Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A French Thrill Under Yellow Covers

I have recently finished reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Critics have pointed out how cheap and risqué French romantic thrillers provided both inspiration and atmospheric pointers for this sensation novel. The narrative makes several references to popular French romances. Lady Audley orders "yellow-paper covered novels" in French from Burlington Arcade and reads them with her lady's maid Phoebe (Vol I, Chapter 14). A little later in the story she compares her own situation to the plot of such a novel (Ibid.). The detective hero, Robert Audley, is also a habitual reader of sensational French novels (Vol. I, Chapter 4). However, once the mystery in Lady Audley's Secret grips his imagination, "the yellow-papered fictions on the shelves above his head seemed stale and profitless." "The metaphysical diablerie" of Balzac is no longer of interest when visions of Lady Audley's golden curls "danced and trembled in a glittering haze" in his mind (Vol. II, Chapter 1. See also Vol II, Chapter 6).

These references to contemporary French fiction in Lady Audley's Secret and Braddon's known fondness and admiration for it have been well noted by critics. Braddon was specifically impressed by Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. She has been credited as the first person to draw attention of British readers to Flaubert's genius. Later, she re-worked the story for English sensibilities in The Doctor's Wife, serialized in Temple Bar in 1864.

Madame Bovary was first serialized in Le Revue de Paris from October 1856 and published in book form in 1857 (a year before the events in Lady Audley's Secret begin to unfold). In his 1987 introduction to Lady Audley's Secret, David Skilton suggests that Robert Audley may well have been the very first fictional character to own a copy of Madame Bovary: Robert collected novels by Michael Lévy, the Parisian publisher of Flaubert's book (Vol III, Chapter 9).

There are clear similarities in the characters of the tragic heroines in both novels. Lucy, Lady Audley and Emma Bovary are both women who desire more - more love, more stimulation, more excitement, more luxury. They are both selfish and amoral (the occasional, vague twinges of conscience they suffer seem to be more self-dramatization than true remorse). Both women are also resourceful and at the same time limited in their intellect and ability to imagine the consequences of their actions. They are passionate and impulsive. But while Lady Audley merely toys with a fatal dose of opium (Vol III, Chapter 2), Emma Bovary famously cannot resist her self-destructive impulse.

I am now curious to see why M. E Braddon, the mistress of sensation fiction should have admired Flaubert's Madame Bovary so much. Flaubert's novel is celebrated as the very model of great realist writing and a milestone in development of world literature. The man was famous for being a perfectionist and seeking out just the right words to convey his meaning. But all of that is secondary; what I want to find out is if Flaubert's tale has the power to thrill, to intoxicate and to hook me. Is it sufficiently sensational to satisfy my literary cravings?

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