Aurora Floyd by M. E. Braddon Part I

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….

aurora floydFast 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.

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10 Comments

Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction

10 responses to “Aurora Floyd by M. E. Braddon Part I

  1. I really never knew much about Victorian Sensation fiction before you began writing about it Guy. I can understand your fascination as it seems to be both fun and enlightening, as to attitudes of the time.

    Indeed Bulstrode seems to have been influenced by Austen’s character.

  2. ” a garland of scarlet berries,” ” a discussion about horse racing,” from you, and “great matrimonial fisheries” from Braddon – I know that Braddon is not exactly world-class as a prose writer, but those details are quite appealing. What fun.

    • I’d never heard much good about Braddon, but my first book by her wiped away all my assumptions. Yes she relies on coincidences and implausibilities, and is utterly shameless when it comes to plot contrivances, but she can plot. With a capital P.

  3. Totally agree with Tom. Picturing Aurora with her garalnd and talking about races must have made quite the impression on Bulstrode.

  4. This sounds like a delight. Great description of the ball scene as I can just see it in my mind’s eye.

  5. I love the idea of Aurora wearing a delicate garland of berries and chatting about horse racing.
    B’ s expectations in a wife reminds me about Beaumarchais writing that considering the qualities expected in a servant, not many masters could be a servant themselves.

    PS : I had the same reaction as you about his marrying a beggar’s daughter. Not plausible at all, or like in Darcy’s case after a lot of internal struggle. Admitting of course that a beggar’s daughter could have contact with such a man.
    But when you read someone like Braddon, you need to leave your consistency-checking mind behind otherwise you can’t enjoy the ride.

    I have to read her someday. This sounds like a great Beach & Public Transport book.

  6. Braddon was an extraordinary woman. A former actress and playwright, she openly lived with a married man:
    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.” (from an earlier post)
    After Maxwell’s death, she raised his 5 children and their six and continued to write a flurry of novels to support them all. Given all this, I think Braddon had great fun poking at Victorian ideals while giving lip service to her support. That’s why I don’t think she was genuinely scandalized by Madame Bovary. She just said she was so she could pinch the basic formula.

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