I mentioned the other day that out of all the sensation season reading material so far Ellen Wood’s (or Mrs Henry Wood) ‘East Lynne’ has been by far the most complex and difficult to get through. I want to make it clear that I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact the main reason it’s quite a book to get through is because of a whole host of characters (initially a village full) and a whole host of plots. This isn’t for those of you who are looking for a throw away sensational read you have to dive in and just go for it. Once you have read the final page though you will be left in no doubt that this is a masterpiece and may, as many say, be the mother of all sensation novels.
East Lynne is a grand old house not to far from the village of West Lynne, you will learn to love the village and all of its wonderful (even if some are downright evil) characters. From the first chapter we are introduced to the main character of the book Isabel Vane or as the first chapter is called ‘The Lady Isabel’ who lives in East Lynne with her father not knowing he has sold the house to local solicitor Archibald Carlyle. We join them as they first meet and naturally Carlyle falls in love with her one site, as one must this is after all a sensation novel.
The very same night Lady Isabel meets Captain Francis Levison a charming man who she instantly falls in love with though he proves a real rogue. Isabel’s father dies shortly after and Isabel finds herself left with a not so nice member of the family before accepting Archibald Carlyle’s hand in marriage admitting to him she doesn’t love him but one day she may. Throw in a possessive half sister, the wonderfully named Cornelia Carlyle, a local girl Barbara Hare who is clearly in love with Archibald and keeps meeting him in secret (though its actually because her brother is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit – see lots of stray storylines) send the delicate Isabel to France for respite where she meets Captain Levison again and you have the perfect recipe for one hell of a sensational novel… and that is not even half of the story. I can’t give away anymore and no one should as it would spoil such a wonderful, wonderful book.
The faults that I have seen reported in other thoughts on this book are that it’s too far fetched and yes in a way the plot is quite implausible… but this is sensation fiction (and fiction in general does this Nineteen Eighty-Four anyone?) and that in part is what its about. Though, if you research it, actually at the time divorce was becoming available in society. This book does look at the social history of the time along with the sanctity of ‘family’ in that period as step mothers who were from second marriages, not from the death of the first wife but of divorce instead, started to appear more things for women were changing again as naturally divorces were always in favour of the male party.
Enough of the social history and back to the book… I just thought the characters were wonderful. I loved the delicate, often flighty and slightly idiotic Isabel. She isn’t calculating just rash and fanciful and in a way her story is quite a tragic one and shows the lengths some people could go to for family, I can’t give anything more away than that. I though the bubbly Barbara Hare was a very interesting character with hidden depths. Naturally it was for me the icy, sister in law spinster Cornelia Carlyle who just for me walked off every page of the book as if she was in the room filling it with her (often wrong or prejudiced) opinions and thoughts. A magnificent character, in fact a magnificent set of characters. Throw in all of the plots, back stories and twists and I was left quite breathless by its brilliance.
This book has not only made me want to read everything that Ellen Wood (or Mrs Henry Wood) has ever written it has in many ways opened me up more to the idea of reading many more books that have such a grand scale and are so filled with several plots and characters which is giving me hope for reading Dickens in the future. I can certainly see why everyone at the time bought this book in their droves; it’s just a shame that they don’t do that now. I am hoping this will help, I will make sure I pop and say thank you to Ellen Wood every time I pass her at Highgate, she deserves more recognition.
If you are wondering why I haven’t used the most famous quote in the book, and it is very famous, it’s because it gives away quite a lot when you know some of the plot, so don’t go searching for it. So who else has read this? If you haven’t why on earth not you must run out and get it now.