I could tell you that ‘East Lynne’, a huge popular success in its day, has unremarkable writing, is horribly contrived, holds no real surprises, drifts into silliness and goes on for much too long.
But I could also tell you that I had to keep reading, that I was very well entertained, and that the book was very easy to read.
I’d read it before, many years ago, when my love for Victorian sensation novels was very new; and though I remembered that arc of the story I had forgotten so many details.
East Lynne is an estate, located near the small town of West Lynne. It’s owner, the Earl of Mount Severn, was far from old but he was crippled by gout and very close to bankruptcy. He hoped to sell East Lynne, the only unentailed property still in his possession, privately, so that his creditors would not find out. Archibald Carlyle, a successful young lawyer from West Lynne, visited the Earl as he was very interested in the property.
At dinner, he met the Earl’s daughter, Lady Isabel Vane. He saw that she was beautiful, that she was innocent, that she loved her father dearly, and that she had no idea how precarious his – and her – position was.
After dinner, Lady Isabel left to attend a party with her cousin and chaperone Mrs Vane. Lady Isabel met Captain Francis Levison, her chaperone’s cousin from another wing of her family, at that party. He was charming but clearly no good; she was blind to his failings, and utterly smitten.
The Earl dies suddenly, and his estate and his title are inherited by a distant cousin. He is a good and decent man and he takes Lady Isabel into his home. He grows fond of her but his wife is unhappy with the situation and takes that out on Lady Isabel. When Carlyle has occasion to visit he discovers Lady Isabel in an agitated state and when he sees her position, and she reluctantly tells him what has happened to her, he offers her an escape. He proposes marriage, knowing that she has the qualities to become an excellent wife. She was still in love with Levison, but he had failed to show himself, and so she agreed to the wedding so that she could leave a horrible situation and return to the home she loved at East Lynne.
Meanwhile, in West Lynne, another young woman was trouble. Barbara Hare’s brother, Richard was a fugitive from justice, accused of the murder of George Hallijohn. He had been found standing over Hallijohn’s corpse, gun in hand. It was known that Richard was he had been courting the dead man’s daughter Afy, whom he used to visit in their isolated cottage, despite his father’s angry opposition. Richard paid a furtive visit to his family home, to see his mother and ask for money. He told his sister that there was another man present on the night of the murder, a Captain Thorn, who had also courting Afy. He thinks that Captain Thorne must be the murderer, but he has no idea who he was or where he came from, and Afy has disappeared.
Barbara turns to Archibald Carlyle – a friend and neighbour of her family, and the man she had hoped to marry – for help. (for whom her feelings are more than friendly). Her father has disowned Richard, her mother is frail, and so she and he begin to work together, to try to clear Richard’s name.
In these early chapters I was wonderfully caught up with the story and the characters; developing firm opinions about the different characters, about what had happened, and what – in all probability – was going to happen.
Archibald Carlyle was a good man, but he was foolish in many ways.
He allowed his imperious spinster sister – Miss Corny – to shut up her own home and move into East Lynne, without giving a thought to whether she and his sweet-natured wife would be compatible. They weren’t.
He kept Barbara Hare’s secret and he failed to give his wife any explanation about why he spent so much time at her family home. It didn’t occur to him that his wife might fear the worst. She did.
Captain Francis Levison reappeared when Lady Isabel was at a very low ebb. He charmed her all over again, and she made a decision that would have terrible consequences ….
This was where things started to go wrong; because what I knew of Lady Isabel wouldn’t let me believe that she did what she did.
There was much drama as the story played out:
- A train crash
- A parliamentary election
- A trial for murder
- A deathbed scene or two.
I was increasingly aware that there was far too much melodrama, there was too much that was implausible and that there were far too many coincidences. I was still turning the pages quickly, I was still being wonderfully well entertained; the story was full of incident and I continued to be engaged by the characters and their situations.
I was fascinated by Ellen Wood’s attitude to them to. When she addressed her reader she had a very firm moral stance, but her story suggested that she really had a little more empathy and understanding. Even after her fall, Lady Isabel remained the heroine, and even though her creator put her through the mill she did allow her glimpses of true happiness and a promise of redemption.
I had to sympathise with her; a fundamentally good woman whose circumstances led her to make one mistake, that she would quickly realise was that and pay for so dearly.
I was sorry that the villain responsible for her fall was a little one-dimensional.
The women in this story were more interesting that the men, and they made must have made this story feel very modern in its own time. Afy was a minx, but she was doing what she had to, left to make her own way in the world. Barbara may have been rather proud, but her family situation was difficult, the prospects for a young woman whose brother had been labelled a murderer weren’t good, and she did the best she could for herself and the people she loved. Miss Corny – well I don’t quite have the words, except to say the her dress sense, her economies and her firm principle were wonderfully entertaining. I’d love to send her into the future – maybe into another book – to see what she made of it and what the future made of her.
East Lynne is a very big book, and because it became less plausible and more predictable as I went on I wasn’t entirely sorry to reach the end.
I have to say though, that because there was so much going on its pages, so much to think about, I’m very glad that I decided to visit it again.