Thoughts: East Lynne, by Mrs Henry (Ellen) Wood

So a few years ago I read Lady Florence Bell’s At The Works, a study on Middlesbrough life in the 1800s, because it’s local to me and no one ever talks about places local to me unless they’re blaming us for Brexit (which, by the way, is very misleading and pack that in, please). One question on the surveys of the Boro steelworking families was about their reading material, and a large proportion of them were enjoying Mrs Henry Wood*’s East Lynne, so out of a weird desire for connection with the past, I stuck it on the list.

And what a roller coaster it has been.

East Lynne is a beast of a book – long, twisty, full of voice and dramatic characters and bad choices all round. It wavers constantly between ‘colourful’ and ‘autoparodic’. I thoroughly enjoyed almost all of it. What didn’t I enjoy? Surprise, the modern female reader has issues with outdated gender ideals. As a rule I try not to judge art too harshly by standards that were not around when the art was created. (I like to explore and compare and analyse with regards to how social contexts have changed, yes, but that’s a different thing.)

So fine, the women all have to be married off and make babies, and if they don’t, like the formidable Miss Corny, they’re eccentrics forever. Yes, women like pert young Afy (short for Aphrodite, to put you out of your misery on that score – I was consumed by curiosity until I found out) are not thought highly of for all their playing around, because you have to play the game but you can’t actually be too good at it except by accident as a passive pawn. Yes, Barbara can have her terrible ideas of parenting and how nurses and nannies are required to deal with children when they’re being annoying so as not to exhaust a mother’s love. These are all part and parcel of the time in which it was written, and I can accept them on that score – i.e., it’s all over and done with now and nothing we can do to change the past. But something about the naked hypocrisy just… It must have been obvious even at the time. Surely.

But more of that later. East Lynne is about the romantic adventures and misadventures of Lady Isabel Mount Severn, Archibald Carlyle, Barbara Hare and the less romantic adventures of Richard Hare, Barbara’s brother and convenient plot device. The narrator is very eager to let us know how things are, saucy and pious by turns, for instance telling us at the end of the very first chapter in which Carlyle sees the rather younger Lady Isabel for the first time, that had her father, Earl Mount Severn, known how she would turn out, he would rather have killed her there and then. Seeing as Earl Mount Severn is a sort of nice-but-dim compulsive spendthrift whose utter thoughtlessness is directly what leads to her having to marry in haste after his well-earned death (from gout???) even though she is a) not ready to marry and b) openly not in love with her new husband Carlyle, this assertion is Pretty Damn Rich. It’s really quite brazen. Worship Barbara’s virtue all you want, but Barbara never ever faces an actual difficult problem in her life, so Barbara can be as virtuous as she wants without breaking a sweat.

So Carlyle has nice guy’d Lady Isabel into marrying him because if she doesn’t marry she will literally have not even the clothes on her back or a single plate to eat off, let alone a roof over her head. Her only living family after the death of her genial but worthless father refuse to have her in the house because the new Earl Mount Severn, Lady Isabel’s cousin, is ruled by a nightmarish attention-harpy of a wife. The wife doesn’t like Lady Isabel because she is (at this point) too pure and kind and beautiful. But the comically evil Emma Vane has not yet done all the damage she can do – she’s also how Lady Isabel meets Francis Levison, equal parts handsome dandy and heartless cad. Lady Isabel falls instantly in passionate love with him. Which is why she doesn’t love Carlyle, I guess?

Anyway, Carlyle may be a paragon of manly perfection, sensible and good and upright and decent, but however much Wood piles it on, she can’t hide his flaws. Archibald Carlyle is incapable of thinking about other people, and seems incapable of thinking of them as people. Combined with Lady Isabel’s acute sensitivity to the feelings of others and her need to please and not cause fuss, their marriage is just one giant miscommunication. Archibald doesn’t let Lady Isabel see her dying father because I don’t know, she’s a delicate lady, and Lady Isabel never tells Archibald about how his overbearing sister Cornelia is making her life a misery, and it just goes on. And then…

Barbara Hare’s part in all this begins as the naive young girl yearning after Carlyle. And after he marries Lady Isabel she is perfectly honourable and refuses to marry anyone else (a wise choice in the long run, for which she is amply rewarded). All this despite the fact that to be honest, Carlyle has been stringing her right along for years, because as he doesn’t fancy Barbara he can’t understand that she might fancy him. It’s really just a hair’s breadth from what in anyone else would be caddishness, in effect if not intent. Anyway, Barbara’s brother Richard is in exile, having been accused of the murder of Afy Hallijohn’s father during a secret tryst. Carlyle is a lawyer, Richard shows up in disguise, and then the three of them (including Barbara) have regular secret meetings in which they try to solve the crime and establish Richard’s innocence.

Carlyle tells Lady Isabel – shy, retiring, non-gossiping Lady Isabel who hardly dares leave the house – precisely nothing of this.

And then Francis Levison sidles back into the picture. Does Lady Isabel want him to? No. She tells Carlyle not to put him up in the house. She tells him she wants him far away from her. But Carlyle wouldn’t run away with Francis Levison, so how could anyone else? Disregarding the fact that Lady Isabel has already confessed her jealousy with his spending all his time with Barbara Hare anyway. He’s really just a terrible husband. How he makes a good lawyer is anyone’s guess (it’s because Wood likes him, spoilers).

Levison sets to work like any other predatory abuser, isolating Lady Isabel and feeding her lies about Carlyle and Barbara, which Carlyle never addresses (again, despite Lady Isabel confessing in actual words her prior insecurity about this exact issue) and indeed, he does spend all his time with Barbara, and surprise! Lady Isabel eventually runs off with Levison.

This is basically the first half of the story. In some summaries, this is treated as just the premise. The rest of it goes full soap opera. Lady Isabel is immediately deserted by Levison after she’s borne him an illegitimate child, accidentally fakes her own death and resurfaces as a disfigured governess to her own children(!) back at East Lynne in disguise. Richard Hare gets his crime solved and Carlyle runs for MP against Levison. Deliciously dramatic, yes?

So my problem is in the comparison between the story’s treatment of Richard and Lady Isabel. Both find themselves in disgrace due to faults of their own characters – Richard in his cowardice after the murder of Afy’s father, which made him look guilty, and Lady Isabel in falling for Levison’s evil seduction instead of trusting her terrible husband.

At the beginning of the book everyone believes that Richard dunnit, and his part in the murder and subsequent exile has ruined his mother’s health (who everyone loves despite her being extremely tiring even to read about, let alone to be in a room with, and also she has semi-prophetic dreams about the murder now). Still, Barbara and Carlyle do everything they can possibly do to help him, believe him at his less-than-convincing word and bring justice down on the real killer. His testimony is completely unprovable (“It wasn’t me, it was this other gadgie no one’s ever heard of”) but they believe in his innocence immediately. Richard is given a chance to grow as a person and overcome the failings which led to his exile and is eventually restored to his prior position. His moment of idiocy is forgiven.

Lady Isabel, who also comes to her senses very quickly but too late after her own momentary madness, is given no such chance. She is instead condemned forever. Carlyle takes her leaving at face value despite the very obvious misunderstanding under which she’s labouring (and which is all his fault) without trying to make things right. After she had originally confessed her insecurity in the face of his not-secret-enough meetings with Barbara he merely told her she was being silly and didn’t alter his actual behaviour at all or consider her comfort ever again because he’s the worst husband ever. The reader knows of course that he’s being honourable, but in Lady Isabel’s position, where she wasn’t privy to that information, it will have looked as though she was being taken for a ride. If your friend told you this story you would tell them to leave the guy immediately. A single attempt to reach her would probably have had her come running back. But no, instead he divorces her immediately (which Levison hides from her to avoid having to make any kind of commitment himself) and Levison abandons her in France.

Falling from grace and working for a living to bring up her child alone is not punishment enough. Lady Isabel is involved in a train crash which kills her illegitimate child outright and almost does for her, in which she is thought to have been killed and loses her looks and health as well as the child. There’s more. Circumstances compel her to return to East Lynne as a governess to her own children, which the narrative blames her for while being open that she has no other choice. There’s more. Carlyle has by this time married Barbara Hare. There’s more. The narration piles on the Christian penance and tells her to ‘bear her daily cross’ (even Jesus only had one, for crying out loud), and apparently making sure her children are well-educated and untroubled by the truth of their disgraced mother, never interfering in Barbara and Carlyle’s marriage and never breathing a word of her true identity is not sufficiently bearing this cross. She’s also expected never to feel regret or remorse for her previous actions, or be privately sad about her current situation. Oh and she loses another child.

Give me Cornelia any day, cantankerous and demanding but at least the mistress of her own life. An eccentric dresser, a penny pincher, who raised Archibald to be the successful lawyer and comfortably wealthy man he is today, who relies on her own strength and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Who, when she wrongs people, feels remorse and tries to make it up to them.

East Lynne is full of twists and turns and melodrama, but (almost) everyone gets their happy ending. Mrs Hare and Richard are freed from the domineering Justice Hare by dint of his having a couple of strokes and ending up a shadow of his former self. I did say almost everyone. Cornelia is absolved of her guilt in thinking she had driven Lady Isabel to her unhappy fate. Richard is declared innocent and avoids Afy’s mercenary embrace. Barbara and Carlyle get rid of their weird governess and go back to blissful married life. Even Levison avoids the death penalty.

But Lady Isabel? Guilty of making one terrible decision, guilty of being surrounded since birth by idiot men, she has to die. Pleasing everyone till the very end.

*I feel like I need to say at least once how glad I am that we don’t have to do this anymore, dear lord.

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