Special Collections authors you’ve never heard of

Part V: Mrs. Henry Wood (1817-1887)

Friday, Jan. 17 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Victorian author Ellen Wood, who wrote as Mrs. Henry Wood. Her teen years were marred by a spinal curvature which kept her confined to her bed. At the age of 22, she married and moved to France, where her husband was employed by an English shipping firm. He was not successful as a businessman, however, and the Woods faced financial difficulties. Mrs. Wood began writing short stories for English magazines to help supplement the family’s income. The Woods eventually returned to England in 1856.

photoMrs. Wood’s first novel, Danesbury House, was actually an entry into a writing contest – she won £100. From that auspicious beginning her next novel, East Lynne, became a runaway bestseller.  As it was being serialized in a magazine in 1860, Mrs. Wood offered the novel to several book publishers. It eventually was accepted and published in three-volume format in the fall of 1861. East Lynne is the story of a naïve young woman who is seduced into leaving her husband and children, and after much hardship, disguises herself as a governess in her husband’s new household to be near the children she abandoned. Despite criticism, readers found its mixture of sentimentality and sensationalism irresistible. The novel went through numerous reprintings, piracies, and several stage adaptations over the next 50 years.

Mrs. Wood wrote over a dozen other novels. After her husband’s death she took on the editorship of the literary periodical The Argosy, which featured her short stories and novels. Though her work was extremely popular in her own time, it has been mostly forgotten today; East Lynne is sometimes studied by scholars for its insights into mid-Victorian attitudes about women’s roles, morality, motherhood, and social class.

Special Collections owns first edition copies of eight of Mrs. Wood’s novels, including Danesbury House and East Lynne. One of the newest acquisitions to the Victorian Literature collections is a copy of her 1865 novel Mildred Arkell, signed by the author. Special Collections also owns a copy of a script from an American theatrical adaptation of East Lynne, printed at the turn of the 20th century.

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