'After Ten Years: February 10th, 1887'
by Dr. Alexander Japp
( An essay considering Wood's legacy and enduring appeal on the tenth anniversary of her death )
I believe that, setting aside the filial, there is no gratitude more sincere and abiding than that felt towards an author who has benefited you - helped you to new ways of life and duty, and in a form that delights and leaves a sense of sweetened recollection.
That, indeed, is the main end and aim of all true fiction.
But, in the pressure of our fevered times, how many write merely to excite and captivate, with resorts to false and factitious sources of interest - passion prostituted, and life made at once venal and venial?
The greater, surely, should be our esteem for a writer who, while holding all the powers of interest and fascination for the great crowd of readers, remains loyal to the honest, natural beautiful and humane sentiments - who never fails to pay gracious tribute to the ideal of right and wrong, and through the most complicated webs of plot shoots the golden thread of pure motive and the lesson of the final triumph of that which is good and pure and noble.
"Novelists like Mrs. Henry Wood should never die," said the Whitehall Review, just ten years ago. "One of the most prolific, and at the same time most delightful of novelists, has been removed. For Mrs. Henry Wood was an active, zealous, and industrious worker in the field of literature. She was more than that - she was an ornament to it. The pure and wholesome tones and textures of her many books all proclaim that by her death literature has lost a counterfoil to that baser form of modern writing which seeks, not the advancement of noble thought, but the mental gratification of aimless and senseless passions. We do not propose now to analyse the methods which, as a weaver of fiction, Mrs. Henry Wood adopted. We are content to admit their great and lasting success. It is perhaps, because, when what we know as sensation creeps into them, the sensation is always of a homely and domestic kind. There is much that is strongly dramatic in what Mrs. Henry Wood has written, but the dramatic incidents and effect, if they surprise and interest, never terrify. Readers do not rush for a volume by Mrs. Henry Wood if they wish to be terribly frightened. The skilful manipulation of plot may amaze, but it does not quicken morbid desires nor heighten unworthy passion. Novels that do this seldom live. They are written to meet the whims and caprices of a given age, in which, perhaps, a certain taint of indelicacy has got the upper hand in the minds of the more frivolous men and women. The novels of Mrs. Henry Wood have been suited to the tastes of the past, and they will be found suitable to the cravings of the future. Such novels become our companions. The characters in them become living pictures in that gallery of life in which we walk and muse. These pictures may age and become immortal, but we would fain believe that their creator was immortal as well. But this cannot be, and the best tribute, therefore, we can pay the dead novelist is to remember and revere her in the graceful works she has bequeathed to us and to posterity."
I have quoted somewhat largely from this notice, written ten years ago, because it is so true and so much to the point of what is happening today. The writer was no false prophet. The matter-of-fact records of free libraries and other lists prove that Mrs. Henry Wood's stories keep their hold upon the world - that in the midst of new fashions and new tastes (some would even say new crazes) her books are widely read and sought after. She still heads the lists of popular writers; her books are as much in demand as ever. Nigh half a million copies of "East Lynne" have been sold. Others of her stories have reached - and some, notably "The Channings," "Roland Yorke," and "Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles," have surpassed - the five-figure sale, and even several of the more recent ones grow in public appreciation rather than lose.
You cannot have an effect without a cause. The books are read, they are bought and kept because they please and educate.
We came upon an anecdote a short time ago that bears upon the point. A friend, a great collector of rare books, and consequently well known to all the Second-hand Booksellers in London, was not long since in one of these shops. "How is it," he asked, "that although I see almost every book on your shelves from time to time, I never come across a copy of 'East Lynne'?" "Why, sir," returned the bookseller, "you need not go far for that reason. The simple fact is, that when people get hold of 'East Lynne,' they stick to it." That ten years after the author's death this should still be true suggests something exceptional, some special and unique power. How many brilliant reputations have been made and lost, how many new writers have risen, have seemed at one spring to take and to hold the field, and been set aside and forgotten since Mrs. Wood began to write!
It would be a worthy and interesting thing to inquire into the reason for this attachment of the ever-changing reading public, tempted to ever-changing viands, to an individual author. Suffice it to say that, while Mrs. Henry Wood possessed the rarest gift of invention, of construction, and of plot, she had read largely in life practically as well as theoretically. Her brain was always at work, her powers of observation were amazing, her deductions were true to life and invariably correct. Her inventions were wonderful, her memory unfailing; she never forgot a trait of character she had observed, or a characteristic action or turn of expression she had witnessed, or an anecdote or story she had heard or read; and had them so completely at her command that, in the act of writing, all fell into their places as though without effort.
As in all such cases, much was due to education and to temperament.
Her early life, spent under the shadow of Worcester cathedral, within the sound of cathedral bells, within sound of the regularly recurrent tramp and scurry of the college schoolboys going to and fro; all this, and the sweetly-flowing river, and the quaint old houses with their overhanging fronts and gables, passed into her imagination. In her most effective stories they are restored, and, if not positively beautified, at least they painted with the subdued and inevitable halo of what is lovingly remembered. Mrs. Wood never went very far from home for materials. Though she lived much abroad, very seldom are her scenes laid anywhere but in England. Youth, indeed, in her case held the store house of fact and image, from which most she delighted to draw, and now thousands and thousands cherish a series of pictures, beloved by her, of which they never saw the originals, nor will ever see.
In "Mrs. Halliburton's Troubles," which has many half-disguised autobiographical touches, how sweet a panorama of pictures passes before us. You can see them "in the mind's eye, Horatio," as you read.
There is the cathedral, with its soft reflection in the broad-flowing stream, St. Andrew's famous spire rising above it; Friar Street within a stone's throw - Friar Street, with its peaked windows, overhanging storeys - telling of old times; Honey Fair, a sweet name that disguises a delightful and interesting quarter - full of lore and suggestiveness.
Johnny Ludlow, too, knew all these corners well, and presents them in his own proper manner. As we wander through the old streets we seem to see his figure at every turn, so completely has the author identified him with the atmosphere of the old cathedral city. There again, only a turn away, is the Star and Garter, where he, with Tod and the good-natured, rather brusque and hasty, but very real old squire, enjoyed so many luncheons and dinners. And what a squire have we here portrayed! What a true, downright, honest English gentleman is visibly placed before us, sketched without effort. As the Times said years ago when reviewing "East Lynne," "We know no lady author who, by a few strokes of the pen, can so thoroughly describe an English gentleman." Who, indeed, has given us a succession of truer, more typical, characteristic pictures of English life and character than we have in these stories? The pathos is natural, never forced; the humour is never hackneyed; all the world of that bluff, gruff, kindly old Worcestershire squire is painted for us with the simplest realism, seen through the double medium of the squire's experience and Johnny's inexperience or half-experience. Mrs. Wood's rare knowledge of boy nature, which she learned as she looked out on the college boys tearing through the cloisters or entertaining them at home, comes out here in full flower. There are many pictures of life here as distinctively and characteristically English as anything in the whole realm of English fiction. "These stories," said the Spectator, "are perfect of their kin." So, as we wander through the streets of Worcester, Johnny Ludlow is with us at every turn. And not far off, visible from many points as we walk these same streets, are the Malvern Hills, to which Mrs. Wood has conducted some of her characters, and round which she has thrown the gentle sunshine of her own mood to aid the sunshine of nature.
And all the people of those days, deans and canons, with their wives and daughters, schoolmasters and choirmasters, and all the rest - they live again in her pages, absolutely as flesh and blood, the good folks whom in her early days she knew and loved and unconsciously studied.
Mrs. Wood showed there in high degree these two qualities: realistic portraitures of men and women and boys and girls, with invention, plot, and sensational surprises. She successfully used sensational elements for moral ends at a time when the moral aim was much overlooked, and sometimes threatened even to be forgotten altogether. This is one of the great merits of Mrs. Wood's work, and should never be lost sight of: that whilst she strove to interest and amuse, she equally endeavoured to do good, holding up the best side of human nature to admiration, so that one must needs be the better for having read her books.
To create is not to "make up" - to spin curiously and capriciously out of the fancy. It is to portray, to reproduce what has influenced and affected the author, so that by aid of a new medium, strange yet not inconsistent, it shall in the same way, though it may not be in the same measure, influence and affect you. You can only make an impression when the wax is hot. So the impressions made on the easily moved receptive mind of childhood and youth will move you more than almost aught else if they are re-presented in anything like the atmosphere of the original impression.
Mrs. Wood often specially succeeded in this.
Her boys and girls are truly excellent, painted to the life. Her temperament, which was very sympathetic, though still and quiet, was in her favour. She drew, without hurry, her children and youths at full length, clear of feature, with all their traits and foibles. Johnny Ludlow is indeed a triumph in this light. The young lad is so wonderfully real, with such na´ve bits of self-revelation coming in so naturally and spontaneously, that it becomes a virtual inspiration.
Some of the captious critics had said she could not really paint character, could do nothing without the aid of plot and sensation, the real truth being that her character-painting is one of her great and successful points. From first to last they are living people - not puppet - endued with flesh and blood and nerves; we see them all vividly as though they actually existed, and they become our friends. In Johnny she painted character and outwitted these critics once and forever. The stories are sketches of character - like cameos, much wealth in little room.
There was nothing but a paean of praise over the first set of these papers. The secret of authorship was well kept; but when the second series was issued it bore the author's name, and then the cue was to say that there was a falling off, and when the third came, some had it that there was a greater falling off still.
There was no falling-off. But in the highest critical sense it was inevitable that there should be inequality. And why? Because the further the author went in creating literature under this name, the more improbable it became that a lad like Johnny Ludlow could have seen, known, and experienced all that was attributed to him, not to speak of so setting it down in writing. The dramatic medium was, so to speak, by the very fact of continuous production overcharged.
Yet the stories were all admirable.
Mrs. Wood, in going on writing these papers, undoubtedly did tempt failure, though failure never came; and that she should have gone on through five-and-twenty years regularly at intervals turning out such studies, and yet never losing hold of the characteristic turn of style with which she set out, is a triumph for which we should find it difficult to cite a parallel.
It is a young lad's style from first to last - an English boy's way of looking at things, an English boy's way of feeling and of acting, and what is more, of telling a story.
These five series of the "Johnny Ludlow" papers present a remarkable and varied world, all seen through the medium of a young man's mind and an old man - the excellent squire - reflected through that young mind, and very faithfully reflected too, for he remains a type, and a perfect type, of a vanished world - of an England that has gone from us for ever. The power that could go on weaving story after story of this kind through twenty-five years and maintain exactly the same dramatic touch as at the first is certainly something far out of the common. And in the fifth series (there is a sixth series that has never yet been gathered into a collected form) there are two stories, the one for pathos and the other for humour, certainly as good as anything to be found in the earlier ones.
It was my great privilege to know Mrs. Henry Wood, and at one time to see a good deal of her; and in giving a few words of description, I cannot do better than recall what I had to write elsewhere about her some time ago.
When I first went to see her she was in the fullness of her powers, and in spite of great delicacy that had followed her from early days (something affecting the spine, which, as her son has told in her memoir, and not without a touch of humour, a strange and half-ignorant woman did more to relieve than all the doctors consulted) she was a steady worker and very productive.
In my visits to her the first and most lasting impression made on my mind was of a very still, sweet presence, in whose atmosphere no discord could dwell. The delightful repose that seemed constantly to surround her, went in company with a kindly interest in all with whom she came in contact. She looked at once very firm and very amiable - a mixture which in her was tempered by the outflow of ready and unaffected sympathy. Quietude, with an air of great simplicity, and a repose which had in it nothing of self-satisfaction, or indifference to any feeling or emotion in others. She was thus essentially good-mannered - a lady in the truest sense of the word, who had the art - not always a part of so-called good manners - of setting you at once and completely at your ease. I remember, on the first occasion of my dining at her house, a certain tremor in the sense of being for the first time brought into close contact with the great novelist, which was perhaps natural and excusable in me; but it vanished the moment I had exchanged a few words with her and had answered some unexpected kindly questions about my children, and their characters and ways; about their education, and so on; and in fact before I had been beside her half an hour, the great novelist was forgotten, and only the gracious and sympathetic woman was before me.
Another thing that much impressed me at an early stage of my acquaintance with her was a very uncommon mixture of tact - that seemed natural to her - and ready, quick interest. She was not only keen to hear all about what her sons were interested in and concerned with, but also about their friends and their concerns. In a gentle way she drew every one out, without obtruding herself at all.
It interested me to observe how she would listen to the most ordinary remarks of the young folks, and often give such a turn to them as to impart, and with no affectation of teaching either, a superior interest, sometimes marked by quietly telling of someone else who had said so and so, or of someone she had known, who in similar circumstances had acted in such and such a way; and these little remarks and reminiscences and anecdotes delicately and nicely put, with the point she wished to impress always apparent, yet not too strongly emphasised.
There was no fussiness, nothing of the busybody, but a healthy, natural, graceful, easy expression of interest that was prevailing, though in no way boldly asserted. Her whole appearance and expression betokened gentleness; but gentleness with possibilities of great firmness of will behind it, where it was needful to exercise it - like Wordsworth's Margaret - "a woman of a steady mind." She was slight of stature, with a singularly beautiful and refined face and a very graceful carriage of the head, and the kind of figure that looks taller than it actually is from moving lightly, and with an airy ease: intellectual without affectation, and refined while still in the best sense domesticated and approachable.
She was not much inclined to discuss her own novels; but I remember well on one occasion when I was at her house, and Miss Hesba Stretton and Miss Anna Beale were there, her readiness to speak of the points in their works which had been interesting to her and which she had derived pleasure from. She was with regard to the works of others, at once keen and generous in judgement.
One of the things about which I had to talk to her was the touching story of "Bessy Wells," a story of low life in London, which appeared in the pages of the 'Sunday Magazine.' I had already seen a good bit in the way of visiting low quarters in London, alike in the purlieus of Drury Lane, Old Kent Road, Deptford, Ratcliffe Highway, and other parts, and her interest in the little details which I could communicate to her was very great indeed.
It is astonishing how great her curiosities were in these matters; how absolutely by force of imagination and sympathy she had realised the whole condition and scope of that life - as for one thing exhibited in 'A Life's Secret' and the folk so strangely mixed of Daffodil's Delight - so that few suggestions need to be given her in regard to "Bessy Wells" compared with what it has been my lot to have to tender to writers of fiction alike as regards the circumstances of the poor, prisons, reformatories, etc. Her realising power is scarcely anywhere more marked than in this little story, which in this respect has a value of its own, though it does not of course aim at the kind of interest which obtained in her novels proper. But it shows her especially as the interested inquirer into social conditions, and into the means by which the sufferings of the poor and fallen might be lessened or removed.
Though with none of the affectations of the "society woman," her powers of conversation were marked. She was a very racy and earnest talker, and apt at finding the available meeting-point in another, due in degree to her quick sympathy, in degree to her insight and natural tact.
And it may be added that although she was averse to discussing her own books, she would very readily discuss the knotty points in a plot, or listen to a difficulty that had arisen in a complicated love-case, or the solution that had been brought to some exciting mystery of real life. Her quiet and unobtrusive largeness of interest was one of the most noticeable things about her. It was seen in her ways with her children; in her happy art of finding unmistakably the interests of others and in answering to them; and to this perhaps was due in great degree her splendid memory, from which anything that had touched or deeply impressed her was really never effaced. The secret, too, perhaps of her success in pictures of boy character.
Whatever subject came on the tapis, she was apt to throw new light upon it. How gently came her suggestive words, how sufficing the reasons with which on occasion she could back up the position she took! And she had a great art in stating a case. Even if this was no more than the impression that certain words or acts must leave on the mind of another person, she had the gift of making it clear, and by this gift was able to serve others very materially.
I can clearly see her once more as I write, her fine, expressive countenance lit up as she bends forward a little in her chair - alas, for ten years now the vacant chair - gently to suggest some new view or point that had been left out of count, as with her right hand she throws back her capstrings, and then quietly extends her hand towards you; and the smile that accompanies this action is the finest commentary on the words and on her kindly intents.
In these visits an abiding impression was made upon me of gentleness, resolution, grace, elevation of character, large sympathy and disinterestedness, which I carried away with me, and the recollection of which I cherish. It is quite true that such people as Mrs. Henry Wood do not die when they leave the world. Their influence and strong personality live after them. To the few of her own household who survive (there are but two) I have reason to know she is still as present as when she walked with them; her unconscious influence is as strong, the tones of her sweet, clear voice still ring in their ears; silent, unseen, she is still a companion. I can well believe and understand this. Even strangers, who once caught the soft yet brilliant flash of her eye, watched the change of the exquisite complexion, listened to the animated but sympathetic tones, left her with an impression that never faded. Pleasant were those hours that I spent in Mrs. Wood's home, for one could not but feel one had gained much, though the affectation of teaching or consciously conferring benefit was far from her. What most struck me was the sweet subdued geniality that diffused itself everywhere, and the sense of strong character unasserted but still operative there. How much more was this felt and understood by those who were privileged to live with her in daily communion and companionship year after year.
But these separations are inevitable. All who knew Mrs. Henry Wood could never realise that death could come to that sweet and quiet presence so full of brilliant vitality; yet for her too the hour sounded; the chair became vacant; for the last time the doors were opened for the sad and melancholy procession to pass out. How well I remember standing by the grave on the heights of Highgate Cemetery, as they lowered the coffin into it on that clear but cold 16th day of February, 1887. And thinking of these things, I felt how much that was rare and precious had vanished from the world, of which the world that knew and valued her books yet knew little or nothing.
It is for this reason that I have thought well, after ten years, to draw attention to the fact that of Mrs. Henry Wood's continued and ever-increasing popularity. And this is likely to continue, for her works appeal to all classes, as human nature truly painted ever does. Educated England will become more of a reading England: an in a few years to come we shall find books appreciated and treasured in the hands of those who a few years ago could scarcely read at all. The good and true in literature will survive, and it will be well that the wholesome influence of the novels of Mrs. Henry Wood should be amongst the abiding for all time.
Text: The Argosy, March 1897.