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  • Mary Arnold Ward
  • Heather Milton
Judith Wilt. Behind Her Times: Transition England in the Novels of Mary Arnold Ward. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005. xi + 242 pp. $39.95

In Behind Her Times, Judith Wilt examines the novels of Mary Arnold Ward and her representation of England in a continual state of transition. Wilt's study is a long-overdue contribution to our understanding of an author who was tremendously popular in her own day and insufficiently studied in our own. Renewed interest in Ward's novels has already been expressed by some feminist scholars, and Wilt argues that Ward has been overlooked in part because of dismissive attitudes of modernists and an oversimplification of her political beliefs. Although contemporary readers might be most familiar with Ward's better-known novels Robert Elsmere and Marcella, Wilt points out that Ward was the "best-selling novelist in the English-speaking world around the turn of the twentieth century." One of the most significant indications of Ward's importance to the culture is evident in her impact on the decline of the circulating library and, by extension, the three-volume novel. Ward's popularity in the 1890s was so great that when she decided to publish a cheap, single-volume reprint of Marcella, she "practically overnight broke the hold of the previous system" and helped bring down Mudie's. Clearly, the demise of publishers' ability to demand three-volume novels also allowed for the greater independence and formal experimentation of modernist authors quick to dismiss Ward as a relic of a bygone era.

Wilt notes that although other scholars (e.g., Armstrong, Gallagher, Bodenheimer) have identified Victorian fiction as moving away from religion and politics in favor of interiority, Ward addresses those topics [End Page 111] directly. Wilt argues that Ward wrote about England in a state of change relating to women's roles, politics, and religion; she was enthusiastic in embracing the most topical debates of late-nineteenth-century England rather than simply subsuming them into a romance plot. Ward remained committed to a conservative approach to change. According to Wilt, she clung to the idea of England in a state of transition, with a "strenuous deferral of arrival" well into the twentieth century, when it had become apparent to everyone else that England had already changed and the condition of being in transition had long passed.

Yet it seems that the deferral of the modern to a future realm—the recuperation or containment of whatever progressive or subversive elements appear within a novel, often within the confines of the romance plot—is more typical of the Victorian novel than not, if not its defining characteristic. Although Wilt does point out that what seems to make Ward behind her times is that she outlived them, writing realist fiction well into the twentieth century, surely her audience did not consider her behind her times. Her late-nineteenth-century novels sold so well, one might argue that her ambivalence about transition England accurately mirrors her times, and a greater representation of Victorian readers' reactions to best sellers such as Robert Elsmere and Marcella would have been welcome, as Wilt does not delve into the responses of contemporary readers other than modernist writers who influenced Ward's exclusion from the literary canon.

Wilt also reexamines the image of Ward as conservative on women's issues because of her opposition to women's suffrage. In fact, Ward embodied a series of contradictions about women in their public and private capacities. Although she went by Mrs. Humphrey Ward in her twenty-seven novels, she used Mary A. Ward for most of her extensive body of nonfiction. As a prolific writer and public figure, she earned enormous sums and wholeheartedly supported women's education and entry into the workforce during World War I. Even Ward's opinions on women's suffrage were mixed: she believed that women ought to be able to vote in local elections but lacked sufficient foreign policy experience to vote in national elections and manage the empire. Wilt also complicates readings of several of Ward's novels as reactionary in relation to women's rights, offering an insightful analysis of the role...


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pp. 111-114
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