‘Horrors and Housekeeping’: Ellen Wood and the Modern Melodrama

When a woman suspects her husband of having an affair with a former flame, who is now his partner in a murder investigation, she has an affair of her own – with the murderer.

The above description could easily pass as a pitch for a made-for-TV thriller, but it is the plot of Ellen Wood’s most famous novel, East Lynne (1861).

I have recently been reading some of Wood’s lesser-known novels, such as St. Martin’s Eve (1866), Anne Hereford (1868), and The Master of Greylands (1873) to create entries for the Literary Encyclopedia. As I considered the plots, critical reception, and popularity of these texts among a middle-class female audience, I couldn’t help but think of an unlikely twenty-first-century analogue: the ‘Lifetime original movie’.

Since 1990, the American television channel Lifetime has produced films that frequently focus on women struggling with high-stakes threats to their marriage, their children, or their lives.[1] Lifetime movies that premiered in 2023 include titles such as Don’t Sell My Baby, Secrets in the Marriage, How She Caught a Killer, and Danger Lurking Under My Roof.[2]

In 1865, Henry James described sensation novels as exploring ‘those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors’, and that is also Lifetime’s territory.[3] Lifetime movies rely on many of the same tropes as Wood’s novels: there are ill-fated affairs, concealed pregnancies, secret identities, murder, and attempted murder. Women are abused, victimised, and suffer family hardship, or are themselves monstrous abusers. The films often explore middle-class women’s imagined worst-case scenarios.

Ellen Wood took flak for foregrounding female characters. An 1866 review of St. Martin’s Eve opined:

The fair sex predominates in a ratio of about seven to one. The male sex is literally nowhere …. Having in the present work reduced [men] to a minimum, why should not Mrs. Wood go a step further, and in her next omit them altogether? It would be a triumph of ingenuity to succeed in interesting lady readers in a novel from which men and their doings had been eliminated.[4]

This critic’s complaint – that Wood’s novels focus on the lives of women – is explicitly the mission of the Lifetime network. One recent critic characterised it as ‘an upscale housewives-choice channel’.[5] I believe it is in part that channel’s overt catering to the preferences of a female audience that is the reason it is often treated as a punchline. Like Wood’s novels, Lifetime movies lack prestige: they are not generally considered ‘high art’. But beyond their overt appeal to women, they also share other key factors with Wood’s novels, including their sensationalism, their unapologetic middle-class sensibility, their popularity, and their sheer abundance.

A 1904 article titled ‘What Do the Masses Read?’ analysed the reading trends of ‘the clerk, the day-school teacher, the higher artisan, draughtsmen and the like’ in a sample district in Lancashire, and found that Wood was ‘easily the[ir…] favourite’ author.[6] East Lynne alone sold over a million copies in the nineteenth century.[7] Wood published over 30 novels and 300 short stories, and then expanded her ‘brand’ with her editorship of The Argosy, which championed women writers and had a large audience of women readers. Wood’s magazine boasted a circulation of 20,000 a month – more than double that of Blackwood’s or The Saturday Review.[8] East Lynne in particular spawned so many dramatised adaptations that ‘Next week–East Lynne!’ became a cliché.

Lifetime is similarly prolific and popular: for a two-year period in the early 2000s, Lifetime was the most-watched cable network in prime time.[9] In 2023, according to Nielsen ratings, Lifetime was ranked 29th in popularity out of 152 US television channels.[10] Lifetime has produced nearly 400 original movies, so many that, in 1998, the Lifetime Movie Network was successfully launched, followed by a Lifetime Movie streaming service in 2015.

In her 1897 biographical profile of Ellen Wood, Adeline Sergeant addresses the immense popularity of what she calls Wood’s ’emphatically un-literary and middle-class’ novels.[11] Sergeant critiques the novels’ ‘commonplaceness’, the ‘triteness and feebleness…of the dialogue’ and their ‘mawkishness.’[12] She admits that ‘they are conspicuously wanting in the higher graces of literary style or intellectual attainment’.[13]

It is noteworthy that while Sergeant’s ostensible goal is to discuss the accomplishments of an incredibly popular author whose work she herself seems to enjoy, she seems to feel the need to temper any praise. Sergeant essentially defends Wood’s work as a ‘guilty pleasure’, claiming that Wood is, above all, a skilled storyteller able to ‘imagine as pitiful and tragic a situation as could possibly exist in the domestic relations between man and woman’.[14] On the final page of her article, Sergeant concludes that Wood’s novels ‘neither aim high nor fall low: their gentle mediocrity is soothing’.[15]

In other words, it is their decidedly middlebrow aspirations that made Wood’s books so beloved among the masses. Wood knew her brand: The Argosy’s review column, which may have been written by Wood, expressed disdain for the overserious pretension and heavy-handed symbolism of ‘serious’ literature.[16]

Both Lifetime’s films and Ellen Wood’s novels have been critically ignored, panned, and mocked. Contemporary critics attacked Ellen Wood’s ‘dubious syntax’ and evident lack of education as evidence of the lack of artfulness of her work.[17] But she could unquestionably spin a yarn, and in this particular genre, plot is paramount. The aspects of Wood’s work that she was criticised for – their sensationalism, feminine appeal, and attention to domesticity – are deliberate elements of her own ‘hybrid’ genre. As one reviewer observed, ‘it was [Wood’s] happy thought to combine murder and maidservants, horrors and housekeeping’.[18]

Examining so-called ‘low art’ made for and predominantly featuring women in our present day can inform our approach to its nineteenth-century counterpart. Wood’s novels and Lifetime movies may serve a similar function for their audiences, offering comfort, a sense of empowerment, and a certain moral reassurance in addition to entertainment. A 2004 article on Lifetime movies described them as ’emotionally draining yet entertaining’.[19] They evoke catharsis in seemingly contradictory ways, eliciting emotional investment while providing escapism, and inviting viewers to identify with their characters while also serving as extreme cautionary tales. In 2015, Lifetime’s Vice President of Original Movies said of their appeal: ‘If you were going through a rough patch in life, I guarantee you – your life wasn’t as bad as what was happening to some characters in Lifetime movies’.[20] Wood’s readers, similarly, were unlikely to become disfigured in a rail accident and then covertly work as nanny to their own children,[21] but they can come along for the ride and in the process – as Adeline Sergeant would say – be soothed by their ‘gentle mediocrity’.[22]

Elizabeth Steere is a lecturer at the University of North Georgia (USA). Her publications include the book The Female Servant and Sensation Fiction: “Kitchen Literature” (Palgrave, 2013) and articles in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Victorian Popular Fictions Journal, Women’s Writing, Neo-Victorian Studies, and Brontë Studies.

Notes & references

Featured images: copyright Lifetime.

[1] Amanda D. Lotz, Redesigning Women: Television After the Network Era (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006), p. 40.

[2] Since 2012, there has also been a subgenre of Lifetime Christmas movies that are lighthearted romcoms, but these are outliers that air only around the holidays.

[3] Henry James, “Miss Braddon,” Nation (9 November 1865): 593-95. pp. 593.

[4] Unsigned review, “St. Martin’s Eve,” The Saturday Review (31 March 1866): 387-88. p. 387.

[5] John Patterson, “A Deadly Adoption Review: Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s Superb Lifetime Spoof,” The Guardian (21 June 2015).

[6] “What Do the Masses Read?” Economic Review, vol. 14, no. 2. (1904): 166-77. p. 169.

[7]Jeanne B. Elliott, “A Lady to the End: The Case of Isabel Vane,” Victorian Studies, vol. 19, no. 3 (1976): 329-44. p. 330.

[8] Jennifer Phegley. “Domesticating the Sensation Novelist: Ellen Price Wood as Author and Editor of the Argosy Magazine,” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 38, no. 2 (2005): 180-98. p. 186. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/vpr.2005.0024

[9] Lotz, p. 42.

[10] Michael Schneider, “Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2023’s Winners and Losers,” Variety (28 Dec 2023).

[11] Adeline Sergeant, “Mrs. Henry Wood,” Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign: A Book of Appreciations (London: Ballantyne, 1897), pp. 174-92. p. 174.

[12] Ibid., 178.

[13] Ibid., 187.

[14] Ibid., 178.

[15] Ibid., 191-92.

[16] Phegley, 189.

[17] Unsigned review, “The Master of Greylands,” The Saturday Review (22 November 1873): 676-77. p. 676.

[18] Unsigned review, “Anne Hereford,” The Saturday Review (14 Nov 1868): 659-61. p. 660.

[19] Justine Elias, “Original Movies Evolve,” Television Week (12 April 2004): 20-22. p. 20.

[20] Emily Yahr, “From Guilty Pleasure to Emmy Awards: The Delightfully Weird History of Lifetime Movies,” Washington Post (15 Jan. 2015).

[21] As Isabel Vane does in East Lynne.

[22] Sergeant, 191-92.

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