Regarding this novel penned by Mrs. Henry Wood, the main plot was set in a town named West Lynne where a condemned feud of murder was concerned some years ago; the perpetrator was believed to have got away in fear of trial and hanging. On the other hand, at the present time, in a house called East Lynne, bordered under the veneer of the most hospital roofs and situated some few miles off the Town, a shocking and disgraceful familial incident happened during a night which the mistress of the house was embroiled. Stories and speculations concerning the mistress and her whereabouts excited all residents of West Lynne. Although two incidents were temporally separated by a few years in between, both cases were eventually found to be interlinked with the same infamous and unrepentant man who selfishly and discreetly ascribed the fatal downfall to the two victims and led them to become subjects of reprehension and defilement at the Town.
An evening to herself in the grey parlour, a terrible evening; one made up of remorse, grief, rebellion, and bitter repentance: repentance of the wretched past, rebellion at existing things. (p. 425)
What is fascinating about the story of East Lynne is that both contemporary and modern readers are more interested in the tragic yet scandalous familial affair which besmirched a gentlewoman toward wretchedness than the other case of murder; in other words, the House exerts more significance than the Town itself. This eponymous abode is transmuted to a legendary place interred with a tragedy which spans through two generations up until the eventual downfall of its late mistress, Lady Isabel Vane. Both Isabel and her mother lived the final wasted years in East Lynne where their lives were never to be fulfilled and overshadowed by hopelessness and wrongdoings committed in the past which could only be relieved and reconciled by death.
Human passions and tempers were brought with us into this world, and they can only quit us when we bid it farewell to enter upon immortality in the next[…]We despise what we have, and covet that which we cannot get. (p.590)
Events are like flashes played upon with phantasmagoria; happiness could only be recalled when it is often intermingled with memories of indelible pain, regrets, anguish and shame. The novel seems all the more to emphasize strong emotions and untamed passion that women are constantly trying to overcome and being told to restrain for the sake of societal proprieties.
Women in sensation fiction are malleable to work with the flow of the plot, because, as seen by the contemporary societal views, they are impressionable and easy to be counterattacked and tempted only to lead a life of penance rather than reward, no matter whatever extent they place the trust and confidence upon themselves. However, in most stories, once they fall, they are most likely to take a mental servitude upon themselves with the utmost will to reflect and repent. Of course, women’s faults in contemporary sensation fiction are not so repugnant as they seem; many immoral decisions they might make, numerous sins they might commit; their actions are debatable, their true characters incite vacillating views, if readers are just humble enough to have the sympathy to feel their plight and suppression in the first place.
Love never yet came for the trying: it is a capricious passion, and generally comes without the knowledge and against the will. (p.199)
In East Lynne, female characters consider each other as rivals. On the other hand, they are resourceful in a way of building their inner strengths only by relying on men’s nods of approval and recognition, but so often they are only left to disappoint themselves with too much expectations, and flight of fancy. The novel concentrates on emotions and consequences based on this notion which determines the uncontrollable impulses of the female characters.
Take the case of Cornelia Carlyle, the spinster and sister of the protagonist (Archibald Carlyle) for example. Acting in a role of an overbearing disciplinarian in the story (comically, imagine Constance in the Blandings Castle series by P. G. Wodehouse; more seriously, imagine John Thornton’s mother in North and South), Cornelia represented herself as a splenetic yet respectable and pious figure, overseeing and managing the protagonist’s personal affairs and pecuniary interests. She disapproved of every young woman she and Archibald came across with; even when Archibald married Lady Isabel Vane, she intervened and moved into his nuptial household, causing such turmoil and displeasure to the married couple, especially Isabel, whom she inadvertently bombarded with vitriol. However, looking at the other angle, Cornelia was driven by her maternal instincts of being protective of her brother as well as feeling jealous to shield her brother from all other attractions. She was a woman with the sole vocation of attending a man’s interests and hoping her love and care towards her brother could be unequivocally requited. Little surprised her morale was to be utterly deflated.
Perhaps had you brought up a lad as I have brought up Archibald, and loved nothing else in the world, far or near, you would be jealous, when you found him discarding you with contemptuous indifference, and taking a young wife to his bosom, to be more to him than you had been. (p. 135)
In the case of another female character, Barbara Hare, who at the beginning developed an unrequited love for Archibald Carlyle; gradually and more frequently she ruminated and built up the fancies of thinking that her love and care would soon be rewarded. But she only realised that “while she had cherished false and delusive hopes, in her almost idolatrous passion…she had never been cared for by him.” (p. 134)
There never was a passion in this world, there never will be one, so fantastic, so delusive, so powerful as jealousy[…]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 as white. The most fanciful surmises wear the aspect of truth, the greatest improbabilities appear as consistent realities. (p. 182)
Regarding the case of Lady Isabel Vane, readers are able to catch glimpses of the hardship she had confronted in each stage: (1) the death of her father; (2) the marriage with Archibald; (3) desertion and downfall; and (4) in disguise of a governess returning to East Lynne.
In the first stage, she started to have a notion about reality and what penury was,
Since the previous morning, she seemed to have grown old in the world’s experience; her ideas were changed, the bent of her thoughts had been violently turned from its course[…]It has been the custom in romance to present young ladies, especially if they be handsome and interesting, as being entirely oblivious of matter-of-fact cares and necessities, supremely indifferent to future prospects of poverty – poverty that brings hunger and thirst and cold and nakedness; but, be assured, this apathy never existed in real life. (p.97)
Proceeding to her marriage with Archibald Carlyle, Isabel started to develop a feeling that her husband neglected her in actions. She thought he displayed indifference and coldness, whereas his affection was only not as demonstrative and passionate as it was before, and had “subsided into calmness”. It is her “excitable temperament” which infiltrated her mind with jealousy that her husband was in love with another woman.
With Isabel’s desertion from home that she helplessly precipitated into the sad abyss of irrevocable wretchedness, and her opportunistic return to East Lynne, we witness a child-like wife who in the beginning of the novel played a passive role and ensconced herself under the authority of men (father, custodian, husband) tried to extricate herself from chains of mental negations and confinement. She thought of means to rebel, rescue, and gain control of her life. However, the helpless state of inbred vulnerability and passivity under men’s authority remained symbiotic with the rest of her wasted and poignant life.
In this novel, every female characters in West Lynne have their notions of fancy – some stayed at where they are, some resorted to actions – but the root of their thoughts arise from the only wish of not making themselves a disagreement to the paternal authority.
What I admire Wilkie Collins’s works is that heroines are not oblivious to the notions that they are inferior in conception; they sometimes are also exploited and driven to a state of desperation. They might also have brimful of passions and fancies only to get invariably snuffled by reality, they would resort to break the shackles. But reading his novels, the messages all point out to a process of heroines seeking themselves, being enlightened and finding self-respect. They have sparks to shine in the novels.
It is not in the case of East Lynne, which I think in the end of the novel, female characters have still not been dealt with themselves, and are still under the state of mental confinement with actions and feelings guided by men; and all male characters, how virtuous they are, all are invariable and prosaic entity under the subordination of societal views. I could not be soothed and lightened the heart by the ending which I think is a total frustration. Although some characters act comical at some scenes of the novel, they do not help much to ease the aura of the women’s helplessness from the beginning to the end of the story. East Lynne comparably leaves me with a heavy heart, which somewhat overwhelms me with not a genuinely good way. But still, the book is an interesting read with its melodrama and cultural and historical backgrounds.