'No Arnold can write a novel; if they could, I should have done it.' That was Matthew Arnold's reaction to his niece's first significant attempt at fiction, Miss Bretherton, published in 1884. It can't have been very encouraging. But Mary Ward was used to the magisterial arrogance of the Arnold men. Her father, Tom Arnold, had demolished the prosperity of his family and the happiness of his wife by his conversions and unconversions and reconversions to and from the Catholic faith. He took small interest in the upbringing of his oldest and most unruly daughter - 'A child more obstinately self-willed I certainly never came across' - and Mary was exiled from the family in a succession of more or less unhappy boarding-schools. She was briskly despatched to relatives for the holidays, and only reunited with her parents at the age of sixteen. It's not altogether clear why she was so disfavoured. Perhaps her stormy resentment of restraint was to blame. Revisiting her infant school in later life, she proudly pointed to the wooden panels she had 'bashed in with my fists in my fury when I was locked in the cloakroom'. Whatever the reason, Mary's dismal childhood marked her for life. She never lost the stubborn self-will that had so displeased her still more self-willed father. But it was always accompanied by an eating insecurity, a covetous desire to earn acceptance and approval from those in authority.
LRB 13 September 1990 | PDF Download