Sunday, March 19, 2023

“My sin was great, but my punishment was greater”: East Lynne

Mrs Ellen Wood

Mrs. Ellen Wood by Joseph Sydney Willis Hodges, 1875.
Photo credit: Worcester Guildhall, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND. Image source: Art UK

Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861) is like half a dozen Victorian novels in one. It involves a murder mystery (as in Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853)), a murder trial (as in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848)), marital misapprehension (as in Emily Eden's The Semi-Attached Couple (1860)), a woman concealing her past (as in Maria Edgeworth's Helen (1834)), female self-sacrifice (as in Gaskell's Ruth (1853)), and not one but two death-bed scenes (as in Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)).

There are two intertwined main narratives in East Lynne. The first is the story of the murder of Afy Hallijohn's father by one of the flirtatious girl's many suitors. ("Afy" is pronounced "Affy"; her full name, fittingly, is Aphrodite.) Suspicion falls on Richard Hare, whose gun was used in the killing and who fled the town of West Lynne the night of the murder and hasn't been seen since. (Or has he?) Richard's father, a local magistrate who is upright to a fault, condemns his own son and vows to send him to the scaffold if he reappears. Believing him innocent, Richard's younger sister Barbara enlists the help of a longtime family friend, conscientious solicitor Archibald Carlyle, to try to clear her brother's name. Complicating matters is that Barbara is deeply in love with Mr. Carlyle, but he doesn't recognize it.

The second narrative concerns Mr. Carlyle's marriage to Lady Isabel Vane (the homophony with "vain," in the senses of foolish and proud, is probably not accidental). Lady Isabel's father died heavily in debt, leaving her "completely destitute." Mr. Carlyle sees her distress, and swayed by her youth, beauty, and "bitter dependence" on unsympathetic relatives, offers her his hand, heart, and comfortable home of East Lynne. Complicating matters is that Lady Isabel loves another man, the handsome but caddish Francis Levison.

. . .her head was aching with perplexity. The stumbling block that she could not get over was Francis Levison. She saw Mr. Carlyle approach from her window, and went down to the drawing-room, not in the least knowing what her answer was to be; a shadowy idea was presenting itself, that she would ask him for longer time, and write her answer.

In the drawing-room was Francis Levison, and her heart beat wildly; which said beating might have convinced her that she ought not to marry another. . .

"Mr. Carlyle. . .seems an out-and-out good fellow, Isabel, and I congratulate you."

"What!" she uttered.

"Don’t start. We are all in the family, and my lady [Lady Isabel's guardian] told; I won’t betray it abroad. She says East Lynne is a place to be coveted; I wish you happiness, Isabel."

"Thank you," she returned in a sarcastic tone, though her throat beat and her lips quivered. "You are premature in your congratulations, Captain Levison."

"Am I? Keep my good wishes, then, till the right man comes. I am beyond the pale myself, and dare not think of entering the happy state," he added, in a pointed tone. "I have indulged dreams of it, like others, but I cannot afford to indulge them seriously; a poor man, with uncertain prospects, can only play the butterfly, perhaps to his life’s end."

He quitted the room as he spoke. It was impossible for Isabel to misunderstand him, but a feeling shot across her mind, for the first time, that he was false and heartless. One of the servants appeared, showing in Mr. Carlyle; nothing false or heartless about him. He closed the door, and approached her, but she did not speak, and her lips were white and trembling. Mr. Carlyle waited.

"Well," he said at length, in a gentle tone, "have you decided to grant my prayer?"

"Yes. But——" She could not go on. What with one agitation and another, she had difficulty in conquering her emotion. "But—I was going to tell you——"

"Presently," he whispered, leading her to a sofa, "we can both afford to wait now. Oh, Isabel, you have made me very happy!"

"I ought to tell you, I must tell you," she began again, in the midst of hysterical tears. "Though I have said 'yes' to your proposal, I do not—yet——It has come upon me by surprise," she stammered. "I like you very much; I esteem and respect you; but I do not love you."

"I should wonder if you did. But you will let me earn your love, Isabel?"

"Oh, yes," she earnestly answered. "I hope so."

He drew her closer to him, bent his face, and took from her lips his first kiss. Isabel was passive; she supposed he had gained the right to do so. "My dearest! It is all I ask." (Ch. XII)

From her tearful confession to her future husband that she does not love him, to her acceptance of his kiss with the thought that "she supposed he had gained the right to do so," this proposal scene is a devastating depiction of Lady Isabel's emotional state as she enters her marriage. But as Mrs. Wood also makes clear, like many women of her time Lady Isabel has few alternatives.

Apart from her lack of romantic feelings for her husband—a condition surely shared by many Victorian wives—the first few years of the marriage involve additional tribulations for Lady Isabel. Although motherhood provides some consolation, the household at East Lynne includes Mr. Carlyle's domineering sister Cornelia, who refuses to yield to her the place of mistress of the house, countermands her orders to the servants, and even interferes in the raising of her children. 

Then Lady Isabel begins to notice that her husband is meeting with the beautiful Barbara Hare in odd places at odd hours. Their semi-clandestine meetings are to discuss developments in her brother's murder case, but of course Lady Isabel leaps to another conclusion. Her jealousy is inflamed by the insinuations of a guest who, at Mr. Carlyle's invitation, happens to be making an extended visit at their home: none other than Francis Levison, for whom seducing vulnerable women is mere sport. Lady Isabel's jealousy of her husband and her still-powerful attraction to the man who is now Sir Francis are a volatile combination.

Mr. Carlyle may be sincere, but he is not very perceptive of the feelings of the women in his life. He does not realize how upset Lady Isabel is becoming at his rendezvous with Barbara. Nor is he aware of Barbara's feelings—until one night as he is walking her home, when she can no longer keep them in check:

Her throat was working, the muscles of her mouth began to twitch, and a convulsive sob, or what sounded like it, broke from her. Mr. Carlyle turned his head hastily.

"Barbara! are you ill? What is it?"

On it came, passion, temper, wrongs, and nervousness, all boiling over together. She shrieked, she sobbed, she was in strong hysterics. . .Barbara struggled with her emotion—struggled manfully—and the sobs and shrieks subsided; not the excitement or the passion. . .

"Are you better, Barbara? What can have caused it?"

"What can have caused it?" she burst forth, giving full swing to the reins, and forgetting everything. "You can ask me that?"

Mr. Carlyle was struck dumb; but by some inexplicable law of sympathy, a dim and very unpleasant consciousness of the truth began to steal over him.

"I don’t understand you, Barbara. If I have offended you in any way, I am truly sorry."

"Truly sorry, no doubt!" was the retort, the sobs and the shrieks alarmingly near. "What do you care for me? If I go under the sod to-morrow," stamping it with her foot, "you have your wife to care for; what am I?"

"Hush!" he interposed, glancing round, more mindful for her than she was for herself.

"Hush, yes! You would like me to hush; what is my misery to you? I would rather be in my grave, Archibald Carlyle, than endure the life I have led since you married her. My pain is greater than I well know how to bear."

"I cannot affect to misunderstand you," he said, feeling more at a nonplus than he had felt for many a day. . ."But my dear Barbara. I never gave you cause to think I—that I—cared for you more than I did."

"Never gave me cause!" she gasped. "When you have been coming to our house constantly, almost like my shadow; when you gave me this"—dashing open her mantle, and holding up the locket to his view; "when you have been more intimate with me than a brother."

"Stay, Barbara. There it is—a brother. I have been nothing else; it never occurred to me to be anything else," he added, in his straightforward truth.

"Ay, as a brother, nothing else!" and her voice rose once more with her excitement; it seemed that she would not long control it. "What cared you for my feelings? What recked you that you gained my love?"

"Barbara, hush!" he implored: "do be calm and reasonable. If I ever gave you cause to think I regarded you with deeper feelings, I can only express to you my deep regret, my repentance, and assure you it was done unconsciously."

She was growing calmer. The passion was fading, leaving her face still and white. She lifted it toward Mr. Carlyle.

". . .If she had not come between us, should you have loved me?"

"Do not pursue this unthankful topic," he besought. . .

"I ask you, should you have loved me?" persisted Barbara, passing her handkerchief over her ashy lips.

"I don’t know. How can I know? Do I not say to you, Barbara, that I only thought of you as a friend, a sister? I cannot tell what might have been."

. . .Arrived at the back gate of the grove, which gave entrance to the kitchen garden. . .Mr. Carlyle took both Barbara’s hands in his.

"Good-night, Barbara. God bless you."

She had had time for reflection, and the excitement gone, she saw her outbreak in all its shame and folly. Mr. Carlyle noticed how subdued and white she looked.

"I think I have been mad," she groaned. "I must have been mad to say what I did. Forget that it was uttered."

"I told you I would."

"You will not betray me to—to—your wife?" she panted.


"Thank you. Good-night."

But he still retained her hands. "In a short time, Barbara, I trust you will find one more worthy to receive your love than I have been."

"Never!" she impulsively answered. "I do not love and forget so lightly. In the years to come, in my old age, I shall still be nothing but Barbara Hare." (Ch. XVII)

Mr. Carlyle's emotional obliviousness will ultimately bring tragedy to his marriage.

Ellen Wood, 1814-1887

Ellen Wood (née Price) did not become a novelist until she was in her mid-40s. She was the daughter of a Worcester glovemaker, Thomas Price, and his devout wife Elizabeth. When Ellen entered her teens she was diagnosed with curvature of the spine and confined to bed for four years. This treatment, unsurprisingly, did not correct the curvature; as an adult she could not stand fully upright and was less than five feet tall. In 1836 at the age of 22 she married Henry Wood, a businessman four or five years her senior, and the couple moved to Dauphiné in southeastern France.

The family returned to England in 1856 after Henry's business failed. Ellen had begun anonymously publishing short stories a few years previously, and initially she didn't receive any payment. By the late 1850s, though, she could no longer afford to work for free. She wrote her first novel Danesbury House (1860) in response to a contest sponsored by the Scottish Temperance League, and won the £100 first prize. However, after the novel was published she received no further recompense.

Her next novel, East Lynne (1861), was rejected by the publishers Chapman and Hall due to a poor report by their reader, George Meredith, who may have found that the story of a wife tempted by the prospect of an adulterous affair hit too close to home; just a few years earlier Meredith's wife had left him for another man. Wood's novel was also rejected by Smith, Elder & Co., publishers of Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell.

When East Lynne was offered to Richard and George Bentley, though, they anticipated strong sales; its serial publication in The New Monthly Magazine beginning in January 1860 had significantly boosted that periodical's circulation.

First installment of East Lynne in The New Monthly Magazine, v. 118, 1860, p. 28. Image source:

For the right to publish the novel in book form Bentley and Son paid Mrs. Wood £600, about four times the usual fee for a novelist without proven popularity, and ordered a substantial first print run of 2750 copies. (By comparison, publisher Thomas Egerton paid £110 for the copyright of Jane Austen's second novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813), and it had a first print run of 1,000 copies.) Unusually, the Bentleys also agreed to give Mrs. Wood half of the profits realized from sales of the novel. In exchange they asked Mrs. Wood to revise or remove certain "objectionable" scenes, a request she politely but flatly refused. She knew the worth of her work, and despite her image of demure gentility, drove a hard bargain.

Title page of the first edition of East Lynne. Image source:

Bentley and Son had, if anything, underestimated East Lynne's sales potential. In the ten years after its initial publication it went through 24 editions, and by 1901 it had sold more than half a million copies. [1]

Over the next 7 years Mrs. Wood would produce another 15 novels, often having two serializations running at once. By 1867 her writing had generated enough income for her to purchase The Argosy magazine and take over as its chief editor. In the first years of her editorship she provided at least half of the content of each issue of the magazine, much of it anonymously, while continuing to publish an average of two books per year under her name.

Title page of The Argosy, Volume VII, 1869. Image source:

By the time of her death in 1887, Ellen Wood had published more than 40 books of fiction (several more would be published posthumously) and her writing generated an exceedingly comfortable income of £5–6,000 per year. Denis Goubert writes that "her books enjoyed a greater circulation than those of Trollope, and brought her a great deal more money." [2]

The influence of East Lynne was international. Leo Tolstoy had a copy in the library at his estate Yasnaya Polyana, and as Goubert has shown, likely drew from it in writing Anna Karenina (1878). Mrs. Wood was one of four English novelists that Tolstoy in an 1891 letter said had greatly influenced him; the others were Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope. [3]

In the late 19th century Mrs. Wood's popularity exceeded that of at least two of the other three English writers on Tolstoy's list. She also received critical recognition: East Lynne appears on the Daily Telegraph's 1899 list of the "100 Best Novels in the World," along with five novels by Dickens, one by Eliot, and one by Trollope. [4]

East Lynne on stage and screen

Shortly after East Lynne was published, multiple dramatic adaptations appeared, and they continued to be staged for decades; although Mrs. Wood received no royalties from the play versions their success likely helped to sustain the sales of the novel. In the early decades of the 20th century, several silent film versions of East Lynne were produced, one starring Theda Bara as Lady Isabel. Note that the poster states that the film is based on "the internationally famous stage success"; Mrs. Wood's name does not appear.

Poster for the silent film version of East Lynne (1916) starring Theda Bara. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1931 a Pre-Code sound film starring Ann Harding as Lady Isabel came out; it was nominated for Outstanding Production (the early version of Best Picture) at the 4th Academy Awards, losing to Cimarron. (The actual best picture of 1931 was Chaplin's City Lights, although it was not even nominated; it wouldn't be the last time the film that should have won was overlooked.)

Poster for the 1931 film version of East Lynne starring Ann Harding. Image source:

The film was sufficiently popular that a Photoplay edition of the novel was issued. But the cover of the Photoplay edition, like the film poster, omits Ellen Wood's name or any mention of the novel. Although Mrs. Wood does receive credit inside the Photoplay edition, it is "fictionized by Arline De Haas" from the screenplay by Bradley King and Tom Barry.

Cover of Photoplay edition of East Lynne (1931). Image source:

The history of East Lynne on the big screen may also include the 1969 Indian film Aradhana (Adoration), starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. Although ostensibly based on the Hollywood film To Each His Own (1946) starring Olivia De Havilland, Aradhana contains scenes of maternal self-sacrifice for which East Lynne seems the more direct inspiration.

Poster for Aradhana (1969). Image source: TMDB

A BBC-TV adaptation of East Lynne from 1982 dates from a period before rising budgets brought a glossier look to BBC productions. Philip Mackie's script takes chunks of dialogue from the novel but omits some key scenes (Lady Isabel never confesses to her husband-to-be that she doesn't love him) and truncates others (Barbara's revelation to Carlyle of her feelings for him ends before she tells him that she will love him forever). Director David Green's pacing is stiff and stagy, as are many of the actors' line readings (not to mention the rustic characters' fake beards). The actor playing Archibald Carlyle, Martin Shaw, has a flat affect throughout; whether this is the fault of his acting or of Green's direction isn't fully clear.

With such major flaws it almost doesn't matter that small details are also off; in the novel Lady Isabel Vane is described as having "dark shining curls," Francis Levison as having "black hair," and Barbara Hare as "very fair, with blue eyes" and "light hair"; in the BBC adaptation Lady Isabel (Lisa Eichhorn) is blonde, Levison (Tim Woodward) has light brown hair, and Barbara Hale (Gemma Craven) has dark brown hair. (One reason this is worth noting is that when Lady Isabel reappears at East Lynne late in the novel, she is unrecognized due to the disfiguring effects of an accident, the tinted glasses she wears, and because her hair has turned gray—a greater contrast with dark hair than blonde hair.) This is a rare BBC adaptation to be avoided.

Ellen Wood today

Tolstoy's influencers Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope continue to be widely read and taught, are the focus of a sizeable scholarly literature, and each has been the subject of more than one biography. As the omission of Mrs. Wood's name from the publicity materials of the films may signal, as the 20th century progressed Mrs. Wood's readership and literary reputation went into steep decline, particularly after the 1930s. In the 21st century she has fallen into such obscurity that e-book versions of her novels, including East Lynne, are sometimes attributed to "Henry Wood," dropping the honorific "Mrs." and so suggesting that it was Ellen's husband who wrote her books.

Cover of East Lynne by "Henry Wood" downloaded from Apple Books.

Perhaps, though, there are signs of a revival of interest in Mrs. Wood. A scholarly edition of East Lynne was issued by Broadview Press in 2000, and the first book-length biography of Mrs. Wood, by Mariaconcetta Costantini, was published in 2020.

Victorian critic Alexander Japp wrote that Mrs. Wood "combined in a remarkable degree these two powers or qualities—realistic portraitures of men and women, with invention, construction, and surprises. She successfully used sensational elements for moral ends." [5] As Japp points out, most of Mrs. Wood's characters (Francis Levison perhaps excepted) are "realistic portraitures" rather than cardboard heroes or villains. Mr. Carlyle is a respectable solicitor, and yet into his home and into close contact with his family he invites a wanted man, and later welcomes a notorious rake who is dodging his creditors. Barbara Hare, a candidate for the novel's heroine, expresses jealousy and resentment (as seen above). And Lady Isabel makes several poor choices, but her excessive suffering makes her the focus of the reader's sympathies.

Of course, the plot of East Lynne features some conspicuous implausibilities, and our moral judgments no longer closely align with those of Mrs. Wood's time. However, the narrator's comments that appear throughout the novel function, in my view, not to reinforce our moral judgments against Lady Isabel, but to call them into question. As Lady Isabel tells her husband, "My sin was great, but my punishment was greater." East Lynne deserves a contemporary readership for its compelling story (including a jaw-dropping plot twist two-thirds of the way through) and its multilayered characters. They, like ourselves, act out of a mixture of motives, and discover that actions taken in the heat of an impulsive moment can bring lasting regret.

  1. Jennifer Phegley, "Domesticating the sensation novelist: Ellen Price Wood as author and editor of the Argosy Magazine," Victorian Periodicals Review, Summer 2005, Vol. 38, No. 2, Interdisciplinary Work and Periodical Connections: An Issue in Honor of Sally H. Mitchell, pp. 180-198.
  2. Denis Goubert, "Did Tolstoy read East Lynne?" The Slavonic and East European Review, January 1980, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 22-39.
  3. The list of influential novels that Tolstoy shared in his letter was published in the New York Times, 2 April 1978: According to Denis Goubert (see note 3), the 1939 edition of Tolstoy's Works states that his library held eight novels by Mrs. Wood, including East Lynne. A manuscript catalogue dating from the half-decade or so after his death lists only six.
  4. The Dickens novels included on the list of the "100 Best Novels" are Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, and Oliver Twist; not included are David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations or A Christmas Carol. The Eliot novel is Scenes of Clerical Life; not included are Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda, or Middlemarch. The Trollope novel is Orley Farm, not included are any of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, the Palliser novels, or The Way We Live Now.
  5. Quoted in Phegley, p. 194.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Look of Love

Mark Morris Dance Group, The Look of Love. Image source: The Look of Love

In the summer of 1993 a good friend invited me to go see the opening night of soul legend Jerry Butler's five-night stand at the Kimball's East nightclub in Emeryville, a small city on San Francisco Bay wedged between Berkeley and Oakland. Butler, of course, had hits with "For Your Precious Love" (with the Impressions), "He Will Break Your Heart" (with Curtis Mayfield), "Never Give You Up," "Only the Strong Survive," and many other songs, and co-wrote Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)." But the mid-90s were three decades past Butler's 1960s peak, and at the start of his 75-minute set his voice was a gravelly echo of the mellow baritone familiar from his classic records. It was great to see him in such an intimate club, but it seemed like the voice might no longer be fully under his command.

But it only took a song or two for his voice to warm up, and soon the years had fallen away. Midway through the set he sang a song that wasn't familiar to me, but the power and emotion of his performance brought us all to our feet. Here is Butler's original recording from 1962:

I later learned that "Make It Easy On Yourself" was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This was Bacharach and David? I had always thought of them as the Kings of Easy Listening, writing songs that seemed wilfully disconnected from the musical and social currents of their time.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s as rock 'n' roll, doo wop, R&B and Motown were surging onto the pop charts, Bacharach was churning out bland Brill Building pop for Frankie Avalon, Perry Como, Bobby Vinton, and Andy Williams. A few years later, around the time of the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the blistering sets by Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, Bacharach and David were writing the score of the painfully unfunny James Bond spoof Casino Royale for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. [1]

In 1969, the year of Woodstock and Altamont, B.J. Thomas had a hit with "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," one of my least favorite Bacharach/David songs (and one that makes no sense in its original context in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The following summer, The Carpenters' version of "Close To You" spent more weeks at number one (four) than The Beatles' final single, "The Long and Winding Road" (two) or Edwin Starr's "War" (three). [2]

After hearing Butler's stunning performance of "Make It Easy On Yourself," though, I clearly needed to reassess Bacharach and David. And I soon discovered that I'd dismissed their music far too quickly. Songs like "Anyone Who Had A Heart," "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "Always Something There to Remind Me," and "One Less Bell To Answer" are miniature pop symphonies, with complex melodies that incorporate wide vocal ranges, unexpected key changes, shifting time signatures, and unusual syncopation. They are memorable but intricate; try singing along with any of them and you'll encounter surprises.

Of course, Bacharach and David's greatest exponent was Dionne Warwick:

Mark Morris's The Look of Love (seen at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, 19 February 2023), choreographed to Bacharach/David songs, is a follow-up to 2017's Sgt. Pepper homage Pepperland. Once again, instantly familiar music from the 1960s is defamiliarized by the jazzy, frequently off-kilter arrangements of MMDG Music Ensemble's director and pianist Ethan Iverson; once again, the dancers wear brightly colorful 1960s-Pop-inspired costumes (this time by Isaac Mizrahi channeling Pepperland's Elizabeth Kurtzman channeling Carnaby Street's Mary Quant).

Seeing the Mark Morris Dance Group is always pleasurable, but the elements of this piece didn't quite cohere. Morris's choreographic invention did not seem to be at its peak in this work; some of the elements and gestures seemed either borrowed from earlier pieces, or too directly illustrative of the lyrics (although it would be difficult to resist having the dancers all point in the same direction during "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?" or walk past each other in "Walk On By"). "Thin" is the way my partner described it, not a word we usually associate with Morris.

One danger in using such well-known music is that comparisons with the original versions are inevitable, and in this case did not favor the MMDG Music Ensemble. Iverson's stripped-down arrangements for piano, trumpet, bass and drums meant that the orchestral lushness of many of the songs was missing, and from our seats at the back of the mezzanine trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson was consistently too loud in the mix. Lead vocalist Marcy Harriell's bright soprano was at times noticeably flat (this was the third performance in a three-performance run, and a matinee after an evening performance, so she may have been a little tired; also, she was competing with our memories of Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield). Iverson's spiky arrangement of "Raindrops," like his deconstruction of "When I'm Sixty-Four" from Pepperland, helped us hear overfamiliar music in a fresh way, and "Do You Know The Way To San Jose" and "I Say A Little Prayer" are pretty irresistible in any form. But after the show we wondered whether we would have gone to a club to hear this music performed by the band alone, and the answer was no.

But at least The Look of Love sent me back to Bacharach's music and to the exploration of the riches of YouTube—such as this performance of "I Say A Little Prayer" by the incomparable Aretha Franklin: [3]

  1. For some context, here are signature songs by Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival. 
  2. "Close to You" was originally recorded in 1963 by Richard Chamberlin. A warning: once Chamberlain's version is heard, it can't be un-heard.
  3. I can't resist linking to another live version of this song, which is notable both for another remarkable performance by Aretha, and also because the cameramen and director are clearly enamoured of her gorgeous backup singers.