Victorian Literature Mary Ward
Diana Powell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0072


Mary Augusta (Mrs. Humphry) Ward (b. 1851–d. 1920) was a novelist, critic, education pioneer, antisuffrage campaigner, and war correspondent. Her second novel, Robert Elsmere (1888), was by some reckonings the highest-selling novel of the Victorian period, and its widespread piracy inadvertently led to the establishment of copyright laws in the United States. Born into the intellectual dynasty of Dr. Thomas and Matthew Arnold, Ward distinguished herself as a young woman at Oxford, before women were admitted to enroll as students, by becoming an expert on early Spanish literature through independent study in the Bodleian. At home among the literary and intellectual elite, Ward counted Oxford figures Mark Pattison, Walter Pater, T. H. Green, Benjamin Jowett, and Henry James as personal friends. Arthur Stanley, dean of Westminster, performed her wedding ceremony, and Lewis Carroll took her wedding pictures. Ward assumed the name of her husband, T. Humphry Ward, an Oxford tutor and journalist for the Times, in all of her works of fiction, but remained Mary A. Ward or M.A.W. in her articles and works of nonfiction. Although her career outshone her husband’s, the assumption of her husband’s name and her antisuffrage politics led to the diminishment of her critical reputation and the decline of her modern readership. Ward’s reputation as a polemical writer has also led to her work being interpreted as merely a vehicle for her religious, political, and social beliefs, and little has been produced on the purely aesthetic aspects of her work.

General Overviews

Colby 1972 provides a brief introduction to Ward as a writer, while Bindslev 1985 and Shepherd 2006 focus more on her social persona. Peterson 1976 is an excellent resource, combining detailed biographical information with an analysis of her work, but it limits itself to Ward’s life and work as it pertained to Robert Elsmere. Smith 1980 and Rives 1982 attempt to cover all aspects of Ward’s life and work, while Wilt 2005 looks at Ward through a variety of critical responses. Brown, et al. 2006 is the most comprehensive, addressing Ward’s writing career and personal life as well as the wider social and historical setting.

  • Bindslev, Anne M. “Mrs. Humphry Ward: A Study in Late-Victorian Feminine Consciousness and Creative Expression.” Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1985.

    This PhD dissertation (University of Stockholm, 1985) considers Ward’s views on marriage, professional work, politics, and education from a feminist perspective.

  • Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. “Mary Augusta Ward.” Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present.

    A great starting place for research on Ward. Contains historical, cultural, biographical, and bibliographical information on Ward and her writing. Allows for topical or literary searches and for the building of timelines based on a searcher’s interests. Available by subscription.

  • Colby, Vineta. The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1972.

    A foundational feminist text that discusses Ward’s position as a writer in relation to her readership before moving to an overview of her life, novels, her influences, and her critical and popular reception.

  • Peterson, William S. Victorian Heretic: Mrs Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere. Leicester, UK: Leicester University Press, 1976.

    A valuable foundational study that blends a detailed, highly readable biography with literary criticism of Robert Elsmere. Appendix contains excerpts from her Robert Elsmere notebook, showing Ward’s research and writing processes and a breakdown of the sales of Robert Elsmere.

  • Rives, Françoise. “Mrs Humphry Ward, Romancière.” PhD diss., University of Lille, 1982.

    A comprehensive look at Ward’s novels, criticism of her work, and her autobiography. Written in French.

  • Shepherd,Valerie. “Whirlwinds of Thought and Ferments of Mind: The Process of Personal Change in Mrs. Humphry Ward.” PhD diss., University of Liverpool, 2006.

    An attempt to trace the scope and nature of Ward’s influence on education, suffrage, faith, morality, and women’s work through the novels Robert Elsmere, Marcella, and Helbeck of Bannisdale.

  • Smith, Esther Greenwell. Mrs. Humphry Ward. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

    A critical overview of all of Ward’s novels, grouped thematically as “religious works,” “social reform novels,” “romances,” and “war.”

  • Wilt, Judith. Behind Her Times: Transition England in the Novels of Mary Arnold Ward. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

    A wide-ranging critical argument that examines Ward’s place as a transition author between the Victorian and modern eras; covers Ward’s use of aesthetics, theology, politics, gender, and sexuality.

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