Tuesday, 21 February 2017
MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON, 1837-1915
Lilie Ferrari writes about Dickens' friendly rival, the author Mary Braddon:
‘Everyone has heard of Charles Dickens, author of the books we grew up with as children and continue to read as adults – Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend…I could go on. In his lifetime, Dickens published more than a dozen major novels, a large number of short stories, a handful of plays, and several non-fiction books.
However, you may not know that during his lifetime he had a friendly rival – and although forgotten now, during the 1860’s, the popular fiction writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon was queen of the Victorian sensation novel in England.
Like Dickens, she was the Victorian version of a soap writer. Like him, Mary Braddon’s novels were originally published in magazines, in many instalments (sometimes sixty or more). She wrote over eighty “sensation” novels, and was a writer of extraordinary appeal and popularity. Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) was the most successful of her novels: that and Aurora Floyd (1863) made her rich for life. But there were dozens more, all keenly received and highly praised at the time. Henry James described her writing as “brilliant, lively, ingenious and destitute of a ray of sentiment.”
She contributed essays, short stories, and poems to such high-circulation periodicals as Punch and The World; and edited the two literary magazines most closely associated with the Sensation Novel, Temple Bar and Belgravia. In 1899, the Daily Telegraph named Lady Audley's Secret as one of the world's best one hundred novels, despite the fact that it had been published almost four decades earlier. According to The Victorian Web, Braddon “had been one of a handful of young, revolutionary novelists who in their artistic responses to the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 had created dangerous, scheming heroines embroiled in the complications of what negative reviews termed the "Bigamy Plot." She, Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins, Ellen Price Wood, Edmund Yates, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu created a new genre while championing the rights of women against an obviously male-biased law that determined that, while a wife's adultery alone was sufficient cause for a divorce action, a husband's adultery was insufficient unless accompanied by physical abuse.”
Should we be surprised that her name has all but disappeared? Probably not – as we know, the same is true of so many women in the history of all creative arts.
Mary Braddon’s own life reads like a Victorian melodrama. When only four years old her mother left her father, a feckless Cornish solicitor, and took her three children away. Mary began writing at the age of eight, but in 1857, when her mother’s money ran out, she took the name of Mary Seyton and became an actress, beginning with a part as “Fairy Pineapple” in a pantomime. Three years later, support from an admirer allowed her to leave the stage and write. She began writing serial fiction for the popular magazines of the day, several of which were owned by the Irish publisher John Maxwell, with whom she lived in unmarried union. Maxwell’s wife was in an insane asylum in Dublin, so the couple were unable to marry until the wife’s death in 1874. John Maxwell and Mary had six children, and also reared Maxwell’s five children from his first marriage.
Although her sensation novels created a huge moral storm, they were read avidly by the famous men of her day: Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Gladstone and Henry James, while at the same time being dismissed as fodder for girls and women “below stairs”.
Forgotten for so long, Mary is due for a revival, and one may be coming. As ever in the vanguard, Virago has reprinted some of her novels. There’s also a Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association, founded in 2013 “to promote interest in the life and works of this important nineteenth century popular fiction writer” (www.maryelizabethbraddon.com). My small contribution to this campaign is the tv script that I am writing of Eleanor’s Victory, my favourite Braddon novel – now all I have to do is persuade some sympathetic broadcaster to turn away from Dickens – after all, his novels have all been dramatised to death - and look elsewhere….’
Lilie Ferrari is a tv script writer. She was co-creator and writer for the medical drama series ‘The Clinic’ for RTE, and has written episodes of ‘Peak Practice’ (Carlton), ‘Dangerfield’ (BBC), ‘Casualty’ (BBC), ‘Berkeley Square’ (BBC), ‘Holby ‘(BBC) and numerous episodes of ‘EastEnders’ (BBC). She storylined for 'EastEnders', ‘Family Affairs’ (Channel 5), and ‘Playing the Field’ for Tiger Aspect/BBC. Lilie has also had four novels published, and is currently working on her fifth. Her short story Sorry Business will appear in Words And Women: Four.