For incident, drama, passion and intrigue 'East Lynne' makes 'The Woman in White' look like an exercise in quiet, dreary Sunday-afternoon restraint; and while the immortal line "Dead, and never called me mother!" is sadly absent (it comes from a stage adaptation rather than from the novel itself) the quotation does give an accurate taste of what the reader can expect.
The plot is quite straight forward: the lovely but poor Lady Isabel marries Archibald Carlyle, the local lawyer and all-round decent chap. Unfortunately she then finds herself eaten-up by jealousy as her husband begins to spend more and more time with the neighbourhood beauty Barbara Hare. Running away with the local charming cad, Francis Levison, Lady Isabel finds herself separated from her children and suddenly stuck with a boorish, brute of a man. Later however, as the devious hand of fate deals her a very peculiar hand indeed, she finds herself heavily disguised and back with her former husband as the governess to his (and of course to her own) children. As a word to describe the plot "implausible" doesn't do it justice but Ellen Wood carries the whole thing off with such style and panache that the 600 pages of the tale rattle along quite beautifully. She was, on the basis of this novel at least, an absolute natural when it came to telling a story and telling it well. The characters are all interesting and have their own peculiar traits: Carlyle's sister, Corny, for example is a shrieking harridan of fiscal prudence, while Justice Hare is a model of pompous bombast and his daughter - the very lovely Barbara - is the epitome of an innocent girl seething inwardly as unrequited love gnaws away at her soul. You care about the people Wood writes about and, aside from the oily Francis Levison, there isn't a character in the book who doesn't deserve some of the reader's sympathy and compassion.
Like all of Victorian sensation fiction there are secrets aplenty just waiting to be revealed at the most inconvenient moments and more overheard and misinterpreted conversations than you can shake a very large stick at, but the improbabilities of the plot never get in the way of what is a good old-fashioned rattling piece of story-telling. It's over the top, full of heaving bodices, tearful confessions and more drama than a novel should, by rights, be able to contain within its flimsy covers, but it is wonderful. Read it and, by turns, weep, laugh but most of all enjoy.