The Novelist Who Scandalized Victorian England
A century and a half before Fifty Shades of Grey, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “sensation” novels were titillating Victorian audiences.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there was much more to the golden age of Victorian literature than Charles Dickens and the Brontës.
A century and a half before Fifty Shades of Grey became the guilty pleasure of American kitchen tables and commutes, a novel called Lady Audley’s Secret was titillating the inhabitants of late-19th-century drawing rooms. While Fifty Shades relied on BDSM and sexual perversion for its shock value, Lady Audley’s Secret went straight for the jugular of Victorian mores with its tale of murder, bigamy and illegitimacy. And though it may have taken less to unsettle a Victorian audience than today’s, the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and the “sensation” fiction she pioneered, left an imprint on literature that remains today.
Braddon was born in 1835 in London into a family of means. Her parents separated when she was 5 after her father had an affair, and she was raised by her mother, who sent her off to boarding school. At age 17, Braddon began acting under the stage name of Mary Seyton (acting was considered a low-class profession but could bring in good money). For eight years, Braddon performed in everything from comedies to burlesques to Shakespeare. During her spare time, she wrote plays and poetry, and in 1860, when she was 25, she decided to try her hand at writing full time.
Braddon caused her own sensation when it emerged that she had been living with her married publisher.
Braddon wrote a series of anonymous penny dreadfuls for largely working-class readers before the publication of Lady Audley’s Secret, which was serialized in a magazine. The novel remains a page-turner, one that would fit right in at an airport bookstore. The plot can be summarized as follows (courtesy of literary critic Elaine Showalter): A “bigamous heroine deserts her child, pushes husband No. 1 down a well, thinks about poisoning husband No. 2 and sets fire to a hotel in which her other male acquaintances are residing.”
Braddon has an entertaining, observational style. A couple of the many gems in Lady Audley:
He was a square, pale-faced man of almost 40, and had the appearance of having outlived every emotion to which humanity is subject.
Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.
Braddon also had a keen sense of story and plot. “With her background as an actress in melodramas, she was adept at providing exciting plots, thrills and mysteries for both audiences,” says Jennifer Carnell, author of The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Braddon quickly earned a reputation as a writer with a knack for presenting the more scandalous side of the upper classes. A contemporary critic of Braddon’s once wrote that she had “succeeded in making the literature of the Kitchen the favorite reading of the Drawing-room.”
After the success of Lady Audley, the 27-year-old Braddon was off to the races. She would write dozens of novels during her career, as well as numerous short stories, essays and plays. “Braddon was writing popular fiction for the masses,” says Carnell, “not highbrow literary fiction, and because of that she provides an insight into the strictures of society and what the Victorian reader really enjoyed.” The popularity of Braddon’s sensation fiction made her a lightning rod for those concerned that popular literature was degenerative.
Braddon’s personal life also became the subject of scandal and the target of critics. She caused a sensation when it emerged that she had been living with her married publisher, John Maxwell, whose wife was in an asylum. Braddon would end up becoming the stepmother to Maxwell’s six children and have six of her own, but the couple continued living in sin for more than a decade until Maxwell’s wife died in 1874 and they were able to marry. As time went by, says Carnell, and Braddon’s successes multiplied, her work gained more respect and there were fewer mentions of her personal life. She became a prominent figure in high society and also edited her own literary magazines. Her contributions to the detective novel genre, as well as sensation fiction, continue to be recognized.
Many of Braddon’s novels were adapted for the stage before her death, in 1915, and Lady Audley’s Secret has been adapted for the screen four times in the century since her death. One of Braddon’s contemporaries perhaps summed up her impact best: “Miss Braddon is a part of England; she has woven herself into it … This is no mere fanciful conceit. She is in the encyclopedias; she ought to be in the dictionaries.”