Lady Isabel Vane lives with her father in the very handsome estate (albeit in need of a repair here and there) of East Lynne. Her father, The Earl of Severn, is in the midst of two battles - one is the ongoing agony of gout and the other is mounting debt. When his only recourse is to sell the estate, the Earl arranges a deal with an interested buyer, Archibald Carlyle, a successful lawyer. It would greatly satisfy the aristocrat if, for appearances sake, the sale could be kept quiet until he can square things with his creditors. Archibald is the perfect gentleman in every way possible and is most affable when it comes to the contract.
When the Earl dies suddenly, Lady Isabel is sent to live with a relative whose wife, Lady Mount Severn, is extremely jealous of such a beautiful and sweet-natured young lady.
'She was the very essence of envy, of selfishness; she had never been known to invite a young and attractive woman to her house; she would as soon have invited a leper...'
Eventually the situation reaches a climax when Lady Isabel is struck across the face by her hostess. When Carlyle discovers Lady Isabel in an agitated state and discovers the reason he makes a swift decision to ask for her hand in marriage. Lady Isabel is in love with another man, Captain Francis Levison, but he shows no sign of loving anyone but himself. Despite the fact that Lady Isabel does not love Carlyle, she agrees to the wedding as a means of escaping her current situation.
Ellen Wood paints Archibald Carlyle as the perfect man but he is blind when it comes to the attentions of a neighbouring young woman, Barbara Hare. She is the daughter of Justice Hare, a crotchety old man if ever there was one. The family is in a state of turmoil and upset since a son, Richard, has been falsely accused of murder and is on the run. Mrs Hare and and Barbara are keen to find proof of Richard's innocence but being a man of the law, Justice Hare wants to distance himself from the scandal as much as possible.
Richard has secretly contacted his sister to plead his case and she in turn appeals to Carlyle. Lady Isabel is by now the mother of three young children and increasingly jealous of Barbara's attention to Carlyle. Of course, the reason for these meetings about the fugitive, Richard, must be secret so Lady Isabel's only conclusion is that her husband has lost interest in their marriage and is having an affair. When her level of anxiety is at its highest, Levison reappears and convinces Lady Isabel to leave her family and travel with him to France. Archibald is horrified by his wife's actions as goes so far as to decree that his daughter, named after her mother, will now be called by her middle name, Lucy. Lady Isabel eventually gives birth to an illegitimate child.
From this point on the author ramps up the reader's emotional ties with the characters through a tragedy. As with many novels from the Victorian era this tragedy serves to warn those who would stray from a moralistic way of life that there is a heavy price to be paid. Lady Isabel's penance, partly self-imposed, for committing adultery is stunningly harsh and by the end of it all I could barely see the page for tears.
As I wrote previously, my favourite character is Archibald's sister, Cornelia Carlyle, also known as Miss Corny. Her frugal ways were always entertaining to read but let's face it...she takes very little joy from life.
'People like to dress a little out of common at a wedding, Miss Cornelia: it's only respectful, when they are invited guests.' 'I don't say people should go to a wedding in a hop sack. But there's a medium. Pray do you know your age?' 'I am turned sixty, Miss Corny.' 'You just are. And do you consider it decent for an old man, turned sixty, to be decorated off as you are now? I don't; and so I tell you my mind. Why, you'll be the laughting-stock of the parish! Take care the boys don't tie a tin kettle to you!'
It's difficult not to talk about the latter part of the book as it's so compelling but I will say that East Lynne would make an excellent book club choice if your group isn't put off by a chunky novel. There is much here to discuss such as the angel in the house and visiting the sins of the father, or mother, on to the children. The book also offers a wide exploration of Victorian social customs and there is certainly no shortage of fainting spells. Things start off on a bit of a slow burn but hang in there - this is an excellent story, one you won't likely ever forget.
As sensation novels go I preferred this book to Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White and look forward to exploring more novels within this genre.