Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Mary Augusta Ward on "The Peasant in Literature"

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Mary Augusta Ward on "The Peasant in Literature"

Article excerpt

Mary Augusta Ward, author of the acclaimed novel Robert Elsmere, was also a critic of some note and influence. In the later years of her career she focused her critical faculties on the figure of the peasant in literature, although she published little on this topic--notable exceptions being comments in her prefaces to the seven-volume Life and Works of the Sisters Bronte and a headnote on Irish writer Emily Lawless in The English Poets, a multivolume work edited by her husband, T.H. Ward and containing her uncle Matthew Arnold's introductory essay, "The Study of Poetry." Ward was influenced by Arnold in her own critical endeavors, but she shows on several occasions a willingness to challenge some of the principles of Arnold's critical theory. Unpublished materials in the Honnold Library at the Claremont Colleges indicate that Ward believed the best literature dealing with peasant life presented a realistic portrait of the hardships these men and women endured. Hence, Ward has mixed feelings about the genre of pastoral, and finds in the work of the Brontes and Thomas Hardy more compelling portraits because these novelists are able to describe the inextricable links between the people and the countryside. Ward was also influenced by Walter Pater, and at times displays a willingness to let impression guide her judgment of literary value. But she is careful to link these feelings with her pity and anger for people subjected to such harsh living conditions.

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Mary Augusta ("Mrs. Humphry") Ward is best known--among those who know her at all--as the author of best-selling novels like Robert Elsmere and Marcella. But Mary Ward began her career in the early 1870s as a literary critic, first writing essays on El Cid and other early Spanish literature, the fruits of independent research she completed in Oxford's Bodleian Library in her late teens and early twenties. By the time Robert Elsmere appeared in 1888, Ward had produced some four dozen critical articles for journals--including Macmillan 's Magazine, Fortnightly Review, the Guardian, the Times, the Athenaeum, and the Quarterly Review. In addition to European works, she reviewed Trollope's autobiography, Meredith's Diana of the Crossways, Pater's Marius the Epicurean, and editions of Austen's letters and Keats's poetry. She also wrote headnotes to several poets in her husband Thomas Humphry Ward's influential anthology, The English Poets. (1)

Once she turned her primary attention to writing fiction, however, Ward published considerably less criticism, the most prominent exceptions being her introductions to the 1900 Haworth edition of The Life and Works of the Sisters Bronte and other occasional pieces about the Brontes, as well as an essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne. (2) Mary Ward's critical work during the final years of the nineteenth century and the opening decade of the twentieth focused on literary renderings of rural scenes and people, an interest also expressed in the rural settings of her novels. She presented a lecture called "The Peasant in Literature" on several occasions, including in 1897 in Glasgow; in 1904 at Bedford College for Women in London; and eight times during her 1908 visit to the United States. Ward's interest in the literature of rural life is reflected not only in her lecture notes but in her preface to Wuthering Heights, in reviews of works by Emily Lawless, and in unpublished articles about Thomas Hardy. Ward's approach is founded on Matthew Arnold's criticism but departs from his ideas in her greater emphasis on what he called the historical estimate and the personal estimate of literature.

Although Ward's public lectures (both about literature and about religious and political issues, and about her work in the Settlement movement) were "carefully and even elaborately prepared beforehand, for she would never trust herself to speak extempore," and "The Peasant in Literature" represented "one of her most finished literary performances" (Trevelyan 155). …

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