Working through the darker recesses of Victorian fiction and the sensation novel, I’ve wended my way from Collins through early Hardy, Le Fanu and Braddon to Ellen Wood (Charles Reade, I’ve got my eye on you…) East Lynne, somewhat neglected but, unlike many of its sistren and brethren, still in print, is a work which justly takes its place in this canon. The story involves the vicissitudes of the tragic and immoral Lady Isabel, her doomed marriage to Archibald Carlyle, and the slowly-emerging circumstances of a long-ago murder. While it is not as deeply gothic as works such as Collins' The Woman In White or Le Fanu's Uncle Silas – we are not treated to the scenes of imprisonment and mounting dread which partly gave a name to the ‘sensation’ phenomenon – it is nonetheless sensational in the themes which it treats, including sexual infidelity, divorce (a common theme at the time, given the recently passed Matrimonial Causes Act), bigamy, and murder.
As Elisabeth Jay recounts in the excellent introduction to this edition, one of the shocking things about the sensation genre was that it took the dark concerns and grand guignol of the classical gothic novel, and set them in surroundings familiar to the reader, hence introducing aspects of social commentary and setting the trend for the now well-established 'suburban gothic.' At the same time, however, this left the works open to contemporary criticism of introducing concerns which had previously been those of the lower classes - the murders and scandals which had hereunto found their place in broadsheets and penny dreadfuls - to a non-working class audience - and hence the decadence, lack of taste and even immorality which was so often represented by the novel and the lending library even in fiction itself (putting aside for a moment the Byzantine politics of Victorian publishing trends).
The meeting of high and popular culture is particularly apparent in East Lynne, a somewhat ‘lower’ work than that of other 'classic' Victorian novels (and one often scorned by Wood's contemporaries), the slangy prose is a treat (my Oxford Classics edition apparently restores the prose from later formalization of the language), while Wood, like Trollope is given on occasion to break the fourth wall in interesting authorial asides. Regrettable, though, is an occasional anti-Semitism. Generalising from this point, the reader's sympathy will not always lie with those (presumed) of the author – for example, the individualistic but emotionally available present-day reader may not warm to the sympathetic Barbara Hare’s moral disregard for taking care of and spending time with her children, or with Archibald Carlyle’s failure to notice the impingement of his sister on his relationship with his wife. However, the characters here are interesting – for the most part (unlike, for example, many of those of Dickens), though not universally, they are not moral ciphers, but rather human creatures with good and bad qualities – and, as in Collins’ Armadale, even the wicked female lead is a tragic figure rather than one who is condemned out of hand. The Victorian approach to love and romance, so similar and yet so different to our own, is explored here - particularly apparent, and yet also problematised, is the way in which the Victorians expected that a proper lady would not fall in love until she was sure that the gentleman in question had already done so.
In terms of character and the ‘low’ nature of the novel (which nonetheless is written in a perfectly literary, if not poetic, style), given the morally shocking subject matter, it’s interesting to see characters who don’t often appear in other Victorian fiction, such as the man who has had two (legitimate) sexual relationships – adding an interesting depth to the proceedings (though, as with other mainstream Victorian novels turning on the nature of intimate relationships, one can’t help wondering, even if with a regrettably typical late modern sensibility, what light exploration of the characters’ sexual relationships and personae might cast on the plot). We are also treated to the typical coincidences, mistaken identity, and bizarreries of the sensation oeuvre – grotesque disguises and physical disfigurements, in particular – as well as the typical preoccupation with the dangers of class mingling.
Class-based insecurities bear an obvious relationship to the rise of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and the new moneyed classes, but one wonders whether the question about individual identity is also related to incipient modernity, the growing and impersonal urban environments and the way in which they allowed switches in identity, in contrast to the small rural communities beloved of so many Victorian fiction writers (here we might think of Cranford as the paradigmatic case of the clash represented). This insecurity can be related to the aforementioned rise of 'new money' inasmuch as in such a circumstance identity was ascertained by appearance, and hence subject to manipulation.
Despite its conservative take on this subject, however, East Lynne is not a work which can be read either as a clear challenge to Victorian mores, or as a straightforward reproduction of hegemonic ideals - it is opaque in this sense, which, while it does not seem to be a conscious choice on the part of Wood, nonetheless contributes to the interest the work holds for the moder reader. One of the joys of Victorian fiction for me is that to read it is to see we English-speaking moderns ourselves, as it were, through a glass darkly - and East Lynne, with its classic sensation concerns of identity, crime, class, social mores, religion, and the way in which these intertwine with the human emotions, does not disappoint.