Born in Tasmania in 1851, where her father Tom Arnold was Inspector of Schools ‒ her mother Julia, née Sorell, was the daughter of a previous governor of the island ‒ Mary Arnold became one of the most admired authors of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Arnolds were an extraordinary family: Mary Arnold’s uncle was the poet Matthew Arnold, her grandfather Dr Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby School.
As a writer Mary used her married name – Mrs Humphry Ward – and best-sellers rolled from her pen at regular intervals. She became a genuinely powerful leader of society, committed to a range of important causes and charities, her opinion sought by the great and good.
By contrast, her younger sister Ethel Arnold was a problem. Ethel remained a lifelong spinster, taking care in the declining years first of her mother, then her father. Her sister Mary struggled to find her some useful employment, none of which stuck for long. For a while she worked in London with the Australian portrait photographer Walter Barnett. Mary caricatured Ethel in her novel Eleanor as hypochondriacal and somewhat bonkers.
And in 1894 Ethel published her only novel, Platonics, which sank without trace.
How ironic, then, that Mrs Humphry Ward’s life and work is substantially forgotten now, whereas Platonics has in recent years become a “revolutionary text” (in the words of Phyllis Wachter), an early exploration of romantic relationships between women.