I first learned of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels from Louisa May Alcott. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, while country visitor Polly is out in the healthy fresh air, sledding and playing in the snow, city girl Fanny stays indoors, in "the big chair where she had been curled up for an hour or two, deep in 'Lady Audley's Secret.'" There is no editorial comment here, as there is on those yellow-backed French novels in some of the other stories, so I was unprepared for the racy excitement of Lady Audley's Secret, which I enjoyed very much. I quickly collected others of her books. The next one I read, John Marchmont's Legacy, I just loathed. I forced myself to finish it, but then I moved two other books of hers far down the TBR stacks, where they have languished ever since. Reading Rhoda Broughton's Not Wisely But Too Well, and also reading a little about Broughton herself, reminded me of Braddon, with whom she is often linked as "sensation novelists." I have also been thinking about Braddon since Helen reviewed her novel Aurora Flood. In a bit of cross-blog synergy, I was amused to come across in The Doctor's Wife the quote that headlines Helen's blog: "She had read novels while other people perused the Sunday papers; and of the world out of a three-volume romance she had no more idea than a baby."
The "she" in question is Isabel Sleaford, a young woman living in Camberwell with her father, stepmother, and rambunctious brothers. Isabel spends most of her days reading, novels of romance and adventure as well as poetry. Her favorite authors include Dickens, Thackeray, Scott, Tennyson, Byron and Shelley. Their stories, their characters, are almost more real to her than her family, and she is only waiting for her own chapter of adventure to open up. "She wanted her life to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine, -- unhappy, perhaps, and dying early. She had an especial desire to die early, by consumption . . . " Or perhaps a duke riding by in a carriage will see her in the street, and fall instantly in love with her.
The Camberwell household also includes a lodger, Sigismund (né Sam) Smith, who writes sensation fiction of the most lurid kind for the papers, while hoping for greater success as a novelist. One day he brings a friend to stay, George Gilbert, a doctor up from his Midlandshire village for a London holiday. Meeting Isabel, George is immediately drawn to her, captivated by her deep dark eyes. Both he and Smith are shocked when the family abruptly disappears with no explanation. Months later, Smith writes George to tell him that he has learned of Mr Sleaford's death. Isabel, left penniless, is now working as a governess in the home of Charles Raymond in a near-by town, only eleven miles away. George wastes no time in riding over to visit, the first of many such rides, and eventually he proposes marriage to Isabel. Though she does not love him, at least not like the heroines in her books, she does not reject him. "The story had begun, and she was a heroine." But life as a country doctor's wife in a small village is far different from the stories she has read and told herself. She grows more and more unhappy, until the day she meets Roland Lansdell, the owner of Mordred Priory, long absent from the country, returned after years of travel and riotous living. Like the doctor before him, he is fascinated by her, while she in turn quickly falls in love with someone she sees as the embodiment of all her favorite heroes.
From the time this book was published in 1864, critics pointed out that Braddon had borrowed the basic plot from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It has been many years since I read that book in college, and I have only the vaguest memory of it. According to the introduction of the Oxford World's Classics edition I read, Braddon did take elements from Flaubert's story but made them into something very different, very much her own. The editor also argues that with this book Braddon was trying her hand at "serious" fiction, hoping like Sigismund Smith to move beyond the "sensation" fiction for which she was best known.
This is certainly a less exciting book than Lady Audley's Secret, but I enjoyed it just as much. I can see that some people might find Isabel annoying, in her immaturity and naiveté, particularly her repeated wish to die young, that apparently being the most important quality in a heroine. Though Mr Raymond is a wonderful father figure, rather like Mr Jarndyce in Bleak House or Uncle Alec in Eight Cousins, he couldn't really provide the guidance that Isabel needed. And as an impoverished young woman without family to care for her, she didn't have that many options. I understood that marriage to the successful Doctor Gilbert seemed the best one, even as I wanted to talk her out of it. Braddon created interesting, well-rounded characters in Isabel, George, Mr Raymond, and Roland Lansdell. My favorite though is her fictional alter-ego Sigismund, always racing to finish the next installment of his penny dreadfuls, cheerfully appropriating his friends' homes as settings for his tales of revenge and murder, and expounding on his chosen profession:
'Why, you see, the penny public require excitement,' said Mr Smith; 'and in order to get the excitement up to a strong point, you're obliged to have recourse to bodies. Say your hero murders his father, and buries him in the coal-cellar in No. 1. What's the consequence? There's an undercurrent of the body in the coal-cellar running through every chapter, like the subject in a fugue or a symphony . . . And once you've had recourse to the stimulant of bodies, you're like a man who's accustomed to strong liquors, and to whose vitiated palate simple drinks seem flat and wishy-washy. I think there ought to be a literary temperance-pledge, by which the votaries of the ghastly and melodramatic school might bind themselves to the renunciation of the bowl and dagger, the midnight rendezvous, the secret grave dug by lantern-light under a black grove of cypress, the white-robed figure gliding in the grey gloaming athwart a lonely church-yard, and all the alcoholic elements of fiction. But you see, George, it isn't so easy to turn teetotaller . . .'The Doctor's Wife was itself first published as a serial, and I discovered one of the benefits of that kind of story-telling. Reading it on the flight home from Portland, I found that just at a most dramatic point late in the book, 33 pages disappeared, replaced by pages mistakenly reprinted from the first chapter. And there I was, trapped on a plane with no access to the internet, to search for the missing pages. Fortunately, there was enough repetition and rehashing in the later chapters that I could figure out what I had missed. Last night I downloaded a copy from Girlebooks, to read the missing pages myself.
I still have Aurora Flood on the TBR stacks, and I'm looking forward to reading that, and to discovering more of the eighty-five books that Mary Elizabeth Braddon published in a career that lasted from 1860 to her death in 1915 (her last novel was published posthumously). I might even seen if John Marchmont's Legacy is as loathsome as I remember.