The Making of a Know-It-All

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The Making of a Know-It-All

Here is a person who Shouldn't Have Been an h2g2 Researcher: Mrs Humphry Ward, aka Mary Augusta Arnold. Mary Augusta (1851-1920) was a bundle of contradictions. She campaigned for education. She wanted to help the poor. She was also the founding president of the Women's National [UK] Anti-Suffrage League1. Her grandfather was Thomas Arnold, the head of Rugby School (remember Tom Brown's Schooldays? We wish we didn't), and her uncle was Matthew Arnold, the poet who wrote the wonderful 'Dover Beach'. She was Aldous Huxley's aunt. Go figure.

The entire family appears to have been obsessed with 'figuring out' religion. They also seem quite full of themselves in a very English sort of way, so we thought you'd get a kick out of this opening to this biography of the writer who called herself Mrs Humphry Ward by her daughter, Janet Rose Trevelyan, author of A Short History of the Italian People, which we can't wait not to read. If you want to read The Life of Mrs Humphry Ward, that's between you and Project Gutenberg.


Childhood: 1851-1867

Mrs Humphry War at 25

Is the study of heredity a science or a pure romance2? For the unlearned at least I like to think it is the latter, since no law that the Professors ever formulated can explain the caprices of each little human soul, bobbing up like a coracle over life's horizon3 and bringing with it things gathered at random from an infinitely remote and varying ancestry4. It is, I believe, generally known that the subject of this biography was a granddaughter of Arnold of Rugby5, and therewith her intellectual ability and the force of her character are thought to be sufficiently explained. But what of her mother, the beautiful Julia Sorell, of whom her sad husband said at her death that she had 'the nature of a queen,' ever thwarted and rebuffed by circumstance? What of the strain of Spanish Protestant blood that ran in the veins of the Sorells6: for although they were refugees from France after the Edict of Nantes, it is most probable that they came of Spanish origin? What of the strain brought in by the wild and forcible Kemps of Mount Vernon in Tasmania7? A daughter of Anthony Fenn Kemp (himself a 'character' of a remarkable kind) married William Sorell and so became the mother of Julia and the grandmother of Mary Arnold; but the principal fact that is known of her is that she deserted her three daughters after bringing them to England for their education, went off with an army officer and was hardly heard of more8. An ungovernable temper seems to have marked most of this family, and the recollections of her childhood were so terrible to Julia Sorell that she wrote in after years to her husband, 'Few families have been blessed with such a home training as yours, and certainly very few in our rank of life have been cursed with such as mine.' Yet although Julia inherited much of this violence and passion9, to her own constant misery, she had also 'the nature of a queen,' and transmitted it in no small degree to her daughter Mary.

The Sorells were descended from Colonel William Sorell, one of the early Governors of Tasmania, who had been appointed to the post in 1816. Nine years before, on his appointment as Adjutant-General at the Cape of Good Hope, this Colonel Sorell had left behind him in England a woman to whom he was legally married and by whom he had had several children, but whom he never saw again after leaving these shores. He occupied himself, indeed, with another lady10, while the unfortunate wife at home struggled to maintain his children on the very inadequate allowance which he had granted her. Twice the allowance lapsed, with calamitous results for the wife and children, and it was only on the active intervention of Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, that the payment of her quarterly instalments was resumed in 1818. Meanwhile, her eldest son William, a steady, hard-working lad, had been trying to support the family from his own earnings of 12s[hillings]. a week, and when he grew to man's estate11 he applied to Lord Bathurst for permission to join his father in Van Diemen's Land [Tasmania], hoping that so he might help to reconcile his parents. Lord Bathurst gave him his passage out, but had in fact already decided to recall Governor Sorell, so that when young Sorell arrived at Hobart Town early in 1824 he found his father only awaiting the arrival of his successor (the well-known Colonel Arthur), before quitting the Colony for good. William, however, decided to remain there, accepted the position of Registrar of Deeds from Colonel Arthur, and made his permanent home in the island. He married the head-strong Miss Kemp12, and in his sad after-life suffered a reversal of the parts played by his own father and mother. Long after his wife had deserted him he lived on in Hobart Town, much respected and beloved, and remembered by his granddaughter as a 'gentle, affectionate, upright being, a gentleman of an old, punctilious school, content with a small sphere and much loved within it.'

His daughter Julia grew up as the favourite and pet of Hobart Town society, much admired by the subalterns13 of the solitary battalion of British troops that maintained our prestige among the convicts and the 'blacks' of that remote settlement14. But for her Fate held other things in store15. Early in 1850 there appeared at Hobart Town a young man of twenty-six, tall and romantic-looking, who bore a name well known even in the southern seas – the name of Thomas Arnold. He was the second son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby. He had left the Old World for the Newest three years before on a genuine quest for the ideal life; had tried farming in New Zealand, but in vain16, and had then, after some adventures in schoolmastering17, come to Tasmania at the invitation of the Governor, Sir William Denison, to organize the public education of the Colony. Fortune seemed to smile upon the young Inspector of Schools18, who as a first-classman and an Arnold found a kind and ready welcome from those who reigned in Tasmania19, and when he met Julia Sorell a few weeks after he landed and fell in love with her at first sight, no obstacles were placed in his way. They were married on June 12, 1850 – a love-match if ever there was one, but a match that was too soon to be subjected to that most fiery test of all, a religious struggle of the deepest and most formidable kind20.

Thomas Arnold came of a family to whom religion was always a 'concern,' as the Quakers call it21; whether it was the great Doctor, with his making of 'Christian gentlemen' at Rugby22 and his fierce polemics against the 'Oxford malignants23,' or Matt, with his 'Power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness,' or William (a younger brother), with his religious novel, Oakfield24, about the temptations of Indian Army life25; and Thomas was by no means exempt from the tradition. A sentimental idealist by nature, he was a friend of Clough and had already been immortalized as 'Philip' in the Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich26. He came now to the Antipodes [Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania] in rationalistic mood and in search of the nobler, freer life27; but soon the old beliefs reasserted themselves, yet brought no peace. His mind was 'hot for certainties in this our life,' and he had not been five years in Tasmania before he was seeing much of a certain Catholic priest and feeling himself strongly drawn towards the ancient fold28. His poor wife, in whom her Huguenot ancestry had bred an instinctive and invincible loathing for Catholicism29, felt herself overtaken by a kind of black doom; she made wild threats of leaving him, she shuddered at the thought of what might happen to the children30. Yet nothing that she or any of his friends could say might avert the fatal step. Tom Arnold was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Hobart Town on January 12, 1856.

His prospects immediately darkened, for feeling ran high in the Colony against Popery31, and it soon became clear that he must give up his appointment and return to England. Already three children had been born to him and Julia, but the young wife was now plunged in preparations for the uprooting of her household and the transport of the whole family across the globe, to an unknown future and a world of unknown faces. The voyage was accomplished in a sailing-ship of 400 tons, the William Brown, so overrun by rats that the mother and nurse had to take turns to watch over the children at night, lest their faces should be bitten; but after more than three months of this existence the ship did finally reach English waters32 and cast anchor in the Thames on October 17, 1856. It was wet autumn weather and the little family huddled forlornly in a small inn in Thames Street, but the next day a deliverer appeared in the person of William Forster (the future Education Minister), who had married Tom's eldest sister Jane a few years before and who now carried off the whole family to better quarters in London, helped them in the kindest way and finally saw off the mother and children to the friendly shelter of Fox How33   – that beloved home among the Westmorland hills which 'the Doctor' had built to house his growing family34 and which was now to play so great a part in the development of his latest descendant, the little Mary Arnold.

The Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

03.09.18 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1She wrote this in The Times, 27 February 1909:
Women's suffrage is a more dangerous leap in the dark than it was in the 1860s because of the vast growth of the Empire, the immense increase of England's imperial responsibilities, and therewith the increased complexity and risk of the problems which lie before our statesmen - constitutional, legal, financial, military, international problems - problems of men, only to be solved by the labour and special knowledge of men, and where the men who bear the burden ought to be left unhampered by the political inexperience of women.
Ye gods.
2You know better than to ask us a question like that. 3This imagery is startling. For those who don't know: a coracle is a round boat. They have them in Ireland, and they used to make them in the marshlands of Iraq. Some people think the original Noah's Ark was a gigantic reed coracle. The idea of this would probably make the entire Arnold family faint dead away.4But, of course, one's own ancestors, while varied, were certainly never declassé.5Gack, he sounds like a knight in armour. He was a schoolmaster.6Obviously, Spanish Protestant blood must be of a different type than, say, Spanish Catholic blood? Such science from an in-law of the Huxleys.7The wild and forcible Kemps sound like they might have been Known to the Authorities.8Well, naturally. One couldn't invite them to tea after that.9Passion was not a good thing in a Victorian.10This is put very delicately. One can't help being impressed.11Meaning 'grew up'.12All that passion rubbed off, we guess.13We just bet she was admired by those subalterns.14Add racism to snobbery and general cluelessness. Duly noted.15Do we believe in Fate? Is it Biblical?16Either farming wasn't the ideal life, or he couldn't figure out how to hitch a plough.17Adventures in Schoolmastering, now that's a title for a best seller.18We've left Fate and gone on to Fortune. Any more heathen concepts you want to throw in?19Oh, look! An Arnold! I must note this in my bird book!20Let's get this straight: you people are in a paroxysm of self-congratulatory hubris about your perfect 'suitability' and other totally Victorian b.s. And now a difference of religious opinion is going to turn into a 'fiery test'? Self-involved, much?21Quakers aren't as passionate as Kemps, as a rule.22Cough.23There was this thing called the Oxford Movement. It was about religion. You really don't want to know, unless you need a paper topic for Comparative Religion. Or you really like Charlotte Yonge.24We refuse to look this up.25Oh, wait…temptations. Hm. Its subtitle is 'Fellowship in the East', and although we don't want to get our hopes up, it's available free on in case anybody wants to let us know about the juicy bits.26A long narrative poem by Arthur Hugh Clough. Its subtitle, 'A Long-Vacation Pastoral' will probably be sufficient to warn you away. It's about Oxford students.27Than Victorian England? But how could that be?28The temptations of Catholicism here remind the Editor sharply of the insistence of people in his 1950s childhood that Communism was a communicable mental disease.29(Head on desk) No, no, no, no, you cannot inherit Huguenot ideas, somebody has to tell you that….We refuse to believe in ecclesiastical Lamarckism….30Being exposed to Ideas like that.31Spotted on Twitter recently: A wonderful Suzie Q Ferguson history moment in which somebody complained about Popery. 'It's just a bunch of dried leaves and stuff.' Quite right.32Okay, three months of worrying about rats biting you in your sleep would wear anybody down. And we're worried about the neighbours, who couldn't sleep last night because of a loose bat in the house. We recommended the Edited Guide and told them to stop being drama queens about it.33Fox Who?34Not that Doctor.

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