One of the reasons I’m a very bad book dealer is that when cataloging stock books, I’m far too easily distracted by an interesting or pretty book and get tempted into doing a little research. In the early hours of this morning, it was this lovely edition of Mrs Henry Wood’s Danesbury House which made me set aside the tools of trade and dive into the text books (and Google, of course). Initially it was the glorious blind embossing on the cover that got me going, but then the fine monochrome plate illustrations by one F C Luckhurst piqued interest too: I lucked out on Luckhurst, as it were, with almost no information on the illustrator either on the net or on my bookshelves. Finding out more about Luckhurst will have to await a trip to the Library, unless of course, you know more…but I did discover an interesting and pleasing history behind the publication of Danesbury House.
Danesbury House – Mrs Henry Wood’s first novel – was written in haste in 1860. Mrs Wood was already an established short story writer having contributed regularly for the previous decade or so to the New Monthly Magazine and Bentley’s Miscellany.
Mrs Wood’s once prosperous husband suffered a business set back in the mid-1850s and the family were forced to return from France, where they had lived for 20 years, and took rented rooms in Upper Norwood in what is now part of the sprawls of South London. It is reputed that Mrs Wood had pitched the idea of writing a novel to Harrison Ainsworth, editor of the two journals to which she contributed, but that he had refused the idea. In 1860 however a friend showed Mrs Wood an advertisement for a competition run by the Scottish Temperance League which offered a £100 prize for “the best temperance tale illustrative of the injurious effects of intoxicating drinks, the advantages of personal abstinence, and the demoralised operations of the liquor traffic”.[i] Although close to the deadline, Mrs Wood set about planning and writing Danesbury House and won the competition. Danesbury House was very popular but Mrs Wood was not to benefit directly from its huge sales: she had given over copyright of the novel as part of the conditions of the competition.
The Proceedings of the 1900 World Temperance Congress (which provide, inter alia, an overview of temperance activities since the previous Congress in 1846), marks the publication of Danesbury House although pointedly remarks that Mrs Wood was not of the temperance persuasion. In a section marking the contribution of some “special women”, it records:
An important part of the pioneer work at this time was through the Press. We may mention Mrs. Sewell (authoress of “Mother’s Last Words” and “Our Father’s Care”) who wrote a specially excellent Temperance poem, “The Rose of Cheriton”; Mrs. Ellis, authoress of “Family Secrets”; Mrs. Henry Wood, who, though not a teetotaler, wrote “Danesbury House” which had probably a larger circulation than any other Temperance tale; and, later, Mrs. Reaney, and others. Further, we may add that Mrs. Balfour, in addition to what we have already mentioned, wrote a poem, “King Alcohol’s Walk” besides several prose works — such as “The Burnish Family”; and Mrs. S. C. Hall published a collection of Temperance tales, under the title of “Boons and Blessings”.
Frances Willard, President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the United States and her equivalent in the UK, Lady Henry Somerset, writing in the early 1890s were somewhat more enthusiastic about Danesbury House’s impact as a temperance novel. In the preface to an 1893 edition of the novel, published by Rand, McNally and Company in the United States, they report that “its success was phenomenal”. “Issued by the league”, they say “in the fervent hope and prayer that it might contribute largely to the temperance cause and kindred movements, this veritable ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of this righteous and rapidly growing cause, has well justified the propriety of the prize award made to its talented, and now, alas! Lamented, author…Upward of three hundred and four thousand copies of this vivid picture of the vice of drunkenness have been sold and circulated in Great Britain alone; many copies of it being exported to America.”[ii]
Danesbury House had however demonstrated Mrs Wood’s capability and the previously doubtful Harrison Ainsworth accepted a proposal for a full length novel. Mrs Wood’s second and perhaps most famous novel, East Lynne, was serialised in New Monthly Magazine between January and September 1861 and appeared in three volume book form the following year. The flow of short stories and essays continued but Mrs Wood also went on to pen another thirty so or novels, many of which were serialised in Argosy, a literary journal Mrs Wood owned and edited from 1867 to her death early in 1887. She was one of the best-selling novelists of the late 19th century.
Mrs Henry Wood was born Ellen Price in 1814 in Worcestershire, a setting which provided the backdrop to many of her novels. Danesbury House is said to be the name of the family home in Sidbury, which was demolished in 1889.
The delightful copy of Danesbury House which illustrates this article can be purchased from Wimbledon Rare and Collectible Books for £10 inc p&p for UK addresses.
[i] The text of the advertisement is quoted in the preface to a 1893 Rand, McNally and Company edition of Danesbury House. The preface was written by Miss Frances Willard and Lady Henry Somerset who were at that time Presidents of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the United States and United Kingdom respectively.
[ii] Willard, Miss Frances & Lady Henry Somerset, A Trio of Famous Women, in Wood, Mrs Henry, Danesbury House (Rand, McNally and Company: Chicago and New York), 1893, p.1.