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.

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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