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
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
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.
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