Tag Archives: Victorian Sensation Novel

Cometh Up As a Flower Part II

Rhoda Broughton’s book Cometh Up As a Flower was much more romantic than I expected, but nonetheless, parts of it were wonderful. Nell Le Strange, the narrator of this ultimately tragic novel makes an interesting yet at times, frustrating, heroine. Pressured by her sister, and with her family in desperate circumstances, she bows to convention, and marries a man she doesn’t love. She compares herself on her wedding day to “the poor lamb [whose] throat was about to be cut” and “the female martyr.

Then comes one of Broughton’s evocative passages on the day of Nell’s wedding:

The air is full of snow; flakes are sailing crookedly down to join the other flakes lying already on tree, and hedgerow, and field. There seems no horizon to-day, no definite boundary to the prospect–sky and earth are mixed and jumbled up together; it is freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing every five minutes.

Broughton doesn’t make Nell’s husband a villain; he’s a nice man, but nonetheless, the implications of sex with a man Nell doesn’t love are there. At one point she admits that she “wished he would transfer his amities to some other person, even if it were the cook.” Shockingly frank for its day, I’d think, and certainly Margaret Oliphant found the book shocking when she exclaimed that “Nell’s ‘flippancy … revolts the reader'” (from the intro by Fionn O’Toole).

In one scene, prior to Nell’s marriage, the butcher arrives to try to collect on a long unpaid bill which has amassed to thirty-five pounds, five shillings and 4 1/2 pence. One site calculates that in today’s money that would be a bill of around 2,725 pounds!

Nell is ruminating on the family’s poverty when there’s a knock at the door. She knows that it must be the cook/housekeeper “come with one fell object, namely, to get money for some of the numerous tradesmen who were kind enough to throng our doors.” The sympathy which had been gathering for Nell vanished with this scene for we see that she expects good and services to continue even though those who provide them go unpaid. She still complains that the butcher has the gall to send poor cuts of meat when really she’s lucky he’s sending anything at all.

“I wish he and his bill were at Jericho.” responded I, tartly.

“He says that this is the ninth time he has brought it in, and he wants to have it paid.

“Want must be his master,” said I briefly.

“But he says he must have it paid; that he’s got a very ‘eavy engagement to meet next week, and he cannot do without the money.”

“They always say that,” replied I, surveying ruefully a yawning chasm in the heel of my stocking.

“Indeed, ‘m, I think they do; but , if you please, what am I to tell him? he’s waiting.”

“Tell him that I shall be most happy to pay his bill if he’ll only show me how; that I cannot coin money; and I haven’t a farthing in the world, except the crooked sixpence on my chain, which he is most welcome to, if he likes to take it.”

Nell sees the butcher’s claim as a YP not a MP. Who remembers that wonderful scene at the recording studio in the film  Boogie Nights? The characters Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Reed (John C. Reilly) decide to become rock stars (hey, why not?) and make demo tapes at a recording studio. But they don’t have the money to pay the studio’s owner and tell him that they have to have the tapes first and then they can pay him later when they become rich and famous. Makes sense to them. But the studio owner says, in one of the great lines in the history of cinema, that the lack of money is a “YP not a MP.” But back to Nell … that’s one of her problems, she doesn’t grasp the realties of life: she lives in poverty with her father and sister but still expects food to miraculously land on her doorstep. It’s not the butcher’s problem–it’s her problem. Her options are running out, and then her sister Dolly fiendishly intervenes in Nell’s fate…

Boogie Nights

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Cometh Up As a Flower by Rhoda Broughton Part I

When I began Rhoda Broughton’s novel Cometh Up As a Flower, I thought I’d end up loving it. I didn’t, as it turns out, I only liked it. Parts of it were wonderful, but parts of it were too romantic, too wilty for my tastes. But those complaints aside, while Cometh Up As a Flower left me more appreciative than ever of M.E. Braddon’s masterful plotting skills, Broughton’s book does have a lot going for it.  The book opens very strongly indeed with our tragic heroine, Nell Le Strange, the youngest daughter of an impoverished, once wealthy, noble family sitting alone in the local churchyard:

Ours was a churchyard that it would have been a real luxury to be buried in. It inspired one with no horrible, hardly even melancholy ideas. One never thought of skulls or cross-bones, or greedy worms, while looking at those turfy mounds sloping so softly; those mounds that the westering sun always gave his last good-night kiss to before he went to bed behind the craggy purple hill. Were one really dead, stowed away in one’s appointed oak box, it would concern one, no doubt, not a whit whether one were huddled with other oak boxes into some ghastly pit, among the dark benettled grass of some city charnel, or laid down reverently in the fragrant earth, shadowed by some peaceable little gray church tower, such as ours was. But while one is yet alive and one’s oak box is as yet not a box at all, but the trunk of some branchy tree, one cannot realize this. Unconsciously we fancy that we shall smell the odorous mignonette and carnations that are reveling in the summer sunshine above our heads, that we shall hear the birds preaching our funeral sermons, and singing their own epithalamiums when spring comes back, that we shall shiver in the snow, and be chilled by the wintry rains.

A flawed, yet still beautiful passage (too many ‘ones’–read this quote using first person and it’s much better) that gives a sense of the novel’s main character, Nell. I immediately liked her, but at the same time knew that she was destined, with all that romanticism, for some painful lessons. Nell is the youngest of two daughters who live with their widowed father. Dolly, the eldest sister, the much more conventional of the two, was engaged to be married to a wealthy young man who inconveniently died right before the wedding. The marriage would have solved some of the family’s problems, but now Dolly’s value on the marriage market isn’t so great:

“life in an old barrack, with no present income, and with no future prospects, hardly seems to me a theme for Hallelujah; for weeping and gnashing of teeth rather.”

“I would not gnash my teeth if I were you, Dolly!” say I, with sarcasm, which is a weapon I but seldom use, as it mostly cuts my own fingers when I lay hold of it, “or you may break them, and that would seriously diminish your prospects in the market.”

“Market, indeed!” echoes Dolly, interrupting herself in the perusal of a toilette de promenade. “This little pig does not go to market, and very sorry she is for it too, she might have all her teeth drawn and knocked out, or gnashed out, and nobody would be the wiser. Alas! alas! there are no pig dealers in this Sahara.”

A very bold passage for its times, and one which reveals that Dolly is all too aware of a woman’s fate should she remain unmarried.

cometh up as a flowerNell falls in love with a man who can’t salvage the family fortunes, and so she finds herself marrying a man she doesn’t love. She’s so young, so full of life, we can almost hear the joy being squeezed out of her as she’s married off feeling only “huge loathing” and “infinite despair.” The skullduggery in the plot seems relatively tame after other Sensation novels I’ve read, and the crime involved is a moral crime more than anything else. While in Lady Audley’s Secret, M. E. Braddon creates a pathological female who will do whatever is necessary to get ahead, the wicked woman here is Nell’s sister, Dolly, who in many ways, at least externally, embodies the Victorian ideal woman.

The intro to my Pocket Classics edition, written by Fionn O’Toole acknowledges that the novel, written in 1862-3 and finally published anonymously in 1867 is “sentimental and melodramatic in parts.” Cometh Up As a Flower, a best seller in its day, tackles sexual attraction, a loveless marriage, and strongly critical of a woman’s choices, “strip[s] away the facades and veneers of a respectable woman’s life and mock the society in which she is trapped.”

Rhoda Broughton, the niece of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu enjoyed a long writing career, but when Broughton died in 1920, her popularity was in decline. Born in Wales in 1840, Rhoda Broughton’s first novel Not Wisely But Too Well was serialized in Le Fanu’s Dublin University magazine, and while Broughton is categorized as a Sensation author, publisher Victorian Secrets argues that her work is “risqué rather than sensational.” Cometh Up As a Flower is an entirely different animal from other Sensation novels I’ve read so far. While the Sensation novel owed a debt to both the Gothic and the Romantic, Cometh Up As a Flower seems to have grown from the latter.

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Aurora Floyd by M. E Braddon Part II

Continuing from part I

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.

aurora floyd

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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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Victorian Murderesses, Scandal and Literature

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Thirteen Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman. Originally I thought I was going to read the details of the cases, but while the cases are covered, the book’s emphasis is on the circumstances that lead to murder, and if the women were (possibly) innocent, what led them to being accused and society’s reaction to these women who seemed to be the antithesis of everything Victorian Womanhood was supposed to be.

Anyway, for info on the book there are two parts: here and here.

The book takes a different, much less sensationalistic approach than let’s say a ‘true crime’ book, but one of the issues brought up by the author sticks out, and that is the role of literature in some of the crimes examined here. Repeatedly, during the trials, the reading material consumed by these women became an issue, and an explanation for their deviant behaviour.

The author argues that in the cases of both Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy architect, who lived in Glasgow and Angélina Lemoine, the daughter of a lawyer, “their educations, in different ways, contributed to their decisions” to engage in actions that led to murders that occurred as the result of sexual relations outside of marriage. The common thread here between the two cases is that both women, fed a steady diet of romantic literature, initiated sexual relationships laced with faux romantic ideals, which compromised their social standing, and that they then took actions to remedy their errors. Both young women had a less-than-stellar education, but that’s hardly unusual for the times; Madeleine Smith attended Mrs. Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies near London, a finishing school with a drab daily programme of “prayers, piano lessons and practice, walking trips, discussions of current affairs, needlework, and most important, deportment.”

Madeleine Smith was eventually accused of murdering her lover with arsenic, and although there was considerable circumstantial evidence pointing to her guilt, the Scottish jury returned the verdict of “not proven.” Angélina Lemoine was accused and later acquitted of murdering a baby born out-of-wedlock. Since the murder took place immediately after the birth, and with Angélina’s mother in charge making all the arrangements for the disposal of the infant’s body, it’s obvious that she made the fatal decision to kill the newborn baby.

Both trials included evidence from letters written from the accused women to their lovers. Most of us don’t  expect our letters to be read out in public, let alone in a court of law, and it’s in these letters that the issue is raised of just what these young women were reading. Madeleine, in her letters to her lover “announced her intention to abandon Byron, who stood, she knew, for all that was unhealthy and impure.”  Angélina Lemoine’s father wrote her a letter (her parents were separated) in which he admonished her to read history (“a lot of it“) and travel literature.

But above everything do not read these products of the imagination of our so-called modern men of letters, these novelists, the reading of whose works leaves nothing behind, either in the heart or the memory.

Angélina adored the novels of George Sand–including The Confessions of Marion Delorme, a 17th century courtesan, and Angélina, clearly a precocious girl who was eager for sexual experience, saw herself as the heroine in a George Sand novel, at one point stating that “her pregnancy was “the only way to complete my novel.'”

Marie Lefarge, convicted of the arsenic poisoning of her husband, is another woman who seemed to want to live in a romantic novel. Marriage to Charles Lefarge was less than ideal, and Marie, another fan of George Sand, took drastic measures to end the relationship. Author Mary S. Hartman makes the point that “the natural result for the avid readers of such fiction, especially given their limited experience, must have been the creation of a huge ‘credibility gap’ as the realities of actual courtship and marriage in their society dawned on them. But documented evidence of such casualties among bourgeois daughters is difficult to uncover, except in  literary portraits themselves, such as Emma Bovary.”

Another point made in Mary Hartman’s book Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes is that so many ‘respectable’ 19th C women, fascinated by the headlines of murder by ‘respectable’ women, dashed off to the courts to hear the juicy details of these crimes. But is that so surprising given the popularity of Sensation fiction–books that delve into the deep, dark depths of pathological male/female relationships? In the book’s conclusion, Hartman brings up Sensation fiction and how it subverts the “stereotypes of the domestic novel” and that the characters “display ‘female anger, frustration, and sexual energy.’ ”  (Elaine Showalter).

Since I began reading Victorian Sensation fiction, I’ve become fascinated with the genre. In an art-mirrors-life-way, Sensation fiction seemed to fit perfectly with Mary S. Hartman’s scholarly book about Victorian Murderesses. M.E. Braddon doesn’t shy away from those lurid topics of murder, blackmail and bigamy, and let’s not forget that in The Doctor’s Wife, (written by Braddon as a response to Madame Bovary’s “hideous immorality,”) poor Isabel’s mind is ruined by Sensation fiction. Of course, Braddon can’t be serious about Flaubert since her own novels were also criticized as immoral. Perhaps she is having a laugh, I think at her notoriety, and why not? That very notoriety gave her a career.  Nonetheless, Isabel’s dreams of romance lead her to a sad little marriage, and then once shackled for life, she meets a man, a romantic hero, who could very well have walked out of the pages of one of her books.

Victorian Sensation literature is aptly named and great fun, but I’m going to throw another name out here now–a writer who scandalized, whose books were censored and labeled ‘obscene.’ Yes, Zola. Hardly Sensation fiction since it lacks all the melodrama and convenient coincidence, but nonetheless Zola bravely confronted the issue of the unhappily married woman and how women ‘fit’ into 19th century society. Just consider the female characters he created:

Therese Raquin–another woman locked in a loveless marriage, a woman with sexual desires which combined with a “duplicitous nature” lead to an explosive adulterous relationship and murder. Then think of all the women in Zola’s Rougon–Macquart cycle: Gervaise worked to death in a three-way relationship by two exploitive men, and Nana, one of Paris’s most popular prostitutes. In La Bête Humaine, Severine commits adultery and then conspires with her cuckolded husband to murder her lover. Charming. In The Kill, Renee has an adulterous affair with her step-son. The Conquest of Plassans gives us a masochistic woman whose misplaced sexual desires land on religion before she turns into a pyromaniac. In The Earth, two sisters turn on each other. Zola isn’t afraid to show his readers bitterly unhappily marriages and the way people try to compensate and cope with those devilishly difficult relationships.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

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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….

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