The Johnny Ludlow Stories

A Brief Introduction
Compiled by Michael Flowers ©2001-2006

            There seems to be a general consensus of opinion that Wood's Johnny Ludlow stories are her supreme achievement. For instance, on their first anonymous appearance in collected form in 1874 The Academy said that "anybody who has not yet read them had better do so without loss of time." Wood's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography states that the Johnny Ludlow stories "contain what is, from a literary point of view, by far her best work." The Johnny Ludlow stories are almost all extremely enjoyable, and in an age when the size of some Victorian novels can appear a little daunting, are remarkably succinct. Unfortunately, only the occasional individual tale has been reprinted in recent years, so Wood's delightful stories are relatively unknown to today's readers. What follows is an introduction to their history of composition, some of their qualities and how they were received by contemporary critics.

            Alongside the second instalment of Anne Hereford in the January 1868 issue of the Argosy was 'Shaving the Ponies' Tails'- a short story purporting to have been written by a Johnny Ludlow. This pseudonym was probably originally adopted by Wood to hide the fact that she was the author of almost half of the contents of her magazine. The concealment of Johnny Ludlow's true identity was highly successful and was kept for twelve years. In that time Wood wrote more than ninety monthly instalments of Johnny Ludlow's chronicles. In total one hundred and twenty issues of Argosy over twenty-three years contain tales supposedly written from the viewpoint of a young Worcestershire lad. I estimate that Wood devoted just over a million words to describe Johnny Ludlow's various adventures.

            'Shaving the Ponies' Tails' has all the evidence of being hastily written to fill up space in Wood's magazine. For instance, Squire Todhetley in this first story performs an act of violence, which is out of character to the squire who emerges in subsequent tales. Johnny also mentions an often utilized secret nickname for the squire - Old Hetley, but this is never referred to again in later narratives. It seems Wood originally wrote this tale with no conception that she was commencing a whole sequence of inter-connected stories, which would only be ended by her death. 'Shaving the Ponies Tails' was never reprinted, but it has a sprightly colloquial quality and after this rather unsteady beginning Wood soon settled into the character and provided a varied series of tales, many of which are set in the Worcestershire countryside. Johnny Ludlow, the narrator of the stories, is an orphan living with Squire Todhetley and his second wife, who is also Johnny's step-mother. Johnny's extended family is comprised of the Squire's son Joseph, commonly called Tod, and his step-brother and step-sister, Hugh and Lena. The household is completed by several servants, who also appear in the stories and occasionally provide the impetus for the plots.

            The Squire has two properties: Dyke Manor, which lies half in Worcestershire, half in Warwickshire; and Crabb Cot which is much closer to Worcester. These two main settings permit plenty of variety in situation and a larger host of peripheral characters than would appear at only one locality. Some of the stories feature Johnny and Tod's adventures, whilst a few follow the family's short excursions to London; yet more describe various villages and small towns in Worcestershire amongst the local tradespeople, farmers, gentry and labourers.

            In addition to the variety in situation, the stories do not fall into any one genre. Some take the form of schoolboy pranks, others are mystery or crime stories. As such a high proportion of her stories deal with crime, Wood has a legitimate claim for being considered as a direct link between the short crime stories of Poe and those of Conan Doyle. Although not all her tales feature crimes, many of the stories contain the same central characters attempting to solve an inexplicable occurrence. It could be argued that Wood's contribution to the detective genre first proved it was possible to produce short crime fiction in serial form.

            As with many other forms of Victorian fiction, one of the most prominent subject matters in the Johnny Ludlow stories, is romance, or unhappy love entanglements. There are also many other tales which focus on a particular aspect of rural life. In addition to writing in the crime and romantic genres, Wood also averaged one uncanny tale per year under her masculine pseudonym. However, this proportion is quite small. If we look at the eighty separately titled tales in the Johnny Ludlow collections only seventeen include supernatural episodes. Out of these seventeen narratives only eleven give the supernatural its full force. An additional spooky story, 'Fred Temple's Warning' (1873), which is actually one of Wood's best ghost stories, was unaccountably omitted from the Johnny Ludlow series when they appeared in book form.

            Many of the early stories were extremely short and the tale would be completed in a single monthly issue. However, some later stories would often tend to be a little longer and would stretch to two, three, four, five or on one occasion to six issues. The lengthier tales are really short novels. The variety in the stories is one of their most delightful features. The majority of the stories feature Squire Todhetley, Mrs Todhetley and Tod, but the remainder of the cast varies considerably. Wood would often relate a phase in the life of a certain group of characters one month and then discuss a completely different set of people the following month. However, after a few months or sometimes even years she would return to the first group again and tell another story concerning them. In this way Wood created a highly diverse and seemingly inter-related community who would occasionally collide with characters who had previously belonged in what seemed a different story. In total more than one thousand one hundred named characters appear in the Johnny Ludlow tales. There are also several minor characters who remain unnamed.

            The apparent complexity of the inter-relation of the Johnny Ludlow tales was probably accidentally strengthened when they appeared in volume form. The original chronological order was not followed and some of the earliest light-hearted tales were not included in the first collection of 1874. For instance, 'Watching on St. Mark's Eve', 'Sanker's Visit' and 'Roger Monk', which were all originally published in the Argosy during 1868 did not appear in book form until the Fifth Series in 1890. This could lead to many of the collected tales containing seemingly oblique references to events which the reader fails to fathom. 'A Hunt by Moonlight' in the First Series contains an obscure allusion to Ned Sanker being upset during a stay with the Todhetleys. Johnny, as narrator, hints at an untold story concerning Ned Sanker, which readers of the narrative in book form can only find puzzling. However, regular Argosy readers would have no such problem. 'A Hunt by Moonlight' originally appeared in August 1868, and the references to Ned Sanker would be quite clear because his story was told in full during May of the same year. Wood often made small changes to cover many of these apparent discrepancies, which a rearranged order of tales brought, but occasionally some passages which should have been altered were overlooked.

            Wood's rearrangement of her stories for book form normally maintained the variety of characters and locations which had been a notable feature of their magazine appearances. The major exception to this occurred with the publication of the Third Series in 1885. A great deal of these tales feature different phases in the life of the Whitney family, and instead of including stories featuring working class village life many stories focus on the higher social echelons. There are also none of Johnny and Tod's escapades at school in this volume. It is for these reasons that the Third Series lacks some of the animation and variety found in the other six volumes, and is therefore the least satisfying collection.

            The Johnny Ludlow tales were of great significance to Wood and became more important as her writing career neared its conclusion. Charles tells us that for these stories Wood had to resurrect her earliest memories. Charles says that some of her characters were imaginary but "the old Squire and Tod and Johnny were her personal friends." Dr. Henry Carden from Worcester, who is mentioned in several stories actually existed. So too did the Reverend Christopher Benson, who is described preaching in 'The Story of Dorothy Grape' (1881). Wood also refers to the Reverand Allen Wheeler in a few of the stories - he was the actual headmaster of the King's School, Worcester when Wood's brothers were pupils at the cathedral school. The inclusion of these real people makes it tempting to speculate about how many other genuine direct portraits appear in her tales.

            Although Wood often used real people on which to base her characters she cannot have copied her plots from life. When all the incidents in the tales are looked at as a whole it is clear that there can hardly be any country youth who witnessed so wide a variety of action in a relatively short period of life. Even central characters like Johnny were probably composites of people she had known rather than direct copies of a single person. For instance, Johnny's habit of looking at someone's face and immediately being able to tell what kind of nature lay behind the facade, so scorned by the Squire and Tod, was a skill supposed to have been practised by Wood herself, and inherited by her son, Charles. Even the contempt of Tod and his father for Johnny's 'skill' was mirrored in reality. Charles mentions the ridicule he received from his father for exhibiting similar characteristics. However, Johnny was not a direct copy of Charles Wood. Johnny seems to have been a much more active child than Charles, and the latter grew up in France rather than Worcestershire.

            It is also clear that the stories do not merely reproduce events exactly as they took place in Wood's Worcestershire childhood, as has often been stated. There is a vagueness as to the precise time period in which the tales are set, but they cannot occur in the 1820s. For instance, trains are often mentioned and even play a significant role in some plots. Trains would certainly not have been a common feature in the Worcestershire that Wood remembered, yet her characters take their presence for granted. The stories could be placed anywhere in time from the mid-1830s to the late-1850s. After a careful examination of all the tales only one, 'Watching on St. Mark's Eve', from the Fifth Series gives a precise clue as to dating. This story, the fourth tale she wrote featuring Johnny, is set on a specific St. Mark's Eve, which also coincides with a very late Easter Monday of the 24th of April. In the whole of the nineteenth-century this conjunction only occurred in one feasible year, 1848. Although Wood's work has rather unfairly been accused of being "incredibly careless and inaccurate," it is very difficult to find any major inconsistencies whilst reading the Johnny Ludlow stories. I have therefore no hesitation in saying that the earliest stories are set in the late 1840s, whilst some of the subsequent ones occur in the early 1850s.

            Wood loved writing tales featuring Johnny Ludlow because in addition to reliving her childhood haunts she always found that "the stories came to her without the slightest effort, and it gave her the greatest pleasure to write them." Charles Wood informs us that his mother always planned a novel carefully before commencing, but sustained writing and concentration became more difficult towards the end of her life. Wood also planned the plots of her short stories but she simply found it easier to write in shorter bursts and without having to invent a multitude of new characters each time. Although a few of the later tales lack some of the vitality of the early narratives of Johnny Ludlow, a contemporary of Wood's was accurate when she said "it is astonishing with how much effect the stories of different lives can be placed in the same setting, and with what infinite changes the life of a country district can be reproduced".

            In 1868, the first year in which Johnny Ludlow tales began to appear in the Argosy, ten monthly issues included these stories. This tally rose to eleven in 1869, dropped back to ten in 1870, and fell further to nine in 1871. 1872 was a very unproductive year as only five new stories were printed. However, 1873 saw an increase to seven which was maintained throughout most of the 1870s. The following decade was much quieter and in many years only three issues had a Johnny Ludlow story. However, when Wood died in February 1887 two Johnny Ludlow novels and one short story still remained to be published.

            Charles Wood informs us that soon after the publication of East Lynne Wood realised that reading reviews was a waste of time and so she began to ignore them. The more likely truth behind this is that Wood stopped reading criticism because it had begun to turn hostile. However, Wood made an exception of ignoring the reviews for the first collection of Johnny Ludlow tales, which appeared anonymously in 1874.

            In contrast with Wood's novels of the 1870s, the first three-volume collection of Johnny Ludlow tales was enthusiastically received. It should be remembered that collections of short stories were relatively rare in comparison with novels, and were quite often dismissed as mere republication of magazine stories. The Saturday Review, one of Wood's harshest critics, saw the stories "as an agreeable change" "after the prolonged story of the ordinary novel in three volumes." The reviewer thought: "the interest that is aroused is considerable, and the suspense is brief." Although the critic does not deduce that the tales were written by Wood he/she does state "we should not be surprised to learn...that he's a her, after all." The reviewer even goes on to favourably compare the stories with the qualities generally associated with Wood:

there is considerable merit in the stories. There is a certain freshness of description in the scenes of country life and country people which is an agreeable change after the ordinary sensational novel with its tawdriness of incident and language.

In particular The Saturday Review was impressed by the depiction of her characters. The critic found: "Johnny Ludlow's character is very well drawn...No less well drawn is his half-brother, Joseph Todhetley, or his stepfather, Squire Todhetley, with all the strong prejudices and the kindliness of an English squire." The Academy was also ecstatic, declaring that "anybody who has not yet read them had better do so without loss of time."

            Although the critics were virtually unanimous in their praise of the first series of Johnny Ludlow, collections of short stories rarely sold in especially large numbers. Five years after Wood's death only 25,000 copies of the first series had been issued. The only novel of Wood's which had sold fewer copies was Pomeroy Abbey, originally published some fourteen years later. By 1923 Pomeroy Abbey at 168,000 copies had heavily outstripped the relatively modest 72,000 volumes issued of Johnny Ludlow: First Series.

            After the appearance of the first Johnny Ludlow collection, Wood continued to publish the stories in the Argosy with the Ludlow pseudonym. The secret of Wood's authorship was not revealed until the publication of the second series of Ludlow tales in 1880. The Athenaeum continued to be impressed; it found that the second collection had "much of the freshness and all the simple pathos of the original series...the stories now printed are not at all below the average of those first published." The review could easily have criticised the tales as they did her other fiction but instead they asserted:

Mrs. Wood deserves to retain her laurels for having struck out such a thoroughly distinct and pleasant path in fiction. The best characteristic of these short the manner of their relation, quiet and yet vigorous, combining humour and pathos, and artlessly avoiding the temptation to exaggerate.

Wood, perhaps foolishly, provided her critics with ammunition when she named one of her tales 'Hardly Worth Telling,' but The Athenaeum thought the tales were "all worth telling, or rather Johnny Ludlow is always worth listening to." The Saturday Review in contrast, could not let such an open opportunity escape without a barb. It thought that the title could easily have been applied with "equal propriety" to at least a third of the tales. Whilst the reviewer considers that the second collection do not "come up to the first series" he/she admits that "many of the tales are readable, and some of them have a certain cleverness of their own."

            When the third series of Johnny Ludlow was published in 1885 neither of the two main review papers could summon up much enthusiasm. The Athenaeum thought that "the style of the narrative may be best indicated by the term 'running on' " and ended its brief critique with the comments "the moral of each story, when it has one, is harmless enough: but let the student of character or the lover of sensation expect no profit here." True to form The Saturday Review is much harsher in its criticism. It finds:

that these chronicles of petty crime and misadventure are at the best but painted photographs which do not deserve the name of works of art "The conversation," as was lately said by one who had looked into the volumes, "is that of the second-class railway carriage"...the quintessence of British mediocrity.

The explicit snobbery in these remarks misses the point of the stories. The tales are meant to accurately represent the English provincial classes, something which they achieve if we are to accept the description of them as "painted photographs." It is true that some of the vivacity present in the first stories is no longer as marked, but the tales are still remarkable for their variety of plot, character and situation.

            In the Johnny Ludlow tales Ellen Wood came closest to producing legitimate works of art. They are almost all excellent examples of the skill of story-telling and remain useful and highly readable documents of the mores of Victorian middle-class rural society. Until a modern enterprising publisher produces a volume of The Best Johnny Ludlow Stories, or even reproduces all six series of tales, some relatively cheap versions of the Bentley and Macmillan reprints of the 1890s and early 1900s still turn up occasionally in antiquarian bookshops. However, an even better way to appreciate Wood's achievement would be to locate a library (such as Hull University), which holds the complete run of Argosy magazines, and read the Johnny Ludlow stories in the order in which they first appeared. Alternatively, if you have the book versions it is still possible to read the tales in their original periodical order by following the "Johnny Ludlow Chronology" listed elsewhere on this website. This permits a glimpse into the development of Wood's concept of these rural tales, as they grow from rather juvenile sketches in the first few months into tales of surprising depth, sophistication and absorbing interest. Whether you read the Johnny Ludlow stories in the Argosy or in their six collected volumes, you will be rewarded with some of the most enjoyable short tales of the Victorian era.

Stanley Kunitz & Howard Haycraft, (eds.), British Authors of the C19th, New York: Wilson & Co, 1936.
Adeline Sergeant, (ed.), Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign, London: Hurst & Blackett, 1897.
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,
The Academy, 2/5/1874.
The Athenaeum, 9/10/1880, 14/2/1885.
The Saturday Review, 9/5/1874, 13/11/1880, 18/7/1885.
Publisher's figures quoted in Wood, Mrs Henry, Within the Maze, London: Bentley, 1892.
Publisher's figures quoted in Wood, Mrs Henry, Pomeroy Abbey, London: Macmillan, 1923.