Andrew Maunder’s introduction to his new edition of Ellen Wood’s chronicle of scandalous goings-on among the Victorian middle classes claims that East Lynne may be ‘one of the most famous unread works in the English language’. Very possibly. Yet it was spectacularly successful in its day, and its popularity has turned out to be more durable than that of most publishing sensations. Newly literate novel-readers in the mushrooming industrial cities consumed it with fervour; but the austere Harriet Martineau liked it too, as did General Gordon, Joseph Conrad and Edward VII. Its appeal spread far beyond British readers. R.K. Narayan dwells fondly on the ‘bitter tears’ he shed over East Lynne in his 1975 memoir, My Days: ‘Reading and rereading it always produced a lump in my throat, and that was the most luxurious sadness you could think of.’
Isabel Vane, the novel’s aristocratic heroine, is refined and virtuous, but in ‘a moment of passion’ allows herself to be seduced from her husband and children by a worthless lover. Abandoned and tormented with remorse, she is involved in a railway accident and left for dead. She then returns to her former home, unrecognisable because of a scarred mouth, a sorrow-stricken air and blue spectacles, and acts as governess to her own children. Her son dies without knowing who she really is (her expression of understandable agitation, ‘Dead! dead! And never called me mother,’ which remained a popular gag with music-hall comedians well into the 20th century, belongs to a stage version, not the novel). After this cruel blow she falls into a decline, but refrains from revealing herself to her husband until she is at her last gasp: ‘Keep a little corner in your heart for your poor lost Isabel.’ This was Narayan’s favourite moment: ‘I loved tragic endings in novels. I looked for books that would leave me crushed at the end.’
Narayan’s own novels, fast-moving and domestic, owe much to Victorian fiction – Marie Corelli was another favourite. But they do not depend on the extravagant sequences of incident that keep the reader constantly diverted in Wood and Corelli. Nor do they supply religious exhortation in such generous quantities. For all its sensationalism, the writing of Ellen Wood (or Mrs Henry Wood, as she preferred to call herself) is unremittingly moral in tone. The characters are constantly held up to judgment, human and divine. Isabel’s repentant demise is followed by a final chapter of explicit moral directive – ‘never forget that the only way to ensure peace in the end, is to strive always to be doing right, unselfishly, under God.’ Perhaps Wood hoped that such piety would protect her against suspicions of irresponsibility – or mercenariness. If so, she was mistaken. Contemporary reviews of sensation fiction, now often better known than the novels themselves, were inclined to dwell on its baleful influence. Its preoccupation with crime was decried as ‘positively vicious’. In the conservative Quarterly Review, Henry Mansel took a fastidious line: ‘There is something unspeakably disgusting in this ravenous appetite for carrion, this vulture-like instinct which smells out the newest mass of social corruption, and hurries to devour the loathsome dainty before the scent has evaporated.’ Such hyperbole helped to ensure that the novels were widely read and relished. East Lynne was the most fashionable of all. Its publishers, who had little reason to take the cavils of reviewers seriously, claimed 500,000 sales by 1900. It was the talk of the day soon after its appearance in 1861, and though the literary establishment was for the most part either guarded or hostile (the Times was an influential exception), sales remained buoyant. Stage adaptations followed with surprising speed – the first in New York in 1862, then a British version in 1864. In 1909, the Pictorial Leader claimed that ‘more millions have witnessed East Lynne than have seen any other play that was ever written.’
What was so attractive? The emotionalism that Narayan enjoyed was part of its appeal. Open bids for the reader’s sympathy are unrestrained – ‘Oh! To be his once more; his, with the past blotted out.’ Yet much of the narrative is unexpectedly down to earth, concerned with money, houses, clothes, food, the day-to-day business of life. Making tea is important, so too is office work. This is not the crumbling and fantastic setting of Gothic fiction. The Victorian middle classes – or would-be middle classes – could recognise their virtues and aspirations in these pages. It is no accident that Sir Francis Levison, the novel’s theatrical villain, who is systematically punished and degraded in the book’s concluding sections, is a white-handed aristocrat, distinguished by the brilliant diamonds that he wears at all times. Isabel’s history reinforces the point. The over-protected daughter of a lord, she is reduced to the status of a servant, and her downfall is attributed to the deficiencies of her upbringing. East Lynne is saturated with class-consciousness, and as in all of Wood’s fiction, gentility, and the need to preserve it, is a preoccupation. But gentility is not identified with inherited wealth. The privileges of a gentleman must be earned as Isabel’s prosperous husband Archibald Carlyle earns them – through steady toil. His second wife, the trying and triumphant Barbara Hare, is less grand than Isabel, but she has more common sense. Her devoted ordinariness is what fits her for marriage with the up-and-coming Carlyle. Isabel is doomed from the moment she enters the novel, gleaming with pearls and lace – ‘as one from a fairer world than this’. Her disgrace is in part the long overdue defeat of her class.
So far, so wish-fulfilling. But East Lynne is a more anxious and layered novel than its preposterous plot might suggest. Some of these complexities are autobiographical. Mrs Henry Wood was born in 1814 as Ellen Price, the daughter of an affluent glove-manufacturer in Worcester. The family was cultivated and devout, endowing Ellen with the ardent Anglicanism that coloured all her work. Her grandmother was largely responsible for her early upbringing, and her closest relationship as a child seems to have been with her grandmother’s housekeeper, Mrs Tipton – remembered for her commendation of a local cemetery (‘Oh ma’am! What a healthy bracing spot for a churchyard!’). Ellen developed a spinal curvature that made her an invalid for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, she married and had five children. Four survived. She never forgot the daughter who did not, and the loss of the child is re-enacted in novel after novel. Her husband, a man ‘almost devoid of imagination’ according to his son, turned out to be a poor example of the all-conquering drive of the middle classes, and the family’s business interests failed. He did not live long. Like many of the most vigorous and productive women novelists of the period (Margaret Oliphant, Frances Trollope, Mary Ward, Julia Kavanagh), Ellen Wood wrote to support her family. The preoccupation with the precariousness of health and fortune that haunts her fiction was the product of experience. Unexplained decline and death is a common plot device. It is easy to smile at the narrative convenience of these obscure illnesses, but Wood’s much-loved grandfather, the foundation of the family’s fortune, died just as many of her characters do – of an illness which ‘baffled the skill of all physicians, who could not even guess the nature of his malady … He gradually faded and passed away.’ Her father, for all his hard work and competence, lost much of his property in the unfavourable trading conditions of the early 1830s, just as her husband did a generation later. Debt, disease and death are always just around the corner. Wood’s characters live in a world whose capriciousness is quite sufficient to account for their inclination to throw themselves regularly and vociferously on the mercy of God.
Correspondence shows her to have been a determined woman, by no means slow to press her own professional interests. She kept a sharp eye on the production and promotion of East Lynne, as edition followed edition. A daughter of the commercial classes, she was particularly keen that no expense should be spared on its advertisement: ‘It is only just and fair to me that it should be done.’ Her letters suggest a personality rather different from the delicate ideal of womanhood held up for esteem in her fiction. In her novels, however, particularly East Lynne, characters are rarely quite what they seem, and there’s plenty of secrecy, spying and misunderstood eavesdropping. Everyone is on the watch, obsessively garnering information which is then almost always misinterpreted. Servants’ eyes, especially, are everywhere. The disguised Isabel fears their detection more than that of her husband and children: and it is her servant Joyce, more loving, faithful and forgiving than her family, who eventually realises what is behind the blue glasses – though of course she hides what she knows, like everyone else in the novel. Bad servants, like the irrepressibly self-interested Afy (short for Aphrodite) Hallijohn, imitate their employers; inadequate employers might end up as servants themselves. The categories shift and waver even as Wood insists on their fixity. Socially mobile Victorians, dogged by uncertainty, recognised among the teacups of East Lynne a world that expressed their deepest fears.
Competitive relations between the sexes and between the generations deepen the novel’s unease. The sharp satirical intelligence underlying Wood’s conservatism reflects a society at odds with itself. Because she is a lady, Isabel has little to do; her idleness encourages the brooding that leads to the loss of her claims to a lady’s position. Older women are hostile to her, largely because she is admired by men, and miss no chance to undermine her position. Corrosive jealousy is among the commonest emotions in this fevered society. Fathers are hasty and unreliable, with their sons as well as their daughters, and are prone to sending their children away from the family – just as Wood had been unaccountably exiled to her grandparents’ home as a little girl. East Lynne has a lively subplot in which Barbara Hare’s brother, wrongly accused of murder, finds his most implacable pursuer in his own bad-tempered father. Betrayed by lover and friend, young Richard Hare endures a banishment that typifies victimhood in sensation fiction.
Spouses, especially, are not to be trusted. Bigamy is among the most savoured themes of sensation novels, as a contemporary reviewer wryly noted: ‘Unless we go with the bride and bridegroom to church and know every antecedent on each side, we cannot be at all sure that there is not some husband or wife lurking in the distance ready to burst upon us.’ This was partly to do with a fashion inspired by the delicious scandal of the Yelverton trial of the early 1860s, in which the respectable Major Charles Yelverton was exposed as a doubly-married man. But bigamous marriages had menaced the innocent long before then. Jane Eyre had a narrow escape in 1847. Some of the zeal with which novelists seized on the theme grows out of the instability, social and geographical, of the period. This was the age of the railway, which made cheap mass transport available for the first time. People moved more freely if less safely – Isabel’s near-fatal train accident is an expression of another common contemporary concern. It became rarer to know every antecedent of bride and bridegroom. Uncomfortable surprises must sometimes have followed, as new partners showed themselves to be less capable (like Henry Wood), poorer, shiftier, or occasionally more married, than they had seemed to be. Sensation novels embodied an important lesson for readers learning to cope with changing social dynamics. To judge by appearance is hazardous, even in the most intimate family circumstances. Persistent scepticism and a spirit of hard-headed enquiry is always needed. Like Wilkie Collins or Mary Braddon, Ellen Wood makes detectives of her readers.
East Lynne is not precisely a ‘bigamy novel’. Archibald Carlyle has divorced Isabel, and believes her dead, before his remarriage. But the dramatic situation in the novel’s concluding sections derives its emotional edge from the implication of bigamy. When Carlyle finally recognises his wife, the ‘first clear thought that came thumping through his brain was, that he must be a man of two wives.’ The novel characteristically slides away from the transgressions it suggests – the complacent Carlyle is blameless, and we are repeatedly told of his heroic nature. Yet he is narrow-minded and dull-witted, and our sympathy is firmly directed towards the condemned adulteress. The ever-shrewd Margaret Oliphant argued that this tactic was both the charm and the threat of sensation fiction in general, and this novel in particular: ‘From first to last, it is she alone in whom the reader feels any interest. Her virtuous rival we should like to bundle to the door and be rid of anyhow … this is dangerous and foolish work.’
Concealed crime, sorrow and death were then as now what people wanted from their fiction. Ellen Wood knew how to satisfy the market. What remains impressive about her brisk tales is their combination of narrative vigour with quiet thought about the nature of treachery and of suffering, and how they are to be endured. They are still page-turners. But Wood provided her readers with something more than entertainment. She reassured them that courage and persistence were worthwhile, and would probably be rewarded in this world – certainly in the next. Good behaviour, not high birth, would guarantee moral and financial status. But she also pointed to the hypocrisies and insecurities that were the price of progress. She affirms and laments the ruthlessness of the communities she describes, and although she is no feminist, identifies women as those whose hidden misery often shadowed middle-class prosperity.
This feature of her work is now drawing a new generation of readers. Like many sensation novels, East Lynne provides fruitful material for women’s studies courses. It sits well with texts such as Sarah Stickney Ellis’s polemical conduct books for women of the 1840s. ‘As a strange anomaly presented by human life, there are women, and kind and well-meaning women too, who seem not to be aware that the sacred name of mother entails upon them an amount of responsibility proportioned to the influence it places in their hands,’ Ellis reminds her readers. Her books are fast becoming, alongside Sarah Lewis’s Woman’s Mission (1839), among the most familiar and frequently cited texts of the period. Maunder, who places East Lynne in the context of the mid-Victorian debate about the position of women, reprints extracts from both Lewis and Ellis in his contextual appendices. It is worth remembering, however, that the issues of gender explored in this strange novel of disguise and deceit are intricately bound up with questions of class, education, parenthood, economics and religion. To read it simply as an account of women’s oppression is to diminish its persistent power.