Wood's Defence of the Charge of Plagiarism

In a very long letter to the Times concerning "International Copyright" printed in the issue for 25th October 1871 the Hon. Caroline Norton stated:

One of the first stories I ever wrote, at the very commencement of my literary career, has been woven into a novel under the title of East Lynne. Without disparaging the abilities of the lady who has written that novel, I may be allowed to say that it is the only one of her works that has made a permanent impression on the reading public, and that her publisher announces a new work, as "by the author of East Lynne", in preference to mentioning any other of her numerous tales. Now, the story from which East Lynne is taken is mine. It was much praised at the time of its publication, but it was necessarily brief, being a contribution to the once fashionable race of "Annuals," now extinct.

I had always intended to do precisely what Mrs. Wood hat [sic] done - namely, to expand the story, to put an under-plots [sic] and to republish it as a three-volume novel. I was at firs [sic], prevented from executing this project, not only by causes which interfered with pleasanter occupations, but by the difficulty of procuring the book which contained the original story, which was out of print. When the novel of East Lynne appeared I was still without a copy of my own story. I read the story as arranged by Mrs. Wood with annoyance and regret, but without the possibility of remedy, and gave up the plan of reproducing it myself to my great loss and dissatisfaction. I afterwards saw it dramatized both in London and Paris, and as to the ownership pf the original story, or what Mr. Boucicault calls the "pillaging by imitation," no one gave a thought as to that matter.

Two days later the Times printed Wood's angry response.

                                                TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES

Sir, - I am entirely unable to account for the sweeping charge the Hon. Mrs.Norton has made against me in your impression of yesterday. She tells you and your readers that I took a story of hers - a brief story that she wrote at the beginning of her literary career, and published in one of the "Annuals" at that time fashionable; that I expanded it and issued it as my work, East Lynne. Mrs. Norton asserts this as a fact; as though it were an undoubted and ascertained truth.

Nothing can be more false; nothing more unjustifiable. There is not a shadow of foundation for it. Mrs. Norton may have written the brief story, but I never saw or heard of it. The only writings I have read of Mrs. Norton's are two of her three-volume novels. Her short stories I never saw until now; I did not know that she had written any. For many years before East Lynne came out I lived abroad, where I had no opportunity of seeing the English Annuals. I never did see them. Moreover, I fancy that the particular story Mrs. Norton speaks of "one of the first,"she says, "I ever wrote" must have appeared before my time. East Lynne - if it concerns the public and Mrs. Norton to know so much was taken partly from my own imagination, partly from a romance enacted in real life, some of whose actors are living yet and will recognize what I say as true.

When East Lynne first came out - it is now exactly ten years ago - one of its reviewers told the public I had taken it from a story of Mrs. Marsh's, published from 20 to 30 years before, and called The Admiral's Daughter - that it was nearly a reprint of that story. Being curious to see this close resemblance, I succeeded in procuring Mrs. Marsh's story, and, beyond the fact that a wife who had quitted her home came back when her husband was dying and nursed him in disguise, there was no point of similarity between it and East Lynne. A reviewer may be licensed to make random assertions, but, surely, a private individual ought not to do so, and to send them forth as truth in the leading journal of the day.

Mrs. Norton does not end there. She takes upon herself to state that East Lynne (stolen from her) is the only one of my works that has made a lasting impression on the public; that my publishers, in advertising a new novel from my pen, announce it as "by the author of East Lynne" in preference to any other of my books' titles, and she concludes this portion as follows, - "Now the story from which East Lynne is taken is mine."

Let me explain to Mrs. Norton. East Lynne was my first novel; and therefore I (not my publishers) retain it as my distinguishing title. In regard to its being the only work that has made a permanent impression on the public, if Mrs. Norton will be at the trouble of applying to my publishers, they can assure her that others of my works "(if the sale be any criterion)" have made quite as permanent an impression as East Lynne.

Has Mrs. Norton yet to learn that where the gifts of imagination and power of construction are possessed together in a large degree an author has too much resource within himself [sic] to need to go abroad for pillage? Let those of the public who have read my works and Mrs. Norton's be themselves the judges which has least cause to pillage from the other. If I possessed no other requisite to make a novelist, I at least possess that of construction. Even the Saturday Review (which rarely fails to give me an ill word when it can) admitted that in a recent notice of my last work, Dene Hollow. It was good enough to say that "even Mr. Wilkie Collins was not greater in the power of constructing a plot than Mrs. Henry Wood," or words to that effect. For myself, I can only say that the very fact of any author having taken up a particular plot or story would be the signal for me to avoid it.

I should like to be permitted to add a word on a portion of Mrs. Norton's letter that does not concern myself. She indirectly accuses Baron Tauchnitz, of Leipsic, of taking our works without acknowledgement; of stealing them, in fact, and of "not venturing to communicate with pirated authors." I cannot think where Mrs. Norton's experience can have lain; mine shows me that the Baron honestly and liberally purchases all the works of our authors that are worth it.

Allow me, in conclusion, to repeat, that these public assertions of Mrs. Norton's in respect to myself cannot be justified by any law of courtesy, or right, or truth; neither will they be deemed excusable.

There is one remarkable omission in her letter. She does not state what the title of her "brief story" was. She gives neither the name of the Annual it appeared in nor its date. Mrs. Norton must be so kind as to supply these particulars for the satisfaction of myself and the public. Not that it can make the least difference in this my answer, for I have stated the absolute truth; but that we may be enabled to judge for ourselves (if the story be procurable) how much of the stated resemblance between itself and East Lynne exists.

                                                I am, Sir, very sincerely yours,
October 26.                                                                                     ELLEN WOOD