The Best Beach Book Ever? Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “The Marriage of William Ashe”

There’s no point in complaining about the heat wave.  You go out the door and it’s a blast from hell.  I sat outdoors in the “cool” of the morning (87°), but soon had sweated-up my t-shirt and went in to change into a camisole/pajama top.

Fortunately, I lost myself in what may be the best beach read ever:  The Marriage of William Ashe, by Mrs. Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward).   Like Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward was prolific and popular,  but only a few of her novels are read today.  The most famous is Robert Elsmere, a classic, but The Marriage of William Ashe is the better beach book.

Ward writes surprisingly well, clearly and simply.  She’s no George Eliot, but she’s impeccable in her way, and she’s an expert plotter. At first glance, The Marriage of William Ashe is an entertaining society novel, but it goes deeper than that.  About halfway through you realize it is a political novel. Ward examines the problematic marriage of an ambitious politician and an impetuous woman who mocks Parliament and cares nothing for conventional society.

The characters, Sir William Ashe and his wife, Lady Kitty, are loosely based  on Sir William Lamb and his flamboyant wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, who was the author of a roman à clef; she also had an affair with Lord Byron.  Ward’s  Lady Kitty similarly causes Sir William a lot of trouble: she is far from an asset to his career in politics, as Kitty herself bluntly warned him before their marriage.  Kitty is wild, flirtatious, and exasperating, but William is laid-back in the social arena and indulges her. 

Ward has a lot of sympathy for Kitty, though I myself prefer the company of William, who reads classics in the original Greek and Latin, and his intelligent, fascinating mother, Lady Tranmore, who understands politics as well as William does.  Kitty is clever and charming, with the talent to enthrall  party guests with her moving recitation of French poetry and scenes from plays, but she also deliberately alienates important people —and indeed she has no women friends,  since she flirts with their men, and in one case ruins a woman’s life thus.  And Kitty’s actions interfere with William’s career….  Kitty herself says she is mad, and her wild mood swings do indeed make a reader think she has bipolar disorder.  What is she thinking, when she sends the roman à clef she has written to a publisher?  She satirizes the Prime Minister based on his behavior at her own party; all the characters in the book are recognizable.  And as for her attraction to an unattractive poet…

Ward’s The Marriage is not like Trollope’s political Palliser novels, where Lady Glencora reluctantly marries Planty Palliser but eventually supports his political ambitions. Ward’s couple is tragic:  they are in love but in almost every way incompatible.  And Kitty, who takes after her sophisticated, unconventional mother (she has “bad blood”), has the power to ruin lives–sometimes vindictively, often completely out of control.  

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