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.
Mary 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….