Unvisited tomes

I mentioned Mary “Mrs Humphry” Ward a while back. I’d never read any of her books, and she doesn’t seem to rank now alongside her Victorian or Edwardian peers, but according to this Guardian piece, at the end of the nineteenth century she was the highest-earning novelist writing in England, and in the early twentieth, her books were bestsellers in America too. Between 1880 and 1920 she wrote 26 novels and published regularly in journals. She was the niece of Matthew Arnold, and the aunt of Aldous Huxley. She was as much a household name as Dickens or Eliot had been. So what happened to her? Why are her books now gathering dust?

The main reason seems to be her politics. Though she otherwise did a great deal of good for women and children, she was a very visible and voluble campaigner against women’s suffrage. Heading the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, “Ma Hump” became known as a reactionary and a crank, the purveyor of all kinds of kooky pro-empire poppycock; through her husband (a journalist at The Times), and her son (an MP), she effectively held up legislation on the extension of suffrage for years. The price she’s paid is her own posterity.

So what of the books themselves? Do they deserve to be retrieved from their author’s obscurity? I think so. I’ve read Lady Rose’s Daughter and have begun to read Eleanor, and they strike me as eminently readable, and retrievable. Akin to George Eliot, though not as broad, and to Henry James, though not as deep, her books are nonetheless perfectly respectable turn-of-the-century social realism, with a flair for lyric description. Here, for instance, is Julie Le Breton, the heroine of Lady Rose’s Daughter:

They were approaching a woman whose tall slenderness, combined with a remarkable physiognomy, arrested the old man's attention. She was not handsome–that, surely, was his first impression? The cheek-bones were too evident, the chin and mouth too strong. And yet the fine pallor of the skin, the subtle black-and-white, in which, so to speak, the head and face were drawn, the life, the animation of the whole–were these not beauty, or more than beauty? As for the eyes, the carriage of the head, the rich magnificence of hair, arranged with an artful eighteenth-century freedom, as Madame Vigée Le Brun might have worn it – with the second glance the effect of them was such that Sir Wilfrid could not cease from looking at the lady they adorned. It was an effect as of something over-living, over-brilliant – an animation, an intensity, so strong that, at first beholding, a by-stander could scarcely tell whether it pleased him or no.

And here is an Italian sunset, near the beginning of Eleanor:

The sunset was rushing to its height through every possible phase of violence and splendour. From the Mediterranean, storm-clouds were rising fast to the assault and conquest of the upper sky, which still above the hills shone blue and tranquil. [...] Below these [...] the heaven was at peace, shining in delicate greens and yellows, infinitely translucent and serene, above the dazzling lines of water. Over Rome itself there was a strange massing and curving of the clouds. Between their blackness and the deep purple of the Campagna, rose the city—pale phantom—upholding one great dome, and one only, to the view of night and the world.

Maybe it’s not as good as the best things of its period, which have survived much better, but it’s still very satisfying to the reader who likes that period, and likes to think it’s not exhausted by its few survivors. It’s a live question whether repellant personalities who happened to write great books should be forgiven. The other question this raises for me is who among our present writers will be forgotten? Which opinions or political acts will in time be seen as unforgivable?