East Lynne, by T.A. Palmer

This was the most popular adaptation, apparently, and it follows the novel pretty closely, so I’m not going to bother summarizing it here. But there was a big part of East Lynne that I had forgotten in the time since I read the novel, and this part stood out to me even more after having just read Tom Robertson’s Society. Archibald Carlyle runs for MP against Francis Levison. Levison is a baronet, while Carlyle is a lawyer. Okay, now I really wish I had a better grasp on the fine distinctions between the middle- and upper-class professional hierarchies during this period…. but let me try. In Robertson’s Society, as in Lady Audley’s Secret, the protagonist is a barrister, which means that he’s a gentleman and doesn’t really need to work at his profession. Maybe he’s a second son, or maybe his family doesn’t have money, but barristers have a family name, I think. So, in Society, the “name” ends up being more important than the capital. In East Lynne, the opposite is true. Levison has a “name,” but he’s a typical aristocratic, rakish villain. Carlyle is distinctly middle-class, but he’s so much the hard-working, David Copperfield-esque Victorian that he builds up enough capital to buy East Lynne from the dissipated Lord Mount Severn. Another victory for capital over name. He’s also, reputedly, a very hard worker, as lawyers have to be, I guess, when they’re not barristers. His sister, Cornelia, is always implying that he’s away from the office too much, which (given Cornelia’s disposition) is meant to imply the opposite. He, of course, also puts business above his wife, Isabel. No seaside vacations for hardworking lawyers.

Of course, he doesn’t seem very analogous to the Chodds of Society, who inherit their wealth from Chodd Senior’s brother, but actually, Carlyle inherits his practice from his father, who was a hard worker before him. So the paradigm of inherited wealth stands in both texts. But in one the middle-class hero wins the MP position, and in the other, the penniless aristocrat wins the MP position. I don’t have enough background on these politics and class statuses yet to make anything of this, but I sense that this is something to remember and analyze further.

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Filed under Primary literature (plays)

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