Lucinda Elliot

‘East Lynne’ (1861): the sensationalist best seller by Mrs Henry Wood (Ellen Wood): Review

Spoilers throughout!
Many years ago, my mother came by leather bound copies of the mid-Victorian magazine ‘The Argosy’ as part of a job lot in an auction. These ended up on my parents’ endless bookshelves, and I read a couple of the stories. I vaguely remember that my mother said that most of the content of these magazines had been written by a woman known as ‘Mrs Henry Wood’.
Not knowing then that traditionally the married woman took on the whole of her husband’s name, I wondered how a woman came to be called a male name, but never got round to asking.
Years later, I read one of the ‘Johnny Ludlow’ stories in a collection of ghost stories, and that was all the reading I had done of works by Mrs Henry Wood until someone recommended ‘East Lynne’ to me as a fine piece of  mid-Victorian sensationalist literature.
I was intrigued to hear that it had been a best seller in its time, was still very well known in the first part of the twentieth century, and had been turned into countless stage versions and several films.
Seemingly, in one stage version, there is a line ‘Dead: and never called me mother!’ Surely an equivalent of ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’, in that it appears in the stage and film versions of a book, so people assume it must come from the book.
‘East Lynne’ was as melodramatic as promised, with false identities, disguises, a bankruptcy, a murder mystery, a caddish, moustache twirling abductor, a ‘fallen’ married woman and sudden deaths.
As a sign of the times, a train crash features in the story, though details are not given, seemingly being thought unsuitable for a largely female readership. True Victorian novel that it is, there is the obligatory improving deathbed scene of an innocent child and the obligatory deathbed repentance from the said fallen woman.
Unluckily for Ellen Wood’s solemn intentions, the pathos in the story- particularly the long drawn out melodrama of the unfaithful wife’s return to work as governess in her former husband’s home, often tipple over into bathos. This whole episode is recounted as high tragedy, and generally misses the mark.
Lady Isabel’s disguise is frankly ludicrous, including a set of blue glasses, a French accent, prematurely white hair, and baggy clothes to pad out her willowy figure.
No doubt this is the reason that by the beginning of the twentieth century, satirical versions were being staged, including one as early as 1917, ‘East Lynne with Variations’.
Sir Francis Levinson reveals himself not only as a cad after he has tricked Lady Isabel into leaving the virtuous Mr Carlisle and eloping abroad with him, refusing to marry her after he comes into his title, but as grubby physically as well as mentally: ‘Captain Levinson, unwashed, unshaven, with a dressing-gown loosely flung on, lounged in to breakfast. The decked-out dandies before the world are frequently the greatest slovens in domestic privacy.’
When the former Lady Isabel Vane returns to her husband’s house East Lynne having been disfigured by the said train accident, it is to see her children and seemingly as some sort of penance. Having quickly divorced her after her disgrace, and now believing her to be dead, he has married his old admirer, Barbara Hart. This woman behaved improperly herself by strict Victorian standards in expressing her outrage when Carlisle suddenly marries Lady Isabel having as she sees it, trifled with her affections. She seems quite happy to be Carlisle’s second choice.
Interestingly, a couple of the characters who have fallen from grace less dramatically repented as well. The impossibly perfect hero Mr Carlisle – handsome, upright, and a success at everything he undertakes, save seeing through the bad intentions of the caddish Francis Levinson towards his wife – seemingly has no faults, and no need to repent.
His bad tempered sister, Cornelia Carlisle, is a different matter. She harangues everybody who does not act according to her grimly Spartan ideas. After her brother marries the penniless Lady Isabel Vane, she is continues to live with the married pair and makes the wife miserable by constant references to her supposed extravagances. At last, Miss Carlisle realises that a Christian should be more merciful.
Besides this, Mr Carlisle’s adoring second wife Barbara has resented the three children Mr Carlisle has had with Lady Isabel, and could have been a kinder step-mother to them. She too, sees the error of her ways and resolves to reform.
The ‘bad’ characters in the novel, Aphrodite ‘Afy’ Hallijohn, who is revealed as another victim of Sir Francis Levinson, and the heartless seducer himself, never reform in the novel. Whether they do on their deathbeds is unclear.
Afy Hallijohn, who vainly hopes after Richard Hart is cleared of murder that he might regain his romantic interest in her, is icily relieved of this delusion by him, and she has to settle for marrying a shopkeeper.
Sir Francis Levinson, besides suffering from various humiliations such as a public ducking by a group of farm labourers who take a startlingly moral view of his philanderings, is later transported for hard labour in a penal colony. This is a fate he regards as worse than being hanged.
Presumably, by the standards of the time, ‘Mrs Henry Wood’s’ treatment of her bad characters was regarded as just and even merciful, though Afy Hallijohn is after all, just as much a victim of Francis Levinson as Lady Isabel. Of course, Afy would have outraged Victorian readers by refusing to admit to the irregular connection with the wicked then Captain Levinson, and the author’s allowing her to marry a foolish tradesman would be considered highly indulgent.
Apart from laughing over the melodramatic excesses in the plot, my main feeling was one of wonder at how tastes in reading change.
The mid-eighteenth century went wild about ‘Pamela’, with its wildly improbable plot and high falutin’ moral tone.
Then the mid-nineteenth century was equally fascinated by the wild sensationalism of the equally improbable ‘East Lynne’.
I am trying to think of a mid-twentieth century equivalent, as popular with male and female readers alike, filmed many times: ‘James Bond’ can’t count, as it has no domestic aspect; the Sherlock Holmes stories have very little love interest; ‘Gone With the Wind’ perhaps? However outrageous modern readers may find its depiction of slavery, it was undeniably the outstanding best seller leading up to World War II.
Meanwhile, what will be the sensationalist novel of the mid twenty-first century?

2 Responses

  1. Two great Victorian melodramas were The Bells, which established Henry Irving’s acting reputation, and The Silver King, which contains the immortal line, “Oh God, turn back thy universe! Give me yesterday again!” Donald Wolfit played the lead in brilliant sixties radio adaptations of these plays produced by R.D.Smith.

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