Straw in the Street(s): An Unlikely Link between Ellen Wood & Amy Levy

Chloé is a first year PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University. Her thesis is concerned with examining the relationship between the cultivation and use of several professional identities and success within the 19th Century literary marketplace, specifically in the works of Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood. Chloé’s general research interests include periodicals, women writers, and representations of womens bodies and space in Victorian fiction. Chloé tweets regularly (@chloeholland) and blogs, admittedly less regularly, about both her research, life as a PGR, and her beloved Manchester City (chloeholland.blogspot.co.uk).

What links Ellen Wood and Amy Levy? One was a popular mid-nineteenth-century sensation fiction writer, famous for her pious declamations and known by her husband’s name, and the other was a Jewish fin-de-siècle poet and novelist associated with New Woman writing, who committed suicide at the age of 27. Despite their seemingly tenuous connection, research for my thesis on Ellen Wood caused me to stumble across the writing of Amy Levy and provided an unlikely link between the two distinctly different writers.

Wood After the success of East Lynne (1861), Wood’s second serialised novel in the New Monthly Magazine was The Shadow of Ashlydyat (published monthly from October 1861 to November 1863). The novel depicts the downfall of the Godolphins, a family of bankers who lose their estate, Ashlydyat, as a result of the fraudulent actions of George, the second eldest son, and a mysterious supernatural family curse, the titular Shadow of Ashlydyat. The final chapter of the sixth monthly instalment of the novel features the title “Straw in the Streets.” Wood’s chapter headings are always a point of interest for me, particularly in The Shadow of Ashlydyat, which includes delightful chapter headings such as “Murmurs and Curious Doubts”, “Dangerous Amusement”, and a personal favourite, “Dead”. I was intrigued as to why a seemingly trivial detail such as the laying of straw in the streets as a signifier of one near death was afforded both a chapter heading and a detailed description in the first paragraph of the chapter:

 Ankle-deep before the banking-house of Godolphin, Crosse, and Godolphin, and for some distance on either side; ankle-deep down Crosse Street as far as you could see, lay masses of straw. As carriages came up to traverse it, their drivers checked their horses and drove them at a foot-pace, raising their own heads to look up at the windows of the dwelling; for they knew that one was lying there hovering between life and death.

It was George Godolphin. Imprudent George![i]

I decided to investigate the significance of this particular Victorian mourning custom. A brief search uncovered a strikingly similar allusion to straw in the street in the writing of Amy Levy.

Published in her final book of poems, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889), almost thirty years after Wood’s novel, I discovered Levy’s poem titled “Straw in the Street”:

Straw in the street where I pass to-day

Dulls the sound of the wheels and feet.

’Tis for a failing life they lay

Straw in the street.

Here, where the pulses of London beat,

Someone strives with the Presence grey;

Ah, is it victory or defeat?

The hurrying people go their way,

Pause and jostle and pass and greet;

For life, for death, are they treading, say,

Straw in the street?[ii]

Using the roundel structure developed by Algernon Charles Swinburne,[iii] the poem describes an urban traveller in the heart of London reflecting upon straw being laid in the street, which ‘dulls the sound’ of the lively city for the benefit of ‘a failing life’. Set in the bustling city, Levy uses the custom of laying straw as an opportunity to pause for ‘an existential reflection in the midst of the hurrying pace of life.’[iv] Both Levy’s treatment of sound and the contemplation of death within a busy metropolitan setting echoes Wood’s treatment of the custom in The Shadow of Ashlydyat. The shadow cast by impending death, signified by the straw dulling the sound of carriages and people, has a fleeting effect on the movement of the urban scene as active words such as ‘jostle’, ‘pass’, and ‘hurrying’ occupy the same space as the more static phrases: ‘pause’, ‘greet’, and ‘treading’. Levy discusses both movement and sound in the same space, as the unstoppable ‘pulses of London’ continue to beat while the anonymous person ‘strives’ to be

Levyvictorious against death. Levy’s use of the metropolitan setting affords an opportunity for the external, detached observer ‘to encounter the fleeting nature of life’[v] through the impending death of an anonymous stranger. Contrastingly, Wood utilises an almost identical scene in The Shadow of Ashlydyat to galvanise the novel’s closed community and establish the widespread effect of the influential Godolphin family with the potential to drastically destabilise the lives of the inhabitants.

While Levy’s poem presents a momentary pause in the dynamic movement of the city, Wood’s narrator controls the experience of the reader. Drawing the reader’s eye up from the ‘masses of straw’ on the floor in front of the bank to follow the slow movement of the carriages and horses passing at ‘a foot-pace’ along the road, the reader then mirrors the driver’s upward eye movement to the windows of the bank and we peek through to see the identity of the invalid: ‘It was George Godolphin. Imprudent George!’ Addressing the reader’s visual experience directly, ‘as you could see,’ Wood deftly controls every aspect of the readers experience while simultaneously involving them within the scene. This narrative control spreads to the auditory experience, as the narrator later references the reader directly again, ‘straw, as you hear, was laid in the streets’ (290).

Rather than maintaining a distance from the ailing figure, Wood’s narration brings the reader through the window and reveals ‘imprudent George’ as the deathbed occupant. As an influential figure in the community, George’s illness has a widespread effect on the larger community. The straw in Wood’s depiction spreads across numerous streets as the disastrous effects of George’s imprudence spread across the community in the novel’s town Prior’s Ash, in contrast with the anonymity and individualistic nature of London foregrounded in Levy’s poem. The silence perpetuated by George’s illness also spreads throughout the town and even dulls the sound of the business conducted within the ill-fated bank:

Knockers were muffled; bells were tied up; straw, as you hear, was laid in the streets; people passed in and out [of the bank], even at the swing doors, when they went to transact business, with a softened tread […] and asked the clerks in a whisper whether Mr. George was yet alive.’ (290)

While this extract of the novel provides the precedent for the disastrous effects of George’s later actions, this passage also illustrates Wood’s narrative control, which provides an integral cog in my thesis studying Wood’s adoption of several specific literary identities.

Wood’s narrator continues to control the auditory experience for the reader throughout the novel from the loud, vivacious racket that announces the arrival of Charlotte Pain – Wood’s ‘masculine woman: for the term “fast” had not then come in,’ with her noisy dogs and uncontrollable horses (260)- to the constant buzzing of gossip and scandal, as the Prior’s Ash residents discuss George Godolphin’s fraudulent antics.

My thesis examines the effect of Wood’s pious, moralising narrator featured in the texts emblazoned with her carefully crafted ‘Mrs Henry Wood’ brand. This controlled sensory reader experience is an essential part of my research of Wood’s personas. Sensation fiction, the genre for which Wood was famous, is based on the excitement or stimulation of the senses, so it is no surprise that Wood’s narrative techniques focus on the sensory response of the reader as she guides their experience through the sounds and sights of her carefully constructed literary world. Wood’s careful control of the reader’s experience places the reader next to the approachable, friendly narrator, which simultaneously provides the sense of a mutual reader/narrator experience. This brings certain incidents and aspects of the text to the forefront of the reader’s attention, an essential technique in serialised fiction spanning over two years.

While I am hesitant to suggest that Amy Levy was directly influenced by Wood’s depiction of straw in the street, the fact that these two dissimilar writers utilise this parallel scene nearly 30 years apart is unexpected. As I hope I have illustrated, however, while adopting similar techniques, their application of the custom within their literary work is also distinctly opposed.


 

[i] The Author of East Lynne [Ellen Wood], ‘The Shadow of Ashlydyat’, New Monthly Magazine (March 1862), 290.

[ii] Amy Levy, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1889), 26.

[iii] A roundel poem consists of three stanzas of three lines each, rhyming alternately, with the opening words repeated as a refrain after the first and third stanzas.

[iv] Elizabeth Ludlow, ‘Christina Rossetti, Amy Levy, and the Composition of Roundels in Late-Victorian Bloomsbury: Poetic Snapshots of Urban Subjects,’ English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 56 (2013), 97.

[v] Ludlow, ‘Christina Rossetti, Amy Levy, and the Composition of Roundels in Late-Victorian Bloomsbury: Poetic Snapshots of Urban Subjects,’ 97.

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