By the Secret Victorianist
‘If the Victorians had had airplanes, these are the books they would have read on them’. This is my default response when trying to explain away my geeky obsession with nineteenth-century sensation fiction, or convince people my blogging life is not so very different from my (marketing) day job. There’s a problem though. Liking the sort of books read on airplanes may protect you from being labelled elitist or overly academic, but it also severely dents your feminist credentials. Liking novels where ‘good’ docile women are rewarded with domestic bliss, while the ‘bad’ are broken, converted or incarcerated, is the kind of thing that’s hard to admit. And if just reading them is bad, the women who actually wrote these novels are even more vulnerable to attack.
Cue Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915). A prolific writer, consummate professional, working mother and former actress, who defied the sexual and social codes of her days by living with a man who still had a wife, Braddon seems at first to be the kind of writer twentieth- and twenty-first-century feminist critics would resurrect and champion. But, her life aside, it’s the novels which are the problem. Her most famous – Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) – has been subject to fierce critical debate as regards its gender politics. The conventional endings of sensation fiction (and of Lady Audley in particular) have been deemed irrelevant by some, with claims that they deliberately fail to subdue the revolutionary subversion of the body of the novels. The argument goes that the patriarchal model family we are left with in the final pages of the third volume is the result of prudent or slavish deferral to genre, not authorial design. Others have seen this theory as forced, as working against the texts. And so, several Braddons have emerged:
a) Antifeminist, predictable and conservative (and so apparently not worthy of study);
b) Well-meaning but limited, by contemporary ideologies and novelistic conventions (how she appears most often, as a kind of sad footnote);
c) Or, a radical whose revolutionary ideas are expressed despite her plots rather than through them (the kind of misreading which gives modern feminist critics a bad name).
This is the first problem. The second is simply that critics haven’t read enough to know. Braddon doesn’t begin or end with Lady Audley’s Secret. Sensation fiction is more than this novel plus Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860-1) and Ellen Woods’s East Lynne (1861). Braddon’s canon is self-referential rather than formulaic. And it could be so because she had such a loyal readership. She plays with sensation plotting like a master violinist playing variations – just look at how she does so to humorous effect in the short story ‘If There Be Any Of You’ (1889).
Take two lesser known but brilliant Braddon novels – John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863), which I reviewed recently, and Hostages to Fortune (1875). These demonstrate that the truth about Braddon and her ‘feminism’ is that she doesn’t ‘side’ clearly – either with domestic /passive women, or dangerously subversive women, if her characters can even be neatly divided in this way. Critically, I don’t necessarily think it’s more feminist to do so. Braddon has sympathy for the spurned and dangerous Olivia Marchmont, as much as the delicate ‘childlike’ orphan Mary; her plots suggest the heroes may have made the wrong choice of bride (choosing the weak over the strong) but this is neither woman’s fault. Editha cannot know her husband’s past with Myra, and Mary’s husband is the one who has been blind in his treatment of Olivia. Being critical of patriarchy doesn’t necessitate putting attempted murderesses and bigamists up on a pedestal – it’s as simple as understanding their possible motivations.
Braddon doesn’t deserve to be read because she’s a woman writer – I recommend her because she wrote good novels. And, even if reading her you come to the conclusion that she’s less of a ‘feminist’ than I think her, your reading won’t have been wasted. On your next flight grab a volume or three (probably virtually – most of the novels are most readily available as e-texts). Braddon’s a bit of a well-kept secret, but, unlike some airport chick lit, she doesn’t need to be a dirty one.
The Secret Victorianist blogs about lesser-known nineteenth-century literature at www.secretvictorianist.com and can be found tweeting @SVictorianist.