Lady Audley’s Secret by M. E Braddon Part I

I’d intended to read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel, Lady Audley’s Secret for years. I don’t know what stopped me–perhaps because my copy had sat on the shelf for so many years, I no longer really noticed it. I saw a film version I didn’t like much, so perhaps that was also a deterrent, but now that I’ve read it, I’m in the position of wondering what took me so long. My Dover edition comes with an intro from Norman Donaldson which I read before turning to the novel itself. Donaldson states that the novel has waned in popularity in “recent decades, but for more than half a century after its appearance in 1862 it was one of the most popular mystery stories in the English-speaking world.” Donaldson also goes on to list Braddon’s admirers who included Thackeray, Tennyson, and R.L. Stevenson.

Lady audley's secretMary  Elizabeth Braddon  (1835-1915) who wrote approximately 90 books, often two a year, was a magazine editor, and also wrote poetry and plays. She had a nomadic childhood and her parents separated when she was four years old due to her feckless father’s adultery. Mary lived with her mother and moved frequently, and by age 8, she was introduced to the novels of her “literary hero,” Edward Bulwer Lytton. By age 17, faced with the need to earn a living, she eschewed the drudgery of becoming a governess and instead made the controversial decision to become an actress. According to The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon by Jennifer Carnell (and many thanks Jennifer for writing this book on a much neglected author) which details Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s years on the stage, Mary was an actress for seven or eight years with “the stage name” of Mary Seyton.  All this time, she had literary ambitions and was writing and publishing poems & short stories, and abandoning several unfinished novels. She had a commission to write Three Times Dead ( later rewritten and reprinted as The Trail of the Serpent) a “lurid novel in penny weekly parts,” while still an actress and then followed an impressive number of other novels: The Lady Lisle, The Black Band or The Mysteries of Moonlight, The Octoroon or The Lily of Louisiana, Captain of the Vulture, Ralph the Bailiff, Woman’s Revenge or The Captain of the Guard. All these were serialized before Lady Audley’s Secret.

Braddon, still working on Three Times Dead first met John Maxwell, owner of the magazine The Welcome Guest in 1860 (founded by Henry Vizetelly in 1858). Maxwell was a married man, the father of six surviving children, and there seems to be several stories about that marriage. Jennifer Carnell relates how Maxwell told someone that his wife was “defunct,” (whatever that means) and speculates that Maxwell may have “told other people that his wife was dead.” There’s also a version that she was in an insane asylum, but there’s also a fourth version that she was simply living in Ireland. Well whichever one is the correct scenario, or a combination of scenarios, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Maxwell moved in together (along with Braddon’s mother Fanny). Their first child was born in 1862.

So back to Lady Audley’s Secret… Maxwell had formed a new magazine, Robin Goodfellow, but “their lead serial had failed to be delivered.” From Carnell’s book again come the details, that initially Maxwell decided to delay publication, but Braddon stepped up and offered to write the first episode of a new serial. The next day, by breakfast time, Braddon had completed the opening chapters of Lady Audley’s Secret. A legend is born…

Jennifer Carnell, in the introduction to her book, makes the point that M.E. Braddon has been sadly neglected and quotes one of Braddon’s sons. M.B. Maxwell stating that his mother’s books are viewed with “amused tolerance.” In all my English Lit classes, Sensation fiction and Braddon were absent. These books were off-stage, in the dark corner, trashy,  ignored and deemed unworthy of attention. So now, finally picking up Lady Audley’s Secret, I am stunned and impressed and have to admit to a fascination with Braddon. She must have been an incredible person. This is subversive stuff. Yes, it’s melodramatic (again, I’m fascinated about this aspect of the book and its connection to Braddon’s years on the stage), but it’s also a great read, a detective novel, a mystery story if you will. The Victorian Era is known for its stuffiness, its morality and sense of propriety. Lady Audley’s Secret is a tale of a woman off the rails–a story of bigamy, madness, murder, scandal and… well lots of other things.

To be continued….


Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction

15 responses to “Lady Audley’s Secret by M. E Braddon Part I

  1. So Ms Braddon was an ‘odd woman’?

    Sounds fascinating. The kind of novels weak women in other books are supposed to read…You know, when the writer describes a silly woman and points out she only reads novels…

    Can’t wait for the second part.

  2. She moved in with Maxwell and was his common-law wife for years. Then they married after his wife died. She brought up both families of children and maintained her literary career. She was definitely a free-thinker. I’m reading the Doctor’s Wife (few pages left) and it contains all sorts of references to the novels that have contributed to the Doctor’s wife’s skewed notions of life and romance. ( A name that appears repeatedly is Ernest Maltravers from Edward Bulmer-Lytton–one of Braddon’s heroes & the other is Florence Dombey from the Dickens novel, Dombey and Sons.)

    Monica (from the Odd Women) would have loved Lady Audley’s Secret, but her husband, Widdowson, would certainly not have approved

  3. There are the same kind of references in French novels (Madame Bovary) but I don’t know the writers they refer to. (except Eugène Sue)

    Yes, Monica would have loved this and her husband would have disapproved. (and Miss Nunn too)

  4. I’m looking forward to the continuation!

    It it always interesting how authors can drop out of knowledge, even good authors. Sam Jordison of the Guardian did a series (now paused for a while sadly) reading past Booker winners, with varying results. One though (I’d have to dig out what it was) he was blown away by, thought quite marvellous but he’d never heard of the author. On a little digging it seemed he used to be well known and a highly regarded literary figure, but is now almost completely forgotten.

    If you write popular fiction, even very well written popular fiction, that can still so easily happen. It’s odd, but posterity is utterly unknowable. 100 years from now JK Rowling could be seen as a writer of classic children’s fiction, utterly unknown or perhaps may be hailed as a great fiction writer (after all, she’s still writing and will probably write more books for adults) with only a few academics and biographers knowing that she also wrote some children’s books.

    I do wonder if writers like this perhaps struggle more for lack of academic champions. If universities teach you, some will remember you. If not, you’re at the mercy of the market, which isn’t as a rule especially merciful. I wonder if so if that makes women writers more likely to be forgotten, as senior academic champions (at least historically) have tended to favour the famous DWMs (dead white males, for anyone who’s not encountered that particular acronym before).

    • I think academia has some role to play in this, Max. I can remember a grad class in Sensation Fiction but that was just the one class which did not repeat during my incarceration. But in all the 19th C lit classes I did take, Braddon did not appear once. She was mentioned, however, but is a dismissive sort of way.

  5. It sounds like a refreshing change from the usual stifled characters. I just finished Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. While I loved the book the sympathetic characters were so typically repressed.

    You leave us in suspense Guy…I eagerly await Part II.

  6. Goog to read so much of her biography here. LadY Audley was all the rage when I was in grad school circa 1998. She ha d reverently been rediscovered and was on many a course syllabus. I’ll visit the site you mention above after I post this comment.

  7. I saw this reviewed a couple of times and got a copy, not knowing what a door stopper it is. Now, as you may know, I really don’t like big books but I’m so tempted by this. Litlove (Tales of the Reading Room) wrote a very interesting piece on the author once and I was amazed to find out how prolific she was. This woman must have had such a lot of energy. Just stunning to think of it. I’m sure a lot of that can be felt when you read her.

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