The Life of Mrs. Humphry Ward

by Janet Rose Trevelyan. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1923. 8vo. x+318 pp. $5.00.
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD was the author of twenty-five novels, and her books found a large and appreciative audience. She died in 1920. Her Life, by her daughter, ought to revive interest in her books in those who read them as they came from her pen, and create it in the younger novel-readers; for they were of good craftsmanship and their portraiture of Victorian England was substantial and significant. But truth to tell, it is doubtful if the biography will make a new enthusiasm for Mrs. Ward’s novels or quicken an old one. A biography written by an affectionate relative is seldom a great book. In this case the daughter is too reserved — too anxious lest she violate decorum. The result is that three quarters of the book is a dead level, an oft-repeated story of the writer’s struggle against family cares, interruptions, weariness, pain. Mrs. Ward’s life as here described was an unremitting round of toil. Me used to hear criticisms of her novels as picturing the idle rich. But she did not share the luxuries of her characters. The pages are sprinkled with these phrases; ‘At what cost of fatigue of mind and body!’ ‘There was no time for recuperation; the body was dragged after, a more or less protesting slave!
Moreover, for years Mrs. Ward was fighting for her own peace of mind, because of the doubts which beset her own life. She was born under the shadow of religious controversy. Her mother had Huguenot blood in her veins and it carried with it a seated distrust for all the works and ways of the Roman Catholic Church. Six years after her marriage to Thomas Arnold he became a Roman Catholic. Nine years later he returned to the English Church. After eleven years he sought again the Roman fold, at the precise moment when the change destroyed his prospects for earning a comfortable living. His conversions and re-conversions produced loss in fortune and position, and his daughter shared his pain, though not his peace, in these strange shiftings of the spiritual tides.
Mrs. Ward’s great practical achievement was the establishment of the Mary Ward Settlement. Even this was often a theological battlefield. Yet Mrs. Ward gave herself without stint to bring light to children in the sorest need — then an almost unexplored region of service.
But let no reader of the biography leave it in weariness before it chronicles the war. With that shock there came a new way of life to Mrs. Ward and to her biographer. The pages begin to glow with color. There is no more talk about ill health and the slavery to the pen. In December 1915 a trumpet call rang out from Theodore Roosevelt to Mrs. Ward: ‘Tell us what the English are doing — in the trenches, in the shops, in the banks, in the factories! There is no human being more fitted than you to do this, and it should be done.’ In ten days she had forgotten everything else in this amazing undertaking. Munition works, the fleet, the back of the army in France — these she studied for five breathless weeks. She drove hundreds of miles through cold and snow; she climbed up and down through the mud of dugouts and over the steep ladders of warships. She wrote out her notes in fortyfive days of work at high pressure, and sent them off by post in the form of ‘Letters to an American Friend.’ They were syndicated in many American newspapers, and in a month were published in a book called England’s Effort. The little book came at the nick of time and its service was incalculable. Four years of life were left for her, and no day of them was without its full measure of devotion to her country. Mrs. Trevelyan’s book is well worth having, if only for its last forty pages, with their simple story of a response of the spirit to the call to arms.