Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wood, Ellen

WOOD, ELLEN (1814–1887), better known as Mrs. Henry Wood, novelist, born at Worcester on 17 Jan. 1814, was the eldest daughter of Thomas Price, who had inherited from his father a large glove manufactory at Worcester. Her mother was Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Evans of Grimley. Her father, a man of scholarly tastes, who enjoyed the high esteem of the cathedral clergy at Worcester, was subsequently depicted as Thomas Ashley in ‘Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles.’ As a child Ellen Price lived with her maternal grandmother, and developed a remarkably retentive memory, which she exercised both upon general and upon local family history. While still a girl she was afflicted by a curvature of the spine, which became confirmed and affected her health through life. Most of her numerous novels were written in a reclining chair with the manuscript upon her knees. Miss Price was married at Whittington, near Worcester, in 1836 to Henry Wood, a prominent member of a banking and shipping firm, who had been for some time in the consular service. The next twenty years of her life were spent abroad, mainly in Dauphiné, whence she returned with her husband in 1856 and settled in Norwood. During the latter part of her stay abroad she had contributed month by month short stories to ‘Bentley's Miscellany’ and to Colburn's ‘New Monthly Magazine.’ Of these magazines Harrison Ainsworth was proprietor, and his cousin, Francis Ainsworth, who was editor, subsequently acknowledged that for some years Mrs. Henry Wood's stories alone had kept them above water. For these stories she received little payment. Her first literary remuneration came from a novel called ‘Danesbury House’ (1860), written in the short space of twenty-eight days, with which she won a prize of 100l. offered by the Scottish Temperance League for a tale illustrative of its principles. In January 1861 her much longer story entitled ‘East Lynne’ began running through the pages of the ‘New Monthly Magazine.’ The new novel was highly commended by the writer's friend, Mary Howitt, and its dramatic power alarmed Ainsworth, who foresaw the loss of the ‘Scheherazade’ of his magazine. Some difficulty was nevertheless experienced in finding a publisher for the work in an independent form, and two well-known firms rejected the book before it was accepted by Bentley. Upon its appearance in the autumn of 1861 it was praised in the ‘Athenæum’ and elsewhere, but its striking success was largely due to the enthusiastic review in the ‘Times’ of 25 Jan. 1862. The libraries were now ‘besieged for it, and Messrs. Spottiswoode [the printers] had to work day and night.’ It was translated into most of the European and several oriental tongues. The dramatic versions are numerous, and the drama in one form or another remains one of the staple productions of touring companies both in England and abroad. The fact that Mrs. Henry Wood never received any payment or royalty from the adapters of her novel became a stock example of the defects of our copyright law. ‘East Lynne’ was followed by two novels which achieved almost as wide a popularity, ‘Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles’ and ‘The Channings,’ in which the writer, with very happy results, relies less upon a melodramatic plot and more upon autobiographical and local colouring. In 1867, following the example of Miss Braddon, who after the success of ‘Lady Audley's Secret’ had started ‘Belgravia,’ Mrs. Henry Wood became the conductor and proprietor of the ‘Argosy’ (with Bentley as publisher), and to its pages henceforth she contributed the better portion of her work. About this same time her story ‘A Life's Secret’ was published anonymously by the Religious Tract Society in the pages of the ‘Leisure Hour.’ The appearance of this tale, which dealt with the dark side of strikes and trade unions, greatly excited the ire of certain agitators, and a large crowd assembled outside the publishing office of the society and demanded with threats that the author's name should be revealed. Her name was subsequently attached to the work, and in 1879 she avowed the authorship of the ‘Johnny Ludlow’ tales, which had begun appearing in the ‘Argosy’ in 1868, and which contain what is, from a literary point of view, by far her best work. The declaration of authorship came as a surprise, for the tales, which are subdued, quite unmelodramatic, and, at their best, approximate Mrs. Gaskell's in manner, had been held by some of the critics to exhibit qualities in which Mrs. Wood was believed to be deficient.

Shortly after her husband's death in 1866, Mrs. Henry Wood removed from Kensington to St. John's Wood Park, South Hampstead. There she lived for the remainder of her life, working assiduously at her novels. As may be gathered from their pages, she was a strictly orthodox churchwoman and a strong conservative. Her relations with her publisher, Bentley, underwent no change from her first success onwards. Of these her own favourite was the ‘Shadow of Ashlydyat.’ She suffered much from bronchitis, but died eventually of failure of the heart's action on 10 Feb. 1887. She was buried in Highgate cemetery on 16 Feb.; the design of the handsome red granite monument being copied from the tomb of Scipio Africanus at Rome. She left, with other issue, Mr. Charles W. Wood, her biographer, and for several years her fellow-worker in editing the ‘Argosy.’ A portrait of the authoress, engraved upon steel by Lumb Stocks after a miniature by R. Easton, appeared in the ‘Argosy’ for January 1887, and was reproduced in the ‘Illustrated London News,’ 19 Feb. 1887.

Overpraised at the time of their first appearance, Mrs. Henry Wood's novels have since been unduly depreciated. As a skilful weaver of plots she was not inferior to Wilkie Collins, and as a faithful delineator of the habits and ideas of the lower middle class in England she surpassed Mrs. Trollope. A careless writer and an incorrigible contemner both of grammatical and legal accuracy (in regard to the legal points round which many of her stories revolve), Mrs. Henry Wood is nevertheless in her way an artist, and she depicts characters as unlike as those of Mr. Chattaway, Roland Yorke, or, best of all, Johnny Ludlow, with a fidelity to life that goes far to absolve her from the too sweeping charge of commonplaceness. Her extraordinary popularity is due largely to the fact that with a most faithful and realistic rendering of middle-class life she combines a complete freedom both from pretension to social superiority and from the intellectual disdain that characterises the middle-class portraiture in ‘Middlemarch.’ The chief of Mrs. Henry Wood's novels, nearly all of which were published in three volumes and at London, are: 1. ‘Danesbury House’ [a temperance tale], Glasgow, 1860, 8vo. 2. ‘East Lynne,’ London, 1861, 3 vols.; 5th edit. 1862 (the best French version is by ‘North Peat,’ Paris, 1865–6, 3 vols.). 3. ‘Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles,’ 1862. 4. ‘The Channings,’ London, 1862, 3 vols. (hundred and fortieth thousand, 1895, two hundredth thousand 1898). 5. ‘The Foggy Night at Offord’ (a Christmas gift for the Lancashire fund), 1862. 6. ‘The Shadow of Ashlydyat,’ 1863 (150th thousand 1899). 7. ‘Verner's Pride,’ 1863 (French version by L. de L'Estrive, Paris, 1878). 8. ‘Oswald Cray,’ Edinburgh, 1864. 9. ‘William Allair,’ 1864. 10. ‘Lord Oakburn's Daughters,’ 1864 (a French version by L. Bochet, Paris, 1876). 11. ‘Trevlyn Hold’ (anon.), 1864. 12. ‘Mildred Arkell: a Novel,’ 1865 (French version 1877). 13. ‘St. Martin's Eve,’ 1866. 14. ‘Elster's Folly,’ 1866. 15. ‘A Life's Secret,’ 1867. 16. ‘Lady Adelaide's Oath,’ 1867 (French version by Bochet, 1878, 2 vols.). 17. ‘Orville College,’ 1867. 18. ‘The Red Court Farm,’ 1868. 19. ‘Anne Hereford,’ 1868 (forty-fifth thousand 1896). 20. ‘Roland Yorke,’ 1869 (a sequel to ‘The Channings’). 21. ‘George Canterbury's Will,’ 1870 (reprinted from Tinsley's ‘Magazine’). 22. ‘Bessy Rane,’ 1870. 23. ‘Dene Hollow,’ 1871. 24. ‘Within the Maze,’ 1872 (112th thousand 1899). 25. ‘The Master of Greylands,’ 1873. 26. ‘Told in the Twilight,’ 1875. 27. ‘Bessy Wells,’ 1875. 28. ‘Adam Grainger,’ 1876. 29. ‘Our Children,’ 1876. 30. ‘Parkwater,’ 1876. 31. ‘Edina,’ 1876 (the most successful of her later novels). 32. ‘Pomeroy Abbey,’ 1878. 33. ‘Court Netherleigh,’ 1881. 34. ‘About Ourselves,’ 1883. 35. ‘Lady Grace,’ 1887 (this was running in the ‘Argosy’ at the time of Mrs. Wood's death). Posthumously appeared: 36. ‘The Story of Charles Strange,’ 1888. 37. ‘The House of Halliwell,’ 1890. 38. ‘Summer Stories from the “Argosy,”’ 1890. 39. ‘The Unholy Wish,’ 1890. 40. ‘Ashley and other Stories,’ 1897. In addition to the above some of the ‘Johnny Ludlow’ papers were reprinted from the ‘Argosy’ in two series of three volumes each, between 1874 and 1880. These were subsequently added to, and appeared in six series, each in one volume containing ten or twelve stories. Over half a million copies of ‘East Lynne’ have been issued in England alone, and the sale of this novel, as well as that of Nos. 3, 4, 6, 10, 20, 24, and 31 in the foregoing list, shows at present no sign of diminution. The best of the (for the most part very indifferent) dramatic versions of ‘East Lynne’ is perhaps that by T. A. Palmer, ‘as played by Madge Robertson,’ first performed at Nottingham on 19 Nov. 1874 (French's Acting Edition, No. 1542).

[Memorials of Mrs. Henry Wood, by her son, Charles W. Wood (with portrait), 1894; Argosy, 1887, xliii. 422 sq.; Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign, 1897, p. 174; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Athenæum, 13 Feb. 1887; Times, 11 and 17 Feb. 1887; Daily News, 11 Feb. 1887; Illustrated London News, 19 Feb. 1887.]

T. S.