Mary Ward was a bestselling novelist of the late Victorian period, but was regarded as a little old fashioned by the time this novel was written. She was also a notable public figure, campaigning tirelessly for education for women (including the founding of Somerville College, Oxford) and education for children, especially those with disabilities. Nevertheless, and in spite of her own evident capabilities, she was strongly opposed to women’s suffrage.
Her main argument was that men are expected to be ready to die for their country/the Empire while women are not; the vote is the quid pro quo for that (although at this time forty per cent of men were still not enfranchised). She seems to have had a need for male approval and was delighted when Lords Curzon and Cromer asked her to head the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. She seems genuinely to have believed that men were better able to deal with matters of war, politics, finance and so on. This belief survived years of providing money for her rather ineffectual husband and regularly paying the substantial gambling debts of her irresponsible son. She was so obviously much more capable than them that she must have lived in a state of permanent cognitive dissonance. As her biographer, John Sutherland, says ‘ It was always the weakest part of her anti-suffrage case that she herself was such a poor example of what she argued were the incapacities of her sex.’
Considering Mrs Ward’s views, Delia Blanchflower is surprisingly nuanced. It is basically a romance. Delia, the twenty-two year old heroine, has come under the influence of a militant suffragette, Gertrude Marvell. Delia’s father has just died and he has appointed an old friend, Mark Winnington, as guardian of Delia’s property until she is twenty-five. By doing this, he hoped to prevent her giving everything to the suffragettes. Delia and Gertrude go to stay at the house in the country where Delia lived as a child and, while she continues to support the cause, including violent action, she is also drawn to conventional English village life. She and Mark have various disagreements about money and about the vote but it is obvious that they are attracted to each other. She learns of local efforts to help the needy, including his charitable work setting up a county school for disabled children.
There is a gradual shift in Delia’s views, which become more personal and local, almost feudal. This is clear when Gertrude goes to London to continue the campaign. Delia was to have gone with her but stays at home to look after an old servant who has just had an operation; she follows later but has lost Gertrude’s trust. In the end Gertrude sets fire to an old house near Delia’s which belongs to an anti-suffrage cabinet minister, and dies in the fire. Delia marries Mark.
Various characters demonstrate a range of opinions about women’s suffrage. Apart from the militant suffragettes, there are two female characters, both friends of Mark, who want the vote but who disapprove of violence; they are Lady Tonbridge, who left her brutal husband and now lives quietly in the village with her daughter, and Miss Dempsey, who uses her modest resources to help ‘fallen women’. Both are portrayed sympathetically. Mark himself doesn’t have strong views apart from condemning the militants’ violent tactics, although he does think that women ‘wildly exaggerate’ the importance of the vote. The only person who seems to represent Mrs Ward’s views is the respected local doctor, Dr France, who says,
‘..the parliamentary vote means the government of men by men – without which we go to pieces…..At present, I tell you, the great conventions of democracy hold because there is reality of bone and muscle behind them!
Claim everything – what you like! – except only that sovereign vote, which controls, and must control, the male force of an Empire.’
Delia is portrayed as intelligent, passionate and concerned for others but ultimately wrongheaded and she will come to realize this through the love of a good man. The militants’ reasons for becoming involved in the fight are shown to be rooted in personal disappointment and bitterness. Gertrude grew up seeing that her bullying, drunken father and profligate brother always came first. She was engaged but her fiance preferred her sister. Marion Andrews, another in the group, is completely taken for granted by her domineering mother and amiable brother. They are contrasted with the vicar’s daughter, Susie, who does good works in the village and who loves Mark. Disappointed when Mark’s feelings for Delia become apparent, she doesn’t turn to suffragette activity but decides to go to London to train as a nurse.
The romance is the least successful part of the story, mainly, I think, because of the character of Mark. He is forty years old, intelligent, athletic, philanthropic. He has close and respectful friendships with women but his internal attitudes to women in general are very patronizing. Here he muses to himself,
‘Was there anything so brief, so passing, if she did but know it, as a woman’s time for happiness? Beauty that must die.’
Later he wonders about women ‘determined, apparently, to know everything, however ugly, and to say everything, however outrageous.’
He seems to wish that young women at any rate remain unrealistically innocent. He refuses to discuss with Delia the circumstances of a young girl about to have an illegitimate child, describing the matter as ‘sordid’; this in spite of the fact that the girl lives with her grandfather, one of Delia’s tenants. However it’s clear that he can discuss such things with the older Miss Dempsey, perhaps because she is no longer considered marriageable. Likewise, there is a man living nearby who sometimes helps the suffragettes. He has been involved in a divorce and Mark, refusing to divulge details, tells Delia she must take his word for it that Mr Lathrop is not a fit person for her to know.
This is an agreeable, if somewhat old fashioned, romance with some interesting scenes of suffragette activity. I half expected a polemical anti-suffrage novel but Mrs Ward is too good a novelist for that. Although I do wonder if she realized that the most sympathetic characters in the novel are the women who want the vote but who reject violence.