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“The hand that rocks the cradle”: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s (Anti-)Feminist Politics

Lauren Sperandio Phelps
p. 99-115


À l’occasion du centième anniversaire de la première loi accordant le droit de vote aux femmes britanniques, les et critiques littéraires se sont attaché.e.s à réévaluer le rôle des figures marquantes du féminisme dans tous les domaines de la production culturelle du tournant du vingtième siècle outre-Manche. Parmi ces figures influentes, les femmes le plus souvent étudiées sont les militantes radicales. Or, selon Delap, Ryan et Zackodnik, il faut se garder des visions partielles et en partie romancées du radicalisme féministe qui se concentrent sur la « suffragette » militante et des formes de résistance particulièrement médiatiques et médiatisées (243). En effet, de tels récits ont tendance à occulter le rôle important joué par des femmes plus conservatrices dans l’élaboration des discours autour du suffrage féminin pendant la première vague féministe.
Mary Augusta Ward, née Arnold, plus connue sous le nom de “Mrs. Humphry Ward” (1851-1920), est peu étudiée de nos jours. Elle fut pourtant une figure politique et une écrivaine britannique de tout premier plan, bien connue pour ses positions anti-suffragistes au tournant du siècle. Engagée dans la politique et auteure de plusieurs best-sellers au Royaume-Uni et aux États-Unis, Ward ne peut pas être considérée comme une Victorienne réactionnaire. Son idéologie progressiste est nuancée et complexe. En examinant ses manuscrits, ses notes personnelles et sa correspondance avec les éditeurs lors de la publication de son roman anti-suffragiste Delia Blanchflower (1914), cet article analyse la nature et les enjeux du discours (anti)feministe de Ward, afin de mettre en évidence des tensions fondamentales, notamment entre politique et privé, qui continuent de façonner le discours féministe de nos jours.

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1With the recent celebration of the centenary of British women’s suffrage, scholars have begun revisiting the turn-of-the-century women’s movement and the overlapping histories of feminism and suffrage. Though progressive and feminist causes ranged from education to economics, suffrage, having the most tangible milestones, has often dominated the historical narrative of the period. This emphasis on suffrage, especially pro-suffrage activities and figures, often leads to an assumed equivalence between suffrage and feminism that flattens the richness of the women’s movement and neglects the wider cohort of figures seeking progress in other arenas. While scholars widely acknowledge the complexities and contradictions of the period, critics such as Lucy Delap et al. argue that we have generally romanticized the radical side of suffrage feminism, especially the militant British “suffragettes”. As a result, the drama and visibility of their resistance has overshadowed the more widespread moderate, and even conservative, views on feminism and suffrage (243). Examining the broader scope of women’s history thus provides significant opportunities to address how seemingly contradictory narratives of feminism and suffrage informed each other. Women writers in particular are ideal objects of study for such reexaminations because, as John Stuart Mill asserted, “ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only form of going-public that society permits to them), increasingly many of them have protested against their present social condition” (24). Ann Heilmann and Valerie Sanders have compared the work of writers of both pro- and anti-suffrage and feminist perspectives to illuminate where these two classifications intersect in their view on the woman question (294). This article continues that work by assessing how Mrs. Humphry Ward’s writing fits within the narrative of suffrage and women’s history as she was a key anti-suffrage figure as well as an advocate for a woman’s place beyond or other than the hand that rocks the cradle. By examining Ward’s personal writings, the following analysis will first dissect Ward’s professed politics and social causes, then provide an examination of the manuscripts and publishers’ proofs for her 1914 anti-suffrage novel, Delia Blanchflower, with an aim of determining how her writing, as (anti-)feminist, can inform our understanding of the complexities of early twentieth-century feminist and suffrage ideologies.

Ward’s (anti-)feminist politics

2Ward was a prolific writer and national bestseller in Britain and the United States, as well as a prominent political figure. While she has often been dismissed as stereotypically conservative and outdated for her views, especially as an anti-suffragist (Wilt 149), her work, particularly that which was labeled anti-feminist, warrants reconsideration as her political resume suggests a complex and progressive ideology. By analyzing how Ward’s work resists strict categorization as simply didactic or anti-feminist through its depth and nuance in addressing issues of suffrage and feminism, this article makes the case for greater caution in applying suffragism and feminism interchangeably and furthers Julie Bush’s point that the debate over “definitions of feminism and anti-feminism, [highlights] the dangers of anachronism in our use of these terms” (Bush 388). Choosing Ward for this purpose also questions how the anachronous suffrage-feminism equation works against some anti-suffrage writers, though their work could help to advance aims to enhance the richness of feminism’s historical narrative, while others have been embraced into the feminist canon. Maroula Joannou has investigated the challenges of exploring Ward’s politics and notes that she was in good company as an anti-suffragist since “Charlotte Brontë was unimpressed by John Stuart Mill’s ideas on equality” and “George Eliot, […] Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti were also firmly situated in the anti-suffragist camp” (“Suffrage” 561). Ward herself was a scholar of the Brontës as well and her contributions to women’s literary criticism, though significant, are not well known (Sutton-Ramspeck 1990, 55). Scholarship on Ward is limited compared to these women. However, the work available, such as Judith Wilt’s Behind her Times as well as that of Beth Sutton-Ramspeck, Joannou, and others, has mapped her literary contributions in relation to both the work of her contemporaries and her own political activities. The significance of her literary work has been reconsidered as “some feminist critics have attempted to salvage something from the formative era of suffrage literary production by settling for an interpretive framework in which suffrage fiction is seen as a precursor to Modernist literature” (Norquay and Park 302). By examining Ward’s personal notes and letters, as well as the manuscripts and publishers’ proofs for her 1914 novel, Delia Blanchflower, this article continues their conversation by considering Ward’s writing processes surveying the extent to which her writing enhances our understanding of suffrage writing as a genre and this period of feminist history overall.

3Though she is bordering on obscurity outside of her role as an anti-suffragist, Ward’s work and life speak to an ongoing tension between the personal and political and to widely felt public anxieties about feminism and suffrage that have continued to strain gender politics to this day. Whereas she enjoyed a successful literary career in her time, she is perhaps best remembered today as the founding president of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and editor of the Anti-Suffrage Review (“Finding Aid” 1; Heilmann and Sanders 290). Ward was also well-regarded as a social reformer and was even asked by American President, Theodore Roosevelt, to publish essays concerning England’s involvement in World War I (“Finding Aid” 1). Taking into account her position as both a popular writer and respected social critic, Ward’s dual vocations overlapped over the course of her career through her publication of highly political novels exploring issues of feminism and suffrage, including: Marcella (1894), a critical consideration of the “New Woman”; Daphne, or Marriage à la Mode (1909), a novel about divorce; and Delia Blanchflower (1914), an anti-suffrage text (Smith 12-3). The analysis below focuses primarily on Delia Blanchflower, as Ward’s treatment of feminism and suffrage in the novel covers a wide range of perspectives on the movements. While Joannou validly argues that the novel is best understood through a “crucial […] separation of the ideological position of the writer from the ideological position of the text” (Joannou 576), it can still be productive to discuss how these positions prove difficult when considered together and what that difficulty can tell us about defining feminism at the time. Heilmann and Sanders call attention to the fact that anti-s and feminists alike supported their positions with similar claims that their causes advanced “‘authentic’ […] femininity” (290). Anti-suffragists like Ward argued that suffrage would degrade that femininity but their arguments for other causes, for example, women’s education, were not always discernable from the suffragists’ case for the vote; this creates confusion when attempting to align women’s positions on individual issues along distinct anti- or feminist lines (Bush 387). As such, a reading of Delia Blanchflower that considers Ward sympathetic towards the goals of suffrage is not necessarily incongruous; rather, it embraces the idea that her apparent inconsistency may inform a more accurate representation of the paradoxes of feminist history.

4In order to appreciate the political implications of Delia Blanchflower, we must acknowledge that Ward had a long and significant history of engaging in political discourse beyond the suffrage issue throughout her career as she was equally active in debates surrounding labour and education in England and was a strong supporter of women’s advancement in local politics. Like many anti-suffragists, she felt simply that, although women were deserving of their independence, the national political sphere was not a woman’s place; in their eyes, men and women were equipped to function in different capacities with men being more suited to politics and the maintenance of the empire and women to social services (Coit 1217). Scholars have attempted to describe the principles of difference feminism in a variety of ways through generalizations of “separate spheres” and sometimes the moral superiority of women that precludes them from becoming involved in activities of a disagreeable nature like politics (Bush 391; Coit 1213; Mill 142). Beth Sutton-Ramspeck’s description is perhaps more productive for this discussion as she emphasizes the role that women’s social responsibilities played in shaping the difference perspective, which she calls “social feminism”. She states that “social feminism […] stresses women’s family roles, celebrates what is considered distinctive to women, works to uncover a history of female accomplishments, and seeks a future with more room for ‘feminine values’ such as nurturance and compassion” (Sutton-Ramspeck 1999, 205). Ward’s expressed opinions on suffrage movements as impatient and volatile reinforce this belief that women are more successful in pursuits that highlight their calm, nurturing, and sympathetic tendencies. The history of feminism’s “first wave” is often distilled down to a discussion of the women’s movement as the development of liberal feminism, through figures such as Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, while linking the liberal view with suffrage and abolitionism (Tong and Botts 16). However, this narrative often leads to the assumption that the suffrage movement aligned with this liberal tradition, when in fact the views of those on both sides of the suffrage debate represented a different kind of feminism as “feminists then, as now, drew ideas from both traditions [liberal and difference or social feminism], either comfortably, like most prominent suffragists, or uncomfortably, like Mary Ward” (Sutton-Ramspeck 1999, 205). In many ways, Ward’s own political activism does appear seriously to contradict her belief in separate spheres. Coit notes that unraveling this conflict in Ward and her contemporaries’ politics involves “explaining the often misunderstood relationship between their support for women’s higher education and their advocacy for the anti-suffrage cause, and identifying in their views a feminism that is no longer easily legible as such” (1213). In pursuit of this goal, contemporary scholars need not overlook or oversimplify the feminist views of Ward and women like her as necessarily anti-feminist due to their anti-suffrage stance when they do not align with a liberal feminist ideology. Furthermore, understanding Ward’s proximity to difference feminism sheds light on why she chose to engage in certain political causes while opposing others.

5Ward’s most valuable political contribution, outside of suffrage, was certainly her advocacy for the advancement of education for women. Initially, her strong position on women’s education may seem illogical in light of her stance on suffrage. However, as discussed above, Ward’s anti-suffrage views do not naturally indicate overarching anti-feminist sentiment, but rather speak to her views on the utility of votes for women, or lack thereof, in the midst of what she felt to be more pressing social and economic developments in the domestic sphere. Her work for the development of higher education for women suggests that she viewed education as an alternative to suffrage that could ultimately be more useful for women and society. There is no better example of this line of reasoning than Ward’s own remembering of working towards an Oxford women’s education system in her memoir, A Writer’s Recollections, published in 1918. She emphasizes the importance of the experience, saying “my friends and I were all on fire for women’s education, including women’s medical education” (Ward 1918, 152). With these words, Ward stresses the passion she and her peers had for advancing women’s educational interests and, perhaps acknowledging the assumed link between suffrage and the women’s movement as a whole, she adds that “hardly any of us were at all on fire for woman suffrage” (Ward 1918, 152). She subsequently explains that they were “at the time persuaded that the development of women’s power in the State […] should be on lines of its own” (Ward 1918, 152-53). This assertion, including her references to “Imperial obligations” and “the sanction of war”, is often cited to summarize Ward’s anti-suffrage position (Ward 1918, 153; Bush 394); however, it is rarely acknowledged that she is not dismissing women from political responsibility altogether but is advocating for women’s engagement outside of parliament (Coit 1217). The more significant passage that follows clearly underlines Ward’s agenda “that growth through Local Government, and perhaps through some special machinery for bringing the wishes and influence of women of all classes to bear on Parliament, other than the Parliamentary vote, was the real line of progress” (Ward 1918, 153). In these passages we find that Ward believed the primary purpose of a parliamentary vote was to facilitate imperial and military interests, which were the realm of men, whereas women’s influence, empowered through education, would be of greater benefit to society when directed towards local interests.

Delia Blanchflower

6With Ward’s own views on women’s political role in mind, we can more fairly analyze her stylistic and editorial choices in writing Delia Blanchflower by acknowledging that Ward’s anti-suffrage position was not automatically at odds with the women’s movement and scrutinizing the degree to which the novel, and Ward herself, can be read as (anti-)feminist. Delia Blanchflower was published in 1914, just four years before partial suffrage was granted. Scholars have noted that by this time Ward’s popularity as a writer suffered as a result of her polemic writing in novels like Marcella, Daphne, and Delia Blanchflower; they also point out that history tends to classify her as obsolete, a late-Victorian sentimentalist writing amidst a burgeoning modernist movement (Argyle 940; Sutherland 304).

7Indeed, the novel was immediately reviewed as exaggeratedly romantic and over the years has been dismissed as didactic and outmoded. In a book review published in the New York Times in September of 1914, the reviewer begrudgingly describes the romance that develops between Mark Winnington and Delia Blanchflower, in spite of Delia’s involvement with the “leaders and organizers of the militant campaign” (New York Times 1). Other than the brief mention of the suffragist movement and a similarly fleeting description of the events that lead to Delia’s falling away from the cause—when Gertrude sets fire to a manor house Delia has been attached to since childhood, thus endangering its inhabitants—the reviewer focuses on the predictability and improbability of the romance that culminates at the end of the novel as tired and overdone (New York Times 2).

8Some scholars suggest that the tendency to dismiss (anti-)suffrage writing stems from its reliance on Victorian forms while being produced during the explosion of modernist fiction (Argyle 942; Norquay and Park 301). Their assessment is that these works have not been studied as valuable political texts due to the fact that they do not measure up to the criteria of literariness that determine which books from this period warrant scholarly attention. They advocate for a treatment of these texts as a discrete genre that eschews aesthetic experimentation in form and ambiguity in favor of dialogical engagement with the social and political environment in which they were written. By allowing Ward’s writing to function as a novel with a purpose without dismissing it as merely anti-suffrage, we can appreciate the deeper political implications of her work.

9Given Ward’s history of accumulating political and economic knowledge, coupled with her status as a prolific bestselling writer, she would likely have been cognizant of her ability to reach a large audience with more political novels. Additionally, Ward’s polemic fiction came at a time when the more extreme factions of the women’s movement were gaining momentum, as well as gaining notoriety for its militancy in Britain (Wilt 17). In her memoir, she incorporates public opinion on the subject by including excerpts from some of the responses she received after Marcella debuted. Ward expresses great confidence and pride in the novel, proclaiming “[t]he coming out of ‘Marcella,’ in April 1894, will always mark for me perhaps the happiest date in my literary life. The book, for all the hard work that had gone to it, had none the less been a pleasure to write” (Ward 1918, 301). As she is reflecting on this long after the fact, Ward’s own words seem to contradict scholars’ assumptions that her reputation suffered from her politically charged writing. However, it is important to note that reflections on her later (anti-)feminist writing in Daphne and Delia Blanchflower, even in passing, are conspicuously absent from her memoirs. This omission does seem to indicate that Ward’s esteem may have dwindled after their publication. The writer’s biography published by her daughter, Janet Penrose Trevelyan, confirms what Ward herself does not, when she shares that her mother “always believed that her Anti-Suffrage activities, culminating in the writing of this novel [Delia Blanchflower], had a markedly bad effect on the circulation of her books” (293). This passage also supports the observation above that Ward was far from naïve when she wrote these novels, declaring that

certainly she was prepared to suffer for her opinions, for the task of diverting and of carrying forward the Women’s Movement into other lines than those which led to Westminster was one that was to wear her out prematurely, though her gallant spirit never recognized its hopelessness. (Trevelyan 239)

What’s more, it is touching that Trevelyan admires her mother’s “spirit” here while also acknowledging that her views ultimately placed her out of step with her times. Though this discussion signals no change of heart on Ward’s part, it is also possible that the memoir’s publication in 1918 coinciding with the first British suffrage legislation could have influenced her decision to exclude any discussions of her overtly anti-suffrage work (Trevelyan 244). Whatever her reasons for leaving Delia Blanchflower out of her memoirs, Ward may have felt she had experienced enough success over the course of her earlier career to risk the criticism she would be inviting in writing an anti-suffrage novel, and was perhaps exploiting the public’s, admittedly waning, reluctance, particularly with the rise of the militant campaigns.

10Ward identifies the anxiety of her general audience quite clearly in the first chapter of Delia Blanchflower, as she opens the novel with Mark Winnington observing the crowd of young Europeans in the lobby of his hotel. Ward uses Winnington’s internal monologue to familiarize her readers with the layman’s perspective on suffrage as he represents the general population of Britain who would have shared his opinions on the matter. Within the first few pages, using Winnington as her messenger, Ward describes “contemporary feminists” as “determined, apparently, to know everything, however ugly, and to say everything, however outrageous” (Ward, Delia 4; “autograph” 4).

11This definition is one that Ward has carefully crafted to represent a specific perspective on the movement at the time. She seems primarily interested in conveying the lack of appropriate femininity in the strident younger generation as well as the lack of understanding with regard to feminism on the part of the general public. By using Winnington as the voice for this conservative view she is tapping into the apprehensions of every reader who identifies with him; his is not necessarily an antagonistic view, but an uncertain, perhaps willfully ignorant, understanding of the goals of the feminist and suffragist movements. From here, she describes Winnington as follows

He himself was a countryman, an English provincial, with English public school and university traditions of the best kind behind him a mind steeped in history, and a natural taster for all that was ancient and deep-rooted. The sketch of an emerging generation of women [...] had made a deep impression upon him. It seemed frankly horrible. (Ward, Delia 4; “autograph” 5)

While some have assessed that this passage portrays “Mark [as] the patriarchy incarnate and idealized” (Miller 158), it does not unavoidably function as support for an anti-feminist reading of the text. In examining Ward’s drafts of this passage, the language stays remarkably consistent with each iteration of the text; these few lines in the published edition match the original handwritten manuscript verbatim (Ward, Delia 4; “autograph” 4-5). Their consistency is especially significant considering the heavy revisions she made to other sections of the novel, replacing words and even entire paragraphs, which does reinforce the assessment that Ward carefully crafted this initial description of both feminism and Winnington to set the tone for the entire novel. However, as Ward emphasizes tradition and history here, it can also be read as indicative of the nationalist tendencies of the anti-suffrage stance (Codell 857; Delap et al. 243); rather than an obvious anti-feminist stance, these early definitions seem to align with the complex views of femininity and responsibility held by both anti-s and feminists discussed previously.

12Though the descriptions above are intriguing because of their lack of alteration, Ward’s revisions throughout the writing process are equally beneficial for deciphering the values she embodies in Delia Blanchflower. One such instance of Ward’s editorial choices is her revision of Winnington’s conversation with a Swedish writer and feminist that comes shortly after his musings on contemporary feminism. In a proof of the first chapter, Winnington’s Swedish companion is telling him a story about a young suffragist who had just recently visited the hotel and given a speech about feminism to its patrons (Ward, “proof” 14). She gives very little detail as to the contents or tenor of the young woman’s presentation; she simply says, “I cannot of course give you any idea—but it was fine!” (“proof” 14). Then the two discuss the crowds’ reaction and finally the identity of the girl—Delia Blanchflower, daughter of Winnington’s old army friend—is revealed (“proof” 14). This vague, incomplete coverage of the content of the girl’s apparently “fine” speech would have made sense given the anti-feminist label the book has often earned. However, in the final publication, this section is expanded to provide a compelling counterargument to Winnington’s horrified thoughts on feminism earlier in the chapter. In the published version, he asks the Swedish woman whether the speech was “an onslaught upon men,” to which she replies, “(what) else could it be? At present you men are the goalers, and we the prisoners in revolt” (Ward, Delia 6). Ward appears to be empathizing with the cause, as she is using a figure that Winnington respects to put forth this idea that women are prisoners to the patriarchy. Here is an overtly feminist statement, even by modern standards, which is not rejected but apparently reflected upon, giving us as readers a moment’s pause to deliberate upon what kind of (anti-)feminist message is being portrayed. The fact that this section was added for final publication suggests that, at the very least, Ward was well informed on the arguments on all sides of the suffrage and feminism debates and able to articulate a variety of opinions using a range of characters throughout the novel.

13When considering whether Ward is in fact empathetic to the suffragist or feminist causes, her portrayal of Gertrude Marvell is key to a constructive inquiry into her sentiments. The novelist frequently crosses out more positive adjectives in favor of words like “austere” and “cold” (Ward, “proof” 1913), and there are instances throughout the manuscripts of Ward adjusting her language with regard to Gertrude in a way that suggests an awareness of this leaning towards a sympathetic portrayal and informs our understanding of Ward’s complex relationship with feminism (Heilmann and Sanders 292). One such, seemingly minor, edit comes at a pivotal moment in chapter nine, when Delia, Gertrude, and Mr. Lathrop are preparing to speak to an agitated crowd at the Latchford market. Like the example of Winnington’s views on feminism, this passage reads almost word for word from proof through publication, with one exception. Ward spends several sentences setting the scene, describing the market and the wagon from which the trio will speak, and at the end writes that the lights “concentrated upon them threw their faces and figures into harsh relief” (Delia 46). Of course, one might think that this harsh lighting is merely reinforcing the hostile mood of the crowd that has gathered for this event. That interpretation is certainly valid considering Winnington’s concerns over the crowd’s response in the wake of a bridge nearby being burned by suffragists the night before (Delia 45). However, the original autograph alters this last line just slightly, but in a way that would drastically change the mood of the scene if published. In what appears to be the only page of chapter nine preserved with the handwritten manuscript, Delia, Gertrude, and Lathrop are cast into “harsh and splendid relief”. The word “splendid” alters the tone of the event that is about to unfold in the chapter; it suggests that, although the mood may be hostile, there is an engaging, even inspiring, quality to the speakers that is missing from the proofs and final print version. By describing the scene as “splendid”, the original manuscript portrays a more sympathetic and even tragic version of the events, as the crowd devolves into violence, throwing the refuse of the market at Delia and her friends, and even injuring Winnington in the process. Since all readers are left with is the harshness without the splendor, the group’s efforts to bolster their cause come off as foolish and even dangerous rather than inspiring. This subtle change strengthens the claim that Ward was conscious of the contradictions that proliferated surrounding the suffrage movement, as she often removed such paradoxical language with regard to the extreme stance of Gertrude while allowing descriptions of more moderate views, such as the Swedish feminist’s, more nuanced throughout the editing process.

14Ward’s heavy revisions to chapter nine emphasize its importance as a pivotal section of Delia Blanchflower in signaling Delia’s first hint of misgivings about the suffrage movement, as well as establishing Ward’s own position on suffrage for the reader. After Delia gives an impassioned speech in front of the Latchford market crowd, Ward again regulates the portrayal of her chaperone, Gertrude, in a way that avoids giving too much credit to the militant threat. In the published novel, Winnington acknowledges that Gertrude is “far more skilled in street oratory than her pupil” but “without any trace of excitement, or any fraction of Delia’s eloquence” (Delia 47). Ward is carefully constructing Gertrude’s character as a mechanical, unfeeling promoter of the cause, which feeds into the anti-suffrage sentiment that suffragists cast off their femininity in favour of militancy. However, in the original proof of the chapter, Ward had included a mention of Winnington’s “[listening] to [Gertrude’s speech] with reluctant admiration” (“proof” 171). While his reluctance could have been an adequate modifier to avoid any suggestion of giving in to Gertrude’s side, Ward crossed through this entire paragraph in the proof to be removed (“proof” 171). Though a revised version of the paragraph was published with the admiration omitted, Ward’s initial note to delete it entirely suggests a hesitation to portray concessions to Gertrude’s, and by extension the militant suffragists’, public discourse. Although Delia Blanchflower has been labeled an anti-suffrage novel, the author’s portrayal of many of the suffragist characters thus calls into question whether Ward herself was determinedly against suffrage or merely took issue with the actions and urgency employed by the movement, especially within the militant factions.

15Throughout the novel, even the most stridently feminist characters, including Gertrude, are portrayed sympathetically at one point or another, whether by qualifying their speech as particularly engaging, their independence as admirable or justified, or describing their background in such a way that their path to suffragism, and even militancy, seems inevitable. Her portrayal of Delia is certainly the most sympathetic, as Ward gives her ample credit for being drawn to the suffragist cause. She is continually referred to as charming, charismatic, and alluring and as a result many of the faithfully conservative figures around her tend to yield to her line of thinking, including Winnington. Ward also seems to suggest that Delia’s stifling upbringing as the only daughter of an English countryman led to her attraction to the suffragist cause. Delia reflects on her childhood at one point and asks herself whether she was happy then (“proof”, 70). In the original text of the publisher’s proof, the response is simply “yes,” but Ward has crossed this out and penned into the margins that “her youth had been happy enough” (“proof”, 70). In prefacing this discussion of Delia’s younger years as “happy enough,” this passage hints at a lack of fulfillment from leading the life society had mapped out for her. This caveat is all the more revealing of Ward’s identification with the young woman when Ward’s own unfulfilling childhood is taken into account. Ward’s early years were not ideal, as her family situation was unstable for some time, and she bitterly regretted her lack of educational opportunities (Wilt 3; Sutherland 31). By placing Delia in similar circumstances, the novel allows for an understanding of Ward’s support of women’s advancement in education and even property, just not of suffrage.

16The appeal of women doing more with their lives is mirrored in other girls in the village like Miss Toogood, Kitty Foster, and Susy Amberly, with each following personal ambitions in their own right over the course of the novel. Even Winnington’s confidante, the middle-aged, separated Lady Tonbridge, reveals herself to be a suffragist, proclaiming “here am I, with a house and a daughter, a house-parlourmaid, a boot-boy, and rates to pay. Why shouldn’t I vote as well as you?” (Delia 31). While this admission from a respected character in the novel would be noteworthy on its own, what comes next is particularly telling of Ward’s complex feelings on the suffrage issue. Tonbridge clarifies that “the difference between me and the fury is that she wants the vote this year—this month—this minute—and I don’t care whether it comes in my time […] I say we ought to have it—that it is our right—and you men are dolts not to give it us” (Delia 31).

17This revelation exposes a departure from a purely anti-suffrage stance for Ward and suggests that she at least empathized with the moderate suffragists’ position. When Lady Tonbridge continues her fervent exposition on suffrage she concludes with an assertion that “[she’s] not only ashamed of them as women—but out of all patience with them as a Suffragist!” (Delia 31). This frustration is later echoed by another prominent lady, the elderly Miss Dempsey, who reminds Winnington of her suffragist upbringing, when they meet on the train, but admits that the “wild women” of the current movement have given her second thoughts (Delia 45).

18These two instances of moderate suffragist perspectives are indicative of Ward’s thorough knowledge of the progression of the suffrage movements. Furthermore, Ward unambiguously places these women in conversation with Winnington, a representation of the general public Ward was targeting with this novel. Winnington engaging in thoughtful discourse with the full gamut of suffragist women reveals that Delia Blanchflower may have been doing more than warning women off suffrage. Perhaps, as her daughter’s biography suggested, Ward’s was diversifying her efforts to educate by sharing her knowledge on the issue in a format that might be read and absorbed by the masses more readily than another piece of propaganda. By incorporating a wide range of female characters, from the staunchly conservative Dr. French’s wife, who consistently repeats the phrase “the hand that rocks the cradle” when dismissing feminism and emphasizing women’s primary “power” as mothers, to the stridently militant Gertrude, Ward’s novel does more than simply reject suffrage and feminism as inappropriate and wrong (Delia 33). Through these women she demonstrates a thorough understanding of the myriad feminist perspectives in her day.


19Acknowledging Ward’s focused political background as the foundation for her writing Delia Blanchflower, this examination realigns the novel, and Ward, with moderate feminist ideologies, specifically difference feminism, and reconsiders her work as an exploration of the myriad perspectives that circulated around the movements of women’s suffrage and feminism. Ward’s personal papers help to shed light on the choices she made in crafting the characters as meticulously designed representations of the positions both men and women took on suffrage and feminism at the time. Being highly sensitive to the political climate in which she was writing, Ward used her clout as a bestselling author to attempt to present a well-supported argument against the problematic suffrage movement activities taking place, while also making concessions, arguably more or less consciously, to the primary goals for female independence from which she herself benefitted throughout her life. In “The Logic of Anti-Suffragism,” Emily Coit contends that Delia Blanchflower “stages a comparison between gendered varieties of […] knowledge, and Ward’s representation of them is an articulation of the difference feminism that informs her anti-suffrage stance” (Coit 1214). The analysis above confirms this assertion, and stresses that Ward’s efforts to acquire the knowledge to write forcefully on the issue indicate a dedication to making herself an informed and progressive citizen, without the need for a parliamentary vote.

20Additionally, though writers of suffrage novels like Delia Blanchflower may not have shared the same level of literariness in their writing as some of their popular contemporaries, their work nevertheless warrants continued reconsideration as it often engages with the complexity of feminist dialectic on issues beyond suffrage. Delap suggests that the anti and feminist positions of Ward’s time were not so clearly defined as is often assumed today based on the dominant narrative of the “first wave”, importantly adding that “historians have judged anti-feminists as intent only upon preserving the status quo […] motivated by a blind resistance to change [and,] while feminism has emerged as an unexpectedly diverse discourse, anti-feminism has been assumed to be a realm of reaction” (378).

21These attitudes towards Ward as an anti-suffragist, and assumed anti-feminist, have clearly limited the previous production of nuanced scholarship on her work, as even “Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘none of the great Victorian reputations has sunk lower than that of Mrs. Humphry Ward’” (quoted in Joannou 563). Fortunately, scholarship on Delia Blanchflower in particular continues to evolve over time, indicating that, while the past has treated “Ward’s ideas about women […] as irredeemably sentimental, romantic, naïve, impractical, idealistic, and, by the latter stages of her career, outmoded,” neither are they “essentially positive and benign” as Maroula Joannou grants her (563). Through reevaluating Ward’s political development, this analysis has worked to inform our understanding of the complexities underlying Ward’s views as well as feminist and suffragist ideologies at the turn of the century. Moreover, it engages Ward’s (anti-) feminist discourse as a site for practicing control in the application of modern feminist definitions onto works and women that did not have the same conception of the word. Ward’s changing relationships with the academy over time is not unlike feminism’s, as the definitions, labels, and attitudes have changed based on the political climate and are often inconsistent or contradictory. Many of the issues she addresses in Delia Blanchflower are also facing contemporary progressive women who are hesitant to identify as feminist, while they clearly support pro-woman objectives, due to the conflict and paradox often associated with the term. Reexamining how (anti-)feminist voices have been treated historically serves as a critical step towards building a more comprehensive and inclusive narrative of the development of feminism. Neither the person nor the work of Mrs. Humphry Ward can be easily defined as (anti-)feminist and as such will continue to be of interest for literary, history, and feminist scholars alike in furthering a nuanced understanding of feminism over the last century.

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Bibliographical reference

Lauren Sperandio Phelps, “The hand that rocks the cradle”: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s (Anti-)Feminist PoliticsCaliban, 62 | 2019, 99-115.

Electronic reference

Lauren Sperandio Phelps, “The hand that rocks the cradle”: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s (Anti-)Feminist PoliticsCaliban [Online], 62 | 2019, Online since 10 July 2021, connection on 03 October 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lauren Sperandio Phelps

Lauren Sperandio Phelps is a doctoral teaching fellow, Philip Cohen & Elaina McMillan graduate fellow, and enhanced graduate teaching assistant in the English department at the University of Texas at Arlington. Her research focuses on feminist and political theory and modernist women writers. She is co-editor and author of the forthcoming project “Lost in the City: An Interactive Investigation of Edward P. Jones’s Short Fiction”, a part of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s AFRO Publishing Without Walls initiative. Currently, Lauren is working on original archival research that recovers the work of lesser-known women writers from the early twentieth century and examines the influence of the women’s suffrage movement on women’s literary production.

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