On a cold January afternoon in 1916, about fifty people gathered in the nave of Worcester Cathedral, the imposing fourteenth-century church which dominates the skyline of that English market town. They had come to witness the unveiling of a memorial to Mrs Henry Wood, 1814-1887, wife, mother, novelist, journalist, editor, and native of the city. The ceremony was performed by Lord Justice Avory who talked of “the enduring fame of great literary geniuses”, and of a woman whose works were “more widely read than those of any of the authors of the Victorian era.” Unveiling the white marble sculpture, he expressed the hope that it “might serve to stimulate others to follow her example and leave behind them some work for the benefit of posterity, that they might not die unwept, unhonoured and unsung” (“Memorial Unveiled”, Worcester Daily Times, 20 Jan 1916, 4).
Since Ellen Wood is now largely untaught, unread, and out-of-print, Avory’s optimism has proved misplaced. Indeed there is something so final in the way this once-famous figure has disappeared from view that curiosity is immediately challenged. Here was a novelist widely thought “the best-read writer” (as Margaret Oliphant noted in 1895, 646), whose combined sales had reached 6 million by 1916 (Shuttleworth, 8). It was to Wood’s success that Wilkie Collins enviously referred in 1872, claiming that she averaged £1000 a year from her novels in six-shilling editions. “I may certainly, without undue arrogance, consider myself to be a rather better novelist, with a rather wider reputation than Mrs Henry Wood,” he asserted. Yet the contrast between his own sales and those of Wood was not encouraging, a fact which, he remarks, “does not add to my faith in the British public!” (cited in Peters, 369). Much has been made of the rivalry between Collins and Dickens but the jostling for position with Wood preoccupied him more. Earlier Wood had compared the scantiness of her own earnings with those of Collins. “Sampson and Low gave Wilkie Collins three thousand pounds for No Name. . .” she complained in 1863, “Mr Bentley states fifteen hundred pounds to me, but he is mistaken” (24 Jul 1863, L44, UI).1
Despite Malcolm Elwin’s claim, made back in 1935, that Wood was “the most intrinsically representative woman novelist of the mid-Victorian era” (232), there seems far greater resistance to recovering her reputation than her main literary competitors, whether Collins himself, or Mary Braddon, whose revivals are both now well established. A major study of Wood—the author of the phenomenally successful East Lynne(1861), of forty other novels, and over a hundred short stories, the editor and proprietor of her own magazine, The Argosy, and the writer of countless journal articles—seems long overdue.
Part of the explanation lies in the difficulty of obtaining copies of Wood’s work, but it also has to do with the fashions of literary scholarship. Mrs Henry Wood was recognized for much of her own century as a voice of Victorian convention; but when the reaction against things Victorian arrived in the first decades of the twentieth century she seemed a ready candidate for the critical scaffold. The fact of her wide appeal across the classes also made her suspect as a serious writer. Wood wrote over forty earnest, sentimental novels during a period when novelists were admired for their prolificness, earnestness, and sentimentality. Soon after the First World War she would begin to be mocked for her exhibition of precisely these archetypally Victorian traits. Nor did her association with genres deemed sub-literary—melodrama, mystery, romance— help matters. For Oliver Elton in 1920, Wood was a mere curiosity, the producer of a quaint “species of absurd fiction”, for novels characterized by their “simple- minded plots” and “governess mentality” (2:220). But Wood was marginalized in other ways as well. In 1936 in his History of the English Novel, Ernest Baker labelled Wood one of the “crude” imitators of Wilkie Collins (214). This is a designation that also seems to have stuck. Nicholas Rance’s Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists(1991) is typical in the way in which it treats Wood as an acolyte of a male mentor. Nor have feminist critics bent on recovering lost women’s voices argued for any significant legacy for Ellen Wood. With the single exception of East Lynne which, since Elaine Showalter’s seminal analysis in the mid-1970s, has continued to surface in a variety of critical contexts, Wood’s apparent refusal in her fiction to subvert Victorian clichés has meant she is categorized as conventional, conservative, and thus, by implication, unworthy of sustained attention (Horsman, 222). On every side Wood continues to be dismissed with all the condescension posterity can muster.
Even so, scholarly trends alone cannot explain the lack of interest. It has much to do as well with the professional consequence of the “myth” cultivated by her family during her own lifetime. The only biography of Ellen Wood— Memorials of Mrs Henry Wood (1894) by her son, Charles—is central in shaping this myth, presenting us with a saintly woman of wide interests and activities, but which do not conflict in any way. Eulogistic and devoid of dates, Charles Wood’s memoir is a partial one (in both senses of the word). It is also privileged and privileging. It suggests that we, too, can survey the life of Ellen Wood and obtain a comprehensive view. Stricken with illness and too weak almost to hold a pen, Wood is shown writing sensational best-sellers, discussing theology with visiting clergymen, editing her own magazine, turning out article after article for other journals, managing her household, inspiring her husband, children and servants. In the Memorials, Ellen Wood’s greatness encompasses her femininity and exemplary wifeliness, as well as her public activities in literature and journalism. Charles Wood argues for Mrs Henry Wood’s place in literary history (comparing her to Charlotte Brontë) and contends that her multifaceted consistency was itself extraordinary: “nothing ever jarred; the domestic atmosphere was never disturbed” (227). His claim for the value of Wood’s life—and the value of the biography—rests on her status as a conventional and, above all, a unified woman. Her prevailing facial expression was one of “absolute repose,” as he recalls at one point, “no doubt partly the result of a life lived to a great extent in the retirement of her study . . . Her calmness and serenity in a great measure came from within” (35-36). This ordered, unified life history is spiritually uplifting—a sentiment reinforced through Charles Wood’s inclusion of the fulsome tributes paid to his mother on her death. But this reiteration of the condolences her family received adds to the sense that this is a static life. “She was Mrs Henry Wood” noted Margaret Oliphant after reading the Memorials, “What more?” (646).
The aim of this paper is not to rediscover the “truth” of Ellen Wood, but rather to suggest why she is worthy of attention and ways in which we might start to understand her.2 Wood cannot be contained in a single critical category because she was too aware of the need to be different things to different people. Oliphant felt her to be “unapproachable” (646), a view with which, judging by the silence which continues to surround her, critics today seem to agree. However, if any contemporary critical approach were to be singled out as appropriate for a study of Wood it would be that associated with post-modern developments in biography. Claims that biography is disguised fiction have been put forward, and emphasis has been placed on seeing the life-story as a kaleidoscope of images—to be reconstructed through bricolage rather than a sequential cradle-to-grave narrative. Liz Stanley has argued that we should accept the diversity and complexity of a subject’s life, not straighten it out into a single narrative: “She was like that and like that should be its motto” (18).
Wood seems a likely subject for this model precisely because she was a person who embodied an ambiguous, shifting persona throughout her life. Meeting Ellen Wood accidentally in 1862, Geraldine Jewsbury saw a woman “as unlike a novel writer as anybody I ever saw” (16 May 1862, L46, BL). One of the striking things about Wood is the contrast between her public and private faces. Despite her status as the typical Victorian, there is something very modern about the way in which she carefully moulds her image through selective publicity and creates her own legend. She did not save her letters or keep a journal on a regular basis. Although she was immensely popular, she took little part in the social side of literary life. She did not preside over a literary salon like Ouida or George Eliot. She did not give paid public recitations like Collins or Dickens; indeed the very idea of a woman appearing on a public platform to engage in an economic transaction would have contravened widely held views on sexual difference. Bourgeois masculinity was hegemonically defined in relation to paid professional work. But, for middle-class women writers entering the public sphere was fraught with danger, since it threatened to equate the authoress with the actress, or worse, the prostitute, who also marketed her person in public. Wood’s absence was not therefore exceptional, but in her case the elusiveness was compounded by self-consciousness about her physical appearance. As the novelist Sarah Tytler recalled:
her figure was spoilt either from original malformation or from some injury related to the spine. I believe the defect was not prominent in her earlier years, but by the time she had reached middle-life, the back had turned into what was equivalent to a slight hump. (Keddie, 322)
In an age which saw the emergence of the marketing of “star” personalities, Wood thus remained an elusive figure, a celebrity who maintained her fame by making a spectacle of her absence. Indeed, while I have represented Wood’s absence from literary histories and biographies as a twentieth-century phenomenon, in a sense it was always like this. From the beginning Wood was illusory. In 1865, The Reader begged to assure curious readers that nothing was known of Mrs Wood: “We are even ignorant whether this lady is stout or thin, tall or short, fair or dark.” (8 Jul 1865, 30). So Wood’s image was fragmented in her own day, but there she vanished in a different sense: into the varieties of representation by which she became known.
Among these, there were two images which became ubiquitous for more than thirty years: a picture of an impassive but respectable Victorian matron, projecting an aura as asexual as that of Queen Victoria herself; and the trademark name, “Mrs Henry Wood” which became as identifiable as any commercial logo. The only known portrait of Wood is an undated miniature by Reginald Easton which shows the novelist dressed in sober black, wearing a lace cap. This image was engraved and used as a frontispiece in later editions of her work. It was the only opportunity the public had to view their idol, since Wood avoided interviews and never allowed herself to be photographed (unlike her less camera-shy rivals, Collins and Braddon). The authenticity of the likeness was supported by a message from the author—“Very sincerely yours, Ellen Wood”. That Wood endorsed not a photograph but an engraving—a form of pictorial image which lacks the immediacy of the photograph and involves instead a process of reinvention—is suggestive of her methods of reworking and blurring her public image. Personal vanity and self-consciousness were important considerations, but Wood’s self-fashioning involved display as well as inhibition, disclosure as well as concealment. It is also important to recall that, for a woman writer, looking the part could be important in gaining readers. The popular idea of the literary woman as deviant or unsexed could be rectified by such pictures at a time when what it meant to be a writer could not be divorced from what it meant to be a Victorian woman. By the end of the nineteenth century Wood’s physical image, self-constructed as a dainty, respectable middle-class lady, was eventually so widely circulated as to be immediately recognizable even to those unfamiliar with her books.
Although she was reluctant to submit to the invasiveness of the camera lens, Ellen Wood kept the name “Mrs. Henry Wood” constantly before the public, extravagantly displaying herself in print. This second image, together with Wood’s insistence that “the Christian name (Henry) is [always] inserted” (8 Aug 1861, L12, UI), has generally been read as an example of her innate conservatism and a recognition of the binding power of patriarchal norms. However, there are other implications. Most obviously it is a reminder that Wood’s own identity as a writer was created as consciously as those of her characters. Women writers often took male-sounding pseudonyms thinking that it gave them an air of seriousness. Behind Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, the Brontës lay in hiding, not wanting to be prejudged according to the double standard prevailing in Victorian criticism. There was also the dilemma that faced a female writer of sensation fiction in the wake of revelations concerning Mary Braddon’s career. Braddon had become a bad example, the woman whose unsavoury personal life detracted from her accomplishments as a writer. She was a single woman, a former actress who wrote professionally and lived with a married man and their five children. In contrast, Wood’s life was held up as exemplary—she managed to support her parasitic family and lived a life into which no hint of scandal intruded. As Stevie Davies has suggested:
To declare oneself ‘Mrs Wood’ is to say to the reading world that one is a safe, harmless, respectable, God-fearing, middle-class Englishwoman, probably endowed with children. . . . To add one’s husband’s Christian name for good measure . . . is to emphasize the point doubly. (Davies, v)
David Lodge has likewise suggested that writers are especially prone to assume the meaningfulness of names. While it is not “customary for novelists to explain the connotations of the names they give to characters . . . such [names] . . . are supposed to work subliminally on the reader’s consciousness” (37). While the public name adopted by Ellen Wood failed to contain her, there is no doubt that it was a rich signifier of class and gender. At the time of her death the Pall Mall Gazette pictured Mrs Henry Wood approvingly
as a good Englishwoman of strong domestic tastes, unaffected by any of the popular fads of the day . . . [who] received . . . only her intimate friends, and rather shrank from the glare of publicity. (Pall Mall Gazette,11 Feb 1887, 4).
These “intimate friends”—Anna Maria Hall, Julia Kavanagh and Mary Howitt—were formidably respectable women writers, exempt from suspicion of working to support themselves, hesitant to push their own work in case such display threatened their modesty as ladies.
This image of Mrs Henry Wood was reinforced throughout her career. But it was also challenged. While Ellen Wood cultivated an image of respectability she was also willing to take risks for the sake of a large income. As a novelist she could be an unblushing apologist for infanticide, incest, adultery, forgery, and insanity of all kinds as suitable subject matter. In an 1864 review essay, Wood was called “an egregious offender against good morals and correct taste” (406), with East Lynne singled out for special censure:
Mrs Wood is a writer who puzzles us. Some of her stories are as pure, as free from anything that could offend, as earnest in their inculcation of virtue as any writings of their class. On the other hand, others are just as unhealthy in their tone and as questionable in their principles. . . . East Lynne is one of the most powerful but one also of the most mischievous books of the day. Throughout an exciting, though very improbable story, our sympathies are excited on behalf of one who has betrayed the most sacred trust man can repose in woman. All that the union of beauty, rank, talent and misfortune can do to create a prejudice in favour of the criminal is done, while the sense of the enormity of her crime is greatly enfeebled by the unamiable light in which her husband is presented. To exhibit a woman possessed of every natural gift that could call forth admiration, and then to surround her with her with circumstances that seem, as though by a resistless fate, to draw her into sin, is to inflict serious injury in the interests of morality; for which it is but very poor compensation to find that the sin is followed by a certain amount of suffering. (London Quarterly Review, 44, Jul 1864, 405).
This review articulates some of the key themes that would ‘place’ Mrs Henry Wood among her contemporaries. Although she presented herself as a stalwart of middle-class values, her endorsement of these values was often open to question. In East Lynne, an enormous popular success, the adulterous Isabel Vane’s penitent decline is offered as an example to other women, an apparently unsympathetic but powerful lesson in the necessity of suppressing passion and desire. Having committed adultery and repented of it, Isabel dies and is buried in a nameless grave. In the course of the novel Wood uses her heroine’s enforced separation from her children to rehearse an idealization of motherhood that is both predictable and conventional. But Wood’s representation of her heroine is also potentially subversive. It suggests the liberating force of fiction to act out the breaking of cultural taboos that remained binding for herself and her readers. Not only does Wood encourage her female audience to indulge in fantasies of persecution (as Ann Cvetkovich has noted, 44), but she also exposes the kinds of negotiations that any young, penniless but marriageable woman might be expected to undertake in order to meet society’s expectations. Specifically Wood portrays Isabel as a victim of the homosocial world of English society. She marries Carlyle, a man she does not love but a man with money, and Wood emphasizes the psychological costs involved. Beyond minor roles for Barbara Hare (Isabel’s hated rival), Joyce (Isabel’s maid and confidante) and Aphrodite Hallijohn (a lower-class “kept” woman, whose name echoes the commodification of love and marriage that leads to Isabel’s downfall), Isabel is depicted as alone in a world of men. These men, most notably her husband, Carlyle, and her aristocratic seducer, Francis Levison, use Isabel as the ground on which their battles are enacted. Displaying more complexity than she has been given credit for, Wood implies that Isabel’s performance, which is to say the performance of “woman”, is interlocked with this preening display of masculine identity. To quote Luce Irigaray, in East Lynne, women act as fetish objects, “inasmuch as in exchanges they are the manifestation and the circulation of a power of the Phallus, establishing relationships of men with each other” (183). What is disconcerting about Wood’s novel is not so much that it is sexually charged, but rather that it shows in a particularly unsettling way how received expectations of the woman work via the exchange of the sign that is “woman” to serve the imperatives of masculine identity.
Although she was forever associated with her early hit, Wood proved not be the firework that critics assumed would quickly burn out. By the mid 1860s, “Mrs Henry Wood” was everywhere—on Mudie’s shelves, on the covers of periodicals, on the spines of the cheap reprints, and on the bill-boards and press announcements advertising all of these. In the decade following the publication of East Lynne, she published another twenty novels, often working on two at a time, beginning with The Shadow of Ashlydyat (1863), Verner’s Pride (1863), The Foggy Night at Offord (1863), William Allair (1863),Trevlyn Hold (1864), Lord Oakburn’s Daughters (1864), and Elster’s Folly (1866), all produced at breakneck speed. To read these post-East Lynne novels—“expurgated versions of the Newgate Calendar, toned down so as not to offend the most delicate propriety”, as The Reader put it (22 Oct 1864, 505)—is to watch a novelist carried along by her own momentum. So insidious were Wood’s stories that many hostile critics labelled her (rather than Collins) “the originator and chief of the sensation school of English novelists” (Athenaeum, 1 Oct 1864, 428). The same formula was used over and over again but to Wood’s army of readers this did not seem to matter. As Geraldine Jewsbury noted, Wood’s novels had
. . . a quality that oversees a multitude of sins. Their readableness is recognized by those who are most alive to their faults . . . and to the undiscerning and not fastidious people who form the majority of readers they are sources of keen excitement. (Athenaeum, 1 Jul 1865, 12)
In acknowledging the popularity of Wood’s novels Jewsbury and her contemporaries appreciated (as twentieth-century critics have not) the distinctiveness of Wood’s fusion of decorum and daring—the fact that, beneath a veil of rigid conventionality, Wood allows her readers to glimpse the gaps within contemporary ideology. She implies things readers would rather not hear about middle-class life even as she embraces the common panaceas of religion and resignation. It is, of course, largely owing to Wood’s seeming to try (as she does in East Lynne) to persuade her readers of the value of self-sacrifice that she has fared so badly among those critics attempting to read in her books a muted message of revolt against female submission.
Wood’s construction of an acceptable writing self often seems to reflect the culture of her day, but the simple account of a passive female voice is far from adequate as an interpretation of her novels. For example, in East Lynne, Wood’s apparent endorsement of her victimized heroine’s suffering doesn’t prevent the reader from weeping at her self-sacrifice and cursing the novel’s male characters for their unthinking selfishness and complacency. Wood can also work from the other end of the melodramatic spectrum, as inSt Martin’s Eve (1866), where she depicts a seemingly malevolent villainess. When Charlotte St John leaves her five year old stepson to burn alive in a locked room (“a dark mass smouldering on the floor at the far end of the room . . . no trace of him, save that shapeless heap from which the spirit had thrown!”, 151) before disappearing into the ghostly mansion’s maze of darkened passages, the narrator declares in ringing tones of disapproval that she is both insane and wicked. Yet Wood was fond of secret mansions and underground passageways and her characters invariably have some kind of subterranean existence. The novel is grounded in the form of the female Gothic, with its nightmare visions of the home, a form which Tamar Heller has suggested as characteristic of sensation fiction by women (6). Wood uses the female Gothic’s tropes of secrecy and transgression. She draws too, on what Heller describes as the form’s associations with “what is ‘other’, subversive, and marginal, and thus the site of ambivalence” (9), to construct a story about female criminality and victimization, but one which, like East Lynne, is located in a historical reality that has particular implications for women. On the one hand, the novel’s narrator views Charlotte’s behaviour as a product of inherited insanity and naturally unstable femininity (Wood gives Charlotte a capacity for criminal cunning which is denounced as feminine and ultimately monstrous). On the other hand, Charlotte’s insanity can be seen as the behaviour of a woman who is trapped by her economic dependency and caught up in the snares of primogeniture which do not acknowledge her claims or those of her own child. Charlotte’s actions may be evil, but she is also simply displaying the capacity for maternal love judged acceptably feminine in her society. And, as Wood makes clear, it is the sheer strength of her impulses and her concern for her own child’s advancement which make her dangerous. The novel confirms Wood as an important commentator on nineteenth-century gender politics, engaged in a project which is feminist in effect if not intent: that of highlighting the patriarchal and legal obstacles to women’s self-expression. Presenting her heroine as pitiful (“this poor young woman”, 144) and dangerous (“her mind a every chaos of rebellious tumult”, 144), a figure of rage without power to alleviate her suffering or to express it in terms which make sense to society, Wood encapsulates much of what feminist critics might say about the suppression of women’s speech and desires.
Despite her seeming conventionality, Wood’s novels are important examples of the way in which women writers used their novels explicitly or implicitly to expose the dark side of women’s lives. While contemporary reviewers justifiably questioned the plausibility of her plots—a reviewer of St. Martin’s Evesneered that the story was reminiscent of the work of those novelists “who used to employ ghosts and revengeful Italians and secret passages and all the rest of it, to produce impossible or exaggerated results” (Spectator, 3 Feb 1866, 135)— this same implausibility is meaningful. As Nancy K. Miller has suggested, works of fiction by women which fall short of verisimilitude and depend on unrealistic narrative turns may “manifest an extravagant wish for the story that would turn out differently” (cited in Sinfield, 25). That is, they suggest rebellion against the constraints of the respectable plot. In her own correspondence Ellen Wood justified extremity and her comments tally with those of Miller. In a letter to Richard Bentley she explained that her success lay in her power of providing “distraction to take our thoughts for a time away” from “the many, many cares and perfidies of life” (14 Nov 1881, L102, BL). In her novels transgressive, excessive female figures are condemned (either to death or, as in Charlotte St John’s case, to imprisonment in an asylum) but they are also manifestations of fantasies of escape from gender roles.
Although I would not like to claim for Wood’s novels too weighty a part in the revisionist project, which consists in discovering feminist forebears in unexpected places, there is no reason to ignore her entirely. It is equally insufficient to accept the rigidity with which a sub-generic form like the sensation novel has been applied as a container for her work, and which for the most part has been used to find her novels less accomplished than those of male counterparts like Collins. Nineteenth-century reviewers found it rather more difficult to contain Wood in a single critical category. They often located Wood alongside Dinah Mulock Craik, one of the women writers Elaine Showalter dubs a “‘feminine’ novelist” (61). Wood was even occasionally compared with George Eliot. In 1862, The Morning Post was enraptured with Mrs Halliburton’s Troubles, Wood’s story of a widow’s struggle against poverty and dishonest relatives in a small market town, suggesting that it ranked with Adam Bede in its “boldness, originality and social scrutiny” (cited in “Criticisms of the Press”, Verner’s Pride, 1895, ii). The Literary Gazette was put in mind “of our old and lamented favourite, Maria Edgeworth” (3 Jan 1863, 8). This connection was made by comparing Edgeworth’s tendency to stress woman’s particular talents in advancing social and moral development, and Wood’s own emphasis on Christian fortitude and the middle-class Mrs Halliburton’s beneficent power over the hearts and minds of her successful sons. The novel is indicative of the way in which Wood could move out of the sensation category with apparent ease. The Channings (1862), which she described as of “a very different class of story from East Lynne” (13 Jan 1862, L17, UI), is a realist study of endurance and self-sacrifice among a middle-class family, set in the cathedral city of Helstonleigh (a version of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester). Unusually for Wood, the worst crime committed in this story is petty theft and the most sensational scenes are those inspired by a schoolboy dressed as a ghost. Yet the novel was another best seller: Mudie’s alone took 1,000 copies, and by 1895, sales had reached 140,000, ranking the novel alongside Charlotte Yonge’s decorous, influential and spiritually uplifting The Heir of Redclyffe (1855). These domestic novels were usually seen as extensions or expressions of Wood’s femininity; they also suggest that her textual and physical appearance as a sweetly conventional lady novelist were not merely an affectation. Wood thus did not always write books exposing the myths of domesticity, masculine superiority, or the degradation of society marriages, and instead her novels often function as explicit restatements of her conservative Anglican beliefs.
Wood was not a literary rebel and her fiction was found acceptable by the proprietors of the circulating libraries and their bourgeois readers, but, for some nineteenth-century readers and critics, the significance of Mrs Henry Wood went far beyond that of a “good” woman. For many exponents of high culture she was cast as a vulgar figure, commercial in her aims, a symptom of decline in standards of reading and literary taste. The fastidious Saturday Review, labelled her “third rate” (18 Feb 1865, 203) and cited her success as disturbing evidence that there were “apparently no bounds to the insipidity, carelessness, and folly which the public is willing to tolerate, and for which, therefore, publishers are willing to pay” (13 Apr 1867, 475). Making this declaration when readers well above the servant class were still happily reading Wood—including Harriet Martineau, Leo Tolstoy, Lord Lyttleton, Queen Victoria—papers like the Saturday,and the Athenaeum attacked the pollution of contemporary culture that Wood’s success seemed to symbolize. The very qualities that Wood’s voracious readers were drawn to—sentimentalism, emphasis on sin and suffering, melodramatic emotionalism—were dismissed as clap-trap. At the same time, the novels were proclaimed the reading matter of the half-educated, low-brows who are also, reviewers implied, low on the socio-economic scale. The Saturday Review found it
impossible that persons of keen perceptions can read her books with pleasure. She grates too much on the refinement which is the second nature of educated people; and to read Mrs Henry Wood is equivalent of listening to the setting of a saw, or plunging one’s hands into a bed of stinging-nettles. (Saturday Review, 2 Nov 1872, 577).
It became increasingly commonplace to sneer that Wood and her readers were semi-literate. The Academypictured Mrs Henry Wood as a real-life Mrs Squeers (21 Feb 1885, 265), while the Saturday imagined the authoress as the “typical Mrs Brown”, whose novels in their “coarse garrulity” were
especially fitted for and addressed to servant maids, both for the side hints and exhortations she gives to that much-enduring and much inflicting class, and for the pleasure and gossip with which she repeats their gossip and their whole manière d’être. (Saturday Review, 22 Oct 1870, 540).
A similar class animus is apparent in the Athenaeum’s jibe that “her diction and her point of view remind us very much of the housekeeper’s room” (24 Jul 1875, 119). Others questioned Wood’s ability to produce so many of these books—“coarse, hasty and ill-considered wares” as the Saturday Review termed them (22 Oct 1870, 539). Sometimes Wood’s prolific output was seen as a case of misused talent; more often it was viewed as a cash-motivated approach to novel-writing and a rejection of aesthetic seriousness. In 1864, the Saturday painted a picture of Wood the hack, scribbling away in the family sitting-room, producing ephemeral articles for family magazines. “Emboldened by her success” with East Lynne, she had “gone on ever since at the rate of a novel every three months, each successive production weaker and more carelessly written than its predecessor” (16 Jan 1864, 83).
Reading these comments, it is hard to imagine commentary farther removed from the pieties of Charles Wood’s account of his mother’s career. Throughout the Memorials the devoted son strives to convince readers that while money, ambition, or frustration might characterize the adulterous, murderous heroines of East Lynne and St Martin’s Eve, such qualities were singularly absent in Ellen Wood the woman.
Unable to sit up unaided she wrote in a reclining chair and never accepted anything it would be a strain to perform . . . When writing became a serious occupation, her strength did not admit of anything else. Even after a quiet evening with friends she occasionally suffered from nervous exhaustion that almost felt like death itself. At such times she could only lie back in her chair, her eyes closed, a soft flush upon her face, until rest restored her . . . (Wood, Memorials, 36)
Women writers made gains during the nineteenth century but their bids for professional recognition were often in collision with the preferred mode of womanhood: domesticity. The invalidism and reclusiveness emphasized in Charles Wood’s description can be seen as the physical manifestation of a necessary and appropriate withdrawal from the world; the slow fade at the end suggests his mother’s serenity and resignation. Written by a man who witnessed the development of his mother’s career at first hand, later acting as her agent and personal assistant, the Memorials are most striking for the way in which they downplay Wood’s role as a professional author in favour of her role as wife, mother and household manager. As noted earlier, Mrs Wood’s life thus becomes a model of self-realization through self-renunciation. Charles Wood emphasizes that even when composing her novels his mother never neglected even the most mundane household duties. Her home is a haven of morality from the rapacity of the outside world, a sanctuary—and Charles Wood uses specifically Christian language—guarded by a real-life angel in the house. In fact, as we have seen, Ellen Wood’s life was characterized as much by her subversion of these Victorian clichés as by her fulfillment of them. She did work within an ethic of domesticity, shunning publicity, but seen with the benefit of a century’s hindsight, she also represents the talent well employed—through commitment to a career, to professionalism, and to financial independence.
Given her long history with Richard Bentley and Son and her frequent work for other major publishers, including Bradbury and Evans, the Tinsleys, and Norman Macleod, Wood should be a prime subject for scholars interested in the business of authorship and publishing. She also had close connections with a diverse collection of magazines including, Temple Bar, The New Monthly Magazine, The Quiver, Tinsley’s Magazine, Good Words, All the Year Round, and Once a Week. Wood’s extensive correspondence also suggests, as nothing else does, that she was far from being diffident and out of the world, as her son suggests. There we see her carefully arranging the marketing of her work in as many different forms as possible (serialization, books in one, two and three volumes, anthologies), rarely parting with a copyright, driving her publishers down to a third or even a quarter share of profits. Her letters to Richard and George Bentley, which cover the period from the 1850s to the 1880s, reveal a meticulous concern with the financial minutiae of contracts. They show that Wood was a regular and demanding visitor to the offices in New Burlington Street, collecting her substantial advances and royalties (preferably in cash) with determined regularity. “It will I believe be in the morning . . . that I should call”, she once wrote to Richard Bentley, “early” (25 Sep 1861, L14, UI). Wood’s correspondence suggests, too, the keen awareness of her power as a circulating library favourite—what George Bentley cautiously referred to as a “strong confidence” in her own work . . . ” (30 Jul 1863, L83, BL). Wood’s letters also reveal that she spent a good deal of her time playing rival publishers off against one another. In 1866 George Bentley complained bitterly to Florence Marryat of Wood’s defecting to Tinsley’s “after we had given her . . . a bonus of £200” (15 Aug 1866, L78, BL). To Bentley this smacked of disloyalty and ruthless opportunism, but Sarah Tytler interpreted it more charitably as Wood’s determination “not to find herself in the cold when her opportunities came to an end.” (320). Wood’s pride in her hard work and success and was of practical as well as psychological importance: she had long assumed the role of family breadwinner, and her self-fashioned persona and clamorous readers represented her ticket to economic security.
I began by suggesting that we should recognize the existence of more than one Mrs Henry Wood and see her multi-faceted image not as problem but as a series of entry points into Victorian literary culture. On the one hand, Wood publicly endorsed the Victorian ideal of asexual domesticity. On the other, she did not spend all her time in household management and her life ran counter to the ideal which she advocated. I want to suggest that these multiple Mrs Henry Woods often appear simultaneously because Wood is capable of gesturing to both spheres at once. An important example of this occurs in 1867 when she takes on her most ambitious project: the editorship of the monthly magazine, The Argosy. At that point, The Argosy was still reeling from the outcry provoked by its serialization of Charles Reade’s controversial Griffin Gaunt (1865-6) which many readers had judged obscene. For the magazine’s strait-laced owner, Alexander Strahan, Wood’s respectability, her popularity, her ability to write for different markets, and her reputation as the most wholesome of the sensation novelists made her a suitable editor with whom to entrust The Argosy’s future.
Under Wood’s ownership The Argosy achieved an average monthly circulation of 20,000, far in excess of that of its main rival, Mary Braddon’s Belgravia. Addressed to the family circle, The Argosy was determinedly non- controversial and non-political in its outlook. In 1869, Bell’s Weekly Messengercomplained that The Argosy was “by no means as racy in its literary cargo than it formerly was, since it has had more ‘wood’ piled upon it, its freight has been heavier than is either ornamental or pleasing” (20 Nov 1869, 6). By this time Wood’s once shocking books and ideas had become more assimilated into the suburban world of decency and morality. The tone of her serial novels for the magazine, notably Anne Hereford (1868) and Roland Yorke (1869), provide a stark contrast to that found in bolder women’s periodicals—Bessie Parkes’s Englishwoman’s Journal, for example, or The Rose, Shamrock and Thistle,published by the all-woman Caledonian Press. In the gaps between Wood’s serials, The Argosy relied heavily on a core of regular contributors—Hesba Stratton, Julia Kavanagh, Alice King and Isabella Fyvie Mayo, a protégé of Anna Maria Hall—publishing articles on female role models from history, or on education and continental travel, discursive pieces which confirmed the middle- class’s satisfaction with its own prosperity and the conventional roles assigned to its women.
According to Mayo, Wood was a sympathetic, selfless and hard- working editor whose own ill-health gave her “ready comprehension of difficult and trying circumstances” (143). The Victorians valued the bourgeois work ethic as well as that of true womanhood, so Mayo’s descriptions of the delicate Mrs Wood labouring dutifully over the submissions fitted both plots at once.
Recently, Phyllis Grosskurth has suggested that “[o]ne of the healthy signs in the development of biography has been the resurrection of otherwise neglected figures” (149). Wood’s life and career should make her a prime candidate, with its different segments, its narrative of a promising marriage ending in disillusionment, with its themes of self-reliant struggle against genteel poverty, of interaction between domestic and professional activities. Yet to return Ellen Wood to her rightful place in literary history is not to stabilize her. She remains inherently contradictory. Like a holograph shifting under our gaze, she is at once heroic wife and mother, scandalous sensationalist, and harbinger of the commercial degradation of art. Although she apparently refuses to comply with any of the tropes of successive waves of feminist historiography, it is difficult to dispute that she confounded expectations about women of her time(s), challenging her gender and class by being the first woman in her genteel family to earn her own living. Her work had a cross-class appeal and, although she is now condemned as conservative, one of the attractions of her writing is its polyphony, and thus its potential to resist fixed readings. Wood’s novels, which struck such a deep chord with Victorian readers, seem to be worthy of at least partial rescue and revaluation. Almost the only recent critical attention which Wood has received is that directed at East Lynne. Yet other works merit attention, not only as examples of popular fiction but as cultural documents that engage mid-Victorian ideas on gender, morality and the family. The trademark “Mrs Henry Wood” may not be interchangeable with “Wilkie Collins”, “Anthony Trollope” or “George Eliot” but the four participate equally in cultural currents which we will perceive in only a distorted way as long as Wood continues to be banished from cultural memory. While Collins’s welcome critical rehabilitation continues, that of his nearest rival is long overdue.
(Single references to items in Victorian periodicals are cited fully in the text but not included her.)
Archives of Richard Bentley and Son. Microfilm. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1976.
Baker, Ernest. A History of the English Novel. Vol. 9. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1950.
Cvetkovich, Ann. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Davies, Stevie. Introduction to East Lynne by Ellen Wood. London: Dent, 1984.
Elton, Oliver. A Survey of English Literature 1830-1880. 2 vols. London: Edward Arnold, 1920.
Elwin, Malcolm. Victorian Wallflowers. London: Jonathan Cape, 1934.
Grosskurth, Phyllis. “Search and Psyche: The Writing of Biography.” In English Studies in Canada 11 (1985) 145-56.
Horsman, Alan. The Victorian Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the other Woman. Trans. Gillian Hall. Ithaca, New York: Cornell, University Press, 1985.
Keddie, Henrietta [Sarah Tytler]. Three Generations. London: John Murray, 1911.
Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.
Maunder, Andrew. Introduction to East Lynne by Ellen Wood. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2000.
Mayo, Isabella Fyvie. Recollections – of what I saw, what I lived through and what I learned, during more than fifty years of social and literary experience. London: John Murray, 1910.
Oliphant, Margaret. “Men and Women.” In Blackwood’s Magazine 157 (Apr 1895) 620-50.
Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Secker and Warburg, 1991.
Rance, Nicholas. Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists: Walking the Moral Hospital. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Sinfield, Alan. Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
Shuttleworth, Charles B. A Record of the Unveiling in Worcester Cathedral of the Memorial Tablet to Mrs Henry Wood. London: Macmillan, 1916.
Stanley, Liz. The Auto/biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/biography. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.
Wood, Charles. Memorials of Mrs Henry Wood. London: Bentley and Son, 1894.
Wood, Ellen. St. Martin’s Eve. London: Bentley and Son, 1888.
_________. Verner’s Pride. London: Bentley and Son, 1895.
- The bulk of the surviving letters written by Wood relate to her dealings with the publishers Richard and George Bentley. They form part of the Bentley Archives held in the British Library (BL), the University of Illinois (UI), UCLA, and the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. All but the Berg materials have been microfilmed by Chadwyck-Healey. [↩]
- For a chronological account of Wood’s life and career, see the present author’s edition of Ellen Wood,East Lynne, 9-17. [↩]