Salem Chapel – Margaret Oliphant

Salem Chapel (photo from here) is a very odd book that begins in Barsetshire & ends up reading like a sensation novel by Wilkie Collins. It’s one of the Chronicles of Carlingford, the most popular series of novels written by Margaret Oliphant, a productive & popular 19th century novelist.

Arthur Vincent is a young Dissenting minister, appointed to his first post to Salem Chapel in Carlingford. The Dissenters of Carlingford are mostly tradesmen, very proud of their ability to build a new red brick chapel for their congregation & determined to get their money’s worth from the young preacher they’ve appointed. They are also proud to be distinguished from the Church-going folk on the other side of Grange Lane, in thrall, as they see it, to the Establishment.

As he walked about Carlingford making acquaintance with the place, it occurred to the young man, with a thrill of not ungenerous ambition, that the time might shortly come when Salem Chapel would be all too insignificant for the Nonconformists of this hitherto torpid place. He pictured to himself how, by-and-by, those jealous doors in Grange Lane would fly open at his touch, and how the dormant minds within would awake under his influence. It was a blissful dream to the young pastor.

Arthur Vincent soon discovers that the ideals he held for his future as a minister to his flock collide with his distaste for the position he finds himself in – beholden to men such as Mr Tozer the grocer & Mr Pigeon the poulterer for his livelihood & expected to graciously take their advice. Vincent is also dismayed at being expected to visit his flock to drink tea & make small talk. He also soon realises that he is expected to marry according to the wishes of the congregation (there are dire hints about the unsuitability of a previous minister’s wife) & sees that blushing Phoebe Tozer is aiming for the post. Mr Tozer is not shy in setting out the flock’s expectations,

Mr Vincent, sir,” said Tozer solemnly, pushing away his empty teacup, and leaning forward over the table on his folded arms, “them ain’t the sentiments for a pastor in our connection. That’s a style of thing that may do among fine folks, or in the church where there’s no freedom; but them as chooses their own pastor, and pays their own pastor, and don’t spare no pains to make him comfortable, has a right to expect different.Them ain’t the sentiments, sir, for Salem folks. … and this I know, that a minister as has to please his flock, has got to please his flock whatever happens, and neither me nor no other man can make it different; and that Mrs Vincent, as has seen life, can tell you as well as I can.”

All this is very much what I expected from a Carlingford novel. The tone changes when Vincent meets Mrs Hilyard, a mysterious woman living in poverty & sewing for a living. Mrs Hilyard attends the Chapel although she’s obviously of a higher social class than most Dissenters. She also receives visits from the beautiful young Dowager, Lady Western, & seems to be on terms of affectionate friendship with her. Vincent is puzzled by Mrs Hilyard & curious to know her story. He’s also dazzled by Lady Western & dismays the Chapel goers by accepting an invitation to dinner & appearing to court her notice. Vincent receives letters from his mother in the country telling him about his sister, Susan’s, suitor, a man called Fordham.

This is the beginning of the sensation plot which involves impersonation, abduction, attempted bigamy & accusations of murder. Vincent overhears Mrs Hilyard arguing with a man, Colonel Mildmay, about a child that she is desperate to keep from him. When Vincent lets her know that he has heard her conversation, Mrs Hilyard asks that the child, her daughter, be sent to Vincent’s mother for safekeeping, little realising that this action will put the girl in danger. The disappearance of Susan Vincent, in company with Mrs Hilyard’s daughter, Alice, & Susan’s suitor, sparks a chase from one end of England to the other & Vincent’s position at Salem Chapel is put at risk by his unconventional behaviour.

I have to say that, much as I enjoyed the book, the two halves really don’t mix very well. I wondered whether Mrs Oliphant felt obliged to add the sensational elements because of the success of novels like The Woman in White (Salem Chapel was published in 1863). It was certainly so successful that she was able to ask for a substantial price for her next book. Even for a sensation novel, there are just a few too many coincidences in the plot for me. Arthur Vincent is also a very unsympathetic character. Superior, impatient, ungracious, he ignores the proprieties & the obligations of his position. He becomes obsessed with his pursuit of Lady Western & jealous of those he perceives as his rivals. Even when he becomes a successful preacher, he finds it distasteful that the deacons rate his success based on the number of people who hear him preach & continually remind him that as they have appointed him, they can remove him at any time if he doesn’t give satisfaction. He’s the son of a minister & must have known that his flock was going to consist of tradespeople so why is he so snobbish about their houses & their daughters & their aspirations?

Salem itself, and the new pulpit, which had a short time ago represented to poor Vincent that tribune from which he was to influence the world, that point of vantage which was all a true man needed for the making of his career, dwindled into a miserable scene of trade before his disenchanted eyes – a preaching shop, where his success was to be measured by the seat-letting, and his soul decanted out into periodical issue under the seal of Tozer & Co. Such, alas! were the indignant thoughts with which, the old Adam rising bitter and strong within him, the young Nonconformist hastened home.

Arthur’s mother is another character I could have seen much less of. From the moment when she arrives in Carlingford after Arthur has alarmed her with her doubts about Susan’s suitor, she never stops talking & wailing & worrying about the proprieties. I know that a young girl’s reputation was a fragile thing but she does lament too much over Susan’s “fall” even before she knows what has happened. Almost driven to distraction by the shocking thought that her daughter has deliberately run away with a man, her fears for Arthur’s reputation with his flock almost outweigh her fears for Susan’s welfare. My favourite character was Mr Tozer, who champions Arthur’s cause even when he ignores his very good advice & causes offence wherever he goes. Tozer is proud of the success of Arthur’s preaching & not averse to scoring over his fellow deacon, Mr Pigeon, but he does stick by Arthur even when he goes off on wild goose chases on a Sunday & neglects the social side of his job. There’s also plenty of humour & satire in the portrayal of the families of the Chapel which was just wonderful. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more successful novel if the sensation subplots had been left out.

The sensation plot winds up very quietly after the amount of lamentation about Susan’s reputation, whereabouts & lingering fate that has gone on. Arthur realises that he has to make some fundamental changes to his own life before he can be truly happy &, even then, he manages to go against the advice of everyone who cares for him, contrary to the last.

Anglophilebooks.comThere is a copy of the Virago edition of Salem Chapel available at Anglophile Books.

Jezebel’s Daughter – Wilkie Collins

It’s been much too long since I read a Wilkie Collins novel so I was very pleased to see that Oxford University Press were publishing a new edition of one of his lesser-known novels, Jezebel’s Daughter. This is a late novel, published in 1880 & a short novel by Victorian standards, only 250pp. However, it is full of all the themes & preoccupations of Collins’ other novels – the position of women in society, the growing influence of science for good & evil, social justice & a good proportion of superstition, sensation & intrigue, including a pivotal scene in a morgue.

David Glenney is looking back on the events of his youth from a distance of 50 years. In the 1820s, he was working in his uncle, Mr Wagner’s, business which has offices in London & Frankfort. Mr Wagner, a good businessman with a social conscience, dies, leaving his very capable widow to continue the business & to carry out his particular plan, the reform of the treatment of the insane in asylums such as Bedlam. To this end, & against the advice of lawyers, Mrs Wagner decides to take one of the inmates of Bedlam, known as Jack Straw, into her home. Jack Straw got his name because of his ability to plait straw which calms his nerves. Although the origin of his illness is unknown, some form of poisoning is suspected. He is soon devoted to Mrs Wagner & she treats him with kindness, giving him responsibilities in the business such as becoming Keeper of the Keys, a title he’s very proud of.

The Frankfort office is run by the other two partners in the business, Mr Keller & Mr Engelman. Mr Keller’s son, Fritz, is sent to the London office to get him out of the way of a young woman he wishes to marry. Minna Fontaine is the Jezebel’s daughter of the title. Madame Fontaine is the widow of an eminent chemist. She has the reputation of a spendthrift & her extravagant debts are said to have ruined her husband’s health. After his death, a medicine cabinet, said to contain dangerous potions, goes missing & investigations lead nowhere although suspicion points to Madame as the thief. Mr Keller is determined that Fritz & Minna will not marry & refuses to meet either lady. Madame Fontaine is just as determined that they will marry & her maternal devotion & her desire for Minna to marry a rich man who will pay her debts for fear of scandal, is the catalyst for the events of the novel.

David goes to Frankfort to implement another of Mr Wagner’s innovations. He wants to introduce female clerks into both the London & Frankfort offices. His conservative German partners are sceptical but treat David cordially & he does all he can to keep the young lovers in contact with each other. David is suspicious of Madame Fontaine whose outward appearance of kindness & solicitude is betrayed by an underlying tension & frustration which David glimpses several times. Eventually, Madame contrives to meet Mr Engelman, whom she fascinates & flatters until he’s hopelessly in love with her. This provides her entrée in the Keller household. She even becomes housekeeper to Mr Keller, after she nurses him through a serious illness. Mr Keller eventually agrees to Fritz & Minna’s wedding & it seems that Madame Fontaine’s problems are over.

Mrs Wagner decides to visit Frankfort, bringing Jack Straw with her. The two widows dislike each other on sight & Jack is also known to Madame Fontaine as he was once an assistant in her husband’s laboratory. Jack has knowledge of Madame’s past & she fears that this knowledge will ruin all her plans. The contents of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet give her great power & she is not afraid to use it, to devastating effect.

Jezebel’s Daughter began life as a play, The Red Vial, which Collins wrote in 1858. The play was a flop; reviewers acknowledged the sensational elements but felt that the play needed some comic sub-plot to avoid the audience sinking into despair & even some inappropriate laughter at the end of two hours of melodrama. Twenty years later, Collins reused the story in this novel. Collins excels at depicting strong women & Mrs Wagner & Madame Fontaine are wonderfully complex characters. The story doesn’t have many elements of mystery to it as we’re never really in doubt as to Madame’s duplicity. The first half of the story is told by David as an eyewitness & he is suspicious of her from the first. The second half, after an interlude consisting of three letters, is narrated by David from the testimony of others along with letters addressed to him (he’s in London through most of this part of the story) & a diary.

There may not be much mystery but there’s a lot of sensation in the plot. From the visit to Bedlam when Mrs Wagner meets Jack Straw, to the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet, illnesses & miraculous recoveries & the final scenes in the Deadhouse where superstitious Germans paid a Watchman to stay with their dead loved ones before their funerals in case they revived, there are enough shocks to satisfy any fan of sensation fiction. Minna is a bland heroine, sweet, dutiful & rather dim & her Fritz is boisterous & conventional. The real interest is in Madame Fontaine’s almost obsessive love for her daughter & the mixed motivations inherent in her desire for Minna’s marriage. She certainly wants her daughter to be happy & to marry the man she loves but she needs Minna to marry a rich man who will pay a promissory note that’s about to fall due. Madame Fontaine will do anything to bring about the marriage & it’s frightening to see the lengths that she will go to when it seems her plans are about to come unstuck.

Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t one of Collins’s best novels, coming near the end of his career & twenty years after the high points of The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. However, there’s a lot to enjoy in the portraits of the two widows, kindly Mr Engelman & rigidly correct Mr Keller & Jack, who often plays the role of fool or jester, presuming to speak the truth to his social superiors whether they want to hear it or not.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a copy of Jezebel’s Daughter for review.

Henry Dunbar – Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It’s been too long since I read a good sensation novel. So, when I was asked to nominate a book for my 19th century bookgroup, I had a look at the tbr shelves & chose Henry Dunbar. I have the Victorian Secrets edition which has, as always, an informative Introduction, notes & contemporary reviews.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon is probably not as well-known now as her great contemporary Wilkie Collins. but in her day she was incredibly popular. Her most famous novel, Lady Audley’s Secret, featured a villain who challenged every convention  of the period. She was blonde, beautiful & completely ruthless. She also wrote an enormous number of novels & short stories, very few of them still in print. So, it’s great to see this edition of Henry Dunbar.

Henry is a young army officer, spoilt & indulged. He’s also the heir to an important London banking house, Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby. He gets into debt & entices a young clerk at the bank, Joseph Wilmot, who has a facility for copying handwriting, to help him create forged bonds to hold off his creditors. The fraud is discovered & Henry, after being forced to resign his commission, is sent out to the company’s India office in disgrace. Joseph Wilmot is dismissed without a character when Henry refuses to speak up for him.

Thirty-five years later, Henry Dunbar is coming home. His father & uncle are dead & he’s now the senior partner of Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby. Henry had married in India although his wife is now dead & his young daughter, Laura, was sent back to England to live with her indulgent grandfather. She hasn’t seen her father since she was a small child. Joseph Wilmot was unable to get a respectable position without a reference, fell into bad company & was transported to Norfolk Island for fraud. His older brother, Sampson, still works at the bank but hasn’t heard from Joseph for over twenty years & assumes that he’s dead. Joseph, however, is not dead. He has returned from the colonies & now calls himself James Wentworth. His life has been blighted by that first mistake & he has suffered from the convict stain,  always having to move on when his past life is revealed. He lives with his daughter, Margaret, who teaches music for a living. She knows there’s a great grief in her father’s life but has no idea of his past.

Sampson Wilmot is sent to meet Henry Dunbar off the boat at Southampton. Joseph Wilmot has seen the announcement of Dunbar’s return & finally tells Margaret that he is the man who has ruined her father’s life. He sets off to London to confront Dunbar but, on the way, sees his brother & follows him to Southampton. Sampson is agitated by the reappearance of his long-lost brother & suffers a stroke, allowing Joseph to take his place as the welcoming party for Henry Dunbar.

Dunbar hasn’t changed or been chastened by his years in India. He is as arrogant as ever &, when Joseph confronts him, offers him an annuity as compensation. The two men travel to Winchester on their way to London to visit an old friend of Dunbar’s, apparently on good terms. When they arrive, they discover that Dunbar’s friend is dead so they visit the cathedral & Dunbar decides to call on his friend’s widow. The two men set off arm in arm to walk by the riverbank but only one man, Henry Dunbar, returns. He tells the verger at the cathedral that he had sent Joseph on ahead to take a message to the widow but he doesn’t return. Then, Joseph Wilmot’s body is found by the river bank, his clothes stripped away. At the inquest, Dunbar is closely questioned but, even though there are discrepancies in the time he said he left Wilmot, nothing can be proved against him. He travels on to London, to a subdued reunion with his daughter. Dunbar retreats to his family estate in the country, Maudesley Abbey, with Laura & soon gains a reputation for standoffish eccentricity. Laura is baffled by her inability to get close to her father but is distracted by her love affair with the young baronet, Sir Philip Jocelyn.

Margaret is distraught when her father doesn’t return from London &, as she has no idea of his real name, she doesn’t know of the murder in Winchester. She goes on with her teaching & meets Clement Austin, a young man who works at the Dunbar bank & is looking for a music teacher for his niece, newly arrived to live with him & his mother. Clement meets Margaret, engages her to teach his niece, & falls in love with her. Gradually, they discover the reason for Joseph Wilmot’s disappearance & Margaret is determined to confront Henry Dunbar & accuse him of her father’s murder. Henry Dunbar proves very elusive, refusing to see Margaret & Clement becomes determined to discover the truth about the murder.

In some ways, Henry Dunbar is a murder mystery but not as we would consider it. The reader knows much more than any of the characters & the excitement is in seeing how they will gradually discover the truth. Even though I thought I knew what was happening, Braddon is clever enough to throw doubt on the reader’s conjectures so that, at times, I wasn’t sure if I’d read the clues correctly. It’s a very exciting story with a police inspector (employed privately by Clement Austin) leading the chase for the murderer on the railways & even onto the seas.

Braddon may have been unconventional in her plots but her heroines bear no comparison to Wilkie Collins’s complex women. Laura & Margaret are beautiful, good & pure. Margaret’s principles are such that she dismisses Clement when she discovers her father’s true past & it takes all his persistence to track her down. Nevertheless, this is a story with lots of action – I haven’t even mentioned the blackmailer & the diamonds –  & an exciting use of the modern marvel of the railways (it was published in 1864 but set principally in the 1840s). Braddon’s writing is very atmospheric & I loved her descriptions of Winchester & Maudesley Abbey. If you love sensation fiction, I’d recommend Henry Dunbar.

The Invention of Murder – Judith Flanders

I love a good murder. I don’t read contemporary true crime but I do enjoy historical true crime. Judith Flanders’s new book, The Invention of Murder is an exhaustive catalogue of 19th century murder. She concentrates on the way that murder was reported on & investigated during the 19th century. Victorian murder has been the focus of several books recently. Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher told the story of the murder of a young child at the Road Hill House in Kent. Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’s Hat is about the first murder committed on a train.

Judith Flanders begins in the early 19th century with the murders of Burke & Hare, the notorious resurrection men of Edinburgh. They began by supplying recently deceased bodies to doctors holding anatomy classes for medical students. They soon realised that they could make a lot of money by killing tramps & homeless people & selling their corpses rather than just digging up the graves in the churchyard. They were caught when one of their victims was recognised by the students & an investigation took place. William Burke was himself anatomized after his execution in an exquisite piece of poetic justice.

The reasons why one case of murder captured the public’s imagination, & not another, is difficult to work out. The murder of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in the Red Barn in 1827 was one case that created an industry. Maria had two illegitimate children before she met Corder, who promised to marry her when she became pregnant with his child. Instead, he murdered her & buried her in her father’s barn. He pretended that they had run away together & sent letters & messages home to her father & stepmother to keep up the pretence. Her stepmother was said to have had a dream of Maria telling her of her murder & her body was soon discovered. Corder was arrested & executed. The case caused a sensation. Maria was portrayed as an innocent girl led astray by an unscrupulous man. Her children were conveniently airbrushed out of the picture.

…Victorian mores were some time in the future, and the broadsides do not deny her two illegitimate children, they just don’t think they mattered. In one, Miss Marten was of ‘docile disposition’, inculcated with ‘moral precepts’, and her behaviour aroused ‘the esteem and admiration of all’; her little missteps (the children) were caused entirely by a ‘playful and vivacious disposition’; although ‘her conduct cannot be justified, much might be said in palliation.’

Sermons were preached, ballads & broadsheets written & Staffordshire figures produced of Maria, Corder & the sinister Red Barn surrounded by flowers & contented pigs & chickens with Corder beckoning Maria inside. Corder was convicted by the Press before the trial even began. This is one of the themes of the book. Libel laws were practically non-existent & the speculation & descriptions of suspects even before they were charged were biased in the extreme. The wildest rumours were printed as established fact.

The other theme of the book is the rise of the detective force of the police. At the beginning of the century, there was no police force as we know it. Each parish employed watchmen but they were really there to prevent crime rather than investigate after the crime had been committed. Until mid-century, a householder, especially middle or upper class householders, could turn the police out of their homes & decide exactly where they were & were not permitted to search for evidence. The increasing professionalism of the police force, & especially the detective force, was vital in the pursuit of justice but the quality of legal representation was also critical. Some of the accused murderers in the book had pathetic representation or none at all. Trial by public opinion was often the result. Medical & forensic evidence was rudimentary at best & sometimes ludicrous. There were no recognised post-mortem procedures & tests for poison, for example, were often not available.

One of the saddest cases in the book was that of Eliza Fenning, a cook accused of poisoning her employers in 1815 during a period when there were several poison panics. The public became obsessed with fear of mob violence & class anxieties led to several servants being accused of violence towards their employers. Eliza was accused of poisoning dumplings eaten by five members of the Turner family. Despite the fact that there was no proof that poison had been administered & no one died, Eliza was convicted of attempted murder & executed. The Marsh test for detecting arsenic wasn’t available until 1836 but the lack of a reliable test didn’t stop the prosecution blaming arsenic. There was a public outcry after the trial but it didn’t stop the sentence being carried out.

The courts had accepted statements from respectable (that is, middle-class) witnesses at face value, without questioning motives or sources of information, and the newspapers continued to do so. The Morning Chronicle thought that an employer should be believed by virtue of the fact that he was an emplyer. The Observer chose a more circular argument…’The ultimate fate of the criminal is the best proof that (her protestations of innocence have) no foundation in truth’- that is, Mrs Fenning was guilty because she had been found guilty.

Other cases examined in the book are those of Madeleine Smith, accused of poisoning her lower-class lover in Edinburgh. The verdict was Not Proven, a verdict only available in Scotland that meant she was not convicted but the jurors felt the evidence just wasn’t quite strong enough to find her guilty. Mary Ann Cotton was accused of poisoning many members of her family, including children, for financial benefit. She had bought policies from the burial clubs that working class people used so that they could pay for the funeral of their loved ones. The prosecution believed that the temptation to kill the children & collect on the policy had been too strong. Maria & Frederick Manning were convicted of murdering Maria’s lover & burying his body in quicklime under the hearth. Charles Dickens famously attended their public execution & wrote about his disgust in his campaign to end the gruesome public spectacle.

All the most famous murders of the 19th century are here & Flanders discusses the many manifestations of public interest, from ballads & plays to sensation fiction & Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. One aspect that I found particularly interesting was the impact of class & sex on these stories. The class of the victim & the accused was vital in the level of interest shown by the public & often the verdicts handed down in court. Middle class Madeleine Smith gets away with a Not Proven verdict. Lower class Eliza Fenning is executed. Middle class victims like young Saville Kent, murdered at Road Hill House, are the object of sympathy & outrage. The prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper are treated with much less dignity by press & public alike. Sexual & class politics are evident in every case.

I’m not sure about the accuracy of the title, though. The invention of murder implies that there was no such thing before which is obviously untrue. Certainly the Industrial Revolution & the expansion of cities led to an increase in crimes committed by strangers against other strangers. The increasing randomness of crime certainly created public fear & sometimes hysteria. The subtitle is equally sensational – How the Victorians revelled in death and detection and created modern crime. The rise of literacy & cheap newspapers certainly meant that more people were able to read about these crimes & journalists did nothing to tone down their reports.

Newspapers took over from broadsheets & played into the fears of the public. Journalists, playwrights & novelists certainly profited from the fascination with crime, murder & detection & some of the greatest novels of the period – Bleak House, The Woman in White, The Moonstone & Mrs Audley’s Secret – were influenced by cases of the time. I’m just not sure what “modern crime” is. However, The Invention of Murder is a fascinating look at 19th century murder, detection & justice. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Victorian life & literature.

Anne Hereford – Mrs Henry Wood

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!

Man & Wife – Wilkie Collins


Wilkie Collins is the King of sensation novelists. No one else could write a story of wronged women & villainous men as he did. Man & Wife is one of his more didactic novels as he’s concerned to make a point about the abominable state of the marriage laws of Ireland & Scotland in the 19th century. The Introduction to my OUP edition quotes Swinburne’s couplet, What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?/Some demon whispered –“Wilkie, have a mission!”, on what was seen as a flaw in Collins’s fiction after the glory days of the 1860’s.

Man & Wife was published in 1870 after a decade of masterpieces such as The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. I can’t say I agree that Man & Wife has less sensational excitement than his best work. My eyes were propped open several nights trying to finish just one more chapter before falling asleep. There is more reliance on outrageous coincidence & the narrator is a bit too full of dire warnings & doom-laden woe on a few occasions but it was such an absorbing story that I didn’t care.

The novel opens with a Prologue forty years before the real beginning of the story which sets up the themes of betrayal & loyalty that dominate the novel. Two young girls are about to be parted, perhaps for life, as Blanche goes out to India as a governess & Anne stays in England to go on the stage. They swear undying love & friendship. Some years later, Anne is married to a man who is tired of her & he asserts that their marriage, which took place in Ireland, is invalid. This is legally, if not morally, true. Anne is left deserted with a young daughter, also Anne, & her faithless husband marries again but leads a miserable life which he thoroughly deserves, the cad. Blanche, now Lady Lundie, returns to England in time to look after Anne who has been caring for Blanche’s daughter, another Blanche, & the friendship between the two daughters is just as strong as between their mothers. The elder Anne dies, leaving her daughter in Blanche’s care. The elder Blanche dies on a return voyage to India & her husband marries again.

The story proper opens with Lord Lundie dead, his new wife looking after her stepdaughter Blanche, attended by Anne Silvester as her governess. Are you still with me? Anne has become entangled in an improper relationship with Geoffrey Delamayn. He has promised to marry her but he’s already growing tired of her. The whole party is on holiday in Scotland when Anne forces the issue with Geoffrey & he promises to marry her privately at a remote inn. She leaves the house to meet him there but he convinces his friend, Arnold Brinkworth, to go to the inn with a letter for Anne after he’s called away to London to visit his sick father. To preserve Anne’s reputation, Arnold is convinced that he must ask for her as his wife when he arrives at the inn & this is where the trouble begins. Scottish marriage law was so unclear that the act of referring to each other as husband & wife may mean that Anne & Arnold are married in the eyes of the law. Arnold, of course, has just become engaged to Blanche. Geoffrey cruelly deserts Anne, leaving her ill & abandoned. Arnold has no idea of the legal mess he’s in until after he & Blanche have married.

There are some great set pieces. The scene in London when all the protagonists are brought together to thrash out the truth of Anne & Geoffrey’s relationship is full of tension. There are some terrific characters in this book. Wilkie Collins always had a fondness for characters with some kind of physical deformity. Here we have Sir Patrick Lundie, Blanche’s uncle & guardian, a crabbed old lawyer with a club foot. Then there’s mysterious Hester Dethridge, a woman struck dumb by the blows of a cruel husband, who communicates by writing on a slate hanging at her side. The second Lady Lundie is a silly yet cunning woman whose meddling efforts to help her stepdaughter only make matters worse. Blanche & Arnold are the stock hero & heroine & Geoffrey is a fairly bland villain. Anne is magnificent, the true heroine of the book. She manages to conduct an improper relationship, emotionally blackmail her lover into marriage, lie to the servants at the inn, wander all over Scotland & England alone (but always with perfect dignity), yet still be presented as a woman more sinned against than sinning. Apart from M E Braddon, I don’t know who else could have done it. No wonder parents & critics were appalled at the immoral influence of the sensation novel. If you love 19th century fiction, I can recommend this book as a lesser-known work by the master of sensation.

An interesting sidelight is that a new book by Chloe Schama, Wild Romance, is just about to be published. This is a non-fiction account of the Yelverton case, one of the real-life stories on which Wilkie Collins based the plot of Man & Wife. I can’t wait to read it!