he novel plays with the story of the early nineteenth-century painter George Romney, who famously left his low-born wife in the country while he made his career as a fashionable portraitist in London, returning home many years later when dying so she could nurse him in his last days. Whereas in the usual telling of the Romney tale the fault is all his, he abandons his family, and his wife is seen as saintly in nursing him his last illness (actually, Romney supported his family though he did not live with them), in Fenwick's Career both husband and wife are to blame, she runs away after the kind of misunderstanding that occurs in bed-room farces and Hardy's tragedies, and he desperately tries to find her both when she first disappears and again twelve years later.
Ward several times draws the reader's attention to the tale of Romney, the first time when Fenwick discovers among his wife's “books a paper-covered 'Life of Romney'—a short compilation issued by a local bookseller” and asks “whatever did you get this for, Phoebe?” and she responds, “I wanted to read it. . . . I thought it was like you. . . . there was the hundred pounds that he got to go to London with—and then, marrying a wife in Kendal . . . and leaving her behind!” (104). Left behind with barely any financial or emotional support from her husband, she becomes furious when she reads in a newspaper his first two London pictures have been accepted for the all-important Royal Academy exhibition and he has not even written her a note. “Meanwhile not a line from John to tell her that his pictures had gone in to the Academy. She saw a paragraph, however, in the local papers describing 'Show Sunday.' . . . couldn't he find ten minutes in which to send her news of it? It was unkind! All her suspicions and despair revived. . . . She would not be treated so.”
And, in this state, the obsession of the winter seized her again. She brooded perpetually over the doleful Romney story—the tale of a great painter, born, like her John, in this Northern air, and reared in Kendal streets, deserting his peasant wife—enslaved by Emma Hamilton through many a passionate year—and coming back at last that the drudge of his youth might nurse him through his decrepit old age. She remembered going with John in their sweetheart days to see the house where Romney died, imbecile and paralysed, with Mary Romney beside him.
'I would never have done it—never!' she said to herself in a mad recoil. 'He had chosen—he should have paid!' 
Three of Albert Sterner's illustrations for which Ward had great praise. Left to right: (a) “Are you going to let me go and make my fortunre — our fortune?” (b) Madame de Pastourelles sat as still as she could, her thin, numbed fingers lightly crossed on her lap. (2) With dry, reddened eyes, she stared at the portrait of the woman who must have stolen John from her. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
More than a decade later, long after his wife has fled to a farm in Canada after misinterpreting a sketch of Madame de Patourelles and her letters to him, Fenwick himself recalls Romney's story. Fenwick, who has not seen Lord Findon or his family for quite some time, visits them in France, and the sight of Eugénie reminds him of one of Romney's paintings of the woman for whom he had betrayed his wife:
There was a moment, just as they reentered the Park, when, as she stood looking at a moon-touched vista before them, the floating scarf suddenly recalled to him the outline of that lovely hood in which Romney framed the radiant head of Lady Hamilton as 'The Sempstress.'
The recollection startled him. Romney! Involuntarily there flashed across him Phoebe's use of the Romney story—her fierce comments on the deserted wife—the lovely mistress. Perhaps, while she stood looking at the portrait in his studio, she was thinking of Lady Hamilton, and all sorts of other ludicrous and shameful things! 
But the parallel doesn't hold, since however close were the artist and the woman who acted as both his subject and patron, they never engaged in flirtation much less had an affair. Indeed, a dozen years after his wife left him he contrasts Romney's Lady Hamilton to “this pure, ethereal being, in whose presence he was already a better and a more hopeful man!—who seemed to bring a fellow comfort, and moral renewal, in the mere touch of her kind hand” (239).
Ward, in other words, uses the Romney narrative in interesting, unexpected, even intentionally misleading ways, for the first mentions of it bias the reader against John Fenwick, who admittedly has many flaws, but later after his wife runs away, she, not Fenwick, turns out to have done the most wrong — a point Phoebe herself emphasizes in a long confessional speech. So the history of Romney misleads both the reader and Phoebe, suggesting how dangerous such narratives can be, how much they can make people ignore or misinterpret evidence crucial to both duty and happiness.
Ward, Mrs, Humphry. Fenwick's Career. New York and London: Harper Brothers, 1906.
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Fenwick's Career. [No publisher listed] Project Gutenberg E-text prepared by Andrew Templeton, Juliet Sutherland, Bill Hershey, and Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders. Last Updated: May 21, 2004 [eBook #12403]. Web. 20 July 2014.
Last modified 30 July 2014