What Was on Tolstoy's Bookshelf?
By Ellen Wood
Ellen Wood was an enormously popular, bestselling British author in the mid-19th century. She wrote "sensational novels" with complicated, juicy plots full of dramatic incident. Lots of critics dismissed these novels for being poorly written and/or weak in showing the workings of the soul. Tolstoy, however, read the novels of Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (another similar writer) with enthusiasm and was man enough to acknowledge their influence on his own work.
East Lynne was a runaway sensation when it appeared in 1861. In terms of its plot, it is quite relevant to Anna Karenina. Like Anna Karenina, it is a tale of adultery, of maternal longing, of shame and of suffering. It has its own railroad accidents and biblical quotations. East Lynne may be read as a warning against adultery, but it nevertheless shows that the suffering brought about by vice can have a purifying effect in the end. Some contemporary English readers found this scenario too subversive, they wanted their adulteresses to grovel and die without ever being redeemed. Ellen Wood had a different vision.