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Wood [née Price], Ellen [known as Mrs Henry Wood]locked

(1814–1887)
  • Sally Mitchell

Ellen Wood [Mrs Henry Wood] (1814–1887)

by Sydney Hodges, 1873

courtesy of Worcester City Council

Wood [née Price], Ellen [known as Mrs Henry Wood] (1814–1887), writer and journal editor, was born on 17 January 1814 in Worcester, the eldest daughter of glove manufacturer Thomas Price and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Evans of Grimley. Educated at home under the influence of a father interested in music and classical scholarship and a mother who was active in Worcester Cathedral's work parties and social life, Ellen Price was noted for her retentive memory and active imagination. At the age of thirteen a spinal curvature became evident, and she was largely confined to bed for the next four years. As an adult, she was noticeably frail and under 5 feet tall, with a bent posture and a pretty oval face.

On 17 March 1836 Ellen Price was married at Whittington, near Worcester, to Henry Wood (1809/10–1866), who worked for a family-owned banking and shipping firm. The next twenty years were spent in France, primarily in Dauphiné; several children were born, of whom at least one died of scarlet fever. There were other difficulties as well. Ellen Wood's son Charles William Wood describes his father as a man 'possessing a mind a little wanting in ballast' (Wood, 50). Some unspecified event caused him to withdraw from business, and after a 'period of many trials and troubles' (ibid., 184), the Woods returned to England in 1856 and took a furnished house in Upper Norwood.

Perhaps in an effort to improve the family finances, Ellen Wood had been anonymously publishing short stories for several years. The first that has been identified appeared in the New Monthly Magazine (then edited by William Harrison Ainsworth) in February 1851. When Ainsworth took over Bentley's Miscellany in December 1854, her stories began to appear there as well. She produced her first novel, Danesbury House (1860), as the winning entry in a competition for which the Scottish Temperance League offered a prize of £100.

Thus, although Ellen Wood was ‘unknown’ when her first commercial novel became a surprise runaway best-seller, she already had some ten years' experience as a writer before the serial run of East Lynne began in the New Monthly Magazine in January 1860. Even with Ainsworth's recommendation, the publishers Chapman and Hall rejected the book (on the advice of their reader, George Meredith), as did Smith and Elder. Richard Bentley, however, accepted it, paid Ellen Wood £600 (far more than most beginners were offered), and ordered an initial print run of 2750 (500 was usual for a library novel). Published in three volumes in the autumn of 1861, East Lynne was well reviewed in the Daily News, the Saturday Review, and elsewhere. Most significant was a long notice in The Times for 25 January 1862. Written by Samuel Lucas (who edited Once a Week and knew how to recognize fiction with wide appeal), the review criticized East Lynne for a plot governed by coincidence and for outright errors in legal and political scenes. Yet for all of that, Lucas reported enthusiastically, the novel satisfies 'the indispensable requirement which is the rude test of the merits of any work of fiction … East Lynne is found by all its readers to be highly entertaining'.

East Lynne's extraordinary success stemmed from Wood's skill in interweaving two genres which became mainstays of popular fiction, the sentimental woman's novel and the sensation novel (forerunner of the detective story). The book takes up contemporary issues such as divorce, feminine individuality, sexuality, family rupture, and class tension; and although it provides no easy solutions, the repressions and conflicts and tears ultimately reaffirm an essentially moral view of the world. By the end of the century, Bentley had printed more than 400,000 copies of East Lynne, there were at least two dozen pirate editions in the United States, and plays based on Wood's story were regularly featured by touring stock companies throughout the English-speaking world.

In the seven years after East Lynne's success, Wood published fifteen novels, often producing instalments of two at a time for magazine serialization. During 1862 and 1863, for example, The Channings and Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles were in The Quiver (a weekly paper which featured religious lessons and serial fiction), A Life's Secret appeared in Leisure Hour (also an inexpensive weekly, published by the Religious Tract Society), Verner's Pride came out in Once a Week, and The Shadow of Ashlydat was in the New Monthly Magazine. In addition to the moral fiction for family magazines, Wood also wrote sensational three-volume novels of rivalry, mystery, bigamy, and murder such as Trevlyn Hold (1864), Elster's Folly (1866), and St. Martin's Eve (1866).

By the time Henry Wood died in 1866, his widow could afford a substantial house in St John's Wood Park. In late 1867 she became editor and proprietor of The Argosy, a monthly magazine started by Alexander Strahan in 1865. From 1868 until 1873, the magazine's chief feature was an annual serial by Wood: Anne Hereford in 1868, Roland Yorke (1869), Bessy Rane (1870), Dene Hollow (1871), Within the Maze (1872), and Master of Greylands (1873). After 1873 her production slowed somewhat. Her son Charles Wood, who began making signed contributions to The Argosy in 1876, eventually took over as business manager and became the magazine's editor and proprietor on her death.

Wood enlisted some other women contributors to The Argosy (Hesba Stretton, Julia Kavanagh, Christina Rossetti, Sarah Doudney, Rosa Nouchette Carey), but in the early years she may have written up to half of the contents of each issue. Among Wood's unsigned contributions were a series narrated by Johnny Ludlow, who tells stories about neighbours, friends, village characters, and incidents of Worcestershire life and, through the telling, reveals his own growth and character as well. Marked by lively humour, quiet pathos, and striking portraits of individuals in all walks of life, the Johnny Ludlow stories were often praised as superior to the work of sensationalists such as the editor of the magazine in which they appeared—which must have given Wood great pleasure when, in 1879, it finally became known that she had written them.

The enormous popularity of East Lynne damaged Wood's standing with the makers of literary reputations. By the end of the 1860s, intellectuals wrote condescendingly of the improbable plots, weak grammar, and dogmatic Christianity, the unmotivated evil of Wood's villains, and especially of the pathos, deathbeds, and tears. The appeal for ordinary readers, however, was based not only on Wood's skill at suspense and dramatic confrontation, but also on her careful attention to the physical details of daily life and on her use of material that exposed contemporary conflicts and ambiguities. The plot of East Lynne, for example, depends in part on the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. The hero of the piece, Carlyle, is morally justified in remarrying because he believes Isabel is dead, but if he had not divorced her beforehand, his marriage to Barbara would be invalid. In addition, the set pieces of moral preaching barely repress the emotional ambivalence in readers' response to Isabel's errors. Adeline Sergeant, writing in 1897, remarked that East Lynne owed 'half its popularity' to a 'reaction against inane and impossible goodness' (Sergeant, 181) as the only suitable characteristic for a heroine.

Wood's plots often reveal that marriage is unsatisfactory and that ‘ideal’ families harbour dark secrets. Many narrators speak with a woman's voice and appeal to women readers in a personal and conversational tone, calling on their sympathies to interpret the characters' motives. The Channings and its sequel, Roland Yorke, are family stories which describe thoughtless errors and even crimes committed by good-hearted but impulsive sons. Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles contrasts the struggles of an impoverished widow with a wealthy family's dishonesty and snobbery. Trevlyn Hold displays both bourgeois vigour and bourgeois values by allowing a sturdy, hard-working, thrifty yeoman to inherit the estate of a decaying aristocrat. In St. Martin's Eve the plot turns on the dangers of hereditary insanity in one family and inherited tendencies towards consumption in another.

St. Martin's Eve, like several other novels including The Red Court Farm (3 vols., 1868) and Pomeroy Abbey (3 vols., 1878), was revised and expanded from materials Wood had used in short fiction during the 1850s. In Mildred Arkell (3 vols., 1865) she combined two separate sequences—one about David Dundyke and one concerning Mildred Arkell—which appeared in the New Monthly Magazine during 1854, rewriting the final incident to provide a happy ending (and to reveal that women willing to work as servants to support themselves are superior to the snobbish and the pseudo-genteel).

Light and extremely popular fiction often reflects the interests of mass readers and confirms their sense of the world. Wood's novels did not repeat the lurid anti-Catholicism of some essays and stories which she wrote immediately after the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. 'Seven Years in the Wedded Life of a Roman Catholic' in the New Monthly Magazine of February 1851, for example, had a wily priest, a submissive girl, a bereft mother, and eventually a suicide. Wood's most popular fiction used materials brought into currency during the 1860s by the rage for sensation fiction—inheritance, bigamy, murder, disguise, family conflict, shocks to decorum—combined with mild exposure of public institutions, up-to-the-minute details about railways and telegraph messages, and the tensions of a class system in transition.

Wood also responded with extraordinary skill to the demands of magazine serialization. The ten years' experience in writing short fiction perhaps taught her how to concentrate conflict and emotion in every instalment. To that she added a familiar tone that stimulated interaction with readers, characters sufficiently distinctive to be kept in mind over the months without degenerating into pure stereotypes, and enough overall suspense to keep buyers eager for issue after issue.

East Lynne is the only one of Wood's books to have remained generally available, and like some other extremely popular novels it has been used by late twentieth-century cultural scholars to provide evidence about nineteenth-century moral standards, women's roles, and ideologies of class and motherhood. There are other less recognized strengths in her work. Despite her reputation as a ‘women's writer’, several contemporaries praised her unusual ability to portray boys and businessmen. Ellen Wood's fiction provides a great deal of information about the domestic details of lower-middle-class life. The obituary in The Spectator noted her grasp of a world which had not previously appeared in English fiction:

She could not describe a grand passion, or a great character, or a great deed; but she could embody for us the ordinary middle-class, unintellectual, half-disagreeable folk, of whom there are thousands round us, courting, fighting, stealing, giving, exactly as she has described them.

The Spectator, 255

Wood's central talent may have been for short fiction. In more than one hundred stories narrated by Johnny Ludlow, which appeared in The Argosy from 1868 until her death, Wood quietly displayed the people and incidents of daily life. The accurate rendering of both Worcestershire dialect and young men's slang also showed her skill with voice and tone. Wood had first used a male persona as early as 1854 in 'Stray Letters from the East' which appeared in the New Monthly Magazine between July and December under the name Ensign Thomas Pepper. He appeared to be an irreverent young man who wrote amusingly different versions of his experiences in the Crimea depending on whether his letters were intended for a male friend, his guardian, or his girlfriend.

Wood was nearly fifty when she became a best-selling novelist. Her life as an author was hard-working and largely domestic. She was an orthodox churchwoman, a strong Conservative in politics, and a committed advocate of temperance (although not total abstinence), and her few literary friends were other earnest provincial women close to her own age, such as Mary Howitt and Anna Maria Hall. She always wore a black dress with an assortment of laces and scarves that somewhat concealed her deformed back. In later life she was troubled by bronchitis (complicated by the diminished lung capacity that was a consequence of spinal curvature). She died of heart failure at her home, 16 St John's Wood Park, on 10 February 1887 and was buried on 16 February in Highgate cemetery, after a funeral at St Stephen's Church, Avenue Road. She was survived by a daughter, Ellen Mary Wood, sons Henry, Charles, and Arthur, and at least one grandchild.

Sources

  • C. W. Wood, Memorials of Mrs. Henry Wood (1894)
  • A. Sergeant, ‘Mrs. Henry Wood’, in M. Oliphant and others, Women novelists of Queen Victoria's reign (1897), 174–92
  • S. Lucas, ‘East Lynne’, The Times (25 Jan 1862)
  • The Spectator (19 Feb 1887)
  • The Times (11 Feb 1887)
  • M. Elwin, Victorian wallflowers (1934)
  • R. Bergauer, Mrs. Henry Wood: Persönlichkeit und Werk (1950) [incl. bibliography of Wood's pubns]
  • ‘The popular novels of the year’, Fraser's Magazine, 68 (1863), 253–69

Likenesses

  • S. Hodges, oils, 1873, Guildhall, Worcester [see illus.]
  • L. Stocks, stipple and line engraving (after R. Easton), BM; repro. in Wood, Memorials

Wealth at Death

£36,393 13s. 5d.: probate, 28 May 1887, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)