M.E. Braddon’s Victorian Sensation novel Henry Dunbar followed enthusiastic readings of Lady Audley’s Secret and The Doctor’s Wife, and while Henry Dunbar shares some characteristics with Lady Audley’s Secret, it’s not as good. Both novels hinge on the question of identity, but Lady Audley’s Secret throws in some other elements too which add greatly to the novel’s pacing. For this reader, Henry Dunbar started very promisingly indeed but then became caught in a repetitive loop until the novel’s best character was introduced towards the conclusion.
But first the plot…
Henry Dunbar is about to return to England from India after a thirty-five year absence. Following the deaths of his uncle and father, he is the sole heir to the fortune of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby, East India bankers, one of the oldest and richest firms in London. In his youth, Henry Dunbar was a bad boy. He was a dashing young officer with mounting debts when he persuaded the very young and very impressionable Joseph Wilmot, an underling at the company, Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby, to cover his debts with a short-sighted forgery scheme. The forgeries were revealed. Wilmot was sacked from his job with no references and young Henry Dunbar was packed off to India. In the 35 years that followed, Henry Dunbar has worked hard in India, married, fathered a child, and become a widower.
That which would have been called a crime in a poorer man was only considered an error in the dashing young cornet of dragoons, who had lost money upon the turf.
When the novel opens, Sampson Wilmot, the younger brother of the forger Joseph Wilmot, is the only person present at Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby who knew the young Henry Dunbar. Sampson tells the story of the scandal involving Henry Dunbar and Joseph Wilmot to Mr Balderby (who owns 1/4 of the company), and this story sets the scene for the drama that follows. Joseph Wilmot paid dearly for the forgery while Henry Dunbar was not ruined. He was simply put on ice–as many young scoundrels were in the days of the British Empire–by sending him out to India where presumably, he would ‘learn his lesson.’ Joseph, on the other hand, with no references, went from “bad to worse,” and was eventually transported to Australia for life for forgery crimes. Mr Balderby listens to the story and shows sympathy for Joseph who acted solely under pressure Henry Dunbar’s influence. Balderby notes that as a wealthy man, Dunbar “has had a long immunity from his sins. I should scarcely think it likely he would ever be called upon to atone for them.” Sampson doesn’t agree:
“I don’t know, Sir,” the old clerk answered. “I know that I’ve seen retribution come very late, very late; when the man who committed the sin had well night forgotten it. Evil trees bear evil fruit, Mr. Balderby.”
This first chapter, full of foreboding, is very well done, and Braddon ratchets up the suspense so much so that I actually felt the story possibilities being narrowed down dramatically. In this well-crafted beginning, we learn very early on that no one knows what Henry Dunbar looks like. He sent his infant daughter, Laura and step-daughter back to England years before, and all of Dunbar’s other relatives are dead. No one except old and frail Sampson Wilmot can identify Dunbar. There was at one point a portrait of Dunbar commissioned by his family, but that went mysteriously missing. Now Dunbar is about to arrive back in England after a 35-year-long absence and old Sampson Wilmot is being sent to meet him. Braddon seems to relish in dropping hints about the story to come. We’re told that “Laura Dunbar might pass her father in the street without recognizing him,” and that “no portrait of Henry Dunbar exists.” Dunbar was originally accompanied by a valet but he became ill and was left at Malta. Henry Dunbar will arrive alone in England.
In the next chapter, we meet a bitter shadowy character who calls himself James Wentworth and his saintly daughter, Margaret, who puts food on the table with her meagre earnings as a piano teacher. This domestic scene gives a strong sense of James Wentworth’s character, for he’s unable to appreciate his daughter’s love due to the bitterness of early experience and hatred of society. He tells Margaret how he was “brand[ed] by society” and “transported for life,” and for all of his life’s woes, he blames Henry Dunbar who, according to Wentworth “never suffered” for what happened.
Fate, darkly brooding over these two men throughout half a long lifetime, had held them asunder for five-and-thirty years, to fling them mysteriously together now.
Yes the two men meet and what occurs takes up the rest of the story.
We can chew over some of the story elements and draw our own conclusions. We are told, for example, that Joseph Wilmot was a good person before being corrupted into a life of crime by Henry Dunbar, and yet Joseph Wilmot’s actions throughout the course of the book would argue otherwise. He’s a crap human being, criminal past or no criminal past. He’s a horrible father and brother and seems to think of no one else except himself.
The prevailing idea in the novel is the idea of justice for the rich vs. justice for the poor. Of course, there’s the 35-year-old forgery case in which Dunbar was sent off to India to stew while Joseph Wilmot was sacked without references. Dunbar recovered without tarnish from the event. Joseph Wilmot, who already had a lowly position in life, never recovered and was hammered lower and lower until all he could do was commit crimes in order to survive. But while that’s all history, when the novel begins, Braddon shows us a repeat lesson that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. The question of murder arises and Braddon rather cleverly shows that a millionaire is above the law.
Money is a very powerful agent, and can buy almost anything. It is rarely that a man with almost unlimited wealth at his command, finds himself compelled to commit an act of violence.
Some characters seem to be created to little purpose. Henry Dunbar has a step-daughter, but she’s always off in the sidelines and isn’t developed. Margaret Dunbar is so saintly that her choices grate at times. She’s determined to martyr herself on her principles, and that of course, spurs on her lover, Clement Austin to finally hire a detective to solve the mystery at the novel’s core. This clever, relentless detective, Mr. Carter is the best character in the book:
little by little, I put my questions, and keep on putting ‘em till every bit of information upon this particular subject is picked clean away as the meat that’s torn off a bone by a hungry dog.
Lady Audley’s Secret is also centred on the question of identity–a question that was drawn out by missed encounters and slippery opportunities. Braddon uses the same plot elements here but to weaker results as the characters in Henry Dunbar are not as well drawn. Braddon, however, keeps us guessing–although we are given plenty of clues along the way.
The origins of Detective Fiction can be found in Sensation fiction, and here we see crime rooted in the domestic lives of Braddon’s characters. Happy couples in love cannot marry, cannot begin family life until a crime is solved. The police remain a nebulous ineffective bunch who make a fatal error, and it takes Clement Austin and his love for Margaret to cast caution to the winds and pursue the case–no matter the consequences. Gambling all, Clement employs the wily detective Mr. Carter to solve the case, and Carter approaches the case with fresh, unprejudiced eyes. In the book, The Literary Lives of M.E. Braddon, author Jennifer Carnell argues that “nearly all of Braddon novels contain an element of crime and detection,” and that “of all the sensation novelists Braddon was the one most associated with crime and criminal life.” In The Doctor’s Wife, Braddon’s take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a murder sneaks into the narrative–almost as though Braddon can’t resist adding it. The element of crime which appears in Braddon’s novels adds a subversive level to the tales. In Henry Dunbar, for example, we see one law for the rich and one for the poor. Henry is given multiple chances while Joseph Wilmot is not. “The laws of society are inflexible,” yet crime usurps social order so social order dictates the punishment or lack thereof.
** I read Henry Dunbar on the kindle. The edition shown is the Victorian Secrets edition. Unfortunately I did not know that there was a recently re-issued edition when I began reading the book.