Lucinda Elliot

Review of ‘Lady Adelaide’ by ‘Mrs Henry Wood’ (Ellen Wood)

To start with the positive, like a good reviewer. I may not generally admire ‘Mrs Henry Wood’s’ writing style, but I do admire the way she managed to write a string of best sellers to save her family’s financial situation after Mr Henry Wood went bankrupt,and obviously that style was perfectly adapted to the tastes of the time. I assume it must have made people feel comfortable;that is what popular authors – especially best selling ones – generally do.

There is definitely something about her plots and her characters which draw the reader back to find out what happens,even though you know full well that there will be a happy ending with the upright citizens vindicated, the people who lapsed badly punished, and those in the middle only given a slap on the wrist. This ability in an athor to lure back the reader, even if s/he despises what s/he is reading, is an indifinable quality, but it is invaluable.

‘Mrs Henry Wood’ was wonderfully productive; she not only wrote over thirty novels, but bought, edited and wrote much of the ‘Argosy’ magazine, to which Christina Rossetti and other respected authors contributed.

This workload (I just misread that was ‘wordload’!) almost certainly accounts for occasional pointers earlier in the novels which are never fully developed later on. For instance, in this one, the servant Ravensbird looks about the old, vault like room where the dead bodies of deceased members of the Dane family are displayed, and says that he knows it, though he has never been there before. This is never explained. Perhaps she planned a connection between the secret passages leading to this vault and the criminal element – on whom Ravensbird could have been spying when he would not account for his activities on the night of Harry Dane’s disappearance -and this vault, which is never fully developed in the final version of the story. Anyway, she neglected to delete that incongruous remark from the manuscript. In those days, of course, editing manuscripts was a far more tedious, laborious task.

Humph: I found the snobbery in this truly dismal. I couldn’t enjoy the absurdities of the melodramatic nonsense of the plot because of it.

I freely admit to having problems with the ‘conservative’ approach adopted by the author. Generally, though, I don’t believe that readers and reviewers can be objective, even if they try to be, so it is best for them to declare their particular biases in advance. I don’t believe that the author should be subject to self-righteous indignation because her views on social class are distasteful to our own age.

A future age will probably view the people of this age as morally reprehensible. ‘Mrs Henry Wood’s’ social prejudices are those shaerd by many in her era, and an author should of course, only be judged by the standards of his or her age.

An assumption that working class people wery living in degrading conditions, often unthinking and usually physically smaller would these days be ascribed to their economic circumstances , to crowded housing, lack of educational opportunities, poor diet etc. Mrs Henry Wood, though a devout Christian, seems to some extent have put their lifestyle and physical and mental lack of development down to some inherent inferiority. Such a view was common at that time. I think this sort of attitude is one that modern day readers often find hard to recognise from the hints in the text. It is, of course, a view that any modern day Tory would find repellent; but it was widespread and obviously shared by ‘Mrs Henry Wood’.

I could ignore the uncritical acceptance of the rigid class system of Victorian England in ‘East Lynne’ , because I was too busy laughing at the absurd melodrama. There was an excess of that, what with the caddish, moustache twirling seducer, the adulterous wife returning to work in her husband’s house as a governess, disguised in a pair of blue glasses and ‘bands’ wrapped about her face, and all the rest of the absurdities. To me, this made it seem like a spoof. I wasn’t surprised to read that it had been lampooned many times.

Wihile the plot of this tale is also wildly improbable, it is less luridly enjoyable. In fact , the author actually appears to be taking seriously the nonsense about a viscount’s son falling over a cliff after the slight diversion of kicking the odd confidential servant downstairs. Naturally, he comes back disguised, in this case, by a purple shade over his eyes. The snobbery, however, is much more obvious.

For instance: ‘They were a couple of dull, stupid clodhoppers, of that species of rustic whom we are apt to marvel at, and almost question whether they can be human beings; possessing just sufficient brains to get through their day’s work at the millers.’

‘Lydney looked as little like a housebreaker as it was possible to conceive.’ I suppose that means he wasn’t wearing the regulation outfit of the mid-nineteenth century ‘hooligan’, complete with striped sweater, heavy boots and belt with a heavy buckle, mask and dark lantern to hand.

Although supposedly raised in the US, Lydney seems to behave with all the stiffness of an English gentleman. He uses such terms as ‘Goody’ and ‘My Good Woman.’ (I don’t know what he calls bad women).

Lydney, alias the viscount’s heir, is sadly not the wicked poacher that the respectable commoners think him. He, in fact, upholds the law against taking game with particular reverenence, never mind that the land in question would probably have been stolen by his ancestors from the locals during the common land enclosures of earlier centures:
‘You intimated just now your cognizance of my rank! I do not forget it, I assure you, neither am I likely to disgrace it.’

One of his relatives has, however,forgotten his rank,and disgraces it. He almost certainly goes out poaching. However, the reason for that is his father refusing him an allowance, causing his household to teeter on the verge of starvation. You would think that he might be able to get a menial job of some sort – perhaps at the mill-to support them, but that doesn’t seem to occur to him or anyone else.

I found it hard to understand why this story was called ‘Lady Adelaide’, as this anti-heroine is so passive. Her trickery in being engaged to Lord Dane’s second son to distract attention from her secret meetings with his cousin Herbert Dane initiates the drama of the struggle on the clifftop and his plunging to his supposed death, it’s true. After that, she perjures herself to save the man she loves.

Then, in an anti-climatic move, rather than go back to living in Scotland, she marries another admirer she doesn’t love. This one is a widower and another distant relative of the Danes’, known as Squire Lester.

I don’t understand why Lady Adelaide doesn’t have an honest conversation with Herbert Dane to find out whether he was guilty of attempted murder in the struggle she saw between Harry and Herbert Dane on the clifftop when Harry Dane falls over and is assumed dead. I don’t see why she doesn’t admit to him that she saw them. Is it meant to be moral cowardice? Does she assume that he meant to kill Harry Dane? Living in doubt would surely be worse. To me it makes no sense she is unwilling to face the truth about whatever it is, yet is willing to perjure herself, swearing that she didn’t see them when she was out that night, and ran back in a fright. As she has done the other wrongs, to me it is irrational that she won’t admit to Herbert Dane that she suspects him and that is why she has what appears to be a dread of marrying him. Her motives appear to be based on superstitious fear as much as anything.

After marrying, the eponymous anti-heroine does very little to drive the plot forwards, except to make the home uncomfortable for her husband’s older children. She has lots of children herself, runs her husband into debt by spending a huge amount on dress,and plays the stereotypical wicked stepmother in a torpid sort of way. It seems to me Squire Lester is as much to blame as she is for the neglect of his children from his earlier marriage.

She is always depicted externally, and it is only at the end that we learn something of what has been going on in her mind all these years. It seems she never stops loving Herbert Dane. I suppose that does make it quite a punishment when he comes back from abroad and wants to marry her pretty young step-daughter.

The wronged now viscount tells her to repent, and there is a strong hint that she will take his advice.

Anyway, all ends happily: ‘The stately old castle and its waving flag; the group of humble friends gathered there, tendering their homage and affection;and the fine young chieftain standing to receive it,bare-headed, free and noble, his face lighted up by the setting sun. A fine face!’

I don’t think I am likely to read any more of ‘Mrs Henry Wood’ for quite a while. Charles Garvice is practically subversive in his views compared to her. A relative gave me a pile of early editions of her books. All offers gratefully accepted.

Leave a Reply