East Lynne is an English sensation novel of 1861 by Ellen Wood. A Victorian best-seller, it is remembered chiefly for its elaborate and implausible plot, centring on infidelity and double identities. There have been numerous stage and film adaptations.
The much-quoted line "Gone! And never called me mother!" (variant: "Dead! Dead! And never called me mother!") does not appear in the book; both variants come from later stage adaptations.
Lady Isabel Carlyle, a beautiful and refined young woman, leaves her hard-working lawyer-husband, Carlyle, and her infant children to elope with an aristocratic suitor, Francis Levison, after wrongfully suspecting and becoming jealous of her husband's friendship with Barbara Hare. However once abroad with Levison she realises he has no intention of marrying her, despite her having borne their illegitimate child. He deserts her, Lady Isabel is disfigured in a train accident and the child is killed. Following this Isabel is able to take the position of governess in the household of her former husband and his new wife allowing her to be close to her children but which also becomes a source of great misery. The pressure of keeping up a façade and being constantly reminded that her husband has moved on eventually physically weakens her. On her deathbed she tells all to Carlyle who forgives her.
East Lynne has been adapted for the stage many times; the play was so popular that stock companies put on a performance whenever they needed guaranteed revenue. It became so common that theaters stuck with a badly received play famously would assuage audiences with the hopeful promise, "Next week, East Lynne!" The play was staged so often that critic Sally Mitchell estimates some version was seen by audiences in either England or North America every week for over forty years.
The novel was first staged as Edith, or The Earl's Daughter in New York in 1861 and under its own name on 26 January 1863 in Brooklyn; by March of that year, "three competing versions were drawing crowds to New York theaters." The most successful version was written by Clifton W. Tayleur for actress Lucille Western, who was paid $350 a night for her performance as Isabel Vane. Western starred in East Lynne for the next 10 years. At least nine adaptations were made in all, not including plays such as The Marriage Bells that "used a different title for the sake of some copyright protection."
There have been many silent film versions of the book including a 1913 film. Another, starring Theda Bara, was made in 1916, and there was an Australian film six years later. In 1925, another version reached the screen which starred Alma Rubens, Edmund Lowe, Lou Tellegen and Leslie Fenton. In 1930 the film Ex-Flame was released which shifted novel's setting to contemporary England.
A film version of East Lynne was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1931. The movie was adapted from the novel by Tom Barry and Bradley King and directed by Frank Lloyd. The film is a melodrama starring Ann Harding, Clive Brook, Conrad Nagel and Cecilia Loftus. Only one copy of the film is known to exist.
In the 1970s a TV dramatisation was broadcast from The City Varieties Theatre in Leeds, with the audience all in Victorian costume and Queen Victoria in The Royal Box. The famous TV host of The Good Old Days, Leonard Sachs, was present to introduce the proceedings.
The story has been refilmed as recently as 1982, in a star-studded BBC made-for-television production starring amongst many others Martin Shaw, Gemma Craven, Lisa Eichhorn, Jane Asher, Annette Crosbie and Tim Woodward.
Some critics argue that the novel champions middle classes over the lower orders; others, however, find this claim "too simplistic" and argue that the novel "highlights the shortfalls inherent to bourgeois masculinity." Sally Mitchell argues that the novel simultaneously upholds and undermines middle-class values.
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- Mangham, Andrew. Violent Women and Sensation Fiction: Crime, Medicine and Victorian Popular Culture. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Mitchell, Sally. Introduction. East Lynne. 1861. Reprint. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1984.
- Pykett, Lyn. The "Improper" Feminine: The Women's Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Rosenman, Ellen. "'Mimic Sorrows': Masochism and the Gendering of Pain in Victorian Melodrama." Studies in the Novel 35 (March 2003): 22–43.
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- Wynne, Deborah. The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
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