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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2015

Mary A. Armstrong*
Lafayette College


Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861) exhibits the exhilarating characteristics of a Victorian sensation novel and then some: degenerate aristocracy, a sneering villain, flight, adultery, a child born out of wedlock, disfigurement, disguise, extended deathbed scenes, murder, and more (e.g., fake accents, false identities, an electrifying homicide trial, and a spectacular train wreck). But at the center of all the disaster, transgression, pathos, coincidence, and extremity, East Lynne is (mainly) the story of the aptly-named Isabel Vane, the beloved but patently bored wife who abandons her husband and children to run away with a handsome seducer. Overcome by remorse (and conveniently both disfigured and presumed dead), she returns to the home of her remarried husband to act as governess to her own children and to witness (at length and in painful detail) the life she might have had if she had denied her perpetually irrepressible but inappropriate feelings — feelings not so much of lust for another man, but of annoyance and tedium with the man she actually has. East Lynne urges (usually in the form of multiple diatribes from the third person narrator) that the wives and mothers of mid-Victorian England be content with their lot, employing a moral didacticism that insists on female domestic responsibility — and the attendant obligation of female suffering — with sadistic pleasure. And yet, when not lingering over the agonies of Isabel, the narrative gushes, seemingly despite itself, with sympathy for the heroine's life of monotony and misery. Indeed, East Lynne's compelling power comes in large part from the novel's skillful, lingering walk on a ledge of its own making and its protracted vacillation between condemnation and empathy for an unhappy heroine gone astray.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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