Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review - East Lynne by Ellen Wood (Mrs Henry Wood) (Oxford World Classics 2005)

East Lynne was one of the most popular novels of the 19th Century, yet, as is usually the case, its critical reception did not match its popular sales. Certainly it is moralistic, overly sentimental and Ellen Wood's writing style seldom rises above the workmanlike. Yet it is also extremely well-plotted, fast and intriguing, and introduces us to someone who to my mind is one of the more interesting heroines in Victorian literature. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

First published in serial form from 1860 to 1861, it is one of the books which helped define the "Sensation Novel" of the 1860s, yet - despite the heroine's adultery at the heart of the novel and her subsequent return heavily disguised as the governess of her children and the arrest of  the corpse of her father- it is less extreme than many other books of this genre. This is because of what I consider to be the skilful handling of the central character.

Lady Isabel Vane's mother has died, and her deeply-indebted father, the Earl of Mount Severn, is forced to sell his house East Lynne to his lawyer Archibald Carlyle, who nevertheless keeps the sale secret and allows Lord Mount Severn to remain there, where he inconveniently dies.Lady Isabel discovers that she is penniless and forced to live with her Uncle and his wife, who despises her for her looks and sweet nature. Fortunately, she is rescued by Carlyle's offer of marriage, much to the disappointment of Carlyle's neighbour Barbara Hare. Carlyle is secretly assisting Barbara's brother, who is on the run following an accusation of murder, and his frequent close discussions with Barbara arouse Lady Isabel's jealous suspicions. These are exacerbated by the nefarious rake Sir Francis Levinson, who is staying incognito at East Lynne whilst Carlyle tries to sort out his tangled affairs. Finally, Carlyle declines a dinner engagement pleading pressure of work, but Lady Isabel sees him with Barbara Hare as she returns. She learns from Levinson that Carlyle  has been with her all evening, and in a jealous rage, she elopes to the Continent with Levinson, leaving Carlyle and her children behind. She is not gone long before she realises that she has made a terrible mistake.

Wood's dilemma is to ensure that Lady Isabel retains the reader's sympathy despite her being an adulteress who has abandoned her children. This she does by very carefully constructing the reasons for her jealousy. Carlyle is a heroic character, almost too good to be true, but not given to great introspection. He has no idea how his work to assist his old friends the Hare family could be perceived. Levinson though ensures that Lady Isabel is aware of all his clandestine meetings with Barbara Hare. Crucially, Lady Isabel deeply respects Carlyle, and hopes that she will come to love him, but does not do so yet. She doesn't have parents or any close relative or friend to offer moral guidance, and she feels estranged in her own household by the oppressive presence of Carlyle's opinionated sister.

So she snaps, and regrets it for the rest of her life. The rest of the book follows her search for expiation. Carlyle marries Barbara Hare, and, badly disfigured in a train crash, Lady Isabel returns as Madame Vane, a governess who has to endure the torment of seeing her now-beloved husband being caressed by Barbara Hare, who is called mother by her children. The depth of her torment, and the knowledge that she had been manipulated by a bad man, ensures that she remains a sympathetic character.

Meanwhile, the other strands of the plot come together. Levinson ill-advisedly decides to stand against Carlyle for Parliament. The truth about the murder of Hallijohn slowly emerges. Justice appears to be done.

The success of the novel depends on Ellen Wood's ability to construct a believable set of reasons for Lady Isabel to be driven to elope with Levinson, and this she does with skill. To my mind the second half is weaker since her return unrecognised as a governess does stretch credulity a little far. However, by this point some genuine Victorian tear-jerking sentimentality has kicked in, and, coupled with fast-paced satire on the electoral and judicial processes, conspires to carry the reader breathlessly to the end.

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