New Perspectives on Mary Elizabeth Braddon

As the blurb to this new volume notes, it is almost fifteen years since Mary Elizabeth Braddon has been the focus of a collection of essays. In recent years sensation fiction has enjoyed something of a resurgence, including the publication of Pamela Gilbert’s edited collection A Companion to Sensation Fiction (2011) and continuing with The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction edited by Andrew Mangham (2013). Volumes on Braddon have been part of this resurgence in interest – as well as Cox’s volume, 2012 saw the publication of Anne-Marie Beller’s Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction published by MacFarland and the reissue of Lady Audley’s Secret by Penguin and Oxford World’s Classics.

New Perspectives on Mary Elizabeth Braddon looks to extend critical discussions of Braddon’s most famous work, Lady Audley’s Secret, and introduce the reader to some of Braddon’s lesser-known and previously unstudied novels. According to the editor Jessica Cox, several recurring themes are apparent across the essays: critical attitudes towards sensation fiction; the blurring boundaries between high and low art; and social and cultural anxieties (p. 15). These themes bind the essays together and, where they might appear disparate, help to create common ground on which to discuss the novels. Cox’s introduction is succinct and assumes a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader. This allows for a brief but accurate recounting of the main criticisms associated with sensation fiction in general and Braddon in particular, without becoming enmeshed in extraneous detail. The introduction is a helpful ‘refresher’ for those readers already familiar with Braddon’s work and yet is detailed enough to provide a critical introduction to the subsequent essays for those scholars and students approaching the subject for the first time.

The volume is divided into two parts: the first section of four essays focuses on Lady Audley’s Secret and the second, comprising eight essays, looks at a wide variety of texts, concepts, and genres across Braddon’s lengthy career. The section concentrating on Lady Audley’s Secret introduces new avenues of discussion, building on and extending previous criticism and, in so doing, offers a ‘new perspective’ as promised in the volume title. The essays cover themes such as the relationship between Lady Audley and the various houses she inhabits; a re-reading of the text through post-colonial theory; and domestic space in the work of Braddon and Louisa M. Alcott. One essay of particular note is Michelle Lin’s “Alicia Audley and the New Woman”. This is an engaging and informative piece of writing in which Lin maps Alicia’s transformation from potentially dangerous femme fatale to the ideal Angel-in-the-House. The theories elucidated in this essay will be familiar, but by focusing on Alicia, Lin opens up new approaches to the novel and is a useful reminder that Lady Audley is not the only female character we encounter.

The real innovation lies in the second half of the volume, something that is evident in the number and range of essays included here. The breadth and depth of Braddon’s oeuvre, alluded to in the introduction, is highlighted here and brings to our attention the problem of categorization which Cox noted as a central theme for the collection (p. 3). Ranging from Braddon’s earliest novel to her plays, from female detectives and French influences on her writing to dangerous reading and social critiques, this section truly introduces new approaches to the author and her work. As the section title ‘Beyond Lady Audley’ suggests, there is a clear demarcation between the first set of essays and the new critical ground in the established in the second.

The significance of social and cultural tensions is evident throughout this section: poisoning and female criminality in The Trail of the Serpent (1861); questions of inheritance in The Fatal Three (1888); and images of theatricality in Rupert Godwin (1867) and A Lost Eden (1904), to name but a few. There are two essays worthy of special mention: Anne-Marie Beller’s “Sensational Bildung? Infantilization and Female Maturation in Braddon’s 1860s Novels” and Kate Mattacks’s “Sensationalism on Trial: Courtroom Drama and the Image of Respectability in His Darling Sin”. Here Mattacks offers insightful observations of Braddon’s “managed” image and the tensions resulting from a reputation arising from sensational literature (p. 230). This is a thought-provoking essay that encourages the reader to look beyond the text of His Darling Sin and consider the author’s engagement with her “constructed” status as writer (p. 230). In her essay, Beller demonstrates a skilful interweaving of social context and analysis which focuses on the growth of female characters and the subtle power of plot in sensation fiction. She illustrates how these characters are given “opportunities for a wider and more meaningful experience of life” (p. 131) in sensation novels, not usually available to them in other texts, and subsequently how they are able to reject infantilization and achieve maturity through a female Bildung. Whilst it could be argued that many, if not all, of these texts fulfill the ‘criteria’ usually applied to a sensation novel, both Mattacks and Beller reveal precisely how a ‘new perspective’ on Braddon’s writing reveals a more nuanced, sophisticated, and thoughtful writer than the simple label of ‘sensationalist’ allows for.

This is an important volume in Braddon studies and, although it is author specific, the critical approaches and theories employed here are equally applicable to other sensation writers, such as Wilkie Collins. The four-eight split between the two sections works well and highlights the intention of the collection to introduce new ideas and criticism. There are a few typographical errors in the collection and an incorrect publication date is given for Braddon’s final novel Mary, but these do not detract from the quality of the volume as a whole. I did feel that a conclusion or closing words from the editor would have given a more definite end to the book; as it stands the volume does appear to finish a little abruptly. Given that one of the aims for the collection was to show a reappraising of Braddon’s work, a few words to that effect would not have been amiss. The final message, however, from this volume is clear – Braddon’s lesser known texts have just as much, if not more, to offer the future scholar and researcher as her most famous work does.

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