Tag Archives: Victorian Sensation Novel

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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East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood

‘Rely upon it, sorrow of some nature comes sooner or later to all. In the brightest lot on earth dark days must be mixed. Not that there is a doubt but that it falls unequally. Some as you observe, seem born to it, for it clings to them all their days: others are more favoured. As we reckon favour: perhaps this great amount of trouble is no more than is necessary to take us to heaven. You know the saying, “Adversity hardens the heart, or opens it to Paradise.” It may be, that our hearts are so hard, that the long-continued life’s trouble is necessary to soften them.’

That’s a heavy moralising quote from the Victorian Sensation novel, East Lynne, but I hope its tone doesn’t deter any potential readers from reading the book as the moralising is one of the delights of the genre. My copy stood neglected on a shelf for more years than I care to think about, and this in spite of the fact that it had been recommended more than once.

East Lynne, published in 1861, a phenomenal best seller in its day, was the very first Victorian Sensation novel–this was a genre that exploded between the years 1860-1880 with its roots, not too surprisingly,  in the Gothic and Romantic traditions. The Victorian Sensation novel capitalised on the dangers to be found in domestic life, and typical plot twists included adultery, murder, bigamy, kidnapping, forgery and fake identities. Mrs. Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, as a perfect example of a Victorian Sensation novel includes, murder, seduction, adultery and fake identities. Of course, you can’t have this sort of action without a great deal of emotion and melodrama and a damsel in danger, so the pages are stuffed full of jealousy, rivalry, deaths and disease. Add to this a plot that is burdened with coincidence and happenstance. I lost count of the number of times characters just happened to be in the right place at the right time or how someone just happened to eavesdrop on a vital conversation as he or she hid on the other side of a convenient barrier.

So all those things said, Victorian Sensation novels are sometimes underappreciated. Naturally the popular trend for Victorian Sensation novels played into Victorian morality, so if literary characters do bad things, then bad things happen as a consequence–as well as those extremely painful just desserts. East Lynne includes people who make mistakes, and people who have horrible character flaws, but the novel also boasts a truly nasty, malevolent character in Francis Levinson. My tatty Everyman edition includes an introduction by Stevie Davies, and it’s an intro not to be missed, but in case you have a kindle, the book is also available FREE.

Now for the plot:

East Lynne, which in my edition runs to 640 pages, is the tale of a fallen woman–a woman who impulsively leaves her husband, her children, her home and society, and if that’s not enough, the novel’s sub-plot concerns an unsolved murder. These two story threads may seem disconnected, but Mrs. Henry Wood manages to deftly, brilliantly and seamlessly sew these two elements together, and the novel’s strength is definitely in its clever plot structure.

While the novel includes a fair number of characters, the main players are introduced quickly. The story opens with Earl Mount Severn, a man who at age 49, looks a great deal older, and seems to be pushing 90

A noted character had been the Earl of Mount Severn. Not that he had been a renowned politician, or a great general, or an eminent statesman, or even an active member of the Upper House: not for any of these had the Earl’s name been in the mouths of men. But for the most reckless among the reckless, for the spendthrifts among spendthrifts, for the gamester above all gamesters.

Earl Mount Severn, a spendthrift heavily in debt sells his country estate, East Lynne, to lawyer Archibald Carlyle. The transaction is conducted entirely in secret so that Mount Severn’s debtors don’t hunt him down for payment of unpaid bills. Mr. Carlyle, the novel’s hero, currently lives in a house in West Lynne with his indomitable sister (pushy, in other words), Cornelia Carlyle, and he fancies making East Lynne his estate.

The Earl’s daughter, Isabel Vane, a rather innocent young girl, has no idea that her father is in dire straits for money. Neither has she any idea that she is virtually penniless. When Lord Mount Severn dies unexpectedly, and with such a life of dissipation, we knew he couldn’t last long, Isabel Vane is left without a shilling to her name and is cast on to the mercy of relatives who don’t know what to do with her.

The other major plot thread involves a murder that occurred at West Lynne a few years before. Local wench Aphrodite Hallijohn (Afy) to her friends, fancies herself a ‘lady’ and plays fast and loose with a number of lovers including Richard Hare, the son of the local Justice and the mysterious man known as “Thorn.” One evening, Afy is visited by both Richard and Thorn, and as a result of the visit, her father is murdered. Richard is blamed for the crime, and he goes into hiding–much to the distress of his invalid mother and devoted sister, Barbara.

When East Lynne begins, Richard Hare has been a fugitive from justice for over 18 months, and everyone, except his mother and sister believe that he is guilty. While the taint of the scandal remains in the air of this small, bucolic town, Justice Hare publicly disavows his son, and although no one is convicted of the murder of Hallijohn, the locals accept that Richard Hare committed the crime. Even though the murder is in the past and solved to everyone’s satisfaction (with the exception of the women in the Hare family), the crime continues to cast a shadow over the characters and over the plot. Relevant questions about the crime and the identity of the murderer continued to be raised throughout the novel. It’s as though the murder nags away at the story and there’s the sense that no one will rest until the murderer is caught and ‘justice served.’

Part II coming next: Why East Lynne Works (and not just for the Victorians).

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