Anne Hereford is a very wild ride indeed. Mrs Henry (Ellen) Wood was a prolific & popular sensation novelist in the 19th century. She’s best known for East Lynne, which is the only book by her that I’d read until now. I was reading Anne Hereford with my 19th century bookgroup & we read about seven chapters a week. The first seven chapters of Anne Hereford are breathtaking.
Young orphan Anne arrives to stay with her young, giddy aunt, Selina, & her forbidding husband, Edwin Barley. Barley’s ward, Philip King & another young man, George Heneage, are competing for Selina’s attention. Philip is shot & accuses George of the crime with his dying breath. George disappears & Selina rushes about in the fog, searching for him, in inadequate clothing, falls ill & dies. Edwin Barley is a stern, sinister man. Anne is frightened of him from their first encounter. He’s very much in love with Selina, who acknowledges that she married him for his money & the security it would give her. She thoughtlessly teases & encourages both Philip & George as they fall under her spell. Then there’s Charlotte Delves, housekeeper & distant relation of Edwin Barley. She resents Selina & may have had designs on Edwin herself. After Selina’s death, her will, made out as she was dying, in Anne’s favour, is nowhere to be found. Did George Heneage kill Philip King? Anne witnessed Philip’s death but doesn’t see where the shot came from. Was it accident or murder? Edwin Barley was also out with a rifle that day & he is King’s heir. Was Selina’s death natural? What has happened to her will? All this in the first seven chapters & then I was supposed to put the book aside for a week!
I did put the book aside & the next week’s instalment heralded a complete change of scene. Anne is sent to stay with another aunt, Mrs Hemson, who has been disowned by her family because she married beneath her. Her husband is in trade. Anne is surprised to discover that the Hemsons are a delightful family who are truly genteel. She’s happy there in comparison to her time with the Barleys where she was ignored, fussed over by Selina or frightened. She soon moves on to school, one in England & the second in France. Anne’s small inheritance will now only support her through school, then, she must work as a governess or companion. There are echoes of Villette as Anne travels to France & meets a spoilt English girl, Emily Chandos, on the journey. Emily is very like Ginevra Fanshawe, even down to the illicit French lover. Anne stays at the French school, run by the Miss Barlieus, until she is 18 & they help her to find several posts, all unsatisfactory.
Emily has eloped with her lover, Alfred de Mellissie. She reappears at the school just as Anne has returned from an exhausting post & employs her to act as her companion when she visits her family in England. Not long after they reach Chandos, Emily is recalled to France by her ailing husband, leaving Anne alone in a strange house among strangers with a lot of secrets. There is a shadow over the Chandos family. Emily’s mother, Lady Chandos, is kind but frosty towards Anne. She obviously does not want this young girl, a stranger & in an ambiguous social position – not a servant but not a social equal – in the house. There’s the mysterious Mrs Ethel Chandos, Lady Chandos’s daughter-in-law, whose husband is never spoken of & who is very highly-strung & temperamental. Sir Thomas Chandos, the eldest son, is away in India & Mr Harry Chandos, a younger son, is at home running the estate. Ethel is obviously not Sir Thomas’s wife or she would be known as Lady Chandos & she doesn’t seem to be Harry’s wife. It’s all very mysterious. Lady Chandos’s maid, Hill, is a fiercely loyal retainer who blocks Anne’s enquiries & guards the entrance to the east wing like a dragon.
The events of Anne’s childhood are brought forcibly back to the reader’s mind when Anne discovers that the new tenant of the lodge of the estate is none other than Mr Edwin Barley, her uncle. Anne is determined that he should not recognize her as she fears that he may still have some financial hold over her. She is dismayed to learn from Harry Chandos that Barley is an inveterate enemy of the family & his reasons for renting the lodge can only be wondered at. He is a rich man & has an estate of his own. However, he has never stopped trying to find George Heneage, who was never brought to justice for Philip King’s death. Is his residence at Chandos connected with this quest? If so, how could it affect the Chandos family?
Harry & Anne spend a lot of time together in the evenings & at meals, even more when Lady Chandos is taken ill & confines herself to the east wing. Their relationship gradually turns to love, although Harry tells her he can never marry because of the cloud hanging over the family. The servants believe that the family is cursed by a ghost that appears when a member of the family is in danger. Anne sees this curious apparition one night. It looks like a man, with a resemblance to Harry Chandos, & it wanders over the grounds, weaving in & out of the trees & finally disappearing into the east wing. Harry tells Anne that she has seen, not a ghost, but himself, sleepwalking. Anne is puzzled, but, if it’s not Harry & it’s not a ghost, who or what else could it be?
Ethel Chandos employs a new companion, a bold woman with bright red hair, Mrs Penn. Red hair is never a good sign in sensation fiction. Remember Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale? Anne feels sure she has seen Mrs Penn somewhere before but is fobbed off with the story that they had seen each other in Nulle, the French town where Anne was at school. Other disturbing incidents occur. Money & papers are stolen; Harry is thrown from his horse after it is startled by a woman in a grey cloak; one of the servants, Lizzy Dene, is seen by Anne in conversation with a man who might be Edwin Barley. Is she a spy, working for this enemy of the family? What is this cloud hanging over the family & why can’t Harry marry Anne? Mrs Penn implies that he is married to Ethel Chandos but Anne doesn’t want to believe this. The story reaches a climax when Anne finds herself in the east wing, confronting a dying man who reveals the secret haunting the Chandos family.
There are echoes of Villette, Jane Eyre & Wilkie Collins in Anne Hereford. The story is narrated by Anne which certainly adds to the atmosphere as the reader tries to untangle the many mysteries & questions as Anne does. At some points I couldn’t put it down & I did read the last two instalments together because I just couldn’t wait any longer to find out what was going on. There are some clumsy moments in the last chapters as Wood tries to tie up all the loose ends & the number of coincidences is extraordinary. But, this is sensation fiction & Anne Hereford is a fine example of the genre. It has everything – a sinister uncle, suspicious deaths, a missing will, young lovers kept apart by a terrible secret; ghosts & a sleepwalker. It all adds up to an exciting, heart stopping read. I’m not surprised that young girls were warned to stay away from books like Anne Hereford!