Sweet sensation - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Together with Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon dominated the market for what came to be known as "the novel of sensation" during the 1860s. Designed to unsettle, the genre caused moral alarm among critics. Not only did it revel in the dubious subject matter of murder, bigamy, illegitimacy and madness, it seemed to pathologise the very act of reading itself, since its narrative method - which fore shadows that of modern detective fiction - turned readers into addicts, titillating them with a series of withheld secrets and startling revelations.
Rereading Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret gave me an odd twinge of sympathy with the kill-joys of the Victorian age - not so much with their moral outrage, but with their recognition that these novels do make you read them in a peculiar way. I'd had the same experience with Collins's The Woman in White a few years ago. In both cases, I was almost affronted to find that I remembered almost none of the detail of their complex plots. It's as if these narratives compel you to devour them at such lightning speed that they only go into your short-term memory - which means they can be just as exciting the second time.
This doesn't mean they are superficial. The intricacies of Braddon's plot may have failed to imprint themselves on my brain, but her novel's themes and images were impossible to forget. I was struck afresh by the way the anti-heroine, with her blonde curls and child-like features, is a sinister echo of Laura Fairlie, the passive, fair-haired heroine of The Woman in White - a pleasing connection as both novels are overtly concerned with issues of doubleness and multiple or substitute identities. Although Collins plays with his culture's concepts of femininity, splitting the female roles between Marion (strong, intelligent but mustachioed) and Laura (pretty, vulnerable but insipid), he doesn't unsettle expectation with quite the ruthless bravura of his younger female contemporary. Lady Audley is a villainess tricked out as an innocent who subverts all sorts of boundaries, from that between the social classes to that between madness and sanity.
Braddon published Lady Audley's Secret when she was only 27, astonishing considering the virtuoso technique it displays. Even more amazing was the discovery of her own life story. As one of her many contemporary critics put it, "it has, we presume, been [her] lot to see a phase of life open to few ladies". This woman - whose novels outraged and fascinated Victorian readers, whose hard-bitten professionalism earned her a fortune from her prolific writing, and who ended up a respectable grande dame of popular fiction - led a life as transgressive as those of many sensation heroines.
Henry James thought the defining element of this type of fiction was the way it transposed the lurid elements of the Gothic novel from the medieval castle to the modern bourgeois home, which became a place where nothing was quite what it seemed. Certainly, this was the case in Braddon's middle-class family. The skeleton in the family cupboard was her father, a crooked solicitor, who spent his time gambling, drinking and womanising. But it was not until after her parents separated that the teenage Mary, supported by her mother, took the first truly sensational step of her life: she went on the stage.
Becoming a professional actress was unheard of for a girl of her background. Aware of possible scandal, she always acted under an assumed identity. The name she chose - Mary Seyton - is worthy of any sensation novel, combining the virginal with the satanic. In later life, Braddon understandably kept quiet about her seven or eight years in the theatre, and although her acting career has been much fleshed out by her biographer, Jennifer Carnell, questions still remain, particularly about how she negotiated the sexual dangers of this milieu. Everything she wrote about the stage suggests how aware she was that young actresses were the objects of male desire. It is assumed her mother played the protective chaperone. But when we read of mother and daughter striking up a friendship with a newspaper proprietor whom George Eliot called the "Don Juan of Coventry", after a chance encounter in a churchyard, one wonders what was going on.
More bizarre is the relationship between Braddon and a shadowy figure called John Gilby, whom she met in the northern town of Beverley. By this point, Braddon had begun to supplement her theatre work with writing, and Gilby emerges as a demanding svengali, paying her to write epic poetry about Garibaldi, and attempting to control her life. A sinister figure with withered legs, moving around on two sticks, he recalls the luridly painted cripple (Victorians were resolutely un-PC about disability) in Collins's The Law And the Lady. He committed suicide.
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