A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

Mary Hoban. AN UNCONVENTIONAL WIFE. The Life of Julia Sorrell Arnold. Scribe. 2019. 302 pp. 

ISBN: 9781925713442

RRP: h/b $39.99

It is easy today to forget the extreme ways that nineteenth-century British society divided along sectarian lines. One could not, for example, anticipate any chance of career advancement if one was not a member of the established church. Even universities like Oxford and Cambridge, which should have been at the forefront in prioritising merit over liturgy, were part of the traditional order. That factional division in society is at the core of this quite outstanding biography.9781925713442.jpg

In the 1830s, The Church of England was divided over the idea that doctrine was of primary importance – the position taken by Henry Newman – and the belief that personal moral goodness and a belief in a benignly distant deity were all that mattered – the position taken by Dr Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby school. This is worth mentioning because Arnold’s second son Tom is the husband of the unconventional wife who gives this book its title, while Newman is the person whom she regarded with some justification as the destroyer of her happy marriage.

Julia Sorrell married Tom Arnold when they were both living in her native Tasmania. He was an inspector of schools, she a vivacious and popular member of the Hobart elite. Her mother had run off to Europe with an army officer, putting Julia to board in a Catholic school in Belgium, where her irregular family situation, colonial origins and non-Catholic upbringing made her an unhappy and rebellious outsider. After her return to Tasmania as a teenager she took on the roles of mother to her siblings and main support of her father whom she loved deeply.

Julia and Tom were a happy, loving couple, but they met a problem after their first child was born. Much to Julia’s dismay, Tom did not want the child baptised; he was agnostic and had little time for original sin or its removal. Although it was a matter of personal religious belief for Julia, her husband was firm: he was head of the house; he made the decisions; it was Julia’s role to obey and indeed support those decisions. She refused then and continued to defy him throughout their long marriage, a situation that applied in any matter about which she felt strongly.

Although Julia had her way, the situation arose again with their next two babies, but paled into insignificance when Tom announced that he was converting to Catholicism. He had been in contact with the recently-converted Henry Newman who encouraged him to return to England. Julia had a deep dislike of Catholics and their beliefs, partly based on her school experiences, but also on firmly held and not unreasonable opinions about the backward positions taken by Rome on doctrinal matters.

She would accompany Tom back to England and live with him in Dublin when he took a position in the new Catholic university (Newman House, the predecessor of today’s University College Dublin). She stayed with him when they returned to Oxford to work in Newman’s new grammar school, rejoiced when he returned to the Church of England and was appalled when he went back again to Rome. She was too ill to join him in Dublin when he took over as Professor of English there – James Joyce was one of his students – but they maintained contact through almost daily letters. They had nine children together, whom she raised with little support from him; when she began to earn some money as a chaperone and boarding house manager, it went to his bank account and was dispensed by him.Screen Shot 2019-10-02 at 6.45.20 am.png

Tom and Julia loved each other all their lives, but she never submitted to him in the way that society of that time expected. Members of his family, including his older brother Matthew (of Dover Beach, ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’), were on her side as were their children, all trying to persuade him that, however much they loved each other, he must treat his wife with respect. The problem was that for her, this meant being an equal, a view that was at serious variance with the wider society at that time.

This is a wonderful story, told with great clarity. There is compassion too, and you can only imagine that the author is taking great pains to suppress her own anger at the way Victorian society was expected to behave, whether in distant Tasmania or academic Oxford or backwater Dublin. The reader is caught between sympathy for Julia and admiration for her insistence on her dignity. She died of cancer at the age of 62, a dozen years before her husband, but her story as told here by Melbourne writer and historian Mary Hoban is not one of sadness but of personal triumph.

The book is enlivened by photographs from the period, many taken by Julia’s friend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). The reader will also be delighted to learn of the connection with the famous Huxley family.

This is a complete delight, enthusiastically recommended.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the editorial executive of Tinteán.