East Lynne: Why it works (not just for Victorians)

May contain spoilers:

East Lynne, published in 1861, was circulated By Mudie’s and sold 500,000 copies, and in the introduction to my copy, written by Stevie Davies, we’re told “sales of her novels totalled over two and a half million” by 1900. Phenomenal. Was Mrs. Henry Wood (Ellen) the Jackie Collins of her day? She must have shocked and titillated her audience, and I can’t help but envision the prudish stereotypes of Victorians reading East Lynne on the sly. Perhaps their copies were even disguised with plain brown wrappers…

As a Victorian Sensation novel,  East Lynne, manages to explore Victorian morality through the machinations of her characters. There’s a debate whether Victorian Sensation novels were a reflection of the morality of their times or a subversive examination of morality. In the case of East Lynne, I’d argue the latter, and I’ll explain my argument later in the post.

I’m currently back to reading Trollope, and when I read Trollope, for its sensibilities and subtleties, I know I am reading a Victorian novel. Not so with East Lynne. There were times when if I didn’t know better, I’d think someone penned this as a faux Victorian. And why is that you ask? Well it’s how people behave. People do bad things in Trollope (thinking of George Vavasour in Can You Forgive Her?) but they still act as we expect Victorians to–even the bad ones. But the characters in East Lynne get down and dirty at times and seem surprisingly modern. At one point, for example, Afy Hallijohn argues with her half-sister, Joyce about exactly what happened the night of their father’s murder. Joyce asks Afy if she lived with Richard Hare, the accused murderer:

Living with Richard Hare! why, I’d rather go live with a red indian who goes about tattooed, and keeps sixteen wives.

But that’s just one example. The characters in East Lynne seem a little freer in their behaviour. At another point in the novel, two women of ‘noble’ birth exchange words, and the incident ends with one woman slapping the other in the face.

Another character who seems to have left that Victorian restraint behind is Cornelia Carlyle, the much-older spinster sister of our hero Archibald Carlyle. Cornelia is more a mother to Archibald than a sister–given the difference in their ages, that’s understandable, but what’s not acceptable is the way Cornelia (Corny) bosses everyone about, and pokes her nose in where she’s not welcome. There are many instances where Corny earns the title fishwife for her constant nagging, bitching, and complaining dominance, and at one point she decides to move into her brother’s home, and dismiss his servants. In essence, Corny takes over, saying that if her sister-in-law doesn’t like it, “she can lump it.” 

And this brings me to why East Lynne works so well.  At one point towards the end of the novel, Mrs Henry Wood makes an appearance through her narrative voice which interjects an opinion as she defends the indefensible:

Human passions and tempers were brought with us into this world, and they can only leave us when we bid it farewell to enter upon immortality in the next.

A couple of passages are directed to “our moralist” and while Mrs Woods agrees that the behaviour of the heroine is reprehensible, she also demands a little understanding for this troubled character who, after all, suffers tremendously by the time the novel concludes. East Lynne works because no one’s hands are clean: Afy is vain and superficial, Mr Carlyle is blind to the politics within his own home, the Late Earl Mount Severn was a spendthrift and a wastrel (where did that 60,000 pounds a year go?), Cornelia Carlyle is impossibly domineering, Justice Hare is inflexible, Otway Bethel can be bought for 50 quid, Richard Hare was lured by a woman’s beauty, Barbara Hare could afford to be a bit more generous, and Isabel Vane is gullible. Mrs Woods takes a tremendous chance when she makes Isabel Vane her heroine, as after all, she’s a woman who commits the ultimate sins, but she shows us that Isabel doesn’t commit these acts in a vacuum. She wasn’t the only one at fault here, so we can see how she was led to her mistakes. Yes, we also see her punished, and punished most horribly in these pages. In a modern novel this might not happen, but here Isabel sins, she reaps the consequences, and we forgive her. By setting Isabel in the midst of characters who helped paved the way for her moral disaster, Mrs. Woods sets up a subversive plot. We can’t simply condemn and forget Isabel. We can’t wipe our hands of her.

While Mrs Henry Wood may take the path of sin and consequence, and that may be seem as a form of convention, I don’t think East Lynne is that simple. By the end of the novel, everyone has something to regret and feel sorry about. Everyone has a certain culpability in the events that take place. Some, it’s true, like Afy simply move on, unscathed to the next phase, but some characters will be forever haunted, not just by what they did, but also by what they failed to do.

But back to the introduction. Stevie Davies argues that Ellen Wood’s use of the name Mrs Henry Wood “gives a valuable initial clue to her literary stance.” Further she argues that to write as Mrs Henry Wood is “to say to the reading world that one is a safe, harmless, respectable, god-fearing, middle-class Englishwoman, probably endowed with children. It is to advertise one’s novel as safe moral reading for the family circle.” “Such a pseudonym” argues Davies “declares the author’s active and militant conservative bias.”

Anyway, a wonderful novel, loads of fun and highly recommended.

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2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Wood Mrs Henry

2 responses to “East Lynne: Why it works (not just for Victorians)

  1. Brian Joseph

    Though I have not read this I would likely go with your subversive theory. I tend to see irony all over the place. I have been accused of seeing it when it was not there! Your commentary does make it sound plausable.

  2. 500 000 copies!!!! incredible.
    Now it’s even more tempting. On my way to find a kindle version.

    Do you think she’s like Eugene Sue and his Mysteres de Paris. I haven’t read it and don’t know anyone who has but it’s also full of twists and turns.

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