Talbot Bulstrode is looking for a suitable wife who’ll provide him with heirs “who should do honour to the name of Bulstrode.” He has a vision of the ‘ideal’ woman, but so far no one has met his impossible expectations. Then he meets Aurora Floyd, the only daughter of a wealthy banker. At first he’s struck by her beauty:
A divinity! imperiously beautiful in white and scarlet, painfully dazzling to look upon, intoxicatingly brilliant to behold. Captain Bulstrode had served in India, and had once tasted a horrible spirit called bang, which made men who drank it half mad; and he could not help fancying that the beauty of this woman was like the strength of that alcoholic preparation; barbarous, intoxicating, dangerous and maddening.
but then she opens her mouth…
“Good heavens! what a horrible woman,” is the stuffy Talbot Bulstrode’s response to the first words Aurora Floyd speaks. Up to the point she asked the question, “Do you know if Thunderbolt won the leger?” Bulstrode had viewed Aurora as a “Cleopatra in crinoline.” That first impression is rapidly abandoned as Aurora launches into a discussion of horse-racing:
She looked at him rather contemptuously. ‘Cheops wasn’t much,’ she said: ‘he won the Liverpool Autumn Cup in Blink Bonny’s year, but most people said it was a fluke.’
Talbot Bulstrode shuddered afresh; but a feeling of pity mingled with his horror. ‘If I had a sister,’ he thought, ‘I would get her to talk to this miserable girl, and bring her to a sense of her iniquity.’
Once Bulstrode reveals that he knows nothing about horse-racing, the brief conversation is over. Aurora looks bored and moves on. Bulstrode is stunned; part of his reaction stems from Aurora’s inappropriate conversation which revealed a blatant “taste for horseflesh,” but there’s no small amount of ego involved here. Aurora didn’t flirt or simper; in fact she seemed disinterested in the Bulstrode name and fortune, and so begins Bulstrode’s fascination with Aurora. She’s far from his “ideal,” but pride is the key to Bulstrode’s character, so he’s spurred on by Aurora’s lack on interest.
Talbot Bulstrode’s ideal woman was some gentle and feminine creature crowned with an aureole of pale auburn hair; some timid soul with downcast eyes, fringed with gold-tinted lashes; some shrinking being, as pale and prim as the mediaeval saints in his pre-Raphaelite engravings, spotless as her own white robes, excelling in all womanly graces and accomplishments, but only exhibiting them in the narrow circle of a home.
Bulstrode’s ideal woman exists: she’s Aurora’s gentle cousin Lucy, but Bulstrode hardly notices Lucy; he’s much more interested in the “goddess,” Aurora. Lucy, who’s naturally retiring anyway, sinks into the background whenever her glamorous cousin is in the room. From the moment Aurora shows complete disinterest in Bulstrode, his fascination begins, and when Aurora and Lucy travel to Brighton with Mr Floyd to enjoy the sea air, guess who shows up? Yes, Bulstrode, but soon there’s a rival on the scene; a good humoured Yorkshireman, John Mellish.
This is a tale of blackmail, bigamy (the horror!), and murder. I’m not going to give away much more of the plot as to do so would spoil the fun. Secrets from Aurora’s past emerge, in typical Braddon fashion, but there’s a lot here apart from scandal. Braddon also takes a subtle look at love through her four main characters: John Mellish, Talbot Bulstrode (the two men are friends) and Aurora and her gentler cousin, Lucy. Just as you expect the novel to go in one direction, Braddon introduces some complications for her lovers while exploring the idea that we are all too-often attracted to people who are unsuitable for our natures.
Braddon puts some distance between herself and her main character, Aurora. Initially our heroine is not particularly likeable, but this image melts and she becomes more sympathetic as the novel continues. She’s an ardent animal lover, even taking a horse whip to a man (a servant, naturally) who’s cruel to her elderly, crippled Newfoundland (which seems to be Braddon’s breed of choice). We know there’s some dark secret in Aurora’s past gnawing away at her daily. We also know that the secret is somehow connected to her life in Paris, and we also know, because Braddon laces the novel with dire warnings, platitudes, and some glorious, highly dramatic breast-beating, that this dark secret will OUT.
But Braddon is a trickster of the first order. She shamelessly pinched the idea for The Doctors’ Wife from Flaubert giving the excuse: “The idea of The Doctor’s Wife is founded on ‘Madame Bovary,’ the style of which struck me immensely in spite of its hideous immorality.” Blatant marketing there, and I don’t believe for a moment that Braddon thought Madame Bovary was immoral at all. She knew a good idea when she saw it and simply capitalized on it. An example of Braddon’s trickery (well there are loads of examples in the plot) also occurs in the presentation of Bulstrode’s Ideal. Bulstrode’s Ideal woman is clearly not the sort of woman Braddon prefers or admires. Braddon gives us scenes of Lucy, a veritable angel, but nonetheless annoying. She acts as a mirror for the man she loves; he just has to say something, or give an opinion in order for Lucy to reflect back male glory:
It was part of her nature to love in a reverential attitude, and she had no wish to approach nearer her idol. To sit at her sultan’s feet and replenish his chibouque; to watch him while he slept, and wave the punkah above his seraphic head; to love and pray for him, –made up the sum of her heart’s desire.
Nauseating. But again, Braddon takes on a subtle stand on this character. She shows Lucy as annoying & uninteresting–even though she meets all the qualifications of a so-called female Ideal.
Aurora Floyd is a delight to read, and once again, I am impressed with Braddon’s incredible ability to plot. As the saying goes: this woman could write her way out of a paper bag. Braddon creates some wonderful detective characters, and in this novel we have Mr. Grimstone from Scotland Yard. Most of the novels revolve around the upper classes, and the glimpses we get of Braddon’s detectives are frustratingly short. They appear, solve things, and then disappear like vapour.