Tag Archives: M.E Braddon

Henry Dunbar by M.E. Braddon

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.

henry dunbarBut 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.

6 Comments

Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction

The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon Part II

Carrying on from part I, there’s an important quote from one of the novel’s great characters, sensation author Sigsimund Smith. Sigismund, who appears to be a fictional stand in for Braddon, after all, earns a living from writing exactly the sort of books that have led to Isabel’s skewed vision of life. It seems ridiculous to presume that either Sigismund or Braddon would ever preach against novels, yet Isabel’s problematic world view has been formed by reading. According to Braddon, Sigismund Smith “sold his imagination, and Isabel lived upon hers.” As Sigismund tells his smitten friend, Gilbert, Isabel is beautiful but “she reads too many novels.”

“Don’t suppose that I want to depreciate the value of the article. A novel’s a splendid thing after a hard day’s work, a sharp practical tussle with the real world, a healthy race on the barren moorland of life, a hearty wrestling-match in the universal ring. Sit down then and read Ernest Maltravers, or Eugene Aram, or the Bride of Lammermoor, and the sweet romance lulls your tired soul to rest, like the cradle-song that soothes a child. No wise man or woman was ever the worse for reading novels. Novels are only dangerous for those foolish girls who read nothing else, and think their lives are to be paraphrases of their favourite books. That girl yonder wouldn’t look at a decent young fellow in a Government office, with three hundred a year and a chance of advancement,” said Mr. Smith, pointing to Isabel Sleaford with a backward jerk of his thumb. “She’s waiting for a melancholy creature with murder on his mind.”

The Doctor's wifeIndeed, Isabel doesn’t dream of a happy-ever-after; her dream is of tragic doomed love. She idolizes Ernest Maltravers, Henry Esmond and Steerforth, and “sighed to sit at the feet of a Byron, grand and gloomy and discontented, baring his white brow to the midnight blast, and raving against the baseness and ingratitude of mankind.” Sometimes she dreams of dying young of tuberculosis–a painful death, but one to her which is infused with tragic glamour.  A glimpse of Isabel’s character can be seen through her employment as a nursery governess for two orphaned children under the guardianship of Mr. Charles Raymond. She loves playing with the children and teaching them her romanticized version of history:

she gave them plenty of Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots, –fair princess Mary, Queen of France and wife of Thomas Brandon,–Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday.

The children only said ‘Lor!’ when they heard of Mademoiselle Corday’s heroic adventure: but they were very much interested in the fate of the young princes of the House of York, and amused themselves by a representation of the smothering business with the pillows on the school-room sofa.

Mr. Raymond understands that Isabel’s approach to education is flawed, but he considers that she possesses a “decent moral region.” And that’s a rather important distinction as it turns out.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Isabel marries Gilbert. She doesn’t love him, but this marriage is an opportunity for a different life, and momentarily even Isabel is caught up in the romance of courtship. What follows is a drab, budget honeymoon with Isabel, who so wanted to look like Florence Dombey on her wedding day, dressed in a brown silk dress, not of her choosing, but purchased by Gilbert for its “homely merit of usefulness.” On her wedding day, she acknowledges “her life had never been her own yet, and never was to be her own.”  She makes one attempt to glamorize her home and then when that fails, she returns to the solace of her books. Rejected by her peers who tediously discuss “the last popular memoir of some departed Evangelical curate,” Isabel withdraws even more. Gilbert who choose Isabel because she was so different from all the other young women he knew, wishes to “smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of everyday womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common-sense.” Life goes on. Isabel is “content with a life in which she had ample leisure to dream of a different existence.”

Some time later, through Isabel’s former employer, Mr. Raymond, Isabel makes the acquaintance of a very wealthy man, Roland Lansdell, a local landowner who is also an author of a volume of poems An Alien’s Dream, one of Isabel’s favourite volumes. Roland Lansdell is flattered by Isabel’s very evident worship, and worship can be a very powerful aphrodisiac. Lansdell isn’t a great poet, and somewhere deep down, he knows this, but to Isabel, who trembles in his presence, he’s one of her idols–a hero stepped out from one of her books: wealthy, troubled, difficult, handsome, & restless. In fact, Roland and Isabel have a lot in common and when it comes to temperament, they rather dangerously share some character traits, a passion for books, and a yearning for doomed, impossible romance.

In Madame Bovary, the novel that inspired The Doctor’s Wife, we see Emma Bovary at the end of the line. Unleashed she destroys herself. The Doctor’s Wife is Braddon’s take on the tale, and there’s a very different moral element at play here concerning the “affair” and its consequences. For this reader, The Doctor’s Wife is a delightful read, and particularly for the growth of the characters. Even though Braddon intended to create a more literary novel which is mostly achieved here by literary allusion, there some elements of Sensation Fiction–coincidences that defy plausibility and even a murder.

18 Comments

Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction

The Doctor’s Wife by M. E. Braddon Part I

After finishing and thoroughly enjoying Lady Audley’s Secret, I moved on to another Braddon novel. I rarely read two novels by the same author in a row, so that’s an indication of my latest obsession with Victorian Sensation Fiction.  This time it’s The Doctor’s Wife–a complete change of pace for the author. The novel appeared in 1864, and according to the introduction to my Oxford classics version:

 Braddon seems to have been in the process of developing a strategy, which she pursued for the next couple of years, of producing pairs of novels, one of which was aimed purely at the commercial market and the other at ‘Fame’ and artistic recognition.

Lynn Pykett goes on to explain that for 1864, The Doctor’s Wife (Braddon’s personal favorite) was her “literary novel” for the year, and that Braddon “an inveterate recycler of her own and other novelists’ plots, borrowed this one from Gustav Flaubert.”

Here again is a quote from the intro in which Braddon acknowledged her source;

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.

Given that Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon’s best-known novel contains bigamy, madness, blackmail, arson, murder, and desertion, I couldn’t help but wonder quite where Braddon was coming from with the comment about the immorality of Madame Bovary. Did she really mean that comment to be taken at face value or was this a pose–a pretense of shock or an excuse to “recycle” the book as her own? I’m not a Braddon scholar, so I can only speculate, and in my personal opinion, I can’t take Braddon’s comment at face value as I consider her to be a bit of a trickster. Gustav Flaubert’s novel certainly went through the laundry cycle repeatedly in Braddon’s version; the s0-called scandalous aspects of Flaubert’s novel are bleached clean and instead we get the bare bones of Madame Bovary Anglicised and Braddonised. As a result Braddon’s characters are much better-behaved people than those found in Flaubert’s tale.

The Doctor's wifeThe title gives it away, of course; this is the story of a doctor’s wife, but let’s back up a little bit.

Small town doctor George Gilbert, who grew from a “commonplace” lad to a decent, solid man, is just 22-years-old when he travels from his hometown of Graybridge-on-the Wayverne to London for a week’s holiday to visit an “old schoolfellow,” Samuel Smith who’s now churning out Sensation Fiction under the name Sigismund Smith. Smith is one of the novel’s great characters (and there are several here); always taking notes and looking for inspiration for the next blockbuster, he seems to be a fictional stand-in for Braddon herself:

Mr. Sigismund Smith was a sensation author. That bitter term of reproach, ‘sensation,’ had not been invented for the terror of romancers in the fifty-second year of this present century; but the thing existed nevertheless in divers forms, and people wrote sensation novels as unconsciously as Monsieur Jourdain talked prose. Sigismund Smith was the author of about half a dozen highly-spiced fictions, which enjoyed an immense popularity amongst the classes who like their literature as they like their tobacco–very strong.

Sigismund is currently working on Smuggler’s Bride which will appear, as do all of his novels, serialized in “weekly numbers at a penny.”  In spite of making a decent living writing titles such as Lilia the Deserted and Colonel Montefiasco *, or the Brand upon the Shoulder-blade, he “fondly nursed” the “dream” of writing something serious and substantial. It’s through Sigismund that George Gilbert meets Isabel Sleaford, the daughter of a barrister of questionable reputation. The Sleafords rent a modest home in Camberwell, and Sigismund lodges with the “free-and-easy” family in a ramshackle house in sore need of repairs. The Sleafords rent on a “repairing lease,” and we’re told that Mr. Sleaford “must have anticipated a prodigious claim for dilapidations at the expiration of his tenancy.” Sigismund tells Gilbert that the family is thinking about sailing for Australia.

Gilbert enters into this haphazard household, meets, and is completely entranced by Isabel Sleaford, a young pale, black-eyed beauty who’s busy reading a novel by one of her favourite authors, Algerman Mountfort–a novelist whose books, according to Sigismund are “dangerously beautiful,”

beautiful sweet-meats, with opium inside the sugar.

Sigismund’s descriptions are closer to the truth than he realizes. 17-year-old Isabel’s real world is not a happy one. The Sleafords live in poverty while Mr Sleaford juggles schemes and bills. Isabel has four half-brothers and a step-mother. She’s had a patchy education, and all she wants to do is read, read, read. Unfortunately, her reading choices emphasize romance and thrilling adventure, so she has grown up with a very romantic, skewed view of life. Books are her escape, but because they’re the best part of her life they’ve also become alarmingly real.

She had been taught a smattering of everything at a day-school in the Albany Road; rather a stylish seminary in the opinion of the Camberwellians. She knew a little Italian, enough French to serve for the reading of novels that she might have better left unread, and just so much of modern history as enabled her to pick out all the sugarplums in the historian’s pages,–the Mary Stuarts, the Joan of Arcs and Anne Boleyns, the Iron Masks and La Vallières, the Marie Antoinettes and Charlotte Cordays, luckless Königsmarks and wicked Borgias; all the romantic and horrible stories scattered amid the dry records of Magna Chartas and reform Bills, clamorous Third Estates and Beds of Justice. She played the Piano a little, and sang a little, and painted wishy-washy-looking flowers on Bristol-board from nature, but not at all like nature; for the passion-flowers were apt to come out like blue muslin frills, and the fuchsias would have passed for prawns with short-sighted people.

*There’s that trickster peering through

14 Comments

Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon Part II

From Norman Donaldson’s introduction to my copy of Lady Audley’s Secret:

Thackeray once walked to the local railroad station three times in a single day to enquire whether his copy of [her] Braddon’s novel had arrived. Tennyson declared himself “steeped in Miss Braddon” and engaged in reading every word she had ever written. R.L. Stevenson wrote to her from Samoa that “it is something to be greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and that you have attained.”

High praise indeed.

Lady audley's secretIn my last post, I wrote a little about M.E. Braddon. After finishing Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), which I loved, if you can’t already tell, I wondered how much the author’s background as an actress contributed to her novel. Yes it’s a Victorian Sensation novel and occasionally melodramatic, but it also has a stage-quality to it; in other words it’s ripe for adaptation. This is an incredibly well-plotted book, and at its heart, its very dark heart, is a mystery connected by two seemingly separate story threads.

Sir Michael Audley, a 55-year-old widower and the father of an only child, 18-year-old Alicia, meets and unexpectedly falls deeply in love with Lucy Graham, an orphan with no family, a governess for the children of the local surgeon. With her angelic looks, blonde curls and soft “melting” blue eyes, there’s something fey about Lucy Graham; she’s a veritable enchantress:

Wherever she went she seemed to take joy and brightness with her. In the cottages of the poor her fair face shone like a sunbeam. She would sit for a quarter of an hour talking to some old woman, and apparently as pleased with the admiration of a toothless crone as if she had been listening to the compliments of a marquis; and when she tripped away, leaving nothing behind her (for her poor salary gave no scope to her benevolence), this old woman would burst into senile raptures with her grace, beauty, and her kindliness, such as she never bestowed upon the vicar’s wife, who half fed and clothed her.

That passage gives an indication of the charm that Lucy Graham possesses and the spell she weaves on some people. Sir Michael Audley considers his first marriage to his long-dead wife a “dull jog-trot bargain made to keep some estate in the family.” This time, he wants to marry for love, but he goes ahead with the marriage knowing that Lucy does not love him and accepts his proposal due to his wealth and position. Not all people, however, are won over by Lucy. Alicia Audley can’t stand Lucy Graham, but then perhaps she’s prejudiced and disgruntled by being displaced in her father’s affections and in the household. Then again, Alicia’s Newfoundland dog, Caesar, growls at Lucy in spite of her efforts to befriend him. As for Lucy Graham, or Lady Audley as she becomes, she’s very child-like, given to pouts, giddiness, headaches but more than anything else, she is indulged by her new husband who gives her everything she wants. Overall, to outsiders, the marriage seems successful.

The other story thread concerns 25-year-old George Talboys who abandoned his wife and child in England and sailed to Australia to make his fortune. Gone 31/2 years, he returns to England a rich man only to discover that his wife is dead. Talboys reconnects with a school friend, Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Audley, the cousin, then, of Alicia. Robert Audley, who is the moral centre of this wonderful story, is my favourite character in the book. When the novel begins, he’s a wastrel. He’s “supposed to be a barrister,” but “he had never either had a brief, or tried to get a brief, or even wished to have a brief in all those five years, during which his name had been painted upon one of the doors in Figtree Court.” He lives on 400 pounds a year, maintains a small household with one faithful servant and is a thoroughly “lazy, care-for-nothing fellow.” Almost against his will, and certainly against his nature, Robert Audley assumes the role of an amateur detective of sorts as he becomes involved in the mystery surrounding George Talboys and his wife. He’d rather just ignore the mystery and return to his lazy ways but it becomes a matter of conscience and morality, and even Robert cannot ignore that. He’s a marvelous character, and we see his growth as a human being as the novel continues. Initially it almost takes a crowbar to gouge him out of his comfortable, undemanding little life and take action, but take action he does. Once faced with the moral dilemma of whether he should seek the truth or turn away, he’s persistent and not to be swayed from his mission to discover the truth even though he’s all too aware that he may seriously wreck the lives of other people he cares about.

Lady Audley’s Secret is partly about compulsions–the things that drive us. Robert Audley, for example, gets to the point that he feels he cannot control the compulsion to discover the truth. When the book begins, he’s a very happy man, but he loses that peace of mind. He asks himself if he’s “tied to a wheel” turning “with its every revolution.” But he’s not the only character to be driven by a compulsion. Sir Michael Audley, who can’t help himself, marries Lucy against his better judgement, and then there’s George Talboys, driven by compulsion to abandon his wife and child and set sail to Australia. That brings me to Lady Lucy Audley, driven by compulsion in all her acts. Why? Well read the story to find out.

The title Lady Audley’s Secret seems to give a hint to the reader, and I thought I more or less knew the plot before opening the first page. While it’s easy to guess some of the plot before it rolls out, this does not alter the book’s intense, page-turning readability. Yes there’s a secret and but there are also multiple crimes to be revealed before the end of the novel. In other words, it’s the journey not the destination that grips the reader.

Here’s the beginning of the novel, heavy with description of Audley Court–a screen-play style opening, so cleverly constructed, that places the reader at the scene with its intense descriptions of a house in which all is not as it should be….

It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thoroughfare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business there at all.

At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand–and which jumped straight from one hour to the next–and was therefore always in extremes. Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.

A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county. To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss. To the left, there was a broad graveled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by godly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter.

While this tale of bigamy, madness, murder, blackmail scandalized and thrilled its Victorian readers, scratch the surface and there’s a poignancy to this tale regarding the fate of women whose careers are limited to the ignominy of becoming a governess or hoping for marriage–for better or worse, love or no love. For those out there who’ve read the novel, did anyone else feel sympathy for Lady Audley?

15 Comments

Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction

Lady Audley’s Secret by M. E Braddon Part I

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.

Lady audley's secretMary  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….

15 Comments

Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction