Places: Robert Elsmere

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1888

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1882-1886

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Westmoreland

*Westmoreland. Robert ElsmereSecluded section of the Lake District in northeastern England. While on a holiday in the region, the young clergyman Robert Elsmere meets Catherine Leyburn, a serious and pious young woman who, like most inhabitants of the region, exhibits a simple faith based on time-tested rituals. She accepts without question the miraculous nature of Christianity and shows little tolerance for more intellectual approaches to religion.


Burwood. Home of the Leyburns, where Catherine, the eldest daughter of a deceased clergyman, sees herself as responsible for managing household affairs. Elsmere’s proposal of marriage causes Catherine great consternation because marriage to Elsmere would force her to leave her mother and sisters, who may not be able to get along without her.

Murewell Parish

Murewell Parish. Anglican parish in which Robert Elsmere is established as pastor. In a fashion similar to many clergymen of his time, Elsmere inherits his position from a relative who has controlled it for some time. Typical of the makeup of many English country parishes of the nineteenth century, Murewell’s parishioners include a small number of gentlemen and ladies and hundreds of working-class families who are employed within the region in farming or various trades.

Murewell Hall

Murewell Hall. Home of Squire Wendover. Like many historical English estates, Murewell encompasses not only the squire’s mansion but also the parish and several villages in which estate workers live. At Murewell Hall, Elsmere becomes a friend of the squire, a religious freethinker and scholar who embraces the skeptical views of those who practice Higher Criticism, a form of theological inquiry that emerged in Europe during the nineteenth century. Wendover has built a library that is a monument to human learning, and he makes it available to Robert to help him investigate the tenets of his faith. As he falls under the influence of the squire, Robert comes to reject the teachings of traditional Christianity and eventually abandons his position in the Church of England.

Mile End

Mile End. Village near Murewell Hall whose inhabitants live in squalor, victims of an unscrupulous steward who relies on the squire’s inattention to his parishioners to enrich himself at the expense of the villagers. As Robert and Catherine become acquainted with residents of Mile End, Robert’s shock at their living conditions drives him to seek an audience with Squire Wendover to demand improvements. Robert’s efforts to improve conditions there makes him amenable to suggestions from friends that he take up similar work in London after he abandons his ministry in Murewell.


*Oxford. Town that is home to one of England’s great universities. Although few scenes in the novel are set at the university, Elsmere’s attachment to Oxford is a catalyst for much of the action of the novel. The university was the location for great religious controversy during the mid-nineteenth century. Debates over religion and science at Oxford led Elsmere’s tutor Thomas Grey to doubt the truth of Christianity. Under his influence, Elsmere begins to question the truths of his faith even before he falls under the influence of Squire Wendover.


*London. England’s greatest city is portrayed as a melting pot for people and ideas in the country. Robert goes there after giving up his living at Murewell. Catherine accompanies him, but their relationship is strained because she refuses to accept his conversion to secularism. In London the two are introduced into high society. For a time Robert is taken in by the favor shown to him by various members of the upper classes. Catherine, on the other hand, rejects their pretensions and values. In the city, however, Robert finds his calling among the lower classes of the East End, where, with the help of friends, he sets up a secular church to assist working-class men and women improve both their material and spiritual lives.


*Algiers. City on North Africa’s Mediterranean coast to which Robert goes for his health after he is diagnosed with tuberculosis. There, he and Catherine achieve a final reconciliation, which is brought on both by their isolation from England and Robert’s impending death.

BibliographyColby, Vineta. The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1970. Colby, who sees Ward as a flawed novelist but a reliable documentarian of her times, discusses Robert Elsmere and the reasons for its popularity at some length.Peterson, William S. Victorian Heretic: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “Robert Elsmere.” Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1976. The only book-length treatment of the novel. Peterson situates Robert Elsmere in its biographical and literary-historical contexts and describes its publication history and treatment by reviewers.Smith, Esther Marian Greenwell. Mrs. Humphry Ward. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Reviews changes in Ward’s reputation as a novelist, summarizes comments by other late twentieth century critics, and argues for the continuing relevance of Robert Elsmere’s religious issues.Sutherland, John. Mrs. Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. The best available biography of Ward, a sympathetic account of her life and a richly detailed analysis of the changing social contexts in which she wrote. Describes her struggles with the composition and revision of Robert Elsmere, which Sutherland does not think her best novel.Wolff, Robert Lee. Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England. New York: Garland, 1977. Introductory chapter of this study usefully summarizes religious developments in England since the Reformation. Chapter on Ward includes an extensive description of Robert Elsmere, which Wolff, a historian, calls “the climactic Victorian novel of religious doubt.”
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