Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 5, 2011

Anne Hereford, by Ellen (Mrs Henry) Wood

As a fan of the old 19th century classics, I’ve belonged to the C19th Lit Yahoo book group for quite a while, but I’ve usually read most of the books on their schedule and tend to lurk, simply enjoying the discussions about books I read a long time ago.  This year, however, I’ve made the acquaintance of George Meredith through the group’s choice of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, (see my review) and now Anne Hereford by Mrs Henry Wood aka Ellen Wood whose only other work I’d read was East Lynne.  (Wood wrote over 30 novels, so there are more to enjoy, because I have bought her entire oeuvre for my Kindle).

Like Jane Austen, Ellen Wood was interested in marriage, and she has some interesting observations to make.  As we know from any reading of any 19th century British classics, there were rigid rules about marriage and inheritance, and society was strictly hierarchical.  Despite differences in wealth, Jane Austen’s heroines marry within their class.  So too does the heroine in Jane Eyre:  Jane gets her man because although a lowly governess, she is a lady.  Margaret Hale, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is the only 19th century heroine I know of, who marries down into a different class because she has met her intellectual equal.  In Anne Hereford one of the women has married for love  ‘down’ into ‘trade’ – but Anne (who despite being a penniless orphan of course is a lady) marries within her class, as we always knew she would.

Despite this obeisance to the rules of 19th century society, there are in Anne Hereford   some interesting threads around marriage:

  • Marrying in haste and repenting at leisure;
  • Marrying someone for love, who doesn’t really love you
  • Marrying ‘up’ and marrying ‘down’
  • Status in society being rigid until you marry ‘down’  into ‘trade’ and then it’s quite flexible enough to not only destroy the social position of a lady but also that of her children forevermore
  • Marrying someone from another culture (OMG a French husband!!)

BEWARE: SPOILERS

The plot revolves around a shooting in the woods when there is bad feeling between the victim and others in the great house where they are staying.  Anne Hereford is the penniless orphan child, who almost witnesses the deed, and as an adult she narrates the story, melding her mature interpretations with childhood memory.  This is a device for ensuring that the mystery is wreathed in incomplete details and naïve perceptions.  The suspect flees; the child, deprived of her inheritance by mysterious foul play, is thrown on her own resources by her aunt’s sudden but rather ‘romantic’ death, and by her sinister guardian’s abrogation of responsibility for her.  The reader is then led down the garden path by a tale of school mistreatment reminiscent of Jane Eyre.

Things look up when Anne makes her way to a finishing school in France, where her friend is another Victorian stock character, a lady of society behaving badly.  The flighty Emily Chandos sneaks out to meet her French boyfriend, and imprudently marries him.  Although Emily loses all interest in Anne once she leaves school to become a governess, she doesn’t hesitate to make use of her when she needs a companion-chaperone in order to go home to the family estate for what is clearly an extended holiday from a marriage she has tired of.   As expected, in the shallow world of her family home, she treats Emily as little more than a servant, but the visit does restore Anne to the social ambience that she belongs in and enables her marriage prospects to look up.

At Chandos, there is the usual huffy housekeeper, who presides over the gloomy mansion with authority that reminded me of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca.  Anne, however, perhaps toughened by the slings and arrows of life, is more confident than Du Maurier’s nameless heroine, and she does a good deal of wandering about the (possibly) haunted corridors, gaining entry to secret rooms, wandering the darkening gardens just in time to see mysterious people flitting in and out of the house and so on.

The heroine has also become beautiful in a chaste and desirable way and seems destined from the start to attract the attention of the nearest eligible male.  Somehow, the reader just knows that the heir apparent – offstage in India doing his heroic duty for the nation – will die just in time for the handsome, kind-hearted and infinitely honorable younger son to assume the title.  All that stands in the way is the weight of societal expectations and the small matter of a missing middle son and the mother who, for decades, has secreted herself in an impenetrable closed-off wing with a determination that requires the reader to suspend a good deal of disbelief.

There’s not just a family mystery about the Chandos.  In Australia we would call it a conspiracy to obstruct the course of justice.  As we saw in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel submitting to the justice  system is optional for the upper classes, and it’s not seen as immoral to opt out of it when it threatens the kind of complacent life ordained at birth.  In Wood’s novel, it’s also shown to be ok to opt out if the justice system could not be trusted because it was likely to convict on circumstantial evidence.  However the consequences are different because in Anne Hereford we see stalking take place because of justice denied, and although our sympathies never waver from where they are meant to be, Wood’s novel does show how strong the need for justice is.  Today we use that over-worked word ‘closure’ to mean that people need to feel that justice has been done in order to avoid feeling a need for revenge.   In Wood’s novel the bereaved in this story did not ever get justice, even though all the Chandos/Heneage conspirators suffered in their own ways.

I’m not sure if Ellen Wood did irony, or if it’s just my 21st century perspective that makes me note that while there was ever a question about Anne’s suitability to be the future mistress of the Chandos Estate, there was never any question about whether the family’s obstruction of the course of justice made them a family suitable for her to marry into….

Still, I loved the ending – very Hercule Poirot, and  it would make a splendid tele-movie!

© Lisa Hill

Author: Mrs Henry Wood aka Ellen Wood
Title: The Works of Ellen Wood
Publisher: Mobile Reference
ASIN: B001F7LD26
Source: Personal library

PS Do not be tempted to download the Gutenberg edition of Anne Hereford. In a rare example of a book poorly proof-read at Gutenberg, their edition is such a mess I found it completely unreadable.  It’s not just spelling errors, it’s the scanning from the original which has resulted in strange combinations of letters, numbers and symbols and bits of text scrambled all over the place.


Responses

  1. Been meaning to get to East Lynne….

    • I am sooo tempted to drop everything else and read it too – there’s sheer enjoyment in these classics!


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