I thought I knew Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction. After all, I've read Rhoda Broughton and Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins. But nothing I've read so far prepared me for Ellen Wood and East Lynne. The title was vaguely familiar when I came across it in Patricia Wentworth's The Watersplash, but I'd somehow gotten the impression it was a story about a seaside resort. One of the central characters in Wentworth's book is cataloguing a library of Victorian novels, which contained "An entire set of Mrs. Henry Wood, including no less than three copies of the famous East Lynne. A notorious tear-jerker - but three copies!" That was enough to send me looking for just a single copy.
I learned in the first chapter that East Lynne is an estate, located near the provincial town of West Lynne. It belongs to the Earl of Mount Severn, crippled by gout at age 49 and down to his last shillings. Archibald Carlyle, a well-respected young lawyer in West Lynne, comes to the Earl to ask about purchasing East Lynne, one of the few unentailed properties left unsold. Carlyle stays to dinner with Lord Mount Severn, where he meets the Earl's beautiful daughter Lady Isabel Vane. Later, Lady Isabel goes on to a party with her cousin and chaperone Mrs Vane, whose handsome cousin Captain Francis Levison joins their party.
The story then quickly shifts back to West Lynne, where we meet the equally beautiful Barbara Hare. Her brother Richard is a fugitive from justice, accused of the murder of George Hallijohn. He was discovered standing over Hallijohn's bloody corpse, gun in hand. It's well known that Richard was infatuated with the victim's daughter Afy, whom he used to visit in their isolated cottage, despite his father's angry threats. Richard fled after the murder, but now he has sneaked back, to see his mother and ask for money. He tells his sister that there was another man present the fateful night, a Captain Thorn, with whom the faithless Afy was keeping company. He thinks the Captain is the killer. Barbara wastes no time in passing this news along to Archibald Carlyle, their friend and neighbor (for whom her feelings are more than friendly). He and she begin trying to prove Richard innocent.
These first chapters set up the two main threads of the story. There is a detective story, as Archibald, Barbara and their allies try to prove Richard innocent. Woven through that story, there is a marriage, a wicked seduction and ventre-à-terre elopement, a divorce and remarriage. There are two sisters, both determined to marry the same man; and an older woman, determined to marry her younger rival off to the first man who asks. There is a repentant sinner, left alone in France. There is a railroad accident that leaves one character injured almost to death and threatened with amputation. Confused with another victim of the crash, badly disfigured, this person is reported dead, thus freed to assume another identity and insinuate him/herself into a family's life. Two children die, one of picturesque consumption, after a long and extremely pious deathbed scene. People from West Lynne travel to a small spa village in Germany, where they just happen to meet other people connected with East Lynne. There is also a Parliamentary election (pitting the wicked seducer against the outraged husband), a trial for murder, and a final deathbed scene, again from picturesque consumption.
I admit, I found the story of Richard Hare's involvement in the murder interesting. I thought I had the murderer figured out pretty early on, and then Ellen Wood pulled a fast one, which I fell for. The other plot line I found increasingly tedious and increasingly implausible, in about equal measure. The edition I read, an Oxford World's Classic, is just over 600 pages. It felt like the Neverending Story. Maybe if I'd been reading it in installments, as originally published, with weeks between each section, I'd have had more patience with it.
I also have to admit that I did enjoy one character, Archibald's older half-sister Cornelia. She is a mixture of Marilla Cuthbert on a bad day and Aunt Norris from Mansfield Park. A spinster with independent means, she is a pinch-penny who dresses in the crankiest outfits.
Simultaneously with the [church] bells, Miss Carlyle burst out of her bed-room in one of her ordinary morning costumes, but not the one in which she was wont to be seen on a Sunday. She wore a buff gingham gown, reaching nearly to her ankles, and a lavender print "bedgown," which was tied at the waist with a cord and tassels, and ornamented off below it with a frill. It had been the morning costume of her mother in the old-fashioned days, and Miss Carlyle despised new fashions too much to discard it. . . Her head-dress cannot be described; it was like nothing in the mode book or out of it; some might have called it a turban, some a night-cap, and some might have thought it was taken from a model of the dunce's cap and bells in the parish school; at any rate, it was something very high, and expansive, and white, and stern, and imposing.Her caps provide some welcome humor throughout the book, as when she wraps her head in three square feet of flannel, to ward off a cold. "A conical pyramid rose on the crown of her head, and a couple of small flannel corners flapped over her forehead..." But she also plays a serious role in the story. Her outrage over her brother's extravagance in buying East Lynne is nothing compared to her horror when he announces his impending marriage (by letter, the wise man, since she is given to screaming fits). She then decides it is her duty to move into East Lynne and run his household and his wife. This does not make for a happy family situation, though Archibald has no idea how his wife is bullied by his sister in the best Aunt Norris fashion, nor how unhappy she is made. However, Cornelia also comes to believe in Richard Hare's innocence and does what she can to help in the investigation.
The editor of this edition, Elisabeth Jay, points out that what separates Victorian melodrama from the earlier Gothic fiction is that it is rooted in its own time and place. That is a point I hadn't considered before. She argues that a book like East Lynne reflects its readers' anxieties over adultery and divorce, for example. I also learned from her introduction that large numbers of Victorian novels were pulped during World War II, presumably during the paper drives. This may explain why the work of so many Victorian women writers has been lost.
This was originally a three-volume work. Generally, I found the first part slow going, the second much more interesting, and the third frequently ridiculous. It was only sheer stubbornness that got me through the last 150 pages - that and the trial of Hallijohn's murderer. I turned the last page with a sigh of relief. I won't be adding this book to my shelves, nor do I feel any need to seek out more of Ellen Wood's many, many books and stories.
N.B. This story was serialized in 1860-1861, and published in book form in 1861. I'm using that date for my Mid-Century of Books.