable about their sly, cruel, and scheming neighbours who take great delight in Miss Webster’s suffering. The overall horribleness of it all is slightly alleviated by the characters of Monica and Dr Langdon. Monica is a thoroughly nice person, the sort of young woman who sees “fairyland” in a garden, and the Welsh warm to her. War-wounded and heart-wounded Dr Langdon serves his patients well, and is universally popular.

Unfortunately all this makes the novel unsubtle and clumsy in some aspects. The horrible are very horrible, and the nice are very nice. At the same time, though, it is clear that there is scope for sympathy for both Evans and Miss Webster. Both are powerless against unseen, distant forces. Evans’s eviction by his distant landlord is a terrible injustice. As for Miss Webster, she is as much at the mercy of the property laws and economic system as Evans. She would not have been able to acquire the farm other than by the unexpected inheritance; she has put everything she has into making a go of it; if she fails she will have to go back to her hated, low-status teaching job. She has the added disadvantage of being a woman in a man’s world, whether that’s English or Welsh.

For all that, it’s in many ways a compelling read from one of my favourite authors. It raises important questions of class and power, and the economic and social position of women. It touches on the question of who should own property: is it the person who labours, or the person who possesses the title deeds? And the descriptions of the land and its people are superb.

After I read the book, I was surprised to find it referred to in some reviews as a comedy. I didn’t find anything comic in it at all. Perhaps if it had been more nuanced there would have been scope for extracting humour from the situation. As it is, it felt too brutal and tragic for that.

You can listen to this fascinating 1977 National Museum Wales interview with Radnorshire sheep farmer Earnest Thomas Ruell, aged 76, describing sheep farming in the early twentieth century at https://museum.wales/blog/2016-03-20/Voices-from-the-archive--Remembering-Lambing-Time--/

Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian, John Sutherland (Oxford University Press, 1991)

I’m all for biographies that aren’t hagiographies but John Sutherland’s biography of Mary Ward had me baffled. It’s not exactly a hatchet job on his subject, but it didn’t leave me with the impression that he had a very high opinion of her, or even that he liked her all that much. The text is littered with snide asides, clearly intended to be humorous but to me they often seemed patronising and supercilious. Some of the language he attaches to her doesn’t exactly exude respect either: “schoolgirlish”, “Oxford housewife”, “busybody”, “neurotic”, etc. More significantly, for a biography about a writer, he hasn’t a good word to say for most of her books. Where he does once or twice admit that a novel is “interesting”, its interest lies more in its illumination of contemporary attitudes than any literary merit it might possess.

 

Mrs Mary Ward (seated second from left) at a debate between suffragists and anti-suffragettes, Manchester 1909

Mary Ward’s writing was certainly variable in quality as the pressure of supporting her family in the extravagant lifestyle to which, thanks to her earnings, they had become accustomed, increased. Although her style may not appeal to many readers today, Mary Ward was undeniably a success. She was a best selling author who made a fortune from her books. She commanded huge advances and incredible levels of support from publishers who certainly put faith in her abilities if her biographer does not. She achieved all this as a woman in Victorian England, one who, unlike the males in her family had not had the benefit of a good education (her father, uncles and husband all studied at Oxford), and had few legal, political or economic rights. In short, Mary Ward battled patriarchy – and in many ways she won. This was no mean achievement.

Mary Ward seems to have negotiated the pitfalls of patriarchy by trying to balance being a successful woman with pretending she wasn’t and deferring to masculinity. She called herself “Mrs Humphry Ward”. She threw herself into the campaign against the parliamentary vote for women. She tried to put into practice the anti-suffrage notion that women’s influence on the nation was best exercised through their menfolk by directing her son, Arnold’s, parliamentary career. Unfortunately, Arnold was not half the politician his mother was and his talents lay in drinking and gambling his mother’s hard-earned money away. 

Patriarchy is indeed an underlying influence on her life, as Sutherland is aware. Yet he simplifies her relationship with the prevailing power structure by suggesting that it was an individual matter. It was her desire to please her absent father (for reasons that remain obscure Mary Ward was not brought up by her parents) that shaped her. It was a desire that expanded to her seeking out of “powerful older men…patriarchal figures” later in life. It seems to me – though not to John Sutherland – unsurprising that a woman intent on a successful career would turn to powerful men in Victorian England; it was the men held the power.

For all that, Sutherland’s biography is a readable and clear account of a fascinating woman. Nor does it shy away from the contradictions in Mary Ward’s life, nor those aspects which make her such an unsympathetic figure, such as her anti-suffragism. It is a pity that his simplified “father/daughter” drama leads to a tendency to skim over many of those contradictions. He may deplore her “pernicious” influence on women’s rights with her anti-suffragism, but he does not attempt to understand it or present it on her own terms. Instead, discussing her role in the 1889 Appeal Against the Extension of the Parliamentary Franchise to Women, he identifies her “emotional and irrational” opposition to the women’s vote primarily to her desire “to please and serve father figures”.

He also cites her belief that it was “unseemly” to want the vote, and her “horror of militancy”. In fact, at this time she could not have had a horror of suffragette militancy as the Women’s Social and Political Union (the militant suffrage movement) was not formed until 1903. It is also interesting to note that he describes her anti-suffrage views using the same terms – emotional and irrational – applied to women who demanded the vote.

Sutherland does occasionally relax his deprecating judgements. Ward’s charitable achievements are “astounding” and “phenomenal”. There is one “fine novel”: The Coryston Family. And, towards the end of the book, he lists her “extraordinary feat[s]” of self education, establishing Somerville College, her best-selling novel Robert Elsmere, and being the first woman journalist to visit the front during the First World War. Perhaps the fact that Sutherland dedicated so much time and effort to writing about Mary Ward is tribute enough, but it would have been nice to have come away with some idea of what drew him to her rather than what repelled.

You can find out more about Mrs Ward at my earlier blogs, Spotlight On: Mrs Humphry Ward and No Votes for Women 100: Mrs Mary Humphry Ward


Picture Credits:-

Welsh sheep: https://pixabay.com/photos/sheep-wales-mountain-sky-ewe-4204907

Mrs Mary Ward (seated second from left) at a debate between suffragists and anti-suffragettes, Manchester 1909: Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

 

 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Dickens and Chickens

On 17 April 1860, in fields near Farnborough, Charles Dickens joined an audience amongst whom were the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, as well as a number of MPs and clergymen, to watch the American John Carmel Heenan and England’s Tom Sayers (the Brighton Titch) beat one another blind and bloody in a bare-knuckle fight that lasted nearly two and a half hours. The fight ended in a draw when Aldershot police stormed the ring, forcing the fighters and their illustrious spectators to flee the scene. It was the brutality of this match that signalled an end to the bare-knuckle era and prompted the development of the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules. Dickens’s interest in pugilism was of long standing. In 1848 Dombey and Son , which had been published in serial form over the preceding two years, came out in book form. One of many of his novels that draws on the world of the prize fighter, it introduces the unforgettable Mr Toots, a would-be man about town, an

Spotlight On...Begbrook House, Frenchay, Bristol

On 11 November 1913, the head gardener at Begbrook House in Frenchay near Bristol discovered that the   building was on fire. The house stood in its own wooded grounds, and was said to have twenty rooms and a fine old staircase. Within a few hours the house was gutted. The fire caused £3,000 worth of damage. A copy of the WSPU newspaper, The Suffragette , was left at the site with the message, “Birrell is coming. Rachel Pease is still being tortured”.  Begbrook House Picture: Frenchay Village Museum Augustine Birrell was the Liberal MP for Bristol North, and a cabinet minister. He was frequently targetted by militants in Bristol. Suffragettes interrupted his meetings and two women once accosted him at Temple Meads Railway Station with their demand for the vote.    Begbrook House belonged to Hugh Thomas Coles, a wealthy banker. Hugh Coles was the son of   William Gale Cole of Clifton, who was also a banker, and was born in Clifton in 1856. Lik

Authors Alison Morton and Helen Hollick in Conversation

Alison Morton, author of the stunning alternative history Roma Nova series, and Helen Hollick, whose historical fiction ranges across the centuries from King Arthur to pirates of the Caribbean, have both taken exciting steps into new genres. I recently eavesdropped on them in conversation during their current Blog Tour, talking about the challenges and rewards of moving in new directions...   Thank you, Lucienne, for hosting a stop on our joint tour for our new released mystery/thriller novels Double Identity by Alison Morton and A Mirror Murder by Helen Hollick. Helen: It was quite coincidental that we both decided to branch out from our usual genres into mystery/thrillers at more or less the same time, wasn’t it Alison? My A Mirror Murder is a novella ‘cosy mystery’, while your, Double Identity is a fast-paced thriller. What they have in common is the theme of investigating a murder. Alison: I wanted to write a character with strong roots in France, which is where I live. Ma