The Manchester Guardian, 21st March 1888
The dedication of this book at once arrests the attention. It was a bold strike of Mrs. Ward’s thus to associate the memory of Professor Green with that of Mrs. Alfred Lyttleton. The force of contrast could no further go. The one name recalls an austere and awful wisdom: the other a wistful charm and almost supernatural vivacity. Yet each character seems to have made its distinct contribution to the material of this remarkable story. The opening scenes are laid in Westmorland, and at the very outset Mrs. Ward’s writing begins to display some rare merits which characterise it throughout. First among these may be placed a singular power of observing and describing nature. There is nothing second-hand about the pictures of scenery, atmosphere and vegetation. Every touch of local colour is the product of minute and sympathetic observation. A second merit, hardly less noticeable than this photographic fidelity to nature, is the finished and even subtle style. It is of course absolutely correct, and it is also flexible, lively, and often brilliant. It is not, however, wholly free from some provoking mannerisms, such as the recurring locution – “the hear of him,” “the bottom of him,” “the soul of her;” and its simplicity is is nearer to simpleness than to simplicité – to the elaborated and artificial semblance than to the genuine quality. A third great merit – more conspicuous in the opening chapters than in some subsequent ones – is that the characters are those of real men and women, not idealised types of virtue or vice, nor lay figures posed and draped to suit the requirements of the scene. Mrs. Ward’s Westmorland folks – her clergymen and clergywomen, and doctors, and labourers, and domestic servants – are as lifelike and as racy of the soil as the decayed gentlewomen of Cranford or the aunts who exercised authority at the Mill on the Floss. Among these good people the story opens, and it is in their company that we make acquaintance with the Leyburn family – a feeble, foolish mother, the widow of a clergyman of yeoman stock; her eldest daughter Catherine, a more spiritual and less intellectual Dorothea, wholly devoted to religious and social duty; a younger daughter, Rose, who is aesthetic and artistic and has a genius for playing the violin, and who longs to be emancipated from the restraints of home; and a third daughter, Agnes, who seems a little superfluous, and tends to overcrowd the canvas. To this family party enters Robert Elsmere, and Mrs. Ward at once secures the prime object of the novelist, for she interests us in her hero. He is well connected and good-looking, active in mind and body, full of nervous energy, though not physically robust. He is a romantic and many-sided schoolboy, and makes his entrace into Oxford brilliantly as an Exhibitionery of Balliol. The whole of his undergraduate career is describe with singular fidelity and charm, and not even among her Westmorland fells is Mrs. Ward’s tread so steady and her touch so sure as on the banks of the Isis. Admirable specimens of pictorial writing are the passages which describe the University sermon, with Dr. Pusey or Dr. Liddon for the preacher, and the scene at the grave in the Oxford cemetery, with its background of river-meadows and the rainy light on the Hinksey hills. The touches are few but decisive. Every stroke tells, and the result is as delicate and as characteristic as a crayon drawing of the elder Richmond. At Oxford young Elsmere early falls under the influence of the late Professor of Moral Philosophy, whose appearance, character, and teaching are reproduced with loving and life-like exactness. A less pleasing portrait is that of Mr. Langham, and invertebrate and over-cultured Don, whose life is ruined by negativeness, disbelief, and repugnance to action, and who eventually jilts the aesthetic sister, Rose Leyburn. With great fidelity to life, Mrs. Ward obliges her versatile and enthusiastic hero to content himself with a second class in the final schools, but he redeems his renown by obtaining a fellowship at Merton. He takes holy orders, attaching himself to the humanitarian section of the Broad Church school. He takes pupils, busies himself in University and city work, and of course overtasks his strength. “A young enthusiast to whom self-slaughter came so easy” naturally rebelled against the notion of taking a country living when it was offered to him by the head of his family, but physical necessity compelled him to give up Oxford, and he accepted the rectory among the Surrey hills. Just before entering on his new duties he went to pay his mother’s relations a short visit in Westmorland, and there he met the Leyburns. It did not take him long to fall in love with the sedate and devoted Catherine, but the obstacle to his happiness lay in her feeling that her mother and sisters constituted a sacred charge, to which she was bound to sacrifice all earthly happiness. Perhaps the opportune discover that her sisters longed to be emancipated from her rule, and that her mother was, to put it mildly, quite prepared to acquiesce in her loss, may have induced Catherine to yield; but anyhow yield she did, and went off with Elsmere to his new home in Surrey. Here he did noble work, preaching undogmatic but attractive sermons, looking after the schools, getting the village boys to take an interest in natural science, and above all trying to reform the sanitary condition of a filthy and fever-stricken hamlet. This endeavour brought him into sharp collision with a brutal agent and with the agent’s master, a character destined to play a very important part in the development of the story.