Saturday, 3 August 2013

A Book Fit for Women? - Mrs Henry Wood's Verner's Pride (1863)

In Mrs Henry Wood's (1814-1887) Verner's Pride (1863), Sibylla Verner is reading a French novel given to her by her new French maid Benoite. Her husband Lionel Verner comes in with a milliner's bill. An argument ensues and ...

"Sibylla petulantly threw the French book from her lap upon the table, and it fell down with its page open.
            Lionel's eyes caught its title, and a flush, not less deep than the preceding flush, darkened his brow. He laid his open palm on the page with an involuntary movement, as if he would guard it from the eyes of his wife. That she should be reading that notorious work!"
            "Where did you get this?" he cried. "It is not a fit book for you."
"There's nothing the matter with the book as far as I have gone."
"Indeed, you must not read it! Pray don't, Sibylla! You will be sorry for it afterwards."
"How do you know that it is not a fit book?"
"Because I have read it."
"There! You have read it! And you would like to deny the pleasure to me! Don't say you are never selfish."
"Sibylla! What is fit for me to read may be most unfit for you. I read the book when I was a young man ..."

Lionel instructs Sibylla to send the book out of the house "or to keep it under lock and key while it remains within it." (Verner's Pride, Chapter 50).

This is another reference to the dangerous and corrupting influence of Madame Bovary; what else could "that notorious work" be? The French novel is used here to demonstrate the erosion of Sibylla's moral character, or rather the revealing of Sibylla's true character, after her marriage to wealthy Lionel. It functions as shorthand to indicate sensual and self-centred wantonness. The scene also calls attention to the different expectations for men and women. What is fit for Lionel to read, especially when he was "a young man" is highly unsuitable for a lady and a wife like Sibylla. Sibylla's complaint that Lionel would deny her a pleasure he has enjoyed himself sounds both reasonable and audacious (depending on the reader's view on gender equality). Sibylla is both a confident woman questioning her husband's patronizing attitude, and a subversive woman, asking to experience the immoral pleasure only men are entitled to.

In 1836, at the age of 22, Miss Ellen Price married Mr Henry Wood and the couple spent the next twenty years in France. As Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary, Mrs Henry Wood was publishing short stories in English periodicals the New Monthly Magazine and Bentley’s Miscellany. Around the time Madame Bovary was published in volume form in 1856 and Flaubert was taken to court over its immorality in 1857, Mr Henry Wood's finances suffered a collapse and the family returned to England.

Ellen Wood
Mrs Henry Wood by Reginald Easton. Source:

After this turn in their fortunes, Mrs Henry Wood turned into another Victorian female literary powerhouse who supported her family by publishing up to three novels a year and editing the magazine  Argosy. (For more information on her life and work see, especially a brief biography compiled by Michael Flowers.) In 1860 she won a novel competition with Danesbury House. After this came East Lynne (1861), one of the most famous Victorian sensation novels. Mrs Henry Wood's career was now truly launched and she began to spin out massive three-deckers at a frightening speed. The Channings and Lady Hallibutron's Troubles were both published in 1862. That same year she published a controversial A Life’s Secret anonymously. A year later she had The Shadow of Ashlydyat appear in instalments in the New Monthly at the same time as Verner’s Pride was appearing in Once a Week. In 1864, too, she brought out a short children’s novel William Allair; or Running Away to Sea as well as two massive three-deckers Lord Oakburn’s Daughters and Oswald Cray. She wrote thirty novels and over a hundred short stories. Her narratives have an element of suspense. They are plot-driven stories of mystery and romance, often involving crime. She also wrote stories about the super-natural.

"Nothing strikes the reader of East Lynne more than the extraordinary manner in which the mystery of each part of the plot is preserved. As the reader feels that he is moving in the different parts of the drama, and unconsciously feels himself deeply interested in its several characters, he almost trembles as each dangerous turning-point of the story is passed. East Lynne, we may truly say, is no ordinary novel."
(The Conservative, quoted in Charles W. Wood, Memorials of Mrs Henry Wood, 1894. Source: /contemporary.html)

We can contrast this glowing review for East Lynne with the following for Verner's Pride two years later:

"This book is one of those which it is hard to describe positively. It is not a bad nor even a stupid novel. Style, characters, incidents, sentiments, are all of them up to the mark of respectability, and might, indeed, be thought promising in the first essay of an untried writer. Yet, it is not easy to see what can be said for the story except that it is readable ... The marks of haste are visible in every part of this her last work - in the often careless writing, the ill-connected episodes, the profusion of incidents our of which a good plot might have been elaborated with moderate diligence and thought ..." (The Saturday Review, Feb1863. Source: /contemporary.html)
Verner's Pride, then, is not a very good novel and not one of Mrs Henry Wood's best works. Despite this, I would suggest that there are features in this novel which make it quite fascinating reading. Aspects of the novel that perhaps made it unsatisfactory for Victorian readers, may add value to the narrative for today's audience.

The interesting key themes of Verner's Pride  are visible in the scene quoted above, with Sibylla and Lionel arguing about the milliner's bill and the French novel. Verner's Pride is about gender-relations. Like East Lynne, the novel's attention is very much on women's lives and tribulations. The relationships between men and women, husbands and wives are central to the narrative. Digressions into the lives of the rural labourers and other country folk, away from the main plot and characters, may have been "ill-connected episodes, the profusion of incidents" to the reviewer in The Saturday Review, but many of them provide additional depth to the picture that the novel paints of the relations between men and women.
Verner's Pride is also about money and wealth and the role they play in the community. The narrative encompasses all levels of society and their interconnectedness in a rural community. An important part of how this community functions is based on wealth. Verner's Pride is a social study. Like many sensation novels, it depicts and comments on (and questions perhaps) how society functions. In addition, there is sex, murder, bigamy, ghosts and Mormons.

No comments:

Post a Comment