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W. E. Gladstone's Reception of Robert Elsmere: A Critical Re-evaluation Shafquat Towheed University College, London ROBERT ELSMERE was the literary event of 1888. It was extensively reviewed, read and commented upon, went through numerous editions, and even became the subject of a number of clerical sermons from a variety of church pulpits.1 Mrs. Humphry Ward's novel, it seemed, had tapped the Zeitgeist of her age, and with it, had captured the attention of her contemporaries. Most notably, of course, she earned the notice of the "Grand Old Man" of late nineteenth-century English politics, W. E. Gladstone. Mrs. Ward's correspondence with Gladstone immediately after the publication of Robert Elsmere has received some attention, but by and large, critics have viewed this epistolary exchange in isolation from its literary context.2 Both of Peterson's articles on the subject, as well as his book-length study on Robert Elsmere, take the view that Gladstone's correspondence is important only with respect to the novel's immediate popular reception. Indeed, Peterson goes as far as to state that this correspondence, for all its significance for the sales of the novel and its critical standing, was for Gladstone at least, a "temporary distraction," one which by 1889 no longer held its "former fascination."3 I would like to examine that correspondence around Robert Elsmere from a specifically literary context, an approach that offers an insight into Mrs. Ward's manipulation of the reception of her novel. Ward and Gladstone first met to discuss Robert Elsmere in Oxford on the evening of Sunday, 8 April 1888. Ward's mother Julia had died the morning before, allowing her to fulfill a request from Gladstone (then also in Oxford) to discuss the book. In spite of the death of her mother, Mrs. Ward seems to have had enough presence of mind to make detailed 389 ELT 40:4 1997 notes of this first meeting.4 The heated fifty-minute debate ended in agreement to meet again the next morning. Ward and Gladstone duly met for a further hour and a half, the conversation interspersed with Gladstone's recitation of a very particular scripture, the 42nd Psalm. Psalm 42 relates David's desire to return to the temple in Jerusalem from which he has been exiled, and his renewed zeal to serve God if this wish is fulfilled. The repeated image used is that of the undiminished thirst of the soul for God. Gladstone's intention may well have been to comfort Mary Ward at a time of grief, but the analogy between David's lament in the spiritual wilderness and Ward's position as the most visible of Victorian heretics is obvious enough. But if Gladstone's intention in reading aloud the opening verses of the Psalm had been to chasten an imperviously recalcitrant heretic, it had obviously backfired. Ward could barely contain her pleasure that she had brought the argument back to her novel in a way which could indeed vindicate it of Gladstone's charge of heresy. Writing to her husband the very same night, and with the usual astonishing self-possession, she declared herself to be well satisfied with the morning's proceedings: "His own autobiographical reminiscences were wonderfully interesting, & his repetition of the 42 psalm 'like as the hart desireth the water brooks'—grand. We talked a good deal of the book."5 Mary Ward had every reason to find Gladstone's stentorian delivery of Psalm 42 "grand." He had in fact, and very possibly inadvertently, referred to Robert Elsmere itself to back his case, and the context of the very reference is remarkably ironic. Catherine Leyden, unable to accept Robert's loss of orthodoxy, attempts to take comfort in Psalm 42, but quite obviously, to no avail: Even her religion, though she clung to it with an ever-increasing tenacity, failed at this period to bring her much comfort. Every night it seemed to her that the day had been one long and dreary struggle to make something out of nothing; and in the morning, the night, too seemed to have been alive with conflict—All Thy waves and Thy storms have gone over me!6 Ward...


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pp. 389-397
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