Left: Mrs Wood, from a miniature by Easton. Source: Frontispiece to the Argosy, Vol. XLIII. Right: Worcester Cathedral, an important backdrop to Wood's early life. Source: Library of Congress photomechanical print. LC-DIG-ppmsc-09015. [Click on all images to enlarge them.]
Ellen Price (1814-1887), the future Mrs Henry Wood, was born in Worcester on 17 January 1814 as the eldest daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Price. Thomas, who had inherited a glove manufacturing business, was a cultured man, and much involved with the cathedral: the family were devoutly Anglican. Young Ellen spent her first seven years with her maternal grandmother, and became a voracious reader. Her son and biographer Charles Wood remembered her saying "that even in those early days this was her great happiness — to be amongst her books"; she was already "weaving simple plots and small romances" (Memorials, 13). On returning to her parents after her grandfather's death, reports her son, she became particularly close to her father, a man "more fitted to a cathedral stall than to the calling he had adopted" (Memorials, 3). No doubt, like Andrew Brumm in Wood's Mrs Halliburton's Troubles (1862), he liked nothing better than to put on his Sunday best, take his children to the cathedral, and listen happily to the chanting.
Although Wood is best known now as a sensational novelist, aspects of this stoutly middle class, conservative, traditional Worcestershire background make the bedrock of her novels. The town itself often features in them, sometimes as Helstonleigh. "No place in the world holds such a green spot in my memory," says the narrator in Mrs Halliburton's Troubles (56), justifying its reappearance so soon after The Channings (also 1862), which opens with the bells of Helstonleigh Cathedral ringing out over the town. Worcester provided more than simply a setting. As her early critic Adeline Sergeant notes, Wood was particularly good at rendering, "when she chose, the dialogue of the country and the customs of its people" in that area — because, as Sergeant continues, "she gives us in these books a part of her own experience, of her own life" (188). This would lend a particular charm to her "Johnny Ludlow" stories later on.
Left: Henry Wood. Source: Wood, Memorials, facing p. 48. Right two: Travels in France, source of much joy in Wood's early married life: Hautecombe Abbey from above, and Annecy from a bridge. [Colour photographs by the present author.]
Then, in 1836, everything changed. Despite having developed curvature of the spine in her early teens, something that affected her health for the rest of her life, Ellen Price married Henry Wood, whom their son Charles described as a good-looking young man at the "head of a large banking and shipping firm" (Memorials, 49). He was also, for a while, in the consular service. The Woods spent the next twenty years of their lives abroad, mainly in the Dauphiné area of France around Grenoble. It was a wrench at first, both from Wood's beloved father and from Worcester, but there was an inevitable opening of horizons. In his biography, Charles describes the couple's early travels in the country in detail. Among the places he describes are Hautecombe Abbey "beside the waters of the Lac du Bourget ... amidst the whispering pine-trees" with the "lovely mountains of Savoie" towering above them, and "quaint old Annecy..., with its gateways and arcades, streets intersected by canals, and many signs and vestiges of the past" (Memorials, 110, 115). He explains that he dwells on this "first introduction to foreign life" because it made such a "vivid impression upon her, colouring her after days"; it was, he says, "a time ever much in her thoughts, and of which she was ever ready to talk to those who loved to listen" (Memorials, 122).
After this, it seems, the clouds gathered. Here, details are scant. Probably Wood's greatest sorrow was the loss of one of their daughters to scarlet fever. This precipitated what amounted to a nervous breakdown (see Jay xvii). But there were other problems. The couple were not on the same wavelength. Henry Wood, we learn, was both unimaginative, and, as far as the family finances went, impractical. No leader, and generous to a fault, he appears to have been amiably weak: according to his son, he "failed in nothing but the administration of his own affairs" (Memorials, 143). He also had no time for novels, a singular drawback for a future novelist's husband. Perhaps there is something of Wood's own feeling in the narrator's impassioned plea in East Lynne (1860) for a wife not to stray like Lady Isabel Vane, but to "bear, resolve to bear ... bear unto death" whatever trials she may face in her married life (283). Perhaps, too, Wood was recalling her own worst times in France when she described her most famous heroine's misery in rented rooms in Grenoble, where winter makes her surroundings not beautiful at all, but "cold, and white, and sleety, and sloppy" (East Lynne, 289). At any rate, things reached such a pass that Henry Wood gave up his business, and in 1856 the couple returned to England with several children (they would be survived by three sons and a daughter), and shattered prospects.
The Argosy, Vol. XLIII (January-June 1887). Internet Archive. Web. 18 November 2013.
Jay, Elizabeth. Introduction. East Lynne. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), 2005. vii-xxxix. Print.
Seecombe, Thomas. "Wood, Ellen (1814-1887)." Dictionary of National Biography: Williamson-Worden. London: Smith, Elder, 1900. 355-57. Internet Archive. Web. 16 November 2013.
Sergeant, Adeline. "Mrs Henry Wood." Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign: A Book of Appreciations. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1897. 174-192. Internet Archive. Web. 18 November 2013.
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, 1988. Print.
Wood, Charles W. "In Memoriam." The Argosy, Vol. XLIII (January-June 1887). Internet Archive. Web. 18 November 2013.
_____. Memorials of Mrs Henry Wood. London: Richard Bentley, 1894. 251-70, 334-53, 422-42. Internet Archive. Web. 18 November 2013.
Wood, Mrs Henry. East Lynne. Ed. Elizabeth Jay. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics), 2005. Print. (An alternative one-volume edition may be found in the Internet Archive.)
_____. Mrs Halliburton's Troubles. London: Richard Bentley, 1890. Internet Archive. Web. 18 November 2013.
Last modified 18 November 2013