Isabel’s Blue Spectacles: The Optics of Affect in East Lynne

Megan Nash

In the famously improbable storyline of Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1860–1), the disgraced protagonist Lady Isabel returns to the home she has abandoned, disguised as the dowdy governess Madame Vine. While her deception is aided by disfigurements sustained in a railway accident in France, the key to her disguise is a pair of ‘[l]arge blue double spectacles hiding the eyes and their sides’ (620). Although Isabel’s glasses are as much a plot device as an optical one, they reflect the Victorians’ growing fascination with eyes and visual technologies. In the decades leading up to the 1860s––when sensation novels would make their abrupt appearance on the literary marketplace––developments in physiology and optics had greatly enhanced people’s awareness of the fallible and subjective nature of human vision. One of the consequences of this was an attendant curiosity surrounding the corrective devices of spectacles. The Victorian’s concern with eyes and eyeglasses would be given an interesting inflection in East Lynne. Consistent with her writing in a genre characterised by high emotionality, Wood tends to be just as interested in how eyes emote, as in how they see. Her novel is concerned with the way passion operates in both the expressions and perceptions of this organ, and Isabel’s glasses serve different functions with respect to these two roles. While on the one hand they act as a barrier that can screen or cap her affects, on the other they illustrate the way her own perceptions are often coloured by emotion. Offering a play of readings and misreadings of affect, East Lynne seems to arrive at the conclusion that the bookish and bespectacled governess is probably not the one most in need of glasses. By suggesting that emotional lenses like Isabel’s can serve as reading aids, the novel conceives of affect as something that might actually inform interpretations of both people and texts.

Isabel’s spectacles are just one of a number of optical instruments that populate Wood’s fiction. In East Lynne the author refers to devices like the microscope and the photographic camera (601; The New Monthly 32), and in her 1863 novel The Shadow of Ashlydyat, she situates the latter technology in a historical moment of great transition and scientific discovery:

We all acknowledge the wonders of this most wonderful age. Fishes are made to talk; fleas to comport themselves as gentlemen; monkeys are discovered to be men – or men monkeys – which is it? […] We send ourselves in photograph to make morning calls. The opposite ends of the world are brought together by electric telegraph. Chloroform has rendered the surgeon’s knife something rather agreeable than otherwise. (61)

Alongside Darwinian evolution, the telegraph, and advances in anesthetics, Wood lists photographs––specifically the contemporary fashion of printing them on calling cards––as just one of a series of marvels comprising a marvellous age. And in East Lynne she reveals that even an all-seeing, all-knowing nineteenth-century narrator might envy the new optical technology’s ability to capture images of the world. Reflecting on the outfit of the coquettish Afy Hallijohn, Wood’s narrator observes, ‘Gloriously grand was Afy that day and if I had but a photographing machine at hand––or whatever may be the scientific name of the thing––you should certainly have been regaled with the sight of her’ (601). As Elizabeth Jay notes, it was not yet standard to refer to this technology by the general term ‘camera’, and Wood presumably has in mind one of a number of recently invented techniques for chemically capturing photographic images, most notably the daguerreotype of 1839 (Jay 644).

By including photographs in her list of the wonders of the age, Wood intuits something of the transition described by Jonathan Crary in Techniques of the Observer. Using optical technologies to trace changing conceptions of sight, Crary suggests that the decades leading up to the Victorian period experienced ‘an uprooting of vision’ (14). He argues that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the paradigmatic model for vision was the device known as the camera obscura, a simple pinhole apparatus that was thought to represent how ‘observations lead to truthful inferences about the world’ (29). But according to Crary, this model was displaced in the nineteenth century by a suite of new optical gadgets (most notably the stereoscope), which produced visual illusions of depth, movement or composition, by taking advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the human eye (8). Thus, while the earlier model conceived of vision as a site of objectivity and truth, the latter increasingly recognised its subjectivity and physiological fallibility (14; 16). The techniques for capturing photographic images––those which also captured Wood’s imagination––are described by Crary as simply a ‘later symptom’ of this same ‘crucial systematic shift’ (5).

This shift is reiterated in a number of subsequent studies of Victorian visual culture, such as those by Kate Flint, Chris Otter, or Carol Christ and John Jordan, all of which affirm that the Victorians were increasingly aware of the imperfections of human sight. Flint outlines some of the scientific advances that gave rise to these doubts, including the increasing sophistication of microscopes and telescopes, the recognition of the wave motion of light, and the discovery of powerful rays beyond the visible spectrum (30–1). She suggests that this would lead some Victorians to the conclusion that ‘Not everything […] may be explained by science, not everything can be read by attending to what is visible, however alertly’ (Flint 23). The sense of scepticism Flint describes is evident in Wood’s own reference to the microscope in East Lynne. Borrowing from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers (1836), she describes the inability of Isabel’s husband to penetrate her disguise: ‘Had Mr. Carlyle possessed the eyes of Argus, backed by Sam Weller’s patent magnifying microscopes of double hextra power, he could not have made anything of her features in the broad light of day’ (‘East Lynne’ 32).[1] Despite all the visual power and penetration a device like the microscope could confer, in this instance it still does not help Mr Carlyle see what is right in front of him.

Victorian eyeglasses and ‘the evils which spectacles correct’

With all the excitement and scepticism surrounding vision, it is perhaps no surprise that the Victorians would show an interest in the workings of spectacles, for unlike the various gadgets designed to play on the fallibility of their eyes, glasses were actually made to correct for them. The Victorian periodical press produced numerous articles about these visual aids, ranging from complex scientific descriptions of how they work, to reflections on the fashions and stigmas surrounding them.[2] In an 1850 article from the Quarterly Review, one anonymous author explains how corrective spectacles actually combine with the eye’s own lens in order to counteract defects of sight: ‘A curved glass operates upon light like the eye itself, and interposed before it does a portion of its work’ (‘ART’ 50). After describing how light paints an image ‘on the retina’, they observe that ‘if the rays are brought together before or behind, instead of upon it, the sight is confused. This is the evil which spectacles correct’ (‘ART’ 50). Glasses are here envisaged as a prosthesis to the eye, one whose optics merely compensate for flaws in the organ’s own.

Despite these corrective properties, spectacles were not immune to the visual anxieties of the time, as is apparent in the title of one of the ophthalmological publications reviewed in the Quarterly article, Alfred Smee’s 1847 treatise Vision in Health and Disease, the Value of Glasses for its Restoration, and the Mischief Caused by their Abuse. While Smee’s treatise is rather summarily dismissed as an over-priced ‘profusion of paper, print and engravings’, it does point to the fact that people were not only concerned with the ‘value’ of spectacles, but also with their potential for ‘mischief’ (‘ART’ 49; 45). This had much to do with the prevailing opinion that eyes would adapt to the use or focus to which they were habitually put, so that those accustomed to close work would be prone to myopia, whereas those used to peer into the distance were more likely to become farsighted. Chris Otter notes that many Victorians actually attributed a rise in the prevalence of myopia to the ocular pressures of modern life, and in particular to an increasing demand for reading (40–1). The Quarterly reviewer observes that this anxiety also extended to spectacles; reflecting on the capacity for focal accommodation, they note that ‘[t]he same process is carried on in a vigorous eye when forced into harmony with the new refractions which glasses produce. It takes and retains a fresh bias’ (‘ART’ 51). Due to the danger of introducing this bias, it was a commonplace of articles about spectacles to insist that readers obtain the advice of a trained optician. In a piece on ‘Eyes and Eyeglasses’ for Fraser’s Magazine, Richard H. Horne would offer a personal anecdote to illustrate the point.[3] The first time he purchased eyewear it was from ‘A well-dressed man in a shop, whom [he] took for granted was an optician, because he sold spectacles’, but Horne only ends up buying ‘a handsome single glass of the wrong focus’ (699). Motivated by making a sale, his well-dressed attendant is clearly unconcerned with the finer points of optics.

As this anecdote implies, the scientific concerns surrounding spectacles would only have been exacerbated by their increasingly widespread commodification. The popular commercial appeal of spectacles is a point that Adrian Poole reflects on in his essay about Henry James’ 1896 short story ‘Glasses’. Poole’s description of nineteenth century consumption registers the way that acquisition was motivated by anxiety as much as aspiration:

The end of the nineteenth century sees the birth of the modern consumer, and consumers must worry about everything. For every dream of material health, wealth and happiness, there is a corresponding nightmare. It is at exactly this time that spectacles join the endless list of things—soap, pills, pianos, furs—which every good consumer should worry about not having, wearing, using or swallowing. (Poole 9)

The anxiety that Poole identifies at the end of the century is one that can be detected even earlier, for his contrasting possibilities of consumer ‘dream’ and ‘nightmare’ necessarily recall Smee’s attribution of ‘value’ and ‘mischief’ to spectacles. Their increasing availability as an easily attainable commodity is even evident in Wood’s novel, for when Isabel’s blue glasses are accidentally broken, she is immediately able to remedy the loss at a spectacle shop in West Lynne. Described as a town that is ‘neither a manufacturing one nor a cathedral one, nor even the chief town of the county’, West Lynne is by no means an urban centre, and the presence of a spectacle shop suggests that glasses were no longer a particularly rare or specialist product (19).

The popularity of spectacles as commodity also speaks to the important changes in literacy and print culture that marked the Victorian period, those which Jonathan Rose describes as a ‘reading revolution’ (31). Rose demonstrates that there was a distinct rise in the rate of literacy, as well as the production and availability of reading material, and attributes the latter to an ‘ever-expanding array of cheap newspapers and magazines’ (33; 46). It is probable that this revolution would have caused an attendant growth in the demand for spectacles, one that could also have been exacerbated by the quality, in addition to the quantity, of the new reading matter. Indeed, the layout of the inexpensive periodicals were, as a general rule, cramped and overcrowded. With miniscule type and thin borders, these publications would presumably have presented a real challenge for the presbyopic reader.[4] In her essay ‘What’s not in Middlemarch’, Gillian Beer considers the advertisements that appeared in the first edition of George Eliot’s novel, describing them as ‘fleeting para-texts’ that are ‘absolutely ‘of the moment’ and so give a window onto the readers by whom this work was first received’ (16). An 1853 advertisement for spectacles that ran in the short-lived literary journal the Critic provides a similar window onto the Victorian periodical reader, aptly illustrating some of the visual strains that these publications would have posed (see fig. 1). Amusingly, the ad seems to create an immediate need for the product it is trying to sell. Leading with the question ‘WHEN are SPECTACLES REQUIRED?’, the minute print in which it offer various answers is likely to elicit the very phenomena they describe, such as ‘When the letters of a book appear to blend with one another’, or ‘When objects cannot be seen without removing them to an increased distance’ (‘Advertisement’ 215).[5] Noting that the final page of Middlemarch was succeeded by an advertisement for cough lozenges, Beer speculates that the ad would presumably have appealed to anyone who had just finished reading the novel out loud (21). This ad for spectacles clearly exhibits a similarly savvy spirit of salesmanship.

Fig. 1. The spectacles salesman creates demand for his product. ‘Advertisement,’ The Critic; Apr 15, 1853; 12, 289; British Periodicals pg. 215

It was of course in such inexpensive periodicals that many sensation novels would make their first appearance. In the slightly more upmarket Fraser’s Magazine, Horne explicitly associates these novels with poor printing, and points to the danger they pose to the readers’ eyesight:

Mark this, all youthful readers of the cheap editions of sensational novels, printed in double columns, of the smallest type very much the worse for wear, […] with faded ink, upon bad paper of uneven surface. Stupid economy! and no real economy, but the reverse in its ocular effects. (706)

East Lynne is unlikely to have been Horne’s primary target here, given that it appeared in the more spacious pages of the New Monthly Magazine. However, a novel like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861–2) was printed on the crowded, double-columned pages of the Sixpenny Magazine, and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859–60) would fair little better in Dickens’ All the Year Round. While Horne’s comments are ostensibly a reproach against low-quality printing, they simultaneously and deliberately evoke a genre that many Fraser’s readers would also associate with low-quality content. Various Victorian critics would famously lament the immorality of sensation novels, with H. L. Mansel criticising an addictive quality that left their readers like ‘dram drinkers’ in the ‘grip of perpetual cravings’ (485), and another anonymous reviewer regretting that they were guilty of ‘tampering with things evil, and infringing more or less on the confines of wrong’ (‘Our Female Sensation Novelists’ 210). In the context of such criticism, Horne’s suggestion that sensation novels might ruin your eyesight seems to take on an additional moral insinuation, sounding something like the preventative fallacy that masturbation will send you blind.

If cheaply printed sensation novels were sending more people out to buy glasses, then their unflattering depiction in books like East Lynne might also have given some customers pause. When disguised as Madame Vine, the once beautiful Isabel is described as ‘droll looking’ and a ‘mortal fright’ (409). While blue lenses were not exactly uncommon in the nineteenth century for people with weak eyes or photosensitivity, the description of Isabel’s ‘double spectacles’ that hide the sides of her eyes suggests that Wood was envisioning a four-lens variety commonly known as D-spectacles (see fig. 2). Isabel’s glasses would thus have been conspicuous both for their colour and their style, and it is therefore unsurprising that Mr Carlyle’s second wife Barbara should describe them as ‘very disfiguring’ (413). The disparaging comments made about their appearance also reflect a general stigma attached to spectacles, which were, according to Horne, ‘not considered graceful and becoming’ for women (705). The stigma is certainly evident in James’ short story, in which one of the central characters refuses to wear her glasses because they mar her appearance and her chances of making a suitable match. Edgar Allan Poe’s earlier, outlandish story ‘The Spectacles’ (1844) works along similar lines; the vain protagonist––this time a man––actually ends up marrying his own great grandmother on account of his refusal to wear glasses.

Fig. 2. An example of nineteenth century D-spectacles featuring blue lenses. Courtesy of the British Optical Association Museum. By Henry Blackham, circa 1863-1870, The College of Optometrists, London, Nineteenth Century Spectacles, Accessed July 2017.

Although thus often thought unseemly, the enduring association between spectacles and reading did instil glasses with a cultural connotation of intellect and education.[6] One article in Chambers’ Journal even quips about their being de rigueur among young doctors for this very reason, noting that ‘spectacles make the physician, and procure the money which makes the man’ (‘The Economy of Sight’ 328). Accordingly, in East Lynne, glasses are only worn by those in scholarly professions, such as Lord Mount Severn’s lawyer Mr Warburton, and Carlyle’s clerk and manager Mr Dill. And although not specified as a regular accessory, Carlyle’s sister Cornelia also dons spectacles in one scene of the novel (371). While she is not exactly a professional lawyer, Cornelia’s glasses seem to serve as a metonym for her visual and intellectual acuity, for ‘[i]t was said in the town that she was as good a lawyer as her father had been: she undoubtedly possessed sound judgment in legal matters, and quick penetration’ (48). In this regard, Isabel’s spectacles accord with her assumption of the role of governess. Although they might not afford her quite the same commercial appeal as Horne’s young physicians, they would seemingly suggest to Victorian readers that the colour of her stockings might be a good match for the colour of her lenses.[7]

Barriers to affect in East Lynne

For Isabel, however, spectacles have as much to do with affect as they do with intellect, an association which is perhaps unsurprising given that emotionality is one of the distinctive features of sensation novels (Allen 401). Ellen Rosenman describes this genre’s emphasis on ‘intense emotions’ in terms of the debt that it owes to eighteenth century melodrama: ‘These novels abound in the display of heightened affective states, especially pain––fulsome, exaggerated, often described by the term “excess”’ (23). The excess she identifies is also one that these novels are thought to provoke in their readers, with the genre being known and named for the nervous thrills it famously affords. In an oft-quoted observation, D. A. Miller identifies it as ‘one of the first instances of modern literature to address itself primarily to the sympathetic nervous system’ (107). While the genre’s emotional appeal is not separable from these physical and nervous ones, neither is it entirely transposable with them, for emotion is often thought to lie betwixt and between the kind of psyche/soma distinction Miller elaborates in his discussion. The genre’s specific appeal to the emotions is taken up by one Victorian commentator in an 1865 essay from the London Review. Although the author actually defends the role of affect in literature, arguing that ‘Emotion has its place, and its use, as well as reason’, they also acknowledge its potential hazards: ‘The danger of it is in overgrowth, and this luxuriance will occur where there is a rank ripeness of passion’ (‘Emotion Waste’ 638). Identifying this sort of ‘rank ripeness’ in the ‘evil art and bad taste of many a modern novel’, their defence of affect is pointedly not extended to ‘what is called sensation writing’ (‘Emotion Waste’ 638).

This critic’s warning of the danger of passion is echoed on the very first page of East Lynne, in an epigraph taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858):

Truly the heart is deceitful, and out of its depths of corruption

Rise like an exhalation, the misty phantoms of passion;

Angels of light they seem, but are only delusions of Satan. (Wood 1)

Envisaging the passions of the heart as ‘delusions’ or ‘deceitful’, the passage from Longfellow offers an expressly negative conception of affect, characterising it as a force that is only likely to lead someone astray. And yet, while East Lynne proceeds to offer a number of similarly overt condemnations, these warnings are simultaneously complicated by an opposing tendency to acknowledge the value of feeling. The latter comes through in Wood’s portrayal of her characters, and particularly in her depiction of their varied perceptive abilities.

Lady Isabel is the primary centre and source of East Lynnes intense emotions. Her tendency to be overcome by feeling throws her into continual difficulties, with passion serving as the catalyst for both her fall and her final illness. When Isabel’s waning health sees her travel to the French seaside town of Boulogne, she reencounters an old acquaintance and reignites an old passion: ‘She was aware that a sensation all too warm, a feeling of attraction towards Francis Levison, was working within her; not a voluntary one; she could no more repress it than she could repress her own sense of being’ (212). Isabel’s feelings for Levison are here seen as entirely irrepressible and even as synonymous with her sense of self. Nevertheless, this is not the passion that finally impels her to leave her husband, a rupture which is instead provoked by the intense jealousy she feels when she thinks he is having an affair.[8] Moreover, years after Isabel’s departure, it is her passionate desire to see her children again that drives her back to East Lynne. It is an impulse that prompts the narrator to muse on the insurmountable nature of human emotion: ‘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’ (590). Just as Isabel’s passion for Levison was equated with her own ‘sense of being’, so here the narrator describes passions in general as inherent to humanity.

When Isabel does return, her difficulty in commanding her feelings becomes a recurring a point of tension. Thus, when she prepares for her initial interview with Barbara (the new Mrs Carlyle) the narrator notes that ‘It was with the utmost difficulty she kept tranquil: had the tears once burst forth, they would have gone onto hysterics, without the possibility of control’ (402). Isabel almost gives herself away again the next morning when she’s caught weeping at the reunion with her son Archibald. And yet it is noted that ‘[s]he could not have helped the tears, had it been to save her life’ (414). She is once more in danger of discovery in her reaction to the news that Levison has committed the murder for which Barbara’s brother stands accused: ‘In spite of her caution, of her strife for self-command, she turned of a deadly whiteness, and a low sharp cry of horror and despair burst from her lips’ (496). And at the end of the novel, Isabel’s unruly feelings play an important role in her illness; as Heidi Hansson suggests, her passions ‘approach the pathological’, and eventually contribute to her death from a ‘breaking heart’ (Hansson 164; Wood 599).

As Isabel’s illness and death attests, in East Lynne conditions of the heart have a tendency to reveal themselves. Although the protagonist of Collins’ Heart and Science (1882) regrets that he cannot ‘look into [the] heart, and see what secrets it is keeping’, his vivisectionist fantasy seems somewhat unnecessary in a genre where such secrets will often rise to the surface (Collins 94). Indeed, East Lynne is full of affective displays that are written on the body, their legibility suggested in the semiotic terms in which they are often described. Thus, Carlyle’s countenance is designated ‘an index of an honourable, sincere nature’, and Mrs Hare is said to look at Madame Vine and ‘detect the signs of mental suffering on her face’ (7; 427; my italics). Isabel and Levison first reveal their feelings for one another in a characteristic display of such affectively legible bodies: ‘Lady Isabel glanced up and caught his eyes gazing upon her with the deepest tenderness––a language hers had never yet encountered. A vivid blush again arose to her cheek, her eyelids fell, and her timid words died away in silence’ (19). Although Isabel’s words die away, the communicative burden is carried on by the expression in Levison’s eyes and the blush on her cheek, signs which constitute a ‘language’ of their own. It is one that Meegan Kennedy reflects on in a study which compares the sensation novel to a contemporaneous technology called the sphygmograph. Somewhat like a modern polygraph, this device measured subtle physiological changes in pulse, respiration and temperature, which it recorded via a pen that rested on a roll of paper (Kennedy 452). The sphygmograph thus made manifest what was largely internal and invisible. Noting that ‘articles about the device conceived of it as a kind of writing, a new kind of narrator’, Kennedy describes both the sphygmograph and the sensation novel as ‘body graphs’ that set about ‘writing the body on the page’ (455; 457).

Wood’s depictions of passion, and Kennedy’s technological model for them, both exemplify what Rei Terada refers to as ‘the expressive hypothesis’. Identifying this hypothesis as ‘the dominant trope of thought about emotion’, Terada explains that it ‘diagrams emotion as something lifted from a depth to a surface’ (11). This trope presents some difficulties for Terada, whose analysis of affect in critical theory must contend with the death of the subject. However, it is a metaphor that is clearly embraced by Wood; just as the blush ‘arose’ to Isabel’s cheek in front of Levison, so the passions in her epigraph ‘rise like an exhalation’. East Lynne is thus willing to trace the superficial signs of affect to invisible depths. That said, Wood does employ some alternative tropes of emotion that, unlike the expressive hypothesis, are not so invested in the idea that feeling must inhere in the interiority of a unified subject. Contagion is a good example of such a trope, and one that Adela Pinch discusses in terms of the autonomy it seems to grant to emotion:

Not always lodged within the private, inner lives of individual persons, [feelings] rather circulate among persons as somewhat autonomous substances. They frequently seem as impersonal, and contagious, as viruses, visiting the breasts of men and women the way diseases visit the body. (1)

In Pinch’s description, emotion can be free-floating and transferable, something that might come from outside the subject or the body. According to the logic of this metaphor, emotion it is more likely to cause infection than it is expression. While Wood does not adopt the trope of contagion, she does depict passion as a phenomena that can overwhelm one from the outside. As Hansson demonstrates, Wood frequently deploys weather metaphors like storms and floods to suggest that ‘emotion is a force and the person who is emotionally affected is in some sense a passive victim’ (160; 157). While Wood thus shows that she is not averse to mixing metaphors when it comes to feeling, the ambiguity surrounding emotion’s point of origin in the novel does not change the fact that it tends to be rendered visible at the surface of the body.

As the initial exchange between Levison and Isabel shows, eyes are central to these displays of affect in East Lynne. Eyes are responsible for one of feeling’s most tangible products in the form of the tear, but they are also capable of conveying a much more subtle and varied range of emotional looks or expressions. While such looks would often serve Victorian novelists as a form of shorthand to convey their characters’ feelings, Wood places a particular emphasis on the expressive quality of Lady Isabel’s eyes. This is apparent when she first encounters the man who will become her husband. In an apt demonstration of John Berger’s famous summation of the gendered structure of looking (‘men act and women appear’), here Carlyle’s eyes gaze, while Isabel’s show:

[I]t was not so much the perfect contour or the exquisite features that struck him, or the rich damask of the delicate cheek, or the luxuriant falling hair; no, it was the sweet expression of the soft dark eyes. Never in his life had he seen eyes so pleasing. He could not keep his gaze from her, and he became conscious, as he grew more familiar with her face, that there was in its character a sad, sorrowful look; only at times was it to be noticed, when the features were at repose, and it lay chiefly in the very eyes he was admiring. (11)

Isabel’s eyes are described as the primary source of her beauty, but are also the site of the ‘sad, sorrowful look’ that defines it. The distinctiveness of her visual organs is further highlighted by the fact that after her accident and disfigurement, they are the last feature by which she can be recognised. When Isabel’s spectacles are dashed to the ground in front of Cornelia, she immediately notices the likeness and proceeds to seek confirmation of her sister-in-law’s death. The same is true for Carlyle, who is only able to identify Isabel once her spectacles are removed on her deathbed. In conversation with her uncle Lord Vane, he reflects that ‘[E]very part of her face and form was changed. Except her eyes: and those I never saw but through those disguising glasses’ (619).

Isabel’s spectacles not only hide her identity from the people at East Lynne, they also help her to hide her affects. After her return, she attends the family to church, where she sees Barbara installed in the position she herself used to occupy. Although it is a sight ‘sufficient to overwhelm her with emotion’, it is one she must endeavour to conceal: ‘She scarcely raised her head; she tightened her thick veil over her face; she kept her spectacles bent toward the ground’ (433). Isabel here uses the paraphernalia of her disguise to obscure the outward signs of her feeling, rendering her tinted lenses a barrier to her affects. This function of her glasses is similarly apparent in her first interview with Barbara as governess. When Barbara criticises Lady Isabel for abandoning her husband and children, the narrator substitutes a description of Isabel’s emotional reaction with the pointed observation that ‘Madame Vine appeared to be occupied with her spectacles, setting them straight.’ (406). The function is further reiterated in a comment made by the nursemaid Wilson, who, after itemising the unattractive components of Madame Vine’s outfit, reflects that ‘them blue spectacles capped everything’ (410). While ostensibly intended to suggest that the glasses complete the strange ensemble of the governess, Wilson’s observation also articulates the way that they ‘cap’ or contain her feelings. But in the course of the novel this barrier to affect is still occasionally breached, as in the famous scene of highly wrought emotion where Isabel tends to her dying son, unable to acknowledge that he is in fact her own child: ‘William lay on the sofa, and she sat by, looking at him. Her glasses were off, for the tears wetted them continually, and it was not the recognition of the children she feared’ (485). Here the material effusion of Isabel’s feeling––her tears––quite literally overwhelms the boundary put up by her spectacles.

By capping her emotions, Isabel’s glasses serve as a synechdochic image of a broader ethic of emotional suppression in East Lynne. It is a novel in which characters are continually made to ‘battle’ or ‘struggle bravely’ with their feelings and one where, according to Hansson, ‘proper behaviour requires emotional control, and emotional expression amounts to breaking the rules’ (Wood 152, 164; Hansson 165). This repudiation of passion, and affirmation of endurance, finds an exemplary model in Isabel’s husband. Described as ‘a man as little given to show emotion as man can well be’, critics have variously remarked upon Carlyle’s ‘reticence’, his ‘self-control’ and his ‘ability to circumvent his emotions’ (Wood 613; Schaffer 238; 240; Mangham 134). Carlyle certainly maintains an unaccountable composure in situations that might be expected to elicit strong feelings. For instance, while he does spend an hour or two in silent contemplation on encountering the notice of Isabel’s death in the paper, when called upon by his clerk Mr Dill, Carlyle immediately ‘swe[eps] the newspaper from before him, and [i]s the calm, collected man of business again’ (326). He demonstrates a similar equanimity when asking Barbara for her hand, as the words ‘Will you marry me’ are ‘spoken in the quietest, most matter-of-fact tone, just as if he had said, Shall I give you a chair, Barbara’ (366). Nor is Carlyle content just to keep a firm reign on his own feelings, he also counsels other people to master theirs. Thus, when Barbara finds she has been passed over for Lady Isabel, and is consumed by a well-justified fit of anger and disappointment, he can only unhelpfully insist, ‘do be calm and reasonable’ (165). Like Carlyle, Wood’s narrator seems disinclined to go along with Barbara’s passionate outburst, maintaining an amusing ironic distance in describing her valid rage as her ‘making a scene’ (163).

A contrast of the affective styles of Isabel and Carlyle might suggest that emotionality is delineated along lines of class and gender in East Lynne, with Carlyle personifying masculine self-discipline and the respectable middle classes, and Isabel standing for feminine emotionality and an overindulgent aristocracy (Rosenman 31; Hansson 160). In the respective social trajectories of these characters, Wood’s novel does register the historic decline of the aristocratic class and the attendant rise of the bourgeoisie. Ann Kaplan even intimates that emotional extravagance might be a contributing factor to this changing of the guard, arguing that it was necessary for the middle class to set their own ‘asceticism’ in opposition to ‘aristocratic waste and self-indulgence’ (46). There are, however, a number of characters who do not fit neatly into this schematic distribution of passion. With respect to gender, an attribution of emotionality to women would ignore ‘hard-nosed’ female characters like Cornelia, or the mercenary Afy Hallijohn (Wynne 67), and that is not to mention the novel’s emotional men, like Barbara’s sensitive brother Richard Hare. With respect to class, Isabel is joined by her father, her lover and her aunt, who are all passionate, rash or indulgent aristocrats. However, the designation of emotionality to this class as a whole would fail to account for a character like Isabel’s eminently sensible uncle Lord Mount Severn.

Reading with emotional lenses

If Isabel’s spectacles serve as a screen that keeps her emotions hidden or in check, they might also be expected to change the way she sees when she looks out through them. As the popular metaphor of rose-coloured glasses attests, the idea of spectacles as emotional lenses is a well-established one. For one writer in Chambers’ Journal in 1854, it served as the impetus for an article about the attitudes with which people approach their daily lives. While the piece is titled ‘Spectacles’, the author makes haste to note that they are not talking about real glasses, but rather a kind of ‘metaphysical spectacles’ that can ‘magnify, diminish, colour, or decolorise the objects that float before the mind’s eye’ (‘Spectacles’ 279). The author proceeds to reflect on how the world might appear through the lenses of different emotions:

The dependent vary with the state of mind of the owner: if he is happy, they make everything seem light and cheerful; if sad, they invest creation with a gray neutral tint; if exceedingly enraged, they seem, like Iceland spar, to have a double refraction, and to distort everything. And so arise misjudgments, false calculations, and inaccuracies of all kinds. (‘Spectacles’ 279)

As if to confuse the boundary between physical and metaphysical glasses, the Chambers author imparts a deliberate scientism to the metaphor, with the double refractions of ‘Iceland spar’ evoking the names of great physicists like Newton and Huygens, who would use this crystal in their experiments on the polarisation of light. This confusion serves to reiterate the idea of distortion, for it inevitably taps into the Victorians’ very real fear of the potential mischief that glasses could do to the eyes – the way they could create a focal bias through habitual use. In East Lynne, Wood repeatedly points to emotion’s potential to alter perception in this manner, as when the narrator reflects on Isabel’s impressions of her husband’s relationship with Barbara: ‘Shakespeare calls jealousy yellow and green. I think it may be called black and white; for it most assuredly views white as black, and black and white’ (183). Over the years, the hue imparted by Isabel’s emotion is observed to fade, so that past events begin to appear ‘in fainter colours’ and ‘she began to suspect––nay, she knew––that her own excited feelings had magnified [them] in length’ (297). Wood’s tendency to depict feeling as something that can colour perception lends an obvious significance to Isabel’s tinted lenses. This is not to suggest that Isabel only sees things emotionally once she assumes the spectacles and persona of Madame Vine, but rather that these glasses serve as an outward manifestation of a mode of perception that has always belonged to her character. Wood’s choice of blue lenses for Isabel might thus point to the sadness or sorrow with which this colour is generally associated, or as Emily Allen posits, they effectively ‘literalise the optics of suffering’ (409).[9] Moreover, while the reflection about Shakespeare suggests that jealous perception might look something like a photographic negative––in which black is white and white is black––it also acknowledges the established association that this emotion has with the colour green, thereby pointing to the affective implications of the ‘ugly, old pair of green things’ that Isabel uses while her blue glasses are mended. Although Wood’s narrator here concurs with the Chambers’ author in suggesting that emotion can give rise to perceptual distortion or bias, her novel also contains numerous instances in which seeing with feeling helps people to interpret those around them.

This is an important ability in the world of East Lynne, for the novel’s preponderance of affectively legible bodies means that reading is a skill which is applied as readily to people as it is to texts. When thinking about emotion in terms of its legibility, Eugenie Brinkema’s formalist study of affect and cinema is instructive. Brinkema argues against claims for ‘the immediacy or obviousness’ of affects, instead suggesting that they must be interpreted in order to be understood, that they are something which ‘commands a reading’ or ‘forms a hermeneutic demand’ (4; 21). In East Lynne, the implications of affect are not always obvious, and Wood’s characters must take up the kind of ‘interpretive imperative’ Brinkema describes (21). However, there is a considerable variability in different characters’ proficiency in reading and interpretation, which is where Isabel’s emotional lenses come into play, for what separates her readings from those of a character like Carlyle is that they tend to be informed by feeling.

Described as ‘refined and sensitive, almost painfully considerate of the feelings of others’ (148), Isabel has a pronounced capacity to perceive and understand the emotions of the people around her. This is evident in her early interaction with the impoverished music master Mr Kane. Reading the physical manifestations of his feelings, she notes that ‘He kept turning red and white, and catching up his breath in agitation: it was painful to him to tell of his embarrassments’ (69). Her perception of Kane’s discomfort prompts her to come to his aid, and she attends his local concert in the hope that her aristocratic presence will render it fashionable and hence profitable. Isabel’s emotional acuity is similarly apparent when she and Barbara watch Mr Carlyle approach East Lynne one day after work. Adding further fuel to her mounting jealousy, she detects Barbara’s feelings in her face, noting her ‘damask cheeks turn to crimson at sight of him’ (159). Isabel’s perceptiveness also comes into play in her dealings with the doctors who attend her dying son William. Although Dr Martin ‘would give no decisive opinion’ as to William’s condition, she reflects that ‘I am sure, by the tone of his voice, by his evasive manner, that he anticipates the worst, although he would not say so in words’ (490). Here as elsewhere, Isabel’s understanding proceeds not from verbal communication, but from her reading of affective display. Her emotional awareness even appears to be a trait handed down to William, who has also inherited his mother’s ‘hectic cheek’ and ‘brilliant colours’ (303, 393). Thus, the narrator observes that ‘He was precisely that sort of child from whom it is next to impossible to disguise facts; quick, thoughtful, observant, and advanced beyond his years’ (486). Indeed, detecting the emotion that his mother endeavours to hide, William pointedly observes that her feelings for him appear to exceed those of a governess (482).

Despite this tendency for affective acuity, Isabel’s interpretation of the situation that provokes her flight is generally regarded as a clear example of misreading. While not yet wearing the ugly green glasses, she is already looking through ‘metaphysical’ ones, for when Carlyle and Barbara are working together in secret to exculpate Richard from the murder of Afy’s father, Isabel mistakenly concludes that their meetings are for the sake of an adulterous affair. However, even though her initial reading is incorrect with respect to Carlyle’s actions, it turns out to be a fairly accurate with regard to his feelings. Although her jealousy is later described as ‘blind’ and ‘unfounded’, it is actually what enables her to intuit Carlyle’s latent affection for Barbara, which is finally allowed to surface when he takes the latter as his second wife. The insight that Isabel’s emotions provide in this instance recalls D. A. Miller’s observation, regarding The Woman in White, that ‘characters who rely on utterly unlegal standards of evidence like intuition, coincidence, literary connotation get closer to what will eventually be revealed as the truth’ (114). While Isabel breaks her wedding vows in abandoning Carlyle, he too breaks his promise that he will not let Barbara Hare usurp her place if she is to die (181).[10] As Isabel attests to her uncle at a later date, there is such a thing as ‘a desertion of the heart’ (305).

Still more pronounced is the novel’s cautionary tale of reading without feeling, epitomised by the character of Carlyle. As Andrew Mangham notes, Wood does not shy away from representing ‘the shortfalls inherent to bourgeois masculinity’, amongst which he includes Carlyle’s ‘ability to circumvent his emotions’ and to ‘separate business from feeling’ (134; 137). Occupied with supressing his own affects, Isabel’s husband demonstrates a corresponding inability to perceive or read them in others. Commenting on his ‘extraordinary blindness to women’s feelings’, Ellen Rosenman even diagnoses him as “Emotionally illiterate”’ (31). This illiteracy is first made apparent in the scene where he meets Isabel and is enamoured with her eyes. While the reader is made privy to the meaning of their expression, the narrator makes a point of observing that Carlyle is not: ‘Never does this unconsciously mournful expression exist, but it is a sure index of sorrow and suffering; but Mr. Carlyle understood it not’ (11). Indeed, his inability to read affect contributes to much of the conflict of the novel, playing a significant part, for instance, in Isabel’s flight (Schaffer 238). Unable to detect or interpret the feelings between her and Levison, Carlyle repeatedly insists on forcing the two of them together. Despite Isabel’s repeated attempts to return from Boulogne and thus remove herself from temptation, Carlyle specifically ‘commend[s] his wife to the further attention of Captain Levison’, having ‘Not the faintest suspicion that it might be unwise to do so’ (213). Reflecting on Isabel’s plea to return, and her happiness at being permitted to do so, Carlyle even misinterprets her desire to separate herself from Levison as a mark of matrimonial affection:

Mr Carlyle set it down to her love for him: he arrived at the conclusion that, in reiterating that she could not bear to be away from him, she spoke the fond truth.

‘Isabel,’ he said, smiling tenderly upon her, ‘do you remember, in the first days of our marriage, you told me you did not love me, but that the love would come. I think this is it.’

Her face flushed nearly to tears at the word; a bright, glowing, all too conscious flush. Mr Carlyle mistook its source, and caught her to his heart. (218)

Not only does he misinterpret his wife’s motivations, he also misreads the guilty blush that his error then brings to her cheek. Capping off Carlyle’s obliviousness and Isabel’s problems, the main purpose of her return is quickly negated when he invites Captain Levison to stay with them at East Lynne.

Carlyle demonstrates similarly poor reading skills in his relationship with Barbara, where he is unable (or perhaps unwilling) to see that he has given her cause for false hope. His actions seem scarcely less blameworthy than the jiltings perpetrated by men like Austen’s John Willoughby or Frank Churchill, and yet, Carlyle refuses to acknowledge it. So while the narrator treats Barbara’s ‘hysterics’ with some irony, a portion is certainly kept in reserve for the depiction of Carlyle’s complete insensibility: ‘He asked his conscience whether his manner to [Barbara] in the past days had been a tinge warmer than we bestow upon a sister, and he decided that it might have been, but he most certainly never cast a suspicion to the mischief it was doing’ (166). From the perspective of Barbara and the reader, ‘a tinge warmer’ is an appreciable understatement, and it is only with masterful self-denial that Carlyle can absolve himself of wrongdoing.

Isabel’s emotional perceptions might cause her more trouble than benefit in a world ordered according to the tenets of a disciplined, bourgeois masculinity, however, this does not render them unworthy of attention. Women like Bertha Mason or Lady Audley are not served particularly well by their sexual jealousy or violent rage, but the triumph or demise of such characters can still tell us something important about their historical milieu. In a similar way, Isabel’s experiences speak to a Victorian distrust of emotion. And yet, between Carlyle’s emotional illiteracy and Isabel’s emotional lenses, East Lynne’s comparison of disparate reading practices serves to problematise the novel’s overt warnings against the dangers of feeling. While the dissolution of their marriage is in large part imputed to Isabel’s unruly passions, Carlyle is certainly not absolved of responsibility. His emotional discipline goes too far, and the rupture between them is also depicted as a consequence of his reticence and affective illiteracy. This apparent ambivalence towards emotion belies the condemnatory sentiment of the novel’s epigraph, allowing that feeling may impart its own form of acuity or insight. Indeed, the respective occupations of Carlyle and Isabel actually seem to lend support to the latter’s reading practice. Although Carlyle at first occupies the position of learned professional, when Isabel assumes the role of governess, her capacity for reading attains a certain validity. Whereas the novel increasingly casts doubt on Carlyle’s interpretation of events and people, Isabel is made responsible for the literacy of the children – actually charged with teaching others how to read.

This comparison of Isabel and Carlyle’s approaches to interpretation might also serve as an instruction of sorts for the reader, a word of advice about how they can or should approach a novel like East Lynne. This is an idea alluded to by Emily Allen, who considers portrayals of female readers in a range of sensation novels. Allen suggests that Isabel’s glasses render her a ‘masochistic reader of her own story’, and that her death-bed appeal to Carlyle (‘Think what it has been for me!’) is simultaneously a direct petition to ‘the sympathetic reader’ (Wood 615; Allen 409). If Isabel’s popularity as a heroine is anything to go by, then this direct appeal was one to which many readers responded. The novel’s concern with the role of emotion in reading also notably parallels Wood’s own approach to literary criticism. Beth Palmer describes Wood’s practice in her analysis of evangelism in the author’s work on The Argosy, a magazine she wrote for, edited, and owned for almost two decades. Palmer reflects on the attitude demonstrated in the regular review column ‘Our Log Book’:

Wood had suffered from ‘intellectual’ literary critiques of her work in journals like The Athenaeum and The Saturday Review. She realised that her novels would fare much better in an alternative critical framework. Wood’s ‘Our Log-Book’ offered her middlebrow readers the chance to evaluate works of fiction based on the evidence of their own feelings. This was a reassuringly attainable critical approach. (Palmer 191)

Recalling Isabel’s mode of perception, Palmer describes Wood’s critical practice as one that emphasised the evidence of feelings over intellect. Her description of this method as ‘reassuringly attainable’ and as appealing to the ‘middlebrow reader’ also points to the way that reading emotionally has often been branded as uncritical or unscholarly.[11]

This is less and less the case today, as critics increasingly emphasise the importance of affect to their reading practices. This tendency is apparent in studies like Rita Felski’s ‘After Suspicion’, Brigid Lowe’s Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy, and Timothy Bewes’ ‘Reading with the Grain’. These scholars situate their approaches in response to what is broadly known as the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, wherein reading proceeds on the assumption ‘that appearances deceive and that texts do not willingly surrender their secrets’ (Felski 28). Against suspicion, Lowe nominates sympathy, and Bewes, generosity, as alternative stances with which to approach texts. Felski does not advocate for any one affect or for fellow-feeling in general, but rather, recalling Wood’s approach, she is interested in ‘our first-person implication and involvement in what we read’ (31). Felski maintains that scholarly reading should not require us to dispense with our affects or attachments (34). Unlike these critics, Isabel’s reading practice is not averse to a hermeneutics of suspicion. Indeed, suspicion is one of the guiding principles behind her interpretation of Carlyle and Barbara’s relationship, where she actively probes for something that is hidden or latent. Isabel’s approach thus demonstrates that reading with emotion is not necessarily synonymous with reading generously or sympathetically. Neither is it equivalent to the practice of surface reading described by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus. Isabel’s suspicious interpretation of Carlyle’s actions belies the narrator’s description of the young protagonist as someone who does not look beyond surfaces: ‘Isabel was little more than a child, and as a child she reasoned, looking neither far nor deep: the shallow, palpable aspects of affairs alone presenting itself to her view’ (120). Isabel’s ability to reason might well be childlike or ‘shallow’, but it must be acknowledged that her facility for emotion takes her to considerable depths in the course of the novel. The tactile connotations of the word ‘palpable’, used to describe the aspects she does comprehend, even gestures towards her capacity for feeling or being touched. Indeed, to read only for surface would be to subjugate emotion entirely to vision and the visible, whereas for Isabel, significantly, emotion is also something that produces its own way of seeing.

When Richard Hare first declares his innocence in the murder of Hallijohn, he asserts, ‘I swear that, from my own positive knowledge, my eyesight, I know no more who did it than you’ (34). However, when we look at East Lynne through Isabel’s spectacles, it becomes apparent that the novel does not place that much stock in the ‘positive knowledge’ of eyesight. While it registers the Victorian anxiety surrounding the eye’s fallibility and subjectivity, it also pays considerable attention to the eye’s complex relationship with emotion. Although Isabel’s glasses play into the text’s explicit ethos of emotional repression, by acting as a cap to her affects, they also help to problematise it, by pointing to the important role that feeling has to play in perception. Rather than imagining emotion as a phenomenon that merely gives rise to erroneous distortion, in the end, East Lynne emerges as a novel that acknowledges the potential advantages of seeing and reading with feeling.


Works Cited

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Berger, John, and Michael Dibb, creators. Ways of Seeing. BBC Enterprises, 1972.

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. ‘Surface Reading: An Introduction.’ Representations, vol. 108, Fall, 2009, pp. 1–21.

Bewes, Timothy. ‘Reading with the Grain: A New World in Literary Criticism.’ Differences, vol. 21, no. 3, 2010, pp. 1–33.

Blackham, Henry, 1863–1870, The College of Optometrists, London, Nineteenth Century Spectacles, Accessed July 2017.

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Collins, Wilkie. Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1990.

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Flint, Kate. The Victorians and the Visual Imagination. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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—. The Poor Artist; or, Seven Eye-sights and One Object. John Van Voorst, 1850.

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[1] Wood’s reference to Sam Weller’s microscope was removed from the novelised edition of East Lynne. The excision could have been a stylistic choice, as the original sentence is rather overburdened with temporally incongruous visual metaphors that evoke both Argus and the microscope. However, it may also relate to the fact that she was to reuse the reference in her new novel Verners Pride (1863; 197).

[2] In East Lynne, Mr Carlyle is seen to engage with the Victorian periodical press. In the middle of the novel, in one of his comfortable sitting-rooms, he is described as being ‘deep in the pages of one of the monthly periodicals’ (339).

[3] Richard H. Horne was a regular contributor to Household Words, and also a great amateur enthusiast of vision science. In 1850 he would publish his novel The Poor Artist; or, Seven Eye-sights and one Object, which is concerned with the visual capacities of different species. Horne describes the work on the title page as ‘Science in fable’ (i).

[4] Presbyopia is the condition of farsightedness caused by an age-induced hardening of the eye’s lens.

[5] Alfred Smee reappears on this advertisement page in a reference to ‘Smee’s Optometer’ (‘Advertisement’ 215).

[6] Since their inception spectacles have been closely associated with the practice of reading. Although the identity of their inventor remains unknown, devices that closely resemble what we now know as glasses were first popularised in the early fourteenth century by a group renowned for their reading and scholarship: the order of Dominican monks. As Vincent Ilardi observes in his detailed study of Renaissance spectacles and telescopes, while the Dominicans used convex lenses to correct for conditions that affected close work, it would be another two centuries before the emergence of concave lenses that would treat defects of distance vision like myopia (75). Ilardi acknowledges that this is likely due to the higher incidence of the former conditions, with approximately 50 percent of people being farsighted, and only around 15 percent nearsighted (79). In any case, it testifies to the foundational and persistent association between glasses and reading.

[7] For the modern reader, Isabel’s spectacles might take on an additional connotation in light of the popular cultural notion that coloured glasses were prescribed to treat the photophobia of Syphilis. While there is a dearth of evidence to confirm that this was really the case, and while it makes little sense that those infected with the disease would seek to advertise the fact, the association still confers an interesting double implication with respect to Isabel. Although on the one hand her blue lenses might suggest a sort of dull and dowdy bookishness, on the other they would intimate the sordid nature of her adulterous sexual past.

[8] Levison himself observes that ‘The temptation to sin, as you call it, lay not in my persuasions, half so much as in your jealous anger towards your husband’ (293).

[9] Charles Doyle considers the historical use of the emotional lens metaphor, noting that while no glasses are so common as rose-tinted ones, blue and green lenses are occasionally used. He observes that there is less consensus regarding the emotion or disposition intended by these colours, but notes that they are sometimes used respectively to indicate sadness and jealousy (550).

[10] This is a promise that Isabel extracts from Carlyle in a scene where she is overcome with jealousy.

[11] See, for instance, ‘The Affective Fallacy’ of the New Critics Wimsatt and Beardsley.

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