19th century authors: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) was a remarkable, clever, hard-working woman and a prolific writer. She is best known for her sensationalist novels. She published more than 80 novels in the 50 years from 1860 to 1910.

Braddon weaves shocking themes into otherwise social realistic portrayals of British domestic life; dark secrets fester beneath polite surfaces, often exploding into melodrama.

Most of her novels (like Dickens’ and other popular novels) were serialized in magazines and/or published in three volumes, which explains the pacing and cliffhangers.

There is a powerful red thread of feminism through her novels: Braddon was herself an independent, intelligent working woman and her female protagonists are not conventional pretty airheads in crinolines.

In a nutshell, these novels are wonderful! Exciting, thrilling, well written, rich in observational detail. Suspension of disbelief is entire and you lose yourself in the story… Without more ado, I present a few of my favorites:

John Marchmont’s Legacy (1862-1863)

A great read from Mary Elizabeth Braddon, exciting and dramatic. It’s a bit slower than some of the others below — but this is Braddon, so it’s still a page-turner — a bit darker and with more depth. The focus is more on the psychological experiences of various characters than on sensational events, so it is more thought-provoking. The dramatic events of the novel make it comparable to some gothic novels.

The story revolves around the legacy of John Marchmont, his daughter and her marriage, and her cousin’s dastardly attempts to get his hands on the legacy. Hard to say more without spoilers. Let’s just say there’s a burning-building scene that is surely as frightening and exciting as any burning-building scene you’ve ever read.

As with many of ME Braddon’s novels, it’s quite obvious early on what has happened, but these are not modern whodunnit mysteries. The point is to observe, knowing what the characters don’t know.

Overall, one of my top 3 Braddon novels. The familiar themes of women, marriage, power and ambition are all here. Highly recommended.

Vixen (1879)

The story of a spirited, independent and intelligent young woman, her search for love, life in the country, and how her freedom of action is hampered, in particular by her silly mother’s new husband.

The protagonist, Violet Tempest, is perhaps my favorite Braddon character (and isn’t that a cool name?!). She is oozing with vivacity, charm, fun and personality and leaps off the page. She reminds me of some of Georgette Heyer’s best characters.

There’s sensation and intrigue aplenty, but this is a much lighter read that John Marchmont’s Legacy.

The Cloven Foot (1879)

Although a vicious crime lies at the heart of this story, it is less sensational than some other Braddon novels. I enjoyed The Cloven Foot none the less for this. There’s an amoral French dancer, bigamy and crime, treachery and envy (trying to avoid spoilers). But essentially the novel is about marriage. Bad marriages entered into lightly with unsuitable partners, which quickly turn sour and become a misery for all involved, and end in disaster. Contrasted with solid marriages based on mutual interests and values, a similar social background, trust and loyalty.

The one thing I don’t understand is the title, The Cloven Foot. It is clearly a reference to the devil. But if it is, is it purely a sensationalist title to sell more books? I can’t see that any of the characters are being presented as devilish. Greedy, cheating and violent, yes, but not pure evil as one might associate with the devil.

The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines “To show the cloven foot, i.e. to show a knavish intention, a base motive.” In this light, it’s more understandable, as the possible – and possibly base – motives of at least three characters are explored.

Henry Dunbar (1864)

It’s hard to review a Braddon novel without spoilers. This story revolves around an impoverished young woman who is searching for her father who has disappeared, and a rich man who becomes a recluse. It has many of the tropes of the sensational novel, including murder, fraud, mistaken identity, and a train accident.

As other readers have pointed out, you easily and quickly figure out what happened and so throughout the book you’re waiting for the characters to figure it out also. But I found that this was an interesting twist which made this more of a psychological novel than a detective novel. More Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith than Inspector Morse. That this was written in 1864 is quite remarkable; it is very modern in many ways. It is less sensational than some of her other novels, as there is really only one crime, but it is dramatic nonetheless.

I’m working my way through Braddon’s novels, available free from Amazon and Gutenberg. The republication of forgotten 19th C novels in ebook formats is a joy.

This edition includes informative and detailed critical notes by Anne-Marie Beller: helpful if you’re studying this novel or interested in understanding it better.

The Golden Calf (1883)

Ida Palliser is an impoverished and headstrong young woman whose feckless father has dumped her in a boarding school and left her to fend for herself. The story involves a secret marriage, Ida’s efforts to find a position in life, and the tribulations she endures before finding true love.

It’s a typical Braddon romance, where the themes of marriage, and women’s dependence and subjection to men are central.

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)

I can’t have a page about Mary Elizabeth Braddon without mentioning Lady Audley’s Secret. It’s Braddon’s most famous novel and one of the most popular novels of the 19th century. It includes bigamy, false identity, arson, murder (and more) and caused a scandal on publication.

It is still her best-known work. Unfortunately, it’s over 20 years since I read it and I can’t remember a thing, so I’ll need to read it again.

The Doctor’s Wife (1864)

A melodramatic story of fraud, imprisonment, blackmail, murder and adultery… this is the usual Braddon territory, exciting and shocking.

In The Doctor’s Wife, Mary Elizabeth Braddon created obvious parallels with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856). Isabel is a strong character with a strong sense of self, condemned to live merely as a passive wife.

Isabel and Emma Bovary are both addicted to romantic fiction and poetry, are both married to bovine, boring provincial doctors, and both form adulterous romantic passions.

There are differences though, which I cannot go into without spoilers. But fiction was much more strictly censored in England than in France, and the stories do not evolve in the same way.

The plot has undoubted weaknesses, and Isabel’s romanticism is driven home repetitively. Nonetheless, this is a very good read with, in places, more psychological depth than some of Braddon’s other novels.

And while it is not ‘Literature with a capital L’, like Flaubert’s novel, it’s a hell of a lot easier to read!

Run To Earth (1868)

A cracking good story of a rocky path from rags to riches. It features plenty of intrigue, abduction, deceit and murder. There are not just one but two merciless villains.

The heroine Anna, is raised by a common criminal, marries a rich man, is the victim of intrigue and abduction, loses everything, including her reputation, and is finally redeemed, in a helter skelter of plot and counterplot. Marvellous!

Fenton’s Quest (1871)

Another cracking good read from ME Braddon. It’s hard to describe her books without spoilers. This one deals with marriage and money, money and marriage. Women being forced to marry and the pressures to marry for money rather than for love.

Like all her books there is a mystery at the core, and like all I’ve read it’s obvious to the reader what is really happening. But that doesn’t detract from the suspense of the story. The characters are well drawn, each with a distinctive voice.

I hope this article has whetted your appetite for Braddon’s novels. She is a largely-forgotten writer who deserves to be better known. And the best thing is that if you enjoy her novels, there are more than 80 of them and they are easy to get hold of in digital versions.

If you’re happy to read a digitalized version of an early print (i.e. with potential mistakes and without modern editing and notes), you can find nearly all her novels free at Project Gutenberg.

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