Sunday, February 2, 2014

East Lynne, by Ellen Wood

"You will have the whole room gaping at you."
"I don't mind. I'll bring you word all about it. Let them gape."
-- Lord Mount Severn and his daughter, Lady Isabel, from East Lynne, p. 76

I'd heard of this book as the source of a popular, even archetypal Victorian stage melodrama, so it was one of the first "always wanted to read but never got around to it" selections for my Classics Club list. I swear to god, I had no idea that it features another nobleman dying deep in debt, leaving a daughter penniless and mostly alone in the world. Clearly this idea was really floating around in the late 19th-century zeitgeist. (See J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Willing to Die for the variation on the theme).

East Lynne (1860 - 1861) is a classic "triple-decker" novel, 624 pages of quick read, of the sort I'd describe as "hothouse" fiction: overflowing with repressed emotion. And while I would normally point out the "spoilers," the main one is the very first sentence in the blurb on the back of the Oxford University Press edition, so I'm throwing caution to the winds.

Like Wilkie Collins' Basil and Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, it takes us through a courtship and into the depths of the marriage that follows, exposing the damage that social conventions  and gender roles can do to a relationship. (Wood's reads as the most conservative of the lot ... but it can be hard to read the intention). The sinner is a sympathetic third-person-limited point-of-view character, more so AFTER her transgression than before.

The story kicks off when well-to-do lawyer Archibald Carlyle buys East Lynne, the impoverished Earl of Mount Severn's country estate (it's the only thing the Earl has that's not subject to the entail, always a point of interest to Downton Abbey fans). Along the way, Carlyle becomes acquainted and enamored with the Earl's beautiful, innocent daughter Isabel, completely oblivious to the fact that his lifelong friend, the also lovely Barbara Hare, is crazy in love with him. Barbara has bigger problems, though: her brother is a fugitive, the only suspect in the murder of a local flirt's father. (Significantly, the girl, Afy -- short for Aphrodite -- put on airs after being raised "above her station.") He swears to innocence, claiming the deed was done by a mysterious, aristocratic rival, whose description, the text makes clear early on, sounds just like the charismatic Captain Levinson who's been busy turning Isabel's head.

When her father dies, the creditors swarm, and poor Isabel is packed off to live with the new Earl, whose wife (who "carried her flirtations to the very verge of propriety," p. 112) bitterly resents having someone in the house who's the fairer in the land. Isabel's misery emboldens the smitten Carlyle to propose, throwing all their friends and relations into a tizzy: he's below her in status, and she's well below in material prosperity. Refreshingly, the bride-to-be tells her suitor upfront that "it has come upon me by surprise ... I like you very much; I esteem and respect you; but I do not yet love you," and his response is quite sensible: "I should wonder if you did." (p. 122)

But they make a go of it. Isabel has to endure the perpetual carping of her husband's miserly sister, who raised him like him a son, and occasional doubts about her husband's close friendship with Miss Hare, but otherwise they live a picture of wedded bliss, with three children, his thriving career, and general domestic harmony.

Eventually, of course, she's going to run into Captain Levinson again, but his presence isn't the primary cause of the turn in her life that's going to lead to tragedy and despair. I mean, their relationship is going to lead to all those things, but it's not like he just shows up one day and starts in on seducing her. She crosses paths with him because she's become obscurely unhappy in her seemingly perfect life, suffering what Betty Friedan dubbed "the problem that has no name," and has been sent off on an extended vacation from her family for her health. She'd been exhausted for no apparent reason, incapable of "rousing herself" (p. 197), which everyone thinks she could do if she'd just make an effort. Her attraction to Levinson isn't what causes her to feel dissatisfied with her life, but instead comes across as a symptom of her depression -- it perks her up to feel young and desired again, away from the sameness of her domestic life and the wearing sensation of never being good enough.

The story seems pretty conservative in many ways, with a woman being punished by fate for breaking the rules, but it does point out that those rules are often pretty impossible to follow. "Suffer in silence" isn't really much of an option. One social norm is made much of, that women are never supposed to declare their love, and even beyond that, "A woman may almost as well lose herself, as suffer herself to love unsought." (p. 181) So falling in love at all is disreputable from the start, unless it's in reaction to an honorable proposal. It was Carlyle himself, the love object, who had said the above, but the narrator will be more philosophical: "Love never yet came for the trying: it is a capricious passion, and generally comes without the knowledge and against the will." (p. 199)

Water-muddying also occurs in that Carlyle brought this up when trying to reassure his wife, to whom it's perfectly obvious that Barbara is in love with her husband. Nonetheless, he knows for a fact that Isabel is correct about that, following a dramatic outburst of candor on her rival's part. "There are moments in a woman's life when she is betrayed into forgetting the ordinary rules of conduct and propriety; when she is betrayed into making a scene ... A little self-control and Barbara would not have uttered words that must remain on her mind hereafter like an incubus, dyeing her cheeks red whenever she recalled them." (p. 163) She admits her love and expresses her pain at being thrown over for Lady Isabel, which leaves Carlyle "feeling extremely vexed and annoyed." (p. 164)

After this, Barbara, previously known as one who "displayed her own will" (p. 30), is softened and ennobled by her silent suffering, until she's finally deemed a fit wife for Carlyle after all. He tells his sister, "She has not angled after me: had she done so, she would probably never have been Mrs. Carlyle. Whatever passing fancy she may have entertained for me in earlier days, she has shown no symptoms of it of late years ... others have angled after me too palpably, but Barbara has not." (p. 373) So it's only because she repressed any sign of her love for him that he's willing to declare his love to her. Ohh-kay. That sounds like the basis for a healthy relationship.

Isabel, too, had in her innocence (and the unconscious confidence of being to the manor born) been prone to her own willfulness (as in "let them gape"). This tends to happen in contexts where we're bound to admire her for it, and empathize with her high spirits and good intentions. The narrator also reminds us that her upbringing has left her "little more than a child, and as a child she reasoned," (p. 120) making clear that she's not to blame for the naivete resulting from her sheltered state. But the novel still has to remind us that the world won't allow her to get away with that sort of thing.

At the same time, it's no surprise that the wicked seducer uses the rhetoric of uncontainable emotion: "There are moments when our dearest feelings break through the rules of life, and betray themselves, in spite of our sober judgment." (p. 216) This reminds me of Percy Shelley's romances, where the sinister libertines and the idealistic heroes use similar lines about how their love is beyond all social conventions -- so it's hard for a girl to know what to think.

In the end, the narrator's final judgment seems to be that "Let people talk as they will, it is impossible to drive out human passions from the human heart. You may suppress them, deaden them, keep them in subjection, but you cannot root them out." (p. 590)

The murder plot is mostly a time-filler; it's not boring, per se, but it wouldn't be enough in itself to make me want to read the book. The most important thing about it is as a pretext to throw Carlyle and Barbara together. It does allow for some humorous byways, though, like how Barbara's unjustly accused brother "was not over-burdened with what the world calls brains. Brains he certainly had, but they were not sharp ones." (p. 50) The girl he'd been courting is also delightfully described, as someone who's "gay and giddy and very pretty, and would do nothing all day but read books." (p. 156)

There's also an elderly relative who mocks her granddaughter for pretentiously dropping French phrases in conversation: "I'd rather stick a printed label on my forehead, for my part, 'I speak French,' and let the world know it that way." (p. 14) So it's not all seriousness about marriage, or over-the-top melodrama.

Wood, Ellen. East Lynne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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