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AN UNCONVENTIONAL WIFE by Mary Hoban Kirkus Star


The Life of Julia Sorell Arnold


Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-947534-82-7
Publisher: Scribe

An illuminating portrait of a Victorian wife and mother who was rescued from silence.

Recipient of the inaugural Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship, an award honoring the esteemed Australian biographer, historian Hoban makes her debut as a biographer with an absorbing, deeply perceptive life of Julia Sorell Arnold (1826-1888). Grandmother to novelist Aldous Huxley and his brother, biologist Julian Huxley; sister-in-law of poet and critic Matthew Arnold; and mother of bestselling novelist Mary (Mrs. Humphry) Ward, Julia, after her marriage to Tom Arnold, became ensconced in one of the most famous families in 19th-century England. As the “ruling belle” of Hobart, Australia, she caught Tom’s eye in February 1850, and the romance quickly progressed; in less a month, they were engaged. Two months later, they married. Although Julia often found Tom’s jealousy irritating and knew that he believed husbands should master their wives, she was enamored by his “earnest, sensitive nature, his deeply spiritual temperament, and his self-deprecating humour.” For his part, he absolutely adored her. Drawing on archival sources, histories, and memoirs, Hoban creates a revelatory, sympathetic portrait of a woman whose married life was undermined by financial pressures and a rift between husband and wife that proved unbridgeable. In Tasmania and later in Ireland and England, the couple was saddled with debt; and through the years, with eight children to support, debts increased. Money was an enduring problem, but religion even greater. Tom’s early skepticism took a sudden turn when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism, a resolve that Julia met “with a torrent of hate and despair.” The abyss between Anglicans and Catholics was profound. “Religion,” writes the author, “was never simply about belief. It was about position, about economic stability, about possible trajectories, not just for Tom and Julia, but also for their children.” Risking the family’s well-being seemed to Julia unconscionable, but she struggled with her decision to be, as Tom put it, “a revolutionary wife or a Christian one.” She chose, at last, hard-won independence.

A sparkling biography and cultural history.