Little reviews on little (and big!) books

East Lynne by Ellen Wood

on January 14, 2014

This is the first book that I’ve ever had to put down for a moment to have a quick cry. Yes, it sounds really silly, but that’s how masterfully the novel depicts heart-wrenching moments. I’ll come to why it made me so emotional, but first I’ll tell you why you simply have to read this book 🙂

Wood’s Sensation novel, published in 1861, focuses on the unfortunate life of Lady Isabel Vane who marries Archibald Carlyle, only to be enticed away by the horrible Captain Levison. Isabel already suspects that her husband is having an affair with a local woman, Barbara Hare, when in fact all Archibald is doing is helping Barbara reunite with her brother. Fuelled by Levison’s constant insinuations that her husband is unfaithful, Isabel flees from her home, her children, and Archibald to start a new life with the Captain. Now, such an action in Victorian times would have been scandalous! A woman disregarding her duties as a wife and mother was deemed unacceptable. However, this was the period where the divorce court was starting to flourish, and the reader sees the separation of Carlyle and Isabel. Wood chose to write of topics which were popular with Victorian society, and therefore provides readers with concerns of mid-Victorian society. East Lynne included the concept of an unhappy marriage, a subject causing great debate at the time due to the introduction of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act which effectively helped to establish the divorce courts.

Ellen Wood does a fantastic job of showing to the reader the unbearable guilt that Isabel feels upon running away. Her life with Levison and the child she has to him is an extremely unhappy one, especially since Levison keeps stalling on when they are to be married to make the child legitimate. The reader can see very clearly that Levison cares little for Isabel and the child, admitting to Isabel that he knew all along that Archibald wasn’t having a love affair with Barbara Hare, only a business one. Of course, this enrages Isabel! She left her entire life behind to be with this scoundrel who lied to her when she was at her most vulnerable!

Then comes the train crash… The railway plays an integral part in East Lynne. Without the accident, who knows what would have become of Isabel Vane? Wood’s novel puts into print what so many people were worried about regarding the new railway system, and backs up views that they were temperamental and dangerous. Railways don’t really play a massive role (they’re only discussed as a means of getting somewhere) until Isabel’s accident, in a chapter aptly named ‘An Accident.’ It starts relatively safe, but the sense of destruction as a result of the crash is massive, with Wood acknowledging that,

‘Railway accidents are less frequent in France than they are with us; but when they do occur they are wholesale catastrophes, the memory of which lasts for a life time. The train was within a short distance of the station when there came a sudden shock and crash as of the day of doom; and engine, carriages, and passengers lay in one confused mass at the foot of a steep embankment.’

The result of the crash is Isabel’s disfigurement in the novel:

‘The change that had passed over her in those three months was little less than death itself; no one could have recognised in the pale, thin, shattered, crippled invalid, she who had been known as Lady Isabel Vane.’

Isabel’s survival prompts her to take on her biggest challenge yet. She returns to her old home, assured that nobody will ever be able to recognise her in the hopes of gaining a role within the house looking after her own children as ‘Madame Vine.’ Life is hard for her; she has to watch her former husband live happily with his new wife, Barbara, and watch her children cared for by another woman. However, any sympathy we feel for Isabel is quickly quashed by Ellen Wood. She swiftly reminds us at every available opportunity that Isabel has brought this suffering upon herself through her past actions. It’s almost as if Wood anticipates that we will feel empathy with Isabel’s situation, that we will associate with her feelings of neglect and jealousy. This also meant that she had to be very careful so as to not endorse Isabel’s behaviour, but simply showed how such a belief of adultery can easily develop. The narrator addresses us directly on several occasions in order to show that a woman who commits adultery can suffer a fate worse than death.

‘She had taken a blind leap in a moment of wild passion… she had found herself plunged into an abyss of horror… Oh, reader, believe me! Lady – wife – mother! should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you awake. Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life… resolve to bear them… pray for strength to resist the demon that would urge you so to escape… for be assured that the alternative, if you rush on to it, will be found far worse than death.’

Wood implies that no matter how hard a marriage is, a wife should stick by her husband as the adulterous alternative is a living hell. Isabel Vane is made an example to wives who are thinking of leaving their husbands. This narrator also tries to account for Isabel’s rash actions on the night she decides to flee from her husband:

‘She was most assuredly out of her senses that night, or she never would have listened. A jealous woman is mad; an outraged woman is doubly mad; and the ill-fated Lady Isabel truly believed that every sacred feeling… was betrayed by Mr Carlyle.’

We read of the vulnerability of Isabel and the effects that jealousy have on her mind. She was not herself when she made the decision to run away from Carlyle, just in a heightened state of anger and passion. I would say that Isabel doesn’t deserve hate for her decision; she made her choice, it was the wrong one. She has to live with the consequences for the rest of her life, and that is punishment enough for her. Her disguised return to her home to care for her children is another radical choice we see her make. Again, the moral compass of the narrator enters and asks if the reader would ever emulate such actions:

‘“She brought it upon herself! she ought not to have come back to East Lynne!” groans our moralist again… I agree with you that she ought never to have come back; that it was an act little short of madness: but are you quite sure that you would not have done the same, under the facility and the temptation?’

Wood tries to show that such an act of endangerment may seem foolish to the reader, but in a real-life case, if given the opportunity to return to the family you have deserted, it would be a great temptation to go back disguised. Isabel never stopped loving her children and this is temptation enough to draw her back to East Lynne again.

OK, now we come to the point which made me so emotional. Granted, Isabel suffers daily upon seeing her children live with another woman, and being unable to tell them the truth about who she really is. The real devastating moment comes near the end of the novel where her son, William, takes seriously ill. Isabel takes up residence at his bedside, watches her former husband worry over his son, and sees Barbara wish for the boy to accept her as his real mother. The pain she experiences in being unable to tell William the truth is excruciating to her, and she physically breaks down when her son eventually passes away. Of course, in the play production of the novel, we have the quote, ‘Dead! and never called me mother!’ (or something similar – I’m not too sure of the proper one, sorry). We don’t have this quote in the novel – it doesn’t exist. The depiction of the hours leading up to William’s death and Isabel’s reaction to it was one of the most upsetting moments I’ve ever observed in literature. I think Ellen Wood is a genius as a result. I’ve never cried reading a book before, and it just shows how she makes us engage with the characters so as to experience the sorrow with them. I defy you not to feel even a tiny bit emotional at this point in the book! Ultimately, Isabel crumbles under the weight of her guilt and her secret, eventually revealing her true identity to Carlyle on her deathbed towards the close of the novel. Her ex-husband does forgive her, but upon her death, wishes her name and her memory to be swept under the carpet – the damage she had inflicted is gone with her passing.

Overall, I would have to say that Ellen Wood’s novel is definitely worth a read – it really has earned its place as a classic Victorian Sensation novel, adored by readers of all levels of society upon its publication, and still enjoyed to this day, especially by me! 🙂


6 responses to “East Lynne by Ellen Wood

  1. This sounds like a fascinating look at life in the Victorian era and although a story as you point out accurately reflects the thoughts and concerns of those alive at the time. You have got me interested in reading it anyway 😉

  2. FictionFan says:

    Brilliant review! And I’ve never known where the ‘Dead! And never called me mother!’ quote came from so I’ve learned something. 🙂

  3. The story of Isabel Vane Carlyle is the saddest story I have ever read. She lost all in a moment of madness- her youth, her beauty, her family and her position. I feel that Archibald Carlyle is also to be blamed for what happened, he was somewhat aware of Isabel’s feelings of insecurity,and jealousy, if he had full faith and absolute love for his wife, he should have confided in her that her without going into details, and assured her that his meetings with Barbara were connected with business mattrers and nothing to do with any feelings for Babara. Had he done so, Isabel would have never taken the fatal step she did. She had to bear a great deal for it, it broke her heart and ate into hers oul and though her sin was great, her punishment was greater. For all her faults ,she did not deserve such an end for she was one of the most gentle and kind amongst women and was always anxious to spare other’s feelings. Barbara on the hand, once she married Archibald Carlyle, seems to have become very smug and prim and I often wish there was an alternate ending to East Lynnne, one seeing Carlyle and Isabel together once more.

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