East Lynne by Mrs Henry Wood (1861)

Review by Sylvia D:

East Lynne is a little outside the scope of the Readership and Literary Cultures remit as it was first published in 1861 having previously been serialised in the New Monthly Magazine.  However, it is without a doubt a highly engaging melodramatic novel which, although panned by some contemporary critics, was spectacularly successful in its day.  Its sensationalism may well have appealed to the bored Victorian middle-class woman but it was also widely read and enjoyed by men.   Some 500,000 copies are said to have been sold by the end of the nineteenth century and it has been adapted for the stage and film innumerable times.  Critic Sally Mitchell estimates that some version was seen by audiences in either England or North America every week for over forty years.  It was re-filmed for television as recently as 1982.

At first I thought it was going to be one of those novels extolling the virtues of Victorian gender separate spheres, especially as Wood (another of those middle-class Victorian women who turned to authorship to support the family when her husband’s business failed) was writing it at the same time as the four sections of Coventry Patmore’s Angel in the House which symbolised the Victorian feminine ideal were appearing.  Indeed, when country town lawyer, Archibald Carlyle, having just bought the East Lynne estate from her ruined father, first meets the beautiful Lady Isobel Vane, his immediate reaction was: “Who – what – was it?  Mr Carlyle looked, not quite sure whether it was a human being: he almost thought it more like an angel” (p 7).  However, despite being refined, kind and self-effacing, it is not Isobel who is the angel.  She is also vulnerable and naive and, having married Carlyle and had three children, she allows herself to become prey to jealous suspicions and her subsequent elopement with the aristocratic and caddish Sir Frederick Levison puts her beyond the pale.  Indeed when, deserted by Sir Frederick and seriously disfigured in a train crash, she returns as an unrecognized governess to her own children, she seems more like a ghost or a fallen angel than a living being.

It is Carlyle’s assignations with Barbara Hare, whom he has known all his life, who is jealous of Isobel and whose brother they are both trying to save from a wrongful conviction for murder which have given rise to Isobel’s misinterpretation of her husband’s intentions and clouded her judgment when urged by Levison to run away with him.  Once Isobel has been cast off, divorced and is believed to be dead, Carlyle marries Barbara who better fits the Patmore model; pretty and dark-haired compared with Isobel’s beauty and fair hair, she is full of common sense, manages her household competently and knows when to put her husband’s interests before those of her children.

That East Lynne is a moral tale is undeniable; Isobel’s behaviour is remorselessley held up to judgment and she is allowed to fade away and die from a broken heart (although one occasionally detects a note of sympathy for her plight), her illegitimate child conveniently dies in the train crash that leaves her disfigured, the dastardly Levison gets his just deserts when he is ducked in the village pond and revealed as having committed the murder for which Barbara’s brother has been wrongly convicted, the “pompous” Mr Justice Hare who has vowed to bring his son to justice is struck down by not one, but, two strokes!  After Isobel’s death, Carlyle reminds his wife, “. . . never forget that the only way to ensure peace in the end is to strive always to be doing right, unselfishly, under God” (p 288).  However, within this moral tale Wood (under the protective device of using her husband’s name), contrives to present the reader with a plot concerned not only with love and marriage but there is also murder, lust, adultery, intrigue, disguise and, dare one say it, bigamy.   No wonder it was so successful.

There is much in East Lynne that seems ludicrous to the modern reader: the casting off of Isobel because she has run away from her husband, the failure of her husband and the household to recognise her when she comes back as a governess, the melodramatic coincidences, the annoying repetitive use of the same adjectives to describe different characters – Barbara is invariably “pretty” or wearing a “pretty” dress; her father, Mr Justice Hare, does everything until towards the end in a “pompous” manner and Carlyle (a rather boring and insensitive character) is frequently “noble”.  However, she is also a brilliant story-teller; the suspense-full narrative gallops along with short chapters (the product of serialisation, no doubt) with something new and unexpected invariably happening and she takes care to evoke the sympathy and engagement of her reader.  For example, when Isobel, who, as his governess, is asked by Carlyle to take their son who is dying of consumption to consult a doctor, they have to wait a while in Carlyle’s sister’s house: “How slowly the minutes seemed to flit past!  How still the house seemed to be!  You may have noticed that, yourselves, when waiting long for anything” (p 231).   The narrative is also not without touches of humour.  When Isobel returns, as governess, to East Lynne in a fly, “. . . the man thundered up with all the force of his one horse, and halted at the steps . . .” (p 171).   Some readers may well find the ending rather suffocating and predictable but what alternative was there.

To put the record straight, the frontispiece portrays Isobel at the bedside of her dead son, William, “Beseeching him to come back to her that she might say farewell” (p 265).  The words “Dead! Dead! And never called me mother” which was a popular line with music-hall comedians well into the twentieth century, comes from a stage version, not the novel.

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