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Ward, Mrs Humphry. Robert Elsmere. Edited by Miriam Elizabeth Burstein. Victorian Secrets, 2013, 623 pp. ISBN-978-1-906469-30-6.

Reviewed by Melissa Purdue.

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein’s edition of Mrs Humphry Ward’s novel Robert Elsmere is another welcome and useful publication by Victorian Secrets.  The press’s dedication to publishing “scholarly editions of unjustly neglected Victorian novels” is a valuable addition to the work of other publishers devoted to republishing forgotten texts like Broadview and Valancourt Books.  Victorian Secrets’s re-evaluation of authors such as Emily Lawless, Rhoda Broughton, Sarah Grand, Elizabeth Robins, Florence Marryat, and Mrs Humphrey should be of particular interest to readers of The Latchkey: Journal of New Woman Studies.  

Originally published in 1888, Robert Elsmere was Ward’s most popular novel.  It sold more than a million copies and was one of the biggest-selling novels of the nineteenth century.  Ward followed it with the publication of over twenty other novels, including Marcella (1894), Sir George Tressady (1896), and Delia Blanchflower (1914).  Inspired by her own father’s (Thomas Arnold) religious doubts, the novel tells the story an Oxford clergyman who experiences a crisis of faith and begins to doubt the doctrines of the Anglican Church. Transformed by his reading of various works of biblical criticism, Robert ultimately pursues the philosophy of “constructive liberalism” and champions the importance of social work amongst the poor. The new religious philosophy found in the novel sparked many animated responses in the form of book reviews, fictional responses and even stage adaptations.  Ward refused permission to dramatise the novel, but it was adapted for the stage nonetheless and opened first at the Hollis Street Theatre in Boston and then at the Union Square Theatre in New York.

Robert Elsmere’s popularity with Victorian readers makes it important reading for scholars and students of nineteenth-century British literature.  In her edition of the novel, which had previously been out of print for twenty-five years, Burstein does a skillful job of introducing and contextualising the text. Most importantly, her introduction provides much useful information about the theological debates surrounding the novel and it reveals Ward’s own religious views and background. Burstein gives important details about her family’s religious history, and delves into Ward’s own “fraught spiritual journey” (7).  The introduction also addresses the novel’s portrayal of female characters, what Burstein describes as the “irresolvable tension” in the text for twenty-first century readers (10).

In the appendices, Burstein includes the preface to the later Westmoreland edition of the novel (1909) in which Ward discusses her novel’s relation to contemporary religious debates and reflects on her reasons for writing the story.  She also adds an excerpt from The History of David Grieve, the first novel Ward published after Robert Elsmere, and an excerpt from The Case of Richard Meynell (1911) (the sequel to Robert Elsmere), in which Richard is put on trial for heresy. Finally, William Gladstone’s famous review of the novel, “by far the most influential critical assessment of the novel as both literature and theology,” is also included (Burstein 619). Gladstone finds the novel “remarkable in many respects,” but has serious reservations about its “new form of religion.” These appendices are thoughtfully chosen and provide helpful context for classroom use. 

Melissa Purdue is an Associate Professor of English at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her current research focuses on representations of motherhood and women’s sexuality in fin de siècle British fiction. She is the founder and co-editor of the journal Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies (