Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Griffith Gaunt, or Jealousy by Charles Reade

I had never heard of this novel until last year, and if you’re able to track down a copy anywhere, it’s a brilliant read. I used it in an essay at University in comparison to Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right – see if you can find any similarities between them 🙂 I could only find the book as a PDF file online, so this is probably your best bet to get your hands on it. Of course I always have to go for the difficult out-of-print novels 😛

Published in 1869, Reade’s relatively unheard of novel depicts (not surprisingly!) the character of Griffith Gaunt and the effects of jealousy on his very being. I found it to be a great companion alongside the Trollope, but I’ll tell you a bit about it first, and you can let me know whether you agree 🙂 Reade’s novel centres around the examination of the male state of mind which he portrays to be an extremely fragile entity. The male protagonist of the novel is shown to suffer from severe jealousy regarding the conduct of his wife, Kate, to the extent that his doubts and suspicions overpower his faculty of reasoning, and he succumbs to transform into the monster his jealousy has inspired. I almost make it sound as if he transforms into a werewolf or other beast, but Reade’s expert way of describing Griffith will make any reader instantly think of Jekyll and Hyde. As we already know, there was a certain standard of masculinity expected from the Victorian male. This required emotional reserve in any situation, and the knowledge that he was head of the household, dominating over the passive female. Victorian men were supposed to be able to show they could control their wives; they should be capable of gaining her submission, and to quell her thirst for conduct and acquaintances not deemed appropriate. Let’s just say, Griffith believes there are a few inappropriate acquaintances for his wife, and when she refuses to listen, that’s when things start to turn ugly. Notably, the issue of masculine status doesn’t really seem to be a problem for Griffith like it is for Louis Trevelyan in the Trollope; Griffith’s only concern is his wife’s actions.

Like Trollope’s novel, the reader encounters many allusions to Shakespeare’s Othello. The most notable aspect is the Iago character in Reade. He chooses to subvert the role and adopt a female Iago in the form of the maid, Caroline Ryder. The narrative, like Othello, is a tale of a jealous husband, with a snake of an advisor, whose job it is to pour poison in his ear about his wife. This gender reversal is significant to the text, perhaps showing that women can be just as devious as men when they want to be. In fact, at one point, Caroline is explicitly referred to as ‘this female Iago.’ Griffith believes his wife to be unfaithful based on very little evidence, only that of the lies told to him by Caroline – the Othello plot. His jealousy has distorted his vision and his reasoning, and it’s impossible for him to see a way out of his dilemma. This jealous fury is engineered and exacerbated by Caroline who does an expert job of filling the Iago role. Griffith suspects his wife of nothing until Caroline arrives on the scene. She wants to claim Griffith as her own, and the only way she can do this is by pouring lies into his ear about his wife’s fidelity towards him. She hopes to become his close confidante, but what she doesn’t expect is the monster that she eventually transforms him into. Griffith believes everything he is told without actually witnessing anything untoward, refuses to listen to his wife’s pleas, and drives himself out of his mind with his own constructions. The critic Emerson Grant Sutcliffe, observes that Charles Reade thought that ‘jealous agony is the one torment men cannot fly from; it fascinates, it holds, it maddens.’ To me, this view sums up the main characters of both the Reade and the Trollope novels. Once doubt and suspicion sets in, each protagonist can do nothing to shake it. It becomes all they can think of, consuming every moment of their every day; it is the end of their sanity once it takes hold.

I’d also like to talk about the effect this jealousy has on Griffith. As mentioned earlier, we see a total alteration in the character from happy, functioning man to degenerative maniac. Reade’s descriptions of the changes that occur in Griffith could almost belong in any horror novel. It could be that the works of the French theorist Jean Étienne Esquirol influenced works of literature where madness takes hold. He worked on and analysed the concept of monomania, effectively mad on the subject of one thing only which consumes the sufferer. I believe that Griffith, unable to cope with his wife’s invented adultery, feels forced to plunge himself into a solely internal world where, apparently, only he makes sense. Due to this internalisation, it’s important to ask whether the character of Griffith is really the same man after his jealous alteration takes place. He’s clearly not in control of his actions, even impulsively considering shooting the priest, Leonard, whom he believes is his rival for his wife’s affections. Questions of personal identity through madness were a popular issue during the nineteenth century, where the doctrine of criminal insanity was constantly under intense scrutiny, defining madness as not knowing right from wrong.

Is the madman really responsible for his own actions?

The critic Chris Wiesenthal examines the physical effect jealousy and madness could have on the body, claiming that the symptoms are similar to that of acute melancholia, such as ‘anorexia, insomnia, and profuse perspiration… [taking] the form of a literal self-consumption, a ‘wasting’ of flesh, muscle, and vital fluids which, ultimately, leaves little more than skeletal remains.’ This is something the reader sees when jealousy takes hold of Griffith Gaunt. We see that:

‘Griffith’s appearance and manner caused Mrs Gaunt very serious anxiety. His clothes hung loose on his wasted frame; his face was of one uniform sallow tint, like a maniac’s… gnawed mad by three vultures… doubt, jealousy, and suspense.’

Gaunt by name, Gaunt by appearance.

At the outset of Reade’s novel, the reader gets a look at Griffith’s destructive jealousy first-hand. On seeing Neville’s admirations of his future wife, we are told of the change in Griffith’s form, through Catherine witnessing:

‘the livid passion of jealousy writhing in every lineament of a human face. That terrible passion had transfigured its victim in a moment… in his place lowered a face, older, and discoloured, and convulsed, and almost demoniacal.’

It is almost as if Catherine can see the poison of jealousy coursing through his veins. Griffith becomes a victim of excessive passions, at once aging and demonising his appearance. Griffith seems to take the concept of the Othello green-ey’d monster to another level; he both physically and mentally becomes that monster. When Griffith does let his jealousy get the better of him later in the novel, it manifests itself in greater ways than ever before. It has been hidden so long, it has developed into insanity and blind rage. On its appearance, Catherine acknowledges ‘she had not seen that vile expression in his face for many a year,’ but in a scene the reader does not see between Louis and Emily in the Trollope, she articulates his insanity to his face. She states, ‘Madman that you are… I throw away excuses on Jealousy, and I waste reason upon phrenzy.’ She knows her denials are wasted on Griffith when he is in such a state, but she cannot continue to let him think ill of her. Throughout the novel, Catherine (or Kate) becomes more and more religious and is therefore drawn towards the new priest, Leonard. Caroline sees this as her chance to influence her master’s thoughts and uses this close relationship to her advantage. However, in his madman state, Griffith is not the same reasonable person, and therefore cannot think rationally of his wife’s pleading statements to him. His passions and jealousy bubble beneath the surface like a dormant volcano, slumbering until an explosion is necessary.

When this explosion happens, it injures all parties involved more than ever before. The extent to which jealousy and insanity overtakes his personality is astonishing to the reader. He is shown to have ‘the face, the eyes, the gestures, the incoherent mutterings of a raving Bedlamite,’ essentially behaving as though he belongs in an asylum. However, this is nothing compared to the extreme consequences he becomes victim to through his own jealous passions. On pouring yet more lies into her master’s ear, Caroline Ryder causes Griffith’s most insane reaction yet. The reader is told that: ‘Griffith’s features were horribly distorted, his eyes rolled fearfully, and he fell to the ground, grinding his teeth, and foaming at the mouth. An epileptic fit!’

Griffith has believed lies, and worked himself into such frenzy, that his body gives out, and he is subject to a violent seizure. His jealousy has overtaken his mind to such an extent that it overwhelms his body’s capability to deal with the situation rationally. By the close of the novel, the reader is presented with a far more remorseful character than we get at the end of Trollope’s extensive read. He writes to Catherine, ‘I do not ask you to forgive me; for, if you had done what I have, I could never forgive you,’ showing he is well aware of his wrong-doings towards his wife – an admittance Trevelyan takes great pains to avoid. Therefore, it could be the case that the reader thinks more of Griffith because he is not afraid to admit he was in the wrong, and has behaved appallingly. The novel therefore ends happily, with Griffith’s wife accepting his apology and agreeing to let him back into her life.

Despite being a rather difficult novel to track down, I really would recommend this to everyone. The allusions to Shakespeare are a welcome addition, and the debate over the responsibilities of madmen is an extremely interesting one. Even though Griffith loses his power of ratiocination, it’s rather difficult not to condemn him for his foolish actions. He’s so blinded by jealous fury that he cannot see the truth that lies in front of him. At least we get an apology from him! Ideally, as I have said, read this alongside the Trollope to get a nice little comparison of how jealousy over nothing can affect the main characters 🙂 A long read, but a great one! 🙂


Liebster Award!

Firstly, I’d like to thank both Bookarino and Turning Pages and Tea for their nominations! It really means a lot that you’re enjoying reading my little blog 🙂 As I was nominated by 2 different bloggers, I’ll try to answer a mix of their questions!





The Rules:

  1. Thank the blogger that nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Display the award somewhere on your blog.
  3. List 11 facts about yourself.
  4. Answer 11 questions chosen by the blogger that nominated you.
  5. Come up with 11 new questions to ask your nominees.
  6. Nominate 5-11 blogs that you think deserve the award and who have less than 1,000 followers. (You may nominate blogs that have already received the award, but you cannot renominate the blog that nominated you.)
  7. Go to their blog and inform them that they’ve been nominated.

11 Little Facts About Me!

  • I have a great love for pandas, zebras, and penguins – I saw them all at Edinburgh Zoo last year and it made my day!
  • I love black and white pictures, especially of New York, Paris, or from movies.
  • I can speak very VERY basic Spanish 🙂
  • My favourite TV shows (at the moment!) are Catfish, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, Southland, and my soap of choice has to be Neighbours!
  • I graduated from the University of Glasgow (which tends to be compared with Hogwarts a lot!) with an MA(Hons) in English Literature and Philosophy, and then an M.Litt in Victorian Literature.
  • I spend way too much time on Facebook when I really should be reading!
  • I’m a massive fan of theRadBrad’s walkthrough videos on YouTube 🙂
  • Converse are my favourite shoes – I even have a Catwoman pair 🙂
  • I don’t have a favourite novel – I just have a shortlist that keeps growing! The main members of that list are Dracula by Stoker, and anything by Gaskell, Collins, or Zola. Dickens is NOT on the list. I’m not a fan.
  • I have a leatherbound edition of the works of Shakespeare because I love his plays.
  • I can bake an amazing peppermint slice, and can serve up a lovely carrot and coriander soup 🙂

11 Questions from Bookarino and Turning Pages and Tea

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently in the middle of a re-read of Wuthering Heights. It’s been a while since I read it. I hope to do a blog post on it at some point, but I felt I had to go through it again so I could actually remember who everyone was! Slightly easier to get my head around the Cathy/Catherine difference now!

What is the worst book you have ever read?

I have a few which I have really hated. They’ve been so bad that I’ve actually been angry at the end because I’ll never get that time back again! I really didn’t like Orlando by Virginia Woolf, The Warden by Anthony Trollope, but my main problem lies with anything by James Joyce. I’ll probably outrage a lot of people, but I really don’t like his work. I can’t stand any sort of experimental, abstract writing so he’s a definite no-no for me.

What is the book that you recommend to people most often?

I would say I definitely push a lot of Gaskell on people! 🙂 I adore her novels, and I just want everyone else to experience what a great storyteller she is. That, and Dracula.

What made you become a book blogger?

To be honest, I’d never really thought about it before November last year. I think I thought it would be a bit hard to set up, and I didn’t think anyone would read it anyway! I finished my postgraduate Masters, and I just thought, why not? I have read so many books at University – some I’ve loved, some I’ve disliked – and it felt like a good time to share my thoughts with all the other bookworms out there! I’m so glad I did start blogging, and I’m so grateful to those of you who read, like, and comment on my posts 🙂

Do you have a specific place where you read?

The best place for me to read has always been either tucked up in bed, or lying on the sofa. Comfort is key for me – once I’m comfy, I can lose myself.

What is the longest book you have ever read?

I try to avoid Dickens, not because I think they’re too long, but I simply believe that they are unnecessarily long. East Lynne by Ellen Wood was a biggie, as was Armadale by Wilkie Collins, but I think the longest novel I’ve read (and finished!) was He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope. That book was a monster!

What is your favourite poem (if you have one)?

I’ve never really understood poetry. I like books as I feel I can immerse myself in the story, whereas a poem can be over so quickly. Most of the time I can’t even decipher a meaning from poems so I tend to shy away from them. However, during my literature courses, I’ve come across my fair share of poetry, and I would have to say that I quite like some of John Donne’s work.

Which book/books have influenced you the most?

I would have to say that any books I have used to write important pieces of work have had the biggest influences on me. They have helped me to graduate twice, and to be in the position I am today, so in some ways, I’m quite grateful to them! 🙂 So novels like Armadale, The Law and the Lady, East Lynne, Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd, and the texts involving female detectives (which are on the blog!) have been most influential.

How would you describe yourself as a reader?

I’m a very picky reader, I think. Only the best make it on to my reading list 😛 Although, it’s sometimes nice just to read a bit of chick-lit for a little chillout on holiday 🙂 No Twilight though!

What is your opinion on reading e-books?

I’ve always liked to read with a physical book in my hand, but due to some classics being out of print, I do read e-books. I found that these free e-books came in very handy when University reading lists included books that had been out of print for years! I like that I can leave markers and highlight important points on an e-book just as I would on a book, but at the end of the day, nothing beats looking through my bookshelf 🙂

Do you sometimes fake that you’ve read a book that you actually haven’t?

I can honestly say I’ve never faked about reading a certain book. Everyone has different tastes on literature, and I don’t think there should be any need to pretend to have read a book that maybe doesn’t interest you. Plus, you’ll get found out pretty quickly when someone asks you the plot! 😛

11 Questions for Nominees

  • Do you have a favourite book?
  • What made you start blogging?
  • If you could take 5 books with you to a desert island, which ones would you choose?
  • What is the worst book you have ever read?
  • Are you reading anything right now?
  • What is the shortest and/or longest book you have read?
  • Where do you read?
  • When did you discover your passion for reading?
  • How do you arrange your bookshelf? (e.g. by colour, by author, etc)
  • Do you think more people should read the classics?
  • Which book do you recommend most to others?

My Nominees

Acid Free Pulp

The Reading Girl

Cleopatra Loves Books

Fiction Fan

Fleur in her World


Armadale by Wilkie Collins

There’s always a place in my library for Wilkie Collins. He is, quite simply, one of the best authors I’ve ever read. You’ve already heard me gush about how much I love his books in previous posts so I won’t go too overboard here, but this is yet another favourite of mine 🙂 Armadale will take you a while to get through – it’s a pretty long Sensation novel (with my Penguin copy ending on page 666 – freaky, right?) This fact is a little more scary once you actually read the book and find out more about the actions of the murderous Lydia Gwilt, or as I regard her, the ultimate anti-heroine. Lydia Gwilt is a terrifying character. She is evil through and through. In fact, she is poison. Yes, that seems a little strong to start off with, but trust me, you’ll find out what she’s capable of soon enough! That being said, there is a certain redeeming quality about her, but we are only introduced to this side of her personality at the end of the novel.

Published in 1866 in the midst of the Sensation fiction boom, Collins’s novel shocked and horrified critics through its use of such a malicious female character. The opening chapter or so runs a little slow in my opinion, but I’m assuming this is simply due to its role in setting up the characters and background. As this is a Sensation novel, we already expect certain things from it: murder, bigamy, poison, perhaps an assertive female character. Let’s just say none of these are in short supply! Collins draws on every aspect of the classic Sensation novel in his writing and thank goodness he did! 🙂 Personally, I would like to talk more of Lydia Gwilt than of the actual novel, but I really should give a brief summary to entice you to read it 🙂

Armadale centres around two men both called Allan Armadale. There had been a previous dispute between their fathers where one had murdered the other. One Allan Armadale adopts the name of Ozias Midwinter and runs away from home where *surprise* he runs into the other Allan Armadale and becomes his companion. Here’s where things get a little confusing 🙂 Midwinter eventually learns through a letter from his deceased father exactly who Allan is, but Allan doesn’t know who Midwinter is. Allan inherits the large estate of Thorpe Ambrose from his family, and meets the family living in one of the cottages there, the Milroys (consisting of Major Milroy, his wife, and daughter Eleanor). After many visits to the cottage, Allan falls head over heels in love with Eleanor.

It all seems so perfect, doesn’t it? Enter Lydia Gwilt.

Previously a maid to one of the Allan’s mothers, she hears of the rise in wealth of Allan and, encouraged by her old sinister friend Mrs. Oldershaw, tries to concoct a plan to establish herself as the lady of the manor. Soon she arrives at the front door of Major Milroy, posing with fake references as a governess. There she lies in wait for her prey. Despite her best efforts, and by this I mean that she tries absolutely everything in her power, she realises that there is no chance of her splitting Allan and Eleanor up. Do women like Lydia Gwilt give up? Of course not! Instead she moves her interests to Midwinter, and upon learning that his real name is the same as that of the subject of her foiled efforts, creates a new plan. If she can marry Ozias under his real name, then arrange for the original Allan Armadale to somehow go missing, she can then suddenly appear as Mrs. Armadale and inherit the entire estate. Foolproof, right? WRONG. What Lydia didn’t plan out was the problem of actually falling in love with Midwinter.

[*SPOILERS*] To cut a pretty long story short (trust me, the bits I miss out are really worth reading!), Lydia arranges, with the help of a sanatorium doctor, Dr. Downward, to kill Allan. Midwinter and Allan are lured there and placed in separate rooms. The reason for this is that Downward and Lydia’s plan involves filling Allan’s room with an imperceptible gas which will leave no trace in the body. However, the gassing goes awry when Midwinter insists that he switch rooms with Allan, all because he has a feeling something bad will happen. Here we see the only redeeming quality of Lydia that I mentioned earlier. On realising her husband is in the wrong room, she quickly dashes in and drags him out of harm’s way. She really does love Midwinter, and makes the ultimate sacrifice for him. After making sure he is safe, she writes a confession letter and then takes her own life in the gas-filled room. The novel ends with the death of Lydia, the marriage of Allan and Eleanor, and a final resolution that everything has returned to the way it should be.

Sorry, that was a pretty big brief summary 😛 Now you know everything, I can move on to talk about the character of Lydia Gwilt 🙂 She is a powerful and vindictive woman, leading Henry Chorley to describe her as ‘one of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened literature.’ She is severely lacking in feminine restraint which we see in her diary entries and letters where she says things like: ‘I am in one of my tempers to-night. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something.’ As already explained in earlier reviews, the Victorian domesticated ideal of woman was a creature who was devout and dutiful; what we see here is the complete antithesis. On the outside, she pretends to be sweet in order to avoid suspicion about her character and her intentions, but of course we as the reader can see straight through her disguise.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, she is a source of poison throughout Armadale, not only manipulating others, but physically poisoning characters. She uses her looks to get exactly where she wants, and where looks fail, violence prevails. Her schemes are constrained to her diary; just like Lucy Audley, it is vital that she maintains the angelic front. She will not let anyone stand in her way, threatening many characters throughout the novel. On writing of Allan Armadale, she describes him as:

‘a rattle-pated young fool – one of those noisy, rosy, light-haired, good-tempered men, whom I particularly detest… I really never saw a man whom I could use so ill, if I had the opportunity.’

She shows just how vindictive she can be when Allan ignores her in the street later in the novel. She states:

‘no man living ever yet treated me as if I was plague-struck… as if the very air about me was infected by my presence!… When he walked away from me down that lane, he walked to his death.’

Lydia is almost like an evil chameleon. She changes the way she acts depending on who is present, and this is how she manages to avoid suspicion for so long. She is the supreme anti-heroine, choosing to try and shape her own destiny through vengeance and violence. She plans all of her wicked schemes by herself, showing to the reader that she is in fact not just another woman doomed to sit in the shadows for eternity. She only recruits people and asks for their help when she truly needs to, choosing instead to be assertive and independent in all of her plans. The acts she performs are sinister in the sense that they can be imagined by any reader. The act of poisoning is not at all far-fetched and we read of Lydia:

‘measuring the doses with my eye, and calculating how many of them would be enough to take a living creature over the border-land between sleep and death.’

As I mentioned in the review of Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, hair colour was regarded as symbolic in the Victorian period. Here we have a woman with flame-red hair which suggested associations with evil and the devil (rather fitting here!) Galia Ofek writes that this previously unsightly hair colour corresponds with Lydia’s ‘aggressive, bloody femininity… and flaming sexuality.’ We see many examples of this throughout the novel. When her attempts on Armadale’s life fail, she doesn’t waste time thinking about what might have been or whether what she is doing is right or not; she instantly tries to plan out the next best way to kill him.

Then we have the ending, and I think it’s safe to say it’s a bit of a shock. Lydia becomes almost dictated to by her husband, and ultimately sacrifices herself for him, a complete alteration from the character we have seen previously. She concludes that:

‘the one atonement I can make for all the wrong I have done you is the atonement of my death. It is not hard for me to die, now I know you will live.’

It could be considered that this is the only possibility in which Lydia is trying to redeem herself for all of her past actions. Collins perhaps chooses this ending in order to show that such ruthless behaviour cannot survive in the world.

I’d have to say that this is a wonderful read – as you can probably tell from this review, there’s plenty of stuff going on! If you’re wanting to have a look at other pieces of Collins’s Sensation fiction which doesn’t include The Woman in White, then I suggest you try to read this novel 🙂 There’s intrigue, murder, poison, and evil deeds galore, and I guarantee you’ll never get bored!


Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

If you’re a big Sensation fiction fan like myself, chances are you’ve already come across Lady Audley. In fact, even if you’re just a Victorian enthusiast, I’m sure you’ll have read or simply heard of the novel. As I stated earlier in my review of Braddon’s subsequent novel, Aurora Floyd, I found Aurora to be a much more interesting heroine, but that doesn’t take anything away from Braddon’s classic novel 🙂 If you’re new to the whole genre of Sensation (don’t worry, I’ll be doing a blog post at some point on the genre itself) and wondering what the average plot involves, this is a fantastic piece of literature to start with.

To me, the best thing about the novel is that it opens with a lovely chapter entitled ‘Lucy’ which basically gives the reader the story of how Lucy Graham became Lucy Audley and teases us with the concept of Lucy’s innocent looks. We read that she:

‘was blessed with that magic power of fascination by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile. Everyone loved, admired, and praised her.’

She seems absolutely perfect, but of course, we as the reader already suspect that nobody can truly be so angelic (and obviously the title of the novel kind of gives it away that all is not what it seems!) Old Sir Michael Audley’s proposal allows Lucy to escape her surroundings and gain a standing within society. However, the reader also hears her comment that this marriage will mean:

‘No more dependence, no more drudgery, no more humiliation… every trace of the old life melted away – every clue to identity buried and forgotten,’

implying that there is something more to her character, something she wishes to keep secret and forget. The unravelling of this secret is the main plot of the novel.

*[SPOILERS]* Lucy is a character with an extremely strong sense of agency. She alters her identity in order to maintain the façade that she is the stereotypical sweet, fair-haired, angelic wife. She is ruthless in the protection of her secret past which is… that she has already been married!! The novel has alternating chapters at the beginning to show her first husband, George Talboys, attempting to track her down with the assistance of the male protagonist of the story, Robert Audley. One day, George goes missing and Robert will not rest until he discovers what has happened to his friend. Eventually we find out that George had confronted Lucy over her identity, after which she shoves him down a well and leaves him there – what a nice lady! Like I said, she will do anything to cling onto the life she has now created for herself and when Robert Audley unveils the truth, she even attempts to burn him alive in his bed to stop him telling anyone! It must be mentioned that at the end of the novel, Lucy is diagnosed with hereditary madness which in some ways (but not totally!) explains why she acts the way she does throughout the course of the book.

The reader will also note that she is an extremely good actress as we see at many points where she manipulates those around her, not caring who she hurts in the process. It emerges that the past life she is trying to conceal is that of her life as Helen Talboys, wife to George. When George leaves to try and make his wealth in Australia, Helen (or Lucy – it starts to get a bit confusing :P) doesn’t think he will ever return, so takes matters into her own hands to try and move on and marry better and higher (and richer!) She reinvents herself, entices Sir Michael Audley with her apparent sweetness and beauty, and becomes lady of the manor. The narrator describes her as:

‘pleased with her high position and her handsome house; with… every whim indulged; admired and caressed wherever she went… it would have been hard to find… a more fortunate creature.’

She has indeed been fortunate, but only by telling lies and this is what makes her a very distant character. Like most of the villainesses or perhaps I should say transgressive female characters of Sensation fiction, she evokes no sympathy from the reader (well, I definitely didn’t warm to her, that’s for sure!) Perhaps you felt differently upon your reading of the novel, and I’d love to hear if you did 🙂

I found her to be a very strange character. She adapts to the role of loving wife beautifully, and maintains the angelic front whilst working to keep her secret from being revealed. Here we see the opposing and conflicting sides of Victorian woman’s character (and there are a lot of secondary sources you can read on this): the angel and the demon. Lucy conforms to the expected Victorian domesticated ideal, the angel in the house, but still has this venomous ruthless streak. This in turn sums up some of the anxiety that surrounded the genre of Sensation fiction. Part of the excitement and nervousness came from the fact that you could never be 100% sure the people around you were who they claimed to be, and here we have the angelic sweet Lucy who turns out underneath it all to be a bigamist, mad, and willing to murder. Appearances can most definitely be deceiving in this case! By being initially set up in the novel as ‘the sweetest girl that ever lived,’ it is a shock to see her behave so terribly.

At the close of the novel, the reader sees Lucy Audley left to perish in a foreign mental asylum under a false name, but her influence remains at Audley Court thanks to the portrait she leaves in her chambers. There’s always a sinister portrait in these stories! 🙂 It is, in fact, of great importance and is one of the first glimpses we get of Lucy’s true identity. The picture is described as having ‘something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend,’ the side of Lucy that is yet to come forward and show itself. It is remarked by Lucy’s step-daughter:

‘I think that sometimes a painter… is able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes. We have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could look so.’

Of course, the reader and the rest of the characters in the novel do eventually see the true persona of Lucy Audley and it’s not that different to the fiend described on the wall. On being ejected from her home after her deeds have been unveiled, we see the coarse side of Lucy, only caring of the possessions she is being forced to leave behind, not caring a jot for the man who gave them to her. She is regarded by Robert Audley as ‘the most detestable and despicable of her sex – the most pitiless and calculating of human creatures,’ and I don’t think it could be summed up better than that.

Ultimately, despite her best efforts including threatening to kill Robert and actually trying to in the fire, her secret past is revealed and she is ousted from her position in society. She pays the price for her actions, and she is one of those characters where there really could have been no other ending fitting for her. Such baseness cannot live within respectable society, so she had to be removed from it.

So, to conclude, I would recommend this book to everyone 🙂 I may have rambled on here a bit, but trust me, I still have plenty more to say on this book! It really is a great read and the plot is gripping. It definitely deserves its classic status and I would urge anybody who hasn’t yet had time to read it to give it a go – you won’t be disappointed! 🙂


What Did It Mean to be a Female Detective in the Nineteenth Century?

So I thought I’d do something a little different in this post rather than just examine one specific book. This post will be more about genre and character development of the female detective which I’ve discussed in previous reviews. My Victorian Literature Masters dissertation focused on several of the books I’ve already written about here, but it also opened my eyes to a lot of secondary reading on the subject too. Once I’d managed to wade through the amount of books on Sherlock Holmes, I finally found what I’d been looking for, and that’s what I’d like to talk about here. In a way, I hope it’ll encourage you to go and read of these fascinating women that literary history just seems to have forgotten about. If you’d like any more information on any of the books I talk about in this post, please feel free to ask for details 🙂

It seems, in this day and age, the first names to spring to our lips when we’re asked about detectives are Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, or perhaps Hercule Poirot, but these characters were all influenced from earlier creations. The tales of Sherlock Holmes emerged in 1887, and since then have eclipsed all that came before it. Heather Worthington claims:

‘Doyle’s genius was to take the best from what had come before and refine it into a cohesive and compelling form, and so successful was his format that it superseded its predecessors and shaped its successors.’

The lady detectives had similar ways of working, and similar logical steps and sayings to guide them to their conclusions. If Doyle was shaping and refining from what had come before, this means that the Holmes stories could quite possibly have been, even if only slightly, influenced by the works of Forrester and Hayward. The reader sees similar cases involving women dressing as men, tunnelling into bank vaults, and in fact, a very similar usage of a famous Holmes saying. We read of Mrs Paschal saying ‘I had seen a few things in my life which appeared scarcely susceptible of explanation at first, but which, when eliminated by the calm light of reason and dissected by the keen knife of judgement, were in a short time as plain as the sun at noonday.’ Now, if anyone is good with their Holmes quotes, I deemed this to be reasonably similar to his statement where once you remove the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth – again, did Doyle take from what had come before and alter it?

Essentially, detective fiction was a boy’s club – no girls allowed. Without any role models in the real world on which to base their characters, authors had to attempt to construct their ladies from scratch, always facing the problem of whether a woman could believably be accommodated into the violent world of crime. Crime fiction was extremely popular during the Victorian period; anyone who has studied the nineteenth century will know how Victorian society loved reading of a good crime in the newspapers or gossiping about the latest murderer on the loose. This being said, the public still wanted to feel safe and this is where, as Dennis Porter believes, is where crime and mystery fiction scored. He thought the appeal lay in the fact that they ‘provide reassurance… because they deal in identifiable good and evil and end up punishing the latter.’ The appearance of the female detective must have been something of a revelation to nineteenth-century readers as real-life female policewomen didn’t even appear until towards the end of the century. Of course, in both Andrew Forrester and William Stephens Hayward’s texts, we read of a lady detective existing in the 1860s. With the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 and the Detective Police in 1842, it cannot be that these authors were depicting reality as women were only admitted as Police Matrons in 1889 with extremely minimal roles, nothing of the sort we see Loveday Brooke or Mrs. Paschal work on. The Victorian male has a reputation for believing that women could not show the cool and calm nerve and the rational mindset to function as a police officer, but time and time again, the female detectives in literature show how they can outwit the policemen and solve the case.

As most twenty-first century readers will know, the Victorian male’s view of what woman was capable of was anything but flattering. It was believed that the common perception was that women were to be confined to the passive, domestic side of life, whereas men were entitled to be involved with the active and the physical. However, the ladies we see in Forrester, Hayward, Pirkis, Green, and Collins all show they are the antithesis of this view, endeavouring to place themselves firmly within the active sphere. Stephen Knight makes an excellent point when he states:

‘the creators of the early women detectives were trying, against the tide of the male magazines as much as against social attitudes, to offer different and inherently subversive positions and values for detecting crime. They idea that they all pursued… was that crime can both threaten and be explained by a woman as much as a man.’

Personally, I think Knight sums up the entire debate in one quotation. These authors were simply trying to show something different to the norm. They wished to show that women could take on this previously masculine role and do just as good a job. They could gain access to some environments which would have been closed to male detectives, and can notice domestic clues which male detectives could easily miss. One of the definitions of ‘detection’ in the OED establishes it as the finding out of what tends to elude notice – notable when, as just stated, clues can elude a man’s notice. As I already mentioned in the review for That Affair Next Door, some matters needed a woman’s eye over the scene in order to examine it thoroughly. A woman’s added knowledge and her ability to traverse both the public and private spheres effectively unnoticed gave her the greatest advantage of all; nobody would ever suspect a woman. Val McDermid likens it to the old Monty Python sketch where they burst into a room and shout, ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ This made me chuckle whilst in the middle of this heavy-going dissertation 🙂 She is right though. Nobody expects the little old lady or the innocent looking young girl to be investigating a case, and this is where the female detective scores.

We’ve already seen a couple of 1860s female detectives, but for some strange reason, they disappeared then reappeared towards the end of the century. With no female detectives in reality, it was pretty easy to dismiss these ladies as some sort of fantasy fiction which I feel is a real shame. They all have a great drive for their profession, but come before the advent of the New Woman in literature. Granted, they all seem to exhibit a mixture of characteristics that could be attributed to the emerging modern woman e.g. independence, assertiveness, intelligence, but not one of them is definitively a New Woman. Perhaps, as W.H. Auden believed, these detective stories were simply designed ‘to be escape literature which provides a magical satisfaction.’ In many ways, I think he expresses it just perfectly 🙂

So never mind your Sherlock Holmes or your Miss Marples, give these other ladies a shot at the limelight and I think you’ll find they’re equally, if not more, deserving of it 🙂

Knight, Stephen. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. (London: The Macmillan Press, 1980)

McDermid, Val. A Suitable Job for a Woman: Inside the World of Women Private Eyes. (Arizona: Poisoned Pen Press, 1999)

Porter, Dennis. The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981)

Worthington, Heather. Key Concepts in Crime Fiction. (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)


Esther Waters by George Moore

‘Hers is an heroic adventure if one considers it – a mother’s fight for the life of her child against all the forces that civilisation arrays against the lowly and the illegitimate.’

This review may sound a little morbid, but it is a novel of struggles and hardships, so please remember that. Esther Waters is a novel which deals with many problems which were prominent in real-life Victorian society so I’ll do my best to mention as many as I can in this review 🙂

Published in 1894, Moore’s tale is another example of the realism we see depicted in the work of Zola. In fact, George Moore was highly influenced by the gritty side of Zola’s work and used to meet with him to discuss the naturalism they both used in their novels. As seen already in Zola’s L’Assommoir, naturalism involves a scandalous depiction of the truth. This genre transcends what convention stated as proper subject matter for a bourgeois novel to contain, and instead focused on the dirt, the grime, and the problems of real life without glossing over hardships and the like, hoping to show a side of life literature had never seen before. Just a little point before I move on: realism is NOT simply the depiction of reality. Rather, it assumes the stance of telling a narrative as if it had direct insight into how people are. It attempts to ground itself in an epistemological role of building a picture of how we can know information about people. It gives the illusion of depicting real life, when in fact, it cannot. Although we acknowledge the authors are not telling us a true story about real people, we are drawn into the illusion these stories can occur. (Sorry for going all serious uni student on you there! I just felt that it’s always helpful to remember what the authors were trying to do in their novels 🙂 ) Anyway, to the actual story…

Poor Esther Waters. Keep count of how many times you think this whilst reading! We see a woman who is continuously affected by her proximity to toxic environments and the people she comes into contact with. Why doesn’t she just up and leave, you might ask. Well, let’s just say her priorities lie elsewhere…

We first meet Esther on a train station platform, travelling to her new position as a kitchen-maid at an estate called Woodview owned by the Barfields. She seems to settle in well there, until William (the cook’s son) takes a shine to her. As I mentioned earlier, surroundings play an important role in Moore’s novel, and the problem lies in the fact that the Woodview estate is obsessed with horse-racing and gambling. Esther, being brought up to be an extremely religious young lady refuses to be involved with such things (apart from one little flurry). William, on the other hand, makes the most of every race and gambles on the horses from the estate. As time passes, Esther and William grow closer; they talk of marriage and the future on their evening walks. However, one night, something happens that changes Esther’s life forever. It is never explained in great detail what actually occurs (which is rather strange for a naturalism novel), but you get a pretty good idea that they do slightly more than have a little chat. I’ll leave you to figure it out!

‘They lay together in the warm valleys, listening to the tinkling of the sheep-bell, and one evening, putting his pipe aside, William threw his arm round her, whispering that she was his wife. The words were delicious in her fainting ears, and her will died in what seemed like irresistible destiny. She could not struggle with him, though she knew that her fate depended upon her resistance, and swooning away she awakened in pain, powerless to free herself. … Soon after thoughts betook themselves on their painful way, and the stars were shining when he followed her across the down, beseeching her to listen.’

After a few months, William runs off with one of the daughters of the house, leaving Esther to discover that she is in fact pregnant:

‘something awoke within her, something that seemed to her like a flutter of wings; her heart seemed to drop from its socket, and she nearly fainted away… The truth was borne in upon her; she realised in a moment part of the awful drama that awaited her, and from which nothing could free her, and which she would have to live through hour by hour.’

Esther comes to realise the terrible position she is in and that she must leave her job at Woodview. I’ll not bore you with all the details of her travels and her attempts to find a situation afterwards, but I will tell you that it’s not easy for her. Also, I thought it was worthwhile to note that the depiction of the birth is also unusual. You would expect some sort of detail from a novel of this genre, but instead the reader is anaesthetised, along with Esther, and we only awake when her son has been born. Just as we are intoxicated and unconscious to how she came to bear her child, so are we excluded from the birth.

Struggling to support her child, Esther takes a job as a wet-nurse for a wealthy woman’s child, but has to leave her own baby with a less than trustworthy woman as she cannot take him with her. This leads to the next most important feature Moore discusses in the novel, and that is the practice of wet-nursing. It was an extremely popular occupation for women in the Victorian period with adverts frequently published in The Times; a girl who had recently had her own child needed in order to provide the milk meant for her own baby to someone else’s. This in turn leads Moore to mention the baby-farming issue. When Esther realises that her own son is being treated poorly in care, and that other women’s children have died so that this woman’s child could be fed, she snaps. She sees the whole situation as predatory and horrific. She cannot bring herself to gamble with her own son’s life. Esther regards it as:

‘a life for a life… The children of two poor girls had been sacrificed… Even that was not enough, the life of her beautiful boy was called for… she was the victim of a dark and far-reaching conspiracy.’

Ultimately, Esther sees through the façade of the practice of wet-nursing; in no way could she ever sacrifice her child. She realises she is depriving her own son of his only means of sustenance, and tells her employer she no longer wants the job. She shows she is a woman of morals and standards and courage.

Skipping ahead a little, William returns wanting to spend time with his son. At first, Esther is unsure whether she can trust him again, but he tells her that she is to come and live with him so that he can get a divorce from his first wife. She agrees, and they open a pub together with William’s money he has earned from gambling and racing, and to be fair, they do have an extremely happy life together. However, once more, the horse racing plays a massive role, and this is where I’ll touch on my final issue: the influence of betting. At Woodview, Mrs. Barfield sees it as nothing but folly, stating:

‘Oh, that betting!… the whole place is poisoned with it… I have seen it all my life… seen nothing come of it but sin and sorrow; you are not the first victim. Ah, what ruin, what misery, what death!’

Esther’s illegitimate pregnancy is a result of too much merriment after the servants won money at the races, but the atmosphere of betting, in Mrs Barfield’s view, only results in disappointment and sadness. The environment Esther inhabits constantly turns back to betting again, be that at Woodview or in her own pub. Men (and women) talk about it constantly, want to know odds, and risk their life savings in the hope of gaining more. In the novel, it’s depicted as a real problem, with people seeing it as a quick fix to get money. Moore writes of the highs a community could experience if the betting paid off:

‘the dear gold came falling softly, sweetly as rain, soothing the hard lives of working folk. Lives pressed with toil lifted up and began to dream again. The dear gold was like an opiate; it wiped away memories of hardship and sorrow,’

but he also shows the other side. William squanders away his money, but hopes to recoup it all with what he has left. Foolishly, instead of saving what little income he had for his wife and child, he bets the last of the money in hopes of a big payout. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, and William dies leaving Esther effectively bankrupt. On Esther’s return to Woodview at the end of the novel, she is greeted with open arms by Mrs. Barfield and the reader sees her grown-up son preparing for duty as a soldier. All in all, despite her struggles, she has brought her son up well, and that is all she really worried about in life.

Quite a depressing read, I know, but if you want an insight into many problems which were part of Victorian society, Moore does an expert job of depicting them.

Wow, I really need to write on happier books! I promise the next one will be cheerier 🙂


Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Most of you will already be familiar with Braddon’s more famous novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (which will be reviewed later), but I wish to talk about this equally fantastic piece of Sensation fiction. It was published relatively quickly after her success with the character of Lucy Audley, and gained almost the same popularity. However, when we talk of Braddon’s novels, we instinctively still choose Lady Audley’s Secret. Granted it is a thrilling read, but I felt that Aurora Floyd pulled me in more as a reader. Of course, you can make your own choices on which text you prefer, but in case you’re not familiar with the book at all, here’s my little synopsis 🙂

Appearing around 1863, Braddon’s next Sensation novel arrived when her writing was at its most popular. Focusing upon Aurora Floyd, Braddon constructs a similar character to that of Lucy Audley with some glaring differences, the most important being hair colour. I know it seems pretty silly to bring up, but the depiction of hair colour was extremely important to Victorians. They believed it instantly gave an insight into a person’s nature. Women with fair/blonde hair were more likely to be innocent and amiable, those with dark hair (like Aurora) were thought to embody the passionate and dangerous woman, and those with red hair… well, I’ll touch on that when I turn to Wilkie Collins’s Armadale. Instead of the golden-haired so-called angel Lucy Audley, the reader is introduced to the boisterous, tempestuous, dark-haired Aurora. She grows up without a mother around and has essentially wrapped her father around her little finger. She gets away with doing what she wants, when she wants and therefore she is portrayed (at least at the beginning of the novel) as a character with a great deal of agency over her life. In her younger years, she refuses to conform to what is expected of her, stating:

‘What is the use of this big world, if we are to stop for ever in one place, chained to one set of ideas, fettered to one narrow circle of people, seeing and hearing of the persons we hate for ever and ever, and unable to get away from the odious sound of their names?’

She desires to see more of the world and hates being restricted in her environment. Aurora likes to read horse-racing magazines and gets into heated debates with men, not exactly the proper behaviour expected from a young lady. Conversely, the reader sees Aurora’s cousin, Lucy Floyd, as the perfect embodiment of Victorian womanhood and the pinnacle of domestication. Lucy conceals and restrains her emotions as a proper lady should, even hiding the fact that she is in love with Aurora’s first fiancée. Strangely, Lucy is the one portrayed at the start of the novel as the victim; she is not really allowed a voice and a sense of her own agency the way Aurora is. In this way, Aurora is seen and portrayed to be the more exciting girl out of the two. Braddon therefore seems to make the ideal conception somewhat boring. Braddon sets up Aurora to be the more interesting and passionate girl who has far more men interested in her than Lucy, even describing Aurora’s appearance as that of a Medusa:

‘Aurora was lying upon the sofa, wrapped in a loose white dressing-gown, her masses of ebon hair uncoiled and falling about her shoulders in serpentine tresses, that looked like shining blue-black snakes released from poor Medusa’s head to make their escape amid the folds of her garments,’

again, the concept of Aurora’s passionate personality being portrayed by her dark colouring. However, as the reader discovers, it is ultimately Lucy and her behaviour that wins out in the end. She marries the man she adores, and shows Aurora that fitting the role of submissive female is the way to solve all of her problems. Braddon therefore endorses behaviour such as Lucy’s to the reader; women who are dutiful do not have the hassles and troubles associated to passionate women like Aurora. Without a proper female influence around, Aurora never learns how to deal with male attention in an appropriate manner, so when the groom Conyers convinces her that he’s in love with her, she makes the rash and unfortunate decision to elope with him, breaking her father’s heart in the process. I have read of critics who believe that Braddon’s choice to leave Aurora without a mother could have been a literary device in itself; when Aurora makes foolish decisions, one could always give her the benefit of the doubt and essentially make excuses for her by saying ‘Remember, she had no mother’ – a bit of a cop-out if you ask me.

When she finally returns to her home, Aurora wishes to put the whole sordid affair behind her and marries John Mellish, a man who has devoted his whole heart to her. Of course, she is still married to Conyers, but chooses to hide her bigamy from everyone and tries to become a more domesticated version of herself. She lives a relatively peaceful and content life with her new husband, but occasionally the old passionate Aurora screams to the forefront. The main problem with Aurora is her inability to accept any responsibility for her past actions. She brushes them under the carpet and never really shows the reader that she feels any remorse for the pain she has put her father through. This is what I found most frustrating about her. It’s even noted in the text that she never atones for her past, and this makes Aurora a very difficult character to feel any sympathy with.

As I said earlier, the passionate side of Aurora doesn’t simply disappear when she re-marries. The most violent of incidents the reader sees is the whipping altercation. Upon seeing one of the older servants mistreat her dog, Aurora takes discipline into her own hands. You could almost imagine the fire lighting up in her eyes as Braddon describes the incident:

‘Aurora sprang upon him like a beautiful tigress, and catching the collar of his fustian jacket in her slight hands, rooted him to the spot upon which he stood. The grasp of those slender hands, convulsed by passion, was not to be easily shaken off… Taller than the stable-man by a foot and a half, she towered above him, her cheeks white with rage, her eyes flashing fury, her hat fallen off, and her black hair tumbling about her shoulders… She disengaged her right hand from his collar and rained a shower of blows upon his clumsy shoulders with her slender whip… stinging like a rod of flexible steel in that little hand… Her tangled hair had fallen to her waist by this time, and the whip was broken in half-a-dozen pieces.’

So, to cut a long story short, she really goes for it! She is only interrupted by her husband, John, otherwise who knows what would have happened. Just when the reader begins to wonder what else will happen in Aurora’s life, Conyers reappears! He threatens to tell everyone of her bigamy unless she pays him off, which of course once more enrages Aurora. She meets him in secret to tell him how much she abhors him; she can’t stand the fact that he could potentially ruin the life she has made for herself, but this has its own problems when Conyers is found dead. Of course, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in suspecting Aurora as the prime suspect, but all I’ll say is she is innocent – I’ll let you take the time to find out who the real killer is 🙂

The most notable thing I have to write about is Aurora’s transformation by the end of the novel: ‘we leave Aurora, a little changed, a shade less defiantly bright, perhaps, but unspeakably beautiful and tender, bending over the cradle of her first-born,’ a complete alteration to the character we meet at the beginning who rejects domestication and longs for more action in her life. Her passions initially run riot, but she is eventually pruned to fit in with the way society expects her to behave, only exhibiting the desire and passion to be a wife and mother. It would seem that the novel is partly suggesting that one must eventually embrace domesticity in order to live happily, as shown through Lucy Floyd’s contentment and eventually Aurora’s. However, if Aurora had simply been yet another conforming woman, there would have been presumably no events in her life to report. There would have been no regrets, no concealment, essentially, no novel. The narrator directly addresses the reader in the last few pages and states that: ‘if she had been faultless, she could not have been the heroine of this story.’ The heroines of sensation novels need to have something to hide and have assertiveness and the ability – or perhaps desire – to transgress at their heart. Therefore, to the reader, Aurora embodies such desires, and is a suitable and adequate heroine for the genre.

As a follow-up to the more well-known Lady Audley’s Secret, I’d say that Braddon does a fantastic job of creating a completely different character from that of Lucy Audley. Aurora Floyd had me hooked from beginning to end, and I never knew what was going to happen next; in my opinion, an author who can do that is very special indeed. If you enjoyed Lady Audley, then I hope you’ll love this too! 🙂


East Lynne by Ellen Wood

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! 🙂


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I love Gaskell’s novels. Ask anyone I know and they’ll tell you I’m a massive fan 🙂 The way she creates and evolves her characters and the environment in which they live is almost masterful, and North and South is no exception with its use of Northern dialect throughout. This was the first book of hers I had the pleasure of reading and it’s a great introduction to her style of writing.

Published in 1854-5, the story is set around a woman called Margaret Hale who has been forced to move from the rural idyllic Helstone to the smoky factory city of Milton (a fictional setting near Manchester) with her family. At first, she is offended by the choking industrial environment she becomes a part of, but soon takes it upon herself to get to know the city and its occupants. The most endearing friendship she makes in the novel is that between herself and Bessy Higgins. Bessy is a factory girl dealing with cotton and as a result has developed a severe lung condition due to breathing in spores from the production of the fabric. The reader can instantly tell that she is inevitably not long for this world, but this doesn’t stop Gaskell creating a real and loving friendship between her and Margaret. Of course, with Bessy and her family being working-class, Margaret was looked down upon by other members of the society, but this does not bother her in the slightest, continuing her acquaintance with Nicholas Higgins, Bessy’s father, after she passes away. Margaret is an extremely headstrong character and her dedication to caring for others (family or not) is admirable. She never lets a bad situation get on top of her for too long, and the reader feels real empathy with her when she loses people she knows.

The industrial environment Gaskell portrays is, I believe, another one of the main characters in the novel. The dense smog which covers the town must have been difficult to bear, but it is indicative of the development of factories in cities during the Victorian period. Here, the mill-owners come into play, the main gentleman being Mr. Thornton. When the reader and Margaret first meet him, he is described as extremely pompous and only interested in trade and profit. To be honest, I thought he was absolutely horrible, but of course that is Gaskell’s skill. He is nothing of the sort, only acting in such a way so as to support his own family after his own father died suddenly. He was removed from school at a young age and forced to become an industry man overnight. Thornton worked his way up from nothing, giving all of his wages to his mother to support the household; he is the ultimate self-made man. However, all of the profit he has come across has turned him cold to the needs and emotions of the working-class men he employs in his factory. That is, until Margaret comes along 🙂

Their love/hate relationship is gripping, coming to a head when the workers of the factories all over the town go on strike. For Margaret, a strike and unions for workers is an unheard-of thing; she underestimates the seriousness of getting involved with men who are willing to do anything to feed their starving families. On a visit to Thornton and his family, Margaret suddenly finds herself in the middle of a violent protest by the men over Thornton’s decision to bring in Irish workers to keep his factory running. She pleads with him,

‘Go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man… Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who are driven mad… If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.’

Thornton agrees, but the appearance of their master infuriates the workers. Gaskell describes the savagery of those in the crowd expertly through Margaret’s eyes when she spots a man she knows.

‘Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless, – cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, – with starving children at home – relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher’s face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage.’

These men will do anything when it comes to feeding their families, including resorting to violence which inevitably happens. When Margaret also steps out to try and reason with the men, she is struck in the face with a stone and falls unconscious. This enrages Thornton, and this is the first sign the reader gets that he is falling for her. Thornton assumes Margaret’s defence of him means she cares for him and this leads to a very unfortunate proposal of marriage which Margaret cruelly refuses. However, over the course of the novel, and Margaret’s eventual realisation that life without Thornton is miserable, she admits to herself that she really does love him. By this time, Thornton has lost almost everything; his factory is going under and he has very little money left, but he is a changed man, listening more to his workers and eating with them in the canteen. Margaret has moved to Harley Street in London with her aunt after the death of her parents. She becomes the heiress to a large fortune when a close friend of her father’s passes away, and so essentially becomes Thornton’s landlord. This leads to the final and most satisfying meeting between the two at the end of the novel. Margaret offers him a business proposition which would fund his mill and he could continue working there, which results in them both acknowledging their feelings for each other – thank goodness! 😛 It was a long time coming!

Elizabeth Gaskell herself witnessed the struggles of the working classes in factory towns, and wished to write of what she saw around her (which will also be discussed in my review of her novel, Mary Barton). Some of the Northern dialect is a little difficult to decipher, and most editions of the novel come with notes at the back to help. There is also a sub-plot involving Margaret’s brother who is being framed for mutiny, but I’ll leave you to read about that for yourself otherwise this review would be massive! Let’s just say, there’s always plenty going on in a Gaskell novel 🙂 To finish, I must suggest the 2004 BBC adaptation of this novel starring Daniela Denby-Ashe, Richard Armitage, and Brendan Coyle (aka Mr Bates from Downton Abbey). Some moments in the story are slightly altered, but it’s really great and heart-warming to watch, especially the remake of the ending where Thornton and Margaret meet again at a train station 🙂 Ultimately, this review might seem a little biased but it’s simply because I love Gaskell’s work! If you get a chance, lose yourself in her novels 🙂


The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

Published towards the end of the Victorian era in 1893, the creation of Loveday Brooke once more generated speculation over the suitability of a woman to such a role as detection. Of course, Pirkis both addresses and quashes these doubts in her book of cases, but she does so in a rather curious way. What astounded me most upon reading of Loveday’s adventures was the fact that she very rarely takes any credit for a case solved, instead leaving the spotlight to the professional men on the police force (something we certainly don’t see in any of the other novels on female detectives that I’ve blogged about). In some ways, I felt that Pirkis’s decision to do this essentially undermined all of the hard work and intelligence used by Loveday in order to come to a sound conclusion. I see it almost as if Pirkis is only letting her heroine go so far before she is once more forced into submission. It could be argued that this was intentional; perhaps she feels her job is done when she passes on her outcome to the police. Pirkis leaves us with a minimal character in that we never really learn much about Loveday. Again, this could be seen as a purposeful move, allowing us to truly appreciate her as a detective first and foremost rather than a woman who has taken on the role.

Near the beginning of the first of Loveday’s cases, The Black Bag Left on a Door-step, the reader is told briefly how she came to be a lady detective. Pirkis writes,

‘Some five or six years previously, by a jerk of Fortune’s wheel, Loveday had been thrown upon the world penniless and all but friendless. Marketable accomplishments she had found she had none, so she had forthwith defied convention, and had chosen for herself a career that had cut her off sharply from her former associates and her position in society.’

The choice to enter the detective profession, according to many critics I have read on the subject, was generally deemed to be fatal to the female’s reputation. By not taking on a respectable role such as a governess or shop-girl, the female detective was dismissed as unladylike and treated with a great deal of suspicion. The female detective associated with criminals and the lower orders – she simply could not be classed as a proper Victorian lady in the eyes of society. Despite ostracising herself by her choice of profession, Loveday shows expertly that her true vocation is detective work. Her boss, Ebenezer Dyer, ‘would at times wax eloquent over Miss Brooke’s qualifications for the profession she had chosen,’ and quickly snuffs any doubts voiced by anyone else. It is notable that Pirkis chooses to defend the concept of a woman detective through a male character – hugely significant as it is a male opinion of women’s skills. He states,

‘I don’t care twopence-halfpenny whether she is or is not a lady. I only know she is the most sensible and practical woman I ever met… she has the faculty – so rare among women – of carrying out orders to the very letter… and most important item of all, she has so much common sense that it amounts to genius.’

Dyer has real respect for Loveday’s abilities; he does not simply assume that because she is a woman, she will throw people off guard with the sight of a petticoat (when in fact, this is partly what happens anyway!) He understands how vital a woman’s presence can be at a crime scene to notice things that have been missed, or their ability to enter a house in disguise in order to converse with the servants and gain their trust. Loveday is not one of those women who uses feminine charms to get her own way – she functions perfectly fine without them.

Loveday Brooke is someone who is respected because of how well she does her job; a woman who rises above the weak female stereotype by venturing into detection; and a woman who shows the readership that a female detective can use the exact same skills as Holmes, but not need a constant companion, and of course can take her knowledge of domestic crime scenes to a different level than that of the male. In the case The Redhill Sisterhood, Loveday’s boss admits that ‘the idea seems gaining ground in manly quarters that in cases of mere suspicion, women detectives are more satisfactory than men, for they are less likely to attract attention.’ By not writing of the most attractive woman in the world, Pirkis uses her middle-aged female detective to bypass the eyes of men. To be unattractive was to be unnoticeable. To be unnoticeable gave women like Loveday Brooke the chance to complete their investigations. With nobody around to suspect the boringly-attired lady, she used the ultimate disguise of being a woman in order to solve her cases.

There are 7 cases in Pirkis’s book, each as exciting as the last! I highly recommend reading any one of them in order to be introduced to one of the greatest female detectives at the end of the 19th century 🙂

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