Continuing my fascination with Victorian Sensation fiction, it was time for another M. E. Braddon, and since she wrote over 90 novels, there were plenty to choose from. Lady Audley’s Secret is the favourite so far, followed by The Doctor’s Wife, and I’d place Aurora Floyd above the story of stolen identity: Henry Dunbar.
Bigamy, blackmail, deceit, and murder. Yes these things all plague the life of Aurora Floyd, a beautiful yet troubled heiress, the only child of an extremely wealthy banker. We’re told that her father, Mr. Archibald Floyd, led the staid, boring life of the confirmed bachelor until a visit to Manchester caused him to leap off the deep end and into a scandalous, hasty, short marriage to a penniless actress, the daughter of a certain Captain Prodder. The actress, Eliza, died after producing her only child, Aurora, so she’s in the frame and out again before she can put the malicious gossip from the neighbors to rest. Naturally Aurora, in the absence of a mother, and brought up by her aging, grieving father at his estate in Kent, grows up spoiled rotten & willful….
Fast forward to 1857, and Aurora returns from an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Paris, but there’s something a bit fishy about this period in Aurora’s life, and that is confirmed in hints. She returns “loth to talk” about the school, she “slept badly, was nervous and hysterical,” and it’s clear that she’s distracted and bothered about something. Aurora’s cousin, Lucy, a sweet, intelligent young woman with a sunny disposition arrives to visit, and decides Aurora’s dark mood must be due to her dislike of Paris.
Mr Floyd organizes a ball in honour of Aurora’s 19th birthday, and it’s here that Talbot Bulstrode, the proud, inflexible heir to a Cornish baronetcy meets Aurora Floyd. Bulstrode, at 32, has very definite ideas about the sort of woman he wants to marry, and so far, he’s never met “a woman whose stainless purity of soul fitted her in his eyes to become the mother of a noble race, and to rear sons who would do honour to the name of Bulstrode.”
He looked for more than ordinary every-day virtue in the woman of his choice; he demanded those grand and queenly qualities which are rarest in womankind. Fearless truth, a sense of honour keen as his own, loyalty of purpose, unselfishness, a soul untainted by the petty baseness of daily life–all these he sought in the being he loved; and at first warning thrill of emotion caused by a pair of beautiful eyes, he grew critical and captious about their owner, and began looking for infinitesimal stains upon the shining robe of her virginity. He would have married a beggar’s daughter if she had reached his almost impossible standard; he would have rejected the descendant of a race of kings if she had fallen one decimal part of an inch below it. Women feared Talbot Bulstrode: manoeuvring mothers shrank abashed from the cold light of those watchful grey eyes; daughters to marry blushed and trembled, and felt their pretty affectations, their ball-room properties, drop away from them under the quiet gaze of the young officer; till, from fearing him, the lovely flutterers grew to shun and dislike him, and to leave Bulstrode Castle and the Bulstrode fortune untangled for in the great matrimonial fisheries.
Bulstrode definitely seems to be channeling Austen’s Darcy. Personally I didn’t buy the argument that Bulstrode would marry a “beggar’s daughter” if she met his exacting standards, but no matter. There’s the subtle idea here that no one is good enough for Bulstrode–he really wants to marry himself. As we see later in the novel, he does the next best thing.
So Bulstrode attends the ball, and he’s already making snarky comments about the heiress, Aurora, he’s yet to meet. In his insufferably egotistical way, Bulstrode expects that Aurora will have already investigated his background and his wealth, so he fully expects her to simper and flirt, but the meeting subverts his stuffy expectations. Firstly, Aurora is dressed simply, yet magnificently, with a garland of scarlet berries wrapped in her blue-black hair. The other young ladies dress alike, sporting pinks, pale blues and yellows, and too many jewels & flowers. Aurora doesn’t flirt with Bulstrode; she barely acknowledges his presence; he’s reeling from the stunning effects of her appearance when she opens her mouth and launches into a discussion about horse racing. Bulstrode is horrified and speechless.
It’s a wonderful scene–one of the best in an entertaining and extremely well plotted book, but it’s also through this scene that Braddon starts playing with her readers as she draws us in to the central mystery which surrounds Aurora Floyd. We have every reason to suppose that Bulstrode is the romantic hero of the piece, and we have every reason to expect that he’ll fall in love with Aurora in spite of his instincts to run like hell.