Ellen Wood's Worcestershire Childhood
Compiled by Michael Flowers ©2001-2006
The young Ellen Price lived her first twenty-two years in Worcester, and the surrounding countryside played a significant part in her childhood. Some of her best work reflects this interest in her birthplace, as places she knew provide the background to some of her most fascinating plots. Charles Wood was born and brought up in the south of France, but his mother must have told him many times of her Worcestershire life, as he was able to relate several incidents in his rather effusive biography about her.
To those interested in the topography and the local or social history of Worcestershire and how incidents in her life were transformed in her fiction, what follows is a summary of some of the events Charles Wood describes in his now scarce book on his mother.
Ellen Price was born on 17th January 1814, the eldest of two daughters of Thomas and Elizabeth Price. Thomas Price had inherited the family business of a large glove manufactory in Worcester. Wood memorialised her father at least twice in her fiction. He appears in her portrayal of the kindly 'Helstonleigh' glove manufacturer, Thomas Ashley, in Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles. (Helstonleigh was Wood's alias for Worcester, which she adopted in several of her novels). Dr. Rolf Burgauer suggests that William Arkell in Mildred Arkell was another character in Wood's work that was based on her father. Wood utilized her first-hand knowledge of the flood of cheap foreign imports in her father's business, to depict the ensuing depression amongst the workers' families in both of these books, and also in A Life's Secret.
Dr. Burgauer was unable to detect Elizabeth Price as a character in any of her daughter's novels. However, he quite rightly suggests that Wood's mother provided the ultimate inspiration behind Wood's writing career. Elizabeth Price had a very fertile imagination, but she also often had strange, prophetic dreams which came true, and she believed she often saw supernatural spirits and phenomena - all elements which appear in Wood's novels and stories. (I am indebted to Jocelyn Bailey who has translated the relevant section from Burgauer's book, which discusses the importance of Wood's mother).
For some reason, never explained by Charles Wood, his mother was raised by her paternal grandparents, until the death of her grandfather when she was seven. [In Charles Wood's two memoirs he says that his mother was reared in the house of her Price grandparents. Therefore, all later commentators who state she was reared by her maternal grandparents must be incorrect]. Charles Wood does not attempt to elaborate on his mother's feelings on being parcelled off to her grandparents. However, this upbringing might account for the high incidence of lost and stolen children that propel the narratives of some of her short stories. Charles Wood also informs us that the young Ellen was only permitted to be with her grandmother at "stated times". For the remainder of her day the young girl was often placed in the company of the housekeeper, a Mrs. Tipton.
A couple of elements in Ellen Wood's early childhood in her grandmother's household stand out as having significance to her later fiction. For instance, we discover that Wood's intimate knowledge of the Worcestershire countryside, relevant to so many of her later tales was gleaned on long afternoon carriage drives with her grandmother and Mrs. Tipton. Wood had a remarkable memory, and just as she could recite Gray's Elegy and Goldsmith's Deserted Village by heart at the age of seven, her son suggests that these childhood excursions provided the necessary intimate knowledge for the countryside settings she was to depict in her Johnny Ludlow tales and some of her novels.
"S.M.C.", the anonymous Victorian author suggests that villages which appear in the Johnny Ludlow tales are based on Ombersly, Hagley and Clent. However, other Worcestershire locations are not so heavily disguised. Worcester appears as 'Helstonleigh' in The Channings, Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles and Roland Yorke, but under its real name in several other novels and in many Johnny Ludlow stories. For instance in the latter series, Worcester race course provides the backdrop to at least two tales: 'The Other Earring' (1874) and 'Ketira the Gypsy' (1876). The Johnny Ludlow stories often feature interesting glimpses of what are now obsolete social customs. In 'Going to the Mop' (1871) Mrs. Todhetley visits the annual St. John's Michaelmas Mop in Worcester, otherwise known as the Statute Fair, in order to try and hire a new dairymaid. In addition to Worcester itself the Johnny Ludlow tales also provide insights into Droitwich, Evesham and Malvern as they appeared over a century ago.
Another advantage to Wood's fiction of staying in her grandmother's house was the close proximity of Worcester cathedral. This provided Wood with the opportunity of observing the young college boys at close quarters. Ellen's own brothers were pupils at the cathedral school. The choristers of Worcester cathedral and the antics of young boys were ingredients which were to resurface in much of Wood's best work, including the Johnny Ludlow tales and The Channings. The boys in Wood's narratives were portrayed with incredible fidelity for their period, and were much commented on by contemporary critics. Each boy has his own individuality and character, and very few are too good to be believable. Adeline Sergeant, a fellow-author, considered Wood's schoolboys were "particularly well drawn."
Interior View of King's School Room before restoration.
A more serious moment from this period is related by Charles Wood, almost in the form of a miniature short story. One day Mrs. Tipton was walking with her young charge across a field when they were charged by a bull. Mrs. Tipton scooped up the child and ran for safety, reaching the hedge but not the nearby stile. Charles Wood dramatically informs us "scarcely knowing what she did, wild with terror, she threw the child over the hedge into the adjoining field." Ellen seemed unscathed after her ordeal, but her son suggests that this moment may have been the source of his mother's later curvature of the spine. Even this terrifying childhood incident was utilized and transformed by Wood in one of her novels. In Trevlyn Hold, Mr. Ryle is actually gored by a bull, and his children left fatherless.
Wood did not always have a conventional attitude to the Worcestershire countryside. Charles Wood informs us that some family summer holidays were spent in the country. However, the young girl found herself strangely affected by the contrasting quiet of the countryside after the bustle of life in town. In Charles Wood's words:
The days would pass, and the loneliness, the weird mystery and solemnity of the trees, to which every one is not susceptible, the absence of life and movement, would so affect her that night after night sleep was banished, and to remain was impossible. She would return home with her governess.
The Malvern Hills are considered by many to be places of great natural beauty, but both Ellen Wood and Elgar seem to have viewed them in a different light. According to William E. Lee, the Malverns could fill Elgar with an inexplicable depression, and Wood's reaction was rather similar. To quote Charles Wood again, the Malvern Hills "filled her with such solitude and depression that to remain in Malvern had often been impossible to her." Although Wood's fears may seem eccentric and of little consequence, they do have significance to her fiction. Most of the Johnny Ludlow tales take place in the apparently harmless Worcestershire countryside. To be even more specific, at least three of Wood's supernatural tales contain episodes which feature the Malvern Hills. On each occasion these impressive locations are associated with sinister events. Wood evidently confronted her personal fears to heighten the uncanny elements in some of her ghostly stories.
Wood was deeply interested in Worcestershire local history and reproduced it, albeit often in a transformed manner, whenever she could in her fiction. For instance, in 1826 a party sheltering from a storm in Lady Harcourt's Tower on one of the Malvern Hills was struck by lightning and four of them were killed. Wood took the bare bones of this event to produce the dramatic, violent but cruel climax to her early anonymous short story 'A Day in Malvern' (1854), later retitled 'The Surgeon's Daughters'. It is significant that Wood altered the status of the victims of the thunderstorms from several members of the aristocracy to a single middle-class female. As Adeline Sergeant notes, Wood is primarily concerned with the "great middle-class of England," and therefore Wood shifts the focus of true incidents to suit both her concerns, and those of her audience.
After Ellen Wood's marriage in 1836 she spent almost the whole of the next twenty years in France. French phrases and characters often surface in Wood's novels, but nowhere does the French landscape have the central importance in her books as her native Worcestershire. After Wood returned to England she occasionally visited Worcestershire for short periods, but she settled in London. However, in the life of her imagination Wood returned countless times to the county of her birth and relived events and portrayed characters from her childhood.
The Worcestershire Books
Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles
The Elchester College Boys
The six volumes of Johnny Ludlow tales
Roland Yorke - mostly set in London
Rolf Burgauer, Mrs. Henry Wood: Personlichkeit und Werk, Zurich: Juris-Verlag, 1950.
William E. Lee, Mrs HenryWood in Worcester and Malvern, Malvern: First Paige, 1992.
Adeline Sergeant, (ed.), Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign, London: Hurst & Blackett, 1897.
Brian Smith, A History of Malvern, Alan Sutton & The Malvern Bookshop, Second Edition, 1978.
Charles W. Wood, "Mrs. Henry Wood: In Memoriam", Argosy April - June 1887, pp.251-70, 334 -53, 422 - 442.
Charles W. Wood, Memorials of Mrs. Henry Wood, London: Bentley, 1894.