Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Tough Cookie - Part 1: M. E. Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837 - 1915) was the absolute mistress of sensation fiction. She was a literary super-star and constantly near the top of Victorian best-seller lists. Braddon's private life was famously almost as sensational as her plots. Different sources give slightly varying details of her life, but Robert Lee Wolff's biography Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1979) is perhaps the best source to get the facts reasonably right.

Even without much detail Braddon's life offers material for melodrama. She was born 1837 to an apparently useless Cornish solicitor Henry Braddon and an extremely capable Irishwoman Fanny. Henry exited the picture when Braddon was 4 or 5 years old, but Fanny Braddon made sure the girl got a good, middle-class education. Then money ran out. With her mother's support, Braddon made the unusual decision to become an actress and toured the theatres of the north as 'Miss Mary Seyton.' In Yorkshire she caught the eye of John Gilby, a patron, a friend, possibly a lover - no one quite knows what went on there. He encouraged Braddon's literary aspirations by commissioning her to write a poem about Garibaldi. He also helped to get her novel The Trail of the Serpent published in 1860. Around this time Braddon decided to leave the morally dubious career of an actress and move to a more respectable profession of a novelist. She also met publisher John Maxwell. He had five children and a wife in an asylum in Dublin. That did not put Braddon off. Braddon and Maxwell became a couple. This was caused a scandal, but Braddon had no time to worry about this: she now had Maxwell's ailing businesses and his children to support. Any writer's block would risk the bread on the table. Lady Audley's Secret began to appear as a serial in Maxwell's magazine Robin Goodfellow in July 1861, but in September the magazine folded. Braddon moved on to write Aurora Floyd. She was also expecting her first child with Maxwell. Then Sixpenny Magazine decided to pick up Lady Audley in January 1862. Now Braddon was writing two huge novels, juggling a baby and running Maxwell's household on a tight budget at the same time. She was 27. It is quite an achievement that Lady Audley's Secret makes any sense at all. Of course it is all too easy to see Braddon's life experiences reflected in the character of Lady Audley.

After Lady Audley (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863) came out Braddon was financially secure. She went on to write, depending on who you believe, anything between 70 and 90 novels - many of them published anonymously - ranging from three-deckers to penny dreadfuls. Maxwell started a magazine for her to edit The Belgravia and she also contributed articles and essays to other magazines. There were four more children with Maxwell, and they married in 1874, after his wife died. Despite her career as a writer who spouted out an endless stream of pot-boilers, Braddon has never been considered totally without merit. Her contemporaries recognized that she had some writing talent, and her works, Lady Audley in particular, have remained in print and studied by academics. Perhaps the best-known modern reading of Lady Audley is by Elaine Showalter in her A Literature of Their Own (1977). It gives a feminist view of the story and its heroine. Lady Audley is another tough cookie.

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