A Neglected Classic: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “Helbeck of Bannisdale”

If you are a Brontë fan, if you know their books by heart, if you are looking for an alternative, I recommend Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898), which has a Brontë-esque flavor.

In this neglected Victorian classic, Ward portrays a stormy relationship between an atheist woman and a Catholic man who fall in love.  Her strongly-delineated characters are reminiscent of some of the Brontës’ creations:  the heroine, Laura Fountain, bears a slight resemblance to Lucy Snowe in Villette, with traces of Jane Eyre and of Cathy from Wuthering Heights; the hero, Alan  Belbeck, is a kind of hybrid of M. Paul (Villette) and Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre);  and Laura’s rough  cousin Hubert Mason is like Hareton in Wuthering Heights.

Helbeck of Bannisdale was inspired by Ward’s childhood experiences after her father converted to Roman Catholicism.  The emotional division in the  household was painful. (Ward’s mother did not convert to Catholicism.)

Ward’s characters are mostly sympathetic, but they are also extremists.  The heroine, Laura Fountain, raised by her father, an atheist intellectual, believes that religion is superstition. Her stepmother, Augustina,  a former Catholic, gave up her religion to get married. But when Mr. Fountain dies, Augustina takes Laura with her to Bannisdale to live with her brother, Alan, a very strict Catholic.  He repulses Laura with his asceticism.

Mrs. Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward)

But Laura and Alan fall in love, and this is a tragedy for Laura.  She has strong principles, and cannot bend them.  And of course Alan will not bend his principles for anybody.  Yet their attraction is very real, and he is willing to marry her even if she does not convert.

There are also subplots:  Alan disapproves of her visits to the Masons, her anti-Catholic cousins.  Her cousin Hubert is rather brutish and sullen, but they have much in common:  he is agnostic, if not an atheist, and they share a passion for music.  (He’s a savant, who can play anything by ear.) . But he is a dark force in her life:  he gets drunk at a dance and she is terrified on the drive back in the cart.  He moves to town to better himself, but he is not her equal in education and manners.

By the way, here’s a description of Hubert that will remind you of Heathcliff or Hareton.

Laura surveyed him.  He had a square, full chin and an upper lip overhung.  His straight, fair hair straggled loose over his brow.  He carried his head and shoulders well, and was altogether a finely built, rather magnificent young fellow, marred by a general expression that was half clumsy, half insolent.

 This novel was controversial in its day. Ward had submitted the manuscript to her Catholic father first because she didn’t want to offend him. He approved it , but Protestant critics complained her depiction of Catholicism was too favorable, while  an eminent Catholic priest condemned it as a caricature of Catholicism.

A great read! When I get my Bronte fever these days, I turn to Helbeck of Bannisdale.