Friday, 28 September 2012

The Inconvenient Necessity of Bigamy

Lady Audley's Secret is set a few years before it was published, around 1858. That was an important year for all would-be bigamists. Up until that year, divorce was not realistically an option, and bigamy was sometimes the only practical solution.

In Victorian times many left their husbands and wives and took up with new partners. George Eliot and M. E. Braddon were not unique in establishing households with married men. Some men, like Wilkie Collins, supported two families. Madame Rachel, the infamous queen of cosmetics was abandoned with a small daughter by her husband Joseph Moses, who went prospecting to Australia. She moved in with Philip Levison, started a second family and took his name, although there is no record of her ever marrying Levison. Madame Rachel was eventually tried for fraud in 1868. Her shop would have been at 47a New Bond Street for Lady Audley to visit, and perhaps it was her advertisements Lady Audley had seen in the paper in Volume 1, chapter 7 (Madame Rachel advertised her products frequently).

Changing life partners was sometimes scandalous but mostly it was commonplace. Bigamy, however, was a step too far because it smacked of being mercenary. A bigamist might have many reasons to hide his or her past from the second spouse and they were not all based on morals or religion. An important reason for such deception was financial: the desire to get your hands on your new spouse's fortune. Men, as soon as they married, became owners of their wives' property. Bigamy could be lucrative. Women had a strong motivation to hide their previous marriages since few men were willing to invest in a woman knowing that at any moment some other chap could come along and demand his share.

For centuries marriage and divorce had been matters for the church. When marrying, a woman lost all her rights, her property became her husband's, her children belonged to him. He could abuse her; beat her, lock her up, starve her, as it took his fancy. There was no redress for the wife, and no authority that she could appeal to when the marriage went badly wrong. Legally women were on the same page with children, the mentally ill and criminals.

Only the Church of England could create or end a marriage. You could ask for annulment arguing that true marriage never took place because it has not been consummated or because your spouse is insane and therefore incapable of understanding the holy sacrament of marriage. You could also ask for annulment based on possible incest. John Ruskin's wife Euphemia Ruskin gained an annulment of their 6-year-long marriage in 1854 by proving she was a virgin. After an annulment you could marry again, but all children of a null marriage were illegitimate.

You could also ask the Church of England to grant you a separation a mensa et thoro (from bed and board) by petitioning the Consistory Court in Doctors' Commons. This meant that the spouses could live apart without risking being blamed for desertion. You could not remarry again, and the husband continued to have control of all finances and children.

If you  were wealthy enough you could go the whole hog. This option was only open to husbands. After gaining a separation granted by the Church, you could sue your wife's lover, termed 'co-respondent,' in the Court of King's Bench for what was effectively the theft of your wife as your property. If your case was successful, and you were granted damages for your loss, the parliament could pass a private Act of Parliament giving you a divorce. The cost of this process ran into thousands of pounds, but afterwards you were both free to marry again, and your children were not declared illegitimate.

Caroline Norton was famously the woman who set the ball rolling to change this with her indefatigable work for improving the rights of women in marriage and divorce. She had a personal incentive being married to a violent bully who appropriated all her property and kept her children from her. The full story is told in A Scandalous Woman: the Story of Caroline Norton (1992) by Alan Chedzoy. Norton was a well-educated and well-connected woman whose marriage became a public scandal when her husband George Norton, disappointed by his own lack of progress in politics, lashed out in 1836 and accused the Home Secretary and future Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne of "criminal knowledge" of his wife. Although Melbourne was judged not guilty, George Norton's hostility towards his wife continued. In the middle of their marital troubles their three sons were ruthlessly used as bargaining chips and Caroline Norton grew desperate when her husband barred her access to them. Since the law of the land gave her no support, Norton had little choice but to try and change the law. She was in the fortunate position of having a social standing and connections in the world of politics to achieve this through lobbying and campaigning.

Her first victory was the Infant Custody Bill passed in 1839, which gave regular access rights to both parents for children of twelve years old or younger. The next one came in 1857, when she was forty-nine years old. After years of campaigning and hundreds of pages of pamphlets by her, the parliament passed the Divorce Act. According to her biographer, four important clauses in this act, granting divorced women power over their own property and financial transactions, were taken almost word for word from her writings.

Following the passing of the Matrimonial Causes (or Divorce) Act 1857, The Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes opened in 1858 with Sir Creswell Creswell as the Judge Ordinary in charge. He presided with two other judges. One of the early cases of the court was one submitted by Henry Robinson who was determined to rid himself of his adulterous, diary-writing wife. This story is told by Kate Summerscale in Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: the Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (2012). Caroline Norton never got divorced, and married again in 1877 only after George Norton had died.

In the new secular divorce court, as in the ecclesiastical court before, it was sufficient for men to prove one indiscretion, one false step of adultery by their wives, as grounds for divorce. Wives, on the other hand, had to prove their husband's adultery and another reason for divorce. They had a list to choose from: bigamy, incest, rape, sodomy, bestiality, grievous bodily harm or two years' desertion. There was always a guilty party in a divorce. And divorce always required proof of adultery. In addition, no husband would be given a divorce, if the wife could prove that he too had committed adultery, or that he had condoned her adultery by being aware of it but not doing anything about it. The lapse of time was an important factor.

The 1857 act was followed by several other laws that modified woman's position in marriage and divorce proceedings. Further Infant Custody Acts in 1873 and 1886 extended mothers' rights to keep custody of their children. Married Women's Property Acts in 1870 and 1882 gave married women the same property rights as unmarried women.

Only in 1923 the law was changed so that men and women both could claim for divorce on equal grounds. From 1937 divorce did not require proof of adultery; cruelty and desertion were also made sufficient grounds. And it took until 1969 for the concept of a guilty party to be removed and "irretrievable breakdown" could be quoted as the grounds for divorce.

In Lady Audley's Secret, what should Lucy Graham have done when Sir Michael proposed? Her first husband disappeared leaving her with a babe in arms in the house of a father who could not support them. In the three and a half years since her husband left, she slowly built a life for herself and was managing to earn a living in a respectable fashion as a governess. She had not fallen into prostitution, destitution or the world of theatre. There was no way on earth she would have been able to legally divorce George Talboys. Even after the 1857 Divorce Act, Lucy Graham (aka Helen Talboys, as the narrative strongly suggests) would have needed money to bring a court case in front of Sir Creswell Creswell and his fellow-judges. Although she would have been able to claim desertion, she would have had to prove her husband's adultery as well. And there is probably no chance of that, with Talboys constantly expressing his devotion and love for his wife.

Should Lucy Graham have declined the offer of life-long luxury and pampering by Sir Michael, just because her first husband was still possibly alive somewhere? The temptation was great, the risk seemed minimal. Lady Audley's bigamy is naughty and selfish, yes, but it is hardly evil. Bigamy was a practical solution and sometimes quite necessary if you wanted to get on with your life.

There is an ironic twist at the tail end of Lady Audleys Secret when Robert Audley makes his name as a lawyer in a dispute over a broken engagement: "the great breach of promise case of Hobbs vs Nobbs"  (Vol III, Chapter 10).

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Setting Ripe for Sensation

Lady Audley's Secret opens with a lengthy description of Audley Court. The house is 'very old, and very irregular and rambling.' It used to be a convent: the house is 'a refectory that had been standing since the Conquest [and] had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county of Essex.' (Lady Audley is an Essex girl.) The house is described in romantic and Gothic terms. It is not quite the Castle of Udolpho, but nevertheless a place where we can expect to find dark secrets and mysteries as common as fixtures and fittings. The 'still fish ponds' in the moat and particularly the shaded lime tree walk that 'seemed a chosen place for secret meetings or for stolen interviews' are drawn to our attention. At the end of the lime walk 'half buried amongst the tangled branches and neglected weeds' there is an old, rusted well. When 'a fierce and crimson sunset' colours the old iron wheel and broken woodwork of the well 'as if they were flecked with blood,' you can be pretty sure that something or more likely someone will come to a nasty end here. To make sure that we get the message that Audley Court is a setting ripe for evil deeds and misfortune, the atmosphere is described as one of 'intense stillness' like 'a corpse must be lying somewhere.' By now we are all straining our necks to spot that corpse, and our bets are on the well. Or maybe the fish pond? Or is that a red herring? Although the description of Audley Court is painted with heavy tints of melodrama, it works. It has all the clues readers need to expect something exciting, possibly gory, definitely sexy.

As soon as our imaginations are tickled with tension, the narrative undercuts our expectations by showing us that extremely boring people live in Audley Court. We see Sir Michael Audley 'with his pretty young wife dawdling by his side' strolling along the romantic lime tree avenue, of which the narrator says: 'I very much doubt if it was ever put to any romantic uses.' Soon Sir Michael strolls back to the drawing room and falls asleep in his chair while his wife plays melodies on the piano. We have an interesting picture of a humdrum life being led in a very dramatic setting.

Sir Michael Audley is a long-term widow in his mid-fifties with an 18-year-old, spoilt-rotten daughter Alicia. He falls in love with a pretty little thing working locally as a governess. Enter Miss Lucy Graham, our Lady Audley. She is 'the sweetest girl ever lived' that brings light and happiness to the lives of all those she meets. She charms the socks off everyone with her golden ringlets and blue eyes. She is clearly a woman with a past, for the simple reason that nobody knows about her past, even her age is not known. She arrived with one glowing reference. She carries a ring hanging from a black ribbon around her neck under her clothes. Lady Audley's secret is clearly her mysterious past. We are still in chapter one, and already we are picking up the first clues.

Lady Audley is not evil, but seemingly honest and open. When Sir Michael proposes to her, they recognize the disparity in their wealth and Lucy's lowly position as a governess. Sir Michael confesses his love, but Lucy makes it clear she cannot return the same ardour. In this scene we see Sir Michael trapped by the twin twines of his own desire for the woman and his sense of propriety Once the offer of marriage has fallen out of his mouth, there is no going back, even if Lucy explains that, quite frankly, she is marrying him for his money and position. Sir Michael staggers away heavy with unsatisfied longing and disappointment 'as if he carried a corpse in his bosom.' This is clearly not a good start. The Audleys do not stand a chance and we expect to see their marriage go up in a ball of flames.

In chapter II we are transported to a completely different place: the deck of The Argus sailing to England on her voyage from Australia. On the deck stands a handsome live-wire George Talboys. He is not very learned, or even very smart - he does not play chess - but is otherwise described as a decent, young man. With another governess, Miss Morley as a clumsy narrative device, we are told the story of Talboys: three and a half years earlier he abandoned his wife and baby to go to Australia to make his fortune. He was driven there by poverty and desire to provide for his family. Not once during this time has it entered into his head, that his wife might not want him back, might not even be alive any more. See: he cannot be very smart. Only when he is returning with his fortune made expecting a warm welcome, his conversation with Miss Morley makes him see things differently and get "that sick, sinking, dread at [his] heart.'

In chapter III we are back at Audley Court and get another dose of heavy foreshadowing with a description of a crimson red sunset over the fish pond, lime walk and the well. Lady Audley's maid Phoebe, who is another woman who has been lifted above her station, from a house maid to lady's maid, has seen Lady Audley's rise to riches. She is jealous and longs for a similar meteoric rise through the social ladder. The opportunity arises, possibly, when she takes her 'clod-hopper' childhood sweetheart Luke to see Lady Audley's chambers. Phoebe opens Lady Audley's jewellery chest to show the treasures to Luke, he contemplates stealing a little something to finance a public house for himself and Phoebe. She is horrified by the idea. But then they stumble upon a secret compartment in the chest and discover a baby's shoe and a lock of hair. Phoebe smiles slyly and pockets them. 'You shall have the public house, Luke' she says.

Next we are in London with Robert Audley, Sir Michael's lazy and amiable nephew who is making a career out of avoiding work as a barrister. He reads French novels and smokes a German pipe. That either makes him doubly romantic, both in the racy French and tragic young Werther (note his blue necktie) ways, or it makes him both romantic and rational. In any case, Robert is fashionable and has continental tastes. Alicia, Sir Michael's daughter, has written to him about the news of her father's marriage. Her letter is scathing about her new step-mother: Lady Audley is 'a wax-dollish young person, no older than Alicia herself, with flaxen-ringlets and a perpetual giggle.' It is 'an angry, crossed and re-crossed letter." It is clear that Alicia has no sympathy for Lady Audley.

By the beginning of chapter IV, we can see the storm clouds gathering over Audley Court. We have a marriage based on great inequality in terms of wealth, age and feelings. We have a first husband arriving back in the country, because let us not kid ourselves: no reader would fail to think that Talboys' sweet, little wife and sweet, little Lady Audley are the same person. We have Phoebe contemplating a career as a blackmailer. There is a baby somewhere: Talboys' child he abandoned with his wife. And finally we have a furious step-daughter

Braddon writes with a lively but heavy pen. Her phrases and language are colourful and flow well. She is an easy read. But she insults the reader's intelligence and lacks subtlety. Someone will end up in the well and Phoebe really is not a nice country lass. We are left in no doubt about what we should be thinking. The characters are stereotypical and not much lumbered with internal life. Structurally however, the start of the novel is effective if a little contrived. We are given the setting and we are given the main characters. We see small character sketches of Sir Michael, Lady Audley, George Talboys, Phoebe and Robert Audley. Each character is distinct if not deep. We can easily tell them apart.

Braddon quite economically sets up a complicated starting position for the plot. Lady Audley is surrounded by threats to her newly won social position and happy prosperity. We are put in a state of anticipation - which bombshell will land on her first, and what will she do? The source of tension and suspense is not in the reader's attempts to discover Lady Audley's secret, it is in finding if and how Lady Audley will get away with it.

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.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Drug of Sensation Fiction

In their time, Victorian sensation novels were deemed dangerous, morally poisonous and corrupting to the extent that they would destroy entire lives and drive whole sections of the reading public into perdition. But can they still give a thrill today? Are they still powerful or are they just material for heritage-porn in period dramas? Today we have gritty crime fiction with gruesome violence and we have erotic novels with detailed depictions of all manner of fetishisms. Is the modern reader too jaded, too been-there-done-that-and-have-50-Shades-of-Grey to show it, to get any kind of a kick out Victorian sensation fiction? I will not attempt a scholarly analysis of the merits of Victorian popular fiction. This is a project to assess how Victorian sensation fiction works in the mind of an average 21st-century reader.

The criticism of stories of sensation in the 1860s took on a strangely pharmaceutical terminology. Contemporary critics commented on the large amount of poisons employed in sensational novels and soon this association with drugs was extended to characterize the whole genre. Articles like “The Perils of Sensation” (Saturday Review, 1864), where the name of this blog comes from, and “Novel Reading” (Ibid., 1867) warned of the “most dangerous influence upon the minds of the readers” by sensational stories laced with crime and mystery which were “the medium through which moral poison is frequently administered.” H. L. Mansel’s essay “Sensation Novels” in Quarterly Review (113, April 1863, pp481-514) illustrates the general alarm about the intoxicating and addictive power of mystery stories: they belong “to the morbid phenomena of literature – indications of wide-spread corruption, of which they are both effect and the cause; called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite, and contributing themselves to foster the disease and to stimulate the want which they supply.” Sensational stories strive “to act as the dram or the dose, rather than as the solid food, because the effect is more immediately perceptible.”

Like those brave Victorian medical men who drank poisons and electrocuted themselves in the name of science, I will conduct a self-experiment and dose myself with sensation fiction to see whether this particular drug still has potency. I will start with that great feminist manifesto, Lady Audley's Secret published in 1862.