Working through Ellen Wood’s 1861 best-seller East Lynne with my sensation fiction seminar yesterday, I decided to come clean with my students: for all that I find many aspects of the novel interesting, even fascinating, and certainly worth our time in class, I also think that as a novel–that is, as an aesthetic artefact, an artistic production–East Lynne is second-rate at best. But, as I also told them, it’s challenging to justify this judgment. There’s no universal standard for greatness in novel-writing, after all, no ready measure of skill or accomplishment. G. H. Lewes praised Jane Austen for her perfect “mastery over the means to her end”; we need such a flexible notion of greatness in a genre that accommodates both Dickens and George Eliot, both Virginia Woolf and, say, George Orwell among its acknowledged geniuses. 200 years of novel criticism have taught us to be eclectic in our tastes and adaptable in our reading practices, to be wary of defining great traditions. And yet is it really so out of order to ask “but it is any good?” How could we answer this question, absent some template for first-rate fiction? (For the record, the class has been enjoying the novel, and it certainly has its defenders!) The only strategy I could think of was comparative. Since we obviously could not do point-by-point comparisons between entire novels, and because my primary interest was in the quality of the writing, rather than broader issues of theme, plot, or characterization, I put together some short passages for us to consider. Of course it’s an imperfect exercise, but I tried to be fair. The passage from Wood is both key to the novel and (I think) representative of her tone and style; the same (I think) is true of the other samples. All use intrusive (and moralistic) narration; all describe “fallen” women. Here they are:
How fared it with Lady Isabel? Just as it must be expected to fare, and does fare, when a high-principled gentlewoman falls from her pedestal. Never had she experienced a moment’s calm, or peace, or happiness, since the fatal night of quitting her home. She had taken a blind leap in a moment of wild passion, when, instead of the garden of roses it had been her persuader’s pleasure to promise her she would fall into, but which, in truth, she had barely glanced at, for that had not been her moving motive, she had found herself plunged into a yawning abyss of horror, from which there was never more any escape–never more, never more. The very instant–the very night of her departure, she awoke to what she had done. The guilt, whose aspect had been shunned in the prospective, assumed at once its true frightful color, the blackness of darkness; and a lively remorse, a never-dying anguish, took possession of her soul forever. Oh, reader, believe me! Lady–wife–mother! Should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you awake. Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the nature, the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them; fall down upon your knees, and pray to be enabled to bear them–pray for patience–pray for strength to resist the demon that would tempt you to escape; bear unto death, rather than forfeit your fair name and your good conscience; for be assured that the alternative, if you do rush on to it, will be found worse than death. (Ellen Wood, East Lynne)
Poor wandering Hetty, with the rounded childish face and the hard, unloving, despairing soul looking out of it—with the narrow heart and narrow thoughts, no room in them for any sorrows but her own, and tasting that sorrow with the more intense bitterness! My heart bleeds for her as I see her toiling along on her weary feet, or seated in a cart, with her eyes fixed vacantly on the road before her, never thinking or caring whither it tends, till hunger comes and makes her desire that a village may be near.
What will be the end, the end of her objectless wandering, apart from all love, caring for human beings only through her pride, clinging to life only as the hunted wounded brute clings to it?
God preserve you and me from being the beginners of such misery! (George Eliot, Adam Bede)
What were her thoughts when he left her? She remained for hours after he was gone, the sunshine pouring into the room, and Rebecca sitting alone on the bed’s edge. The drawers were all opened and their contents scattered about—dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck. Her hair was falling over her shoulders; her gown was torn where Rawdon had wrenched the brilliants out of it. She heard him go downstairs a few minutes after he left her, and the door slamming and closing on him. She knew he would never come back. He was gone forever. Would he kill himself?—she thought—not until after he had met Lord Steyne. She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it. Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely and profitless! Should she take laudanum, and end it, to have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs? The French maid found her in this position—sitting in the midst of her miserable ruins with clasped hands and dry eyes. The woman was her accomplice and in Steyne’s pay. “Mon Dieu, madame, what has happened?” she asked.
What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not, but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips, or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure? (Thackeray, Vanity Fair)
The discussion that followed was certainly lively. Perhaps rather than recapitulating it, I’ll stop this post here and see if anyone out there would like to comment on how the passages compare.