Little has been written, or was previously known, about Wilford and her literary career and consequently she has slipped from literary consciousness. However, as part of my PhD research I tracked her through census records and other public documents to discover previously unknown details about her life which help shed more light on her fiction and place her as an important writer of the period.
Born on the 29th February 1836 in Woolwich, Kent, Wilford was the youngest of four children to parents Edmund Neal and Jane (nee Drew) Wilford. Jane died just days after Wilford’s birth and Edmund, who was born in Dublin and a Captain in the Royal Artillery stationed at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, went on to marry for a second time and had another two children. Census records reveal that for the majority of her life Wilford lived apart from her father and rest of her family as a lodger of independent means in various houses. Wilford produced around twenty novels and two short story collections during her lifetime, and was close personal and professional friends with Charlotte Mary Yonge. My research also revealed that Wilford spent the period between 1883 and 1896 in and out of psychiatric institutions typically staying for only a couple of months at a time before being discharged - it is this knowledge which gives an added poignancy to Wilford's novels.
Published in 1868, Nigel Bartram’s Ideal by Wilford is a little-known sensational novel that explores a woman’s struggle to align her literary ambitions with social expectations of femininity. Marion, the heroine of the novel, successfully publishes the sensation novel “Mark’s Dream”, but is forced to keep her authorship a secret as she endeavours to be her husband, Nigel Bartram’s, ideal demure and feminine woman. Nigel, a literary critic as well as Marion’s husband, initially presumes “Mark’s Dream” to have been written by a man, however, when Marion questions his assumption of the author’s gender, his criticism reverts from assessing the literary acclaim of the novel to a judgement based on female immorality. His review is presented as the catalyst in prohibiting Marion’s creative output as it forces her to realize that social expectations of femininity do not correspond to her literary ambitions.
The climax of the novel, and Marion’s own crisis of identity, comes when, discovering that Nigel’s brother is in financial difficulties, Marion is motivated to produce another novel. However, when her authorship and intention to produce a second novel is revealed, Nigel reacts with horror, banning Marion from publishing and leading her to believe he has destroyed her manuscript. The novel concludes with Marion taking Nigel’s job of literary critic as he comes to acknowledge her intellectual superiority. Nigel Bartram’s Ideal demonstrates the importance of writing in allowing women to shape their own identity; a concept which anticipates the argument of later feminist including Virginia Woolf.