“Temple Bar’s New Portrait of Femininity: Active Domesticity in Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd”

Kaari Newman

On your first reading of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (1863), you may come away feeling betrayed. Throughout the novel, Braddon carefully constructs Aurora Floyd as an independent, active young woman who routinely defies the strictures of Victorian feminine propriety. She is frequently compared to Cleopatra, evoking the image of a sultry temptress who uses her sexual appeal to gain power over men, a frightening threat to male-dominated ideologies of marriage during the mid-nineteenth century. Yet despite her provocative characterisation, the novel concludes with Aurora in her “proper” role as a respectably married mother, “bending over the cradle of her first-born” in the south of France (459).[1] As a result, scholars often debate whether the novel’s eponymous heroine is just another example of an “improper” woman artificially tamed by mid-Victorian ideals of femininity or whether her active and independent nature actually challenges such hegemony. After all, as Natalie Schroeder and Robert Schroeder observe, “In the space of one page, Braddon rewrites what she has taken the first five hundred pages to create” (Sensation to Society 103).[2] Therefore, reconciling this incongruity within the novel often becomes a central component of theorising Aurora Floyd.

However, I do not intend to advocate for either side of this debate, but instead add another layer of complexity to it, a layer which so far seems to have been overlooked, or at the very least, minimized. Most scholarship on Aurora Floyd is quick to cite contemporary reviews of the novel that found its subject matter improper, if not offensive. Such citations often mark the extent to which the novel’s periodical context is brought into the conversation.[3] In doing so, however, these studies leave out an important line of inquiry within the debate, that is, to examine how the novel’s seriality within Temple Bar, the family magazine in which Aurora Floyd first appeared, shaped the novel’s complex construction of femininity. By reading the novel within its periodical context (reading “sideways” as Linda Hughes calls it),[4] we see that Aurora Floyd was just one of several texts within Temple Bar aimed at promoting a femininity that is both active and domestic. In fact, such “tessellated reading” disrupts the binary of proper/improper femininity that the novel’s final tableau invokes in modern scholarship (Lanning 1).[5] Instead, we see that the novel is one of several texts within Temple Bar aimed at promoting what I will call an “active domesticity” for women predicated on egalitarian marriage, rather than the passive role usually assumed by a (male-dominated) complementarian one.

To that end, I will first explore how such active domesticity evolves from confluence of domestic and sensational fiction found within Temple Bar under the editorship of George Augustus Sala and Edmund Yates in the early 1860s. Two early texts published within Temple Bar – the novel For Better, For Worse (1864, serialised 1860-1861) and a short story “A Heart Struggle” (1862) – will serve as representative endpoints of the continuum between the domestic and the sensational that the magazine attempted to mediate, a mediation that I will argue Aurora Floyd successfully achieves. While scholars such as Richard Nemesvari and Daniel Brown have argued persuasively against the binary between domestic realism and sensationalism that my term “continuum” here invokes,[6] my argument rests on exploring what happens when we perform the sorts of tessellated reading that Braddon’s original audience did when we read Aurora Floyd in Temple Bar. Indeed, the cyclical and intertextual nature of periodicals encourages readers to make meaning from the juxtaposition of texts, genres, styles, and illustration presented within a singular issue, a collected volume, or indeed, the whole print run, as many periodical scholars have shown.[7] Thus, I find the term “continuum” useful because it suggests the sort of dynamic movement readers perform when they encounter texts that may skew more toward one side or the other, though certainly many texts include elements of both genres (Brown 102-3). I therefore do not seek to reify a binary of diametrically opposed genres but rather demonstrate how texts like Aurora Floyd and the others within Temple Bar contribute to its dissolution.

I will then analyse how Braddon constructs this mediation through a close reading of the principal female characters within the novel itself. Finally, I will situate my reading of Aurora Floyd among two other texts in Temple Bar that appeared alongside the novel’s serialised instalments that similarly make use of the concept of active domesticity: “Daughters of Eve” (serialised 1861-1863) by Charles Kenney and “Domestic Life” (1862) by Eliza Lynn Linton. Like Aurora Floyd, Kenney paints portraits of several women in history who embodied the active domesticity Aurora eventually achieves. Linton in turn affirms the efficacy of such activity for married women within “Domestic Life.” Therefore, when thoroughly examined within its original periodical context, Aurora Floyd maintains a consistent message not only within itself, but also with an emerging identity being drawn throughout Temple Bar, a femininity that insisted on egalitarianism within marriage.

Reconciling the Domestic and the Sensational

In spite of the scholarly debate around Aurora Floyd’s feminism, the novel’s supposed paradoxical ending – where the femme fatale receives a happily ever after – in fact fits well within the editorial scope of Temple Bar. By 1862 when the first instalment of Aurora Floyd appeared, editors Sala and Yates were no longer interested in continuing a program of domestic fiction centred solely on conservative images of complementarianism. Having built their reputations as two of Dickens’s “young men,” these two bohemian journalists followed “an editorial policy [that] would not pander to middle-class respectability but would highlight the plight of the poor, and stress the fluidity of class [and gender] relationships” (Blake 198).[8] Nevertheless, they initially suppressed their progressive ideals so as to capture market share from William Thackeray’s successful (and more conservative) Cornhill Magazine. On the one hand, they wanted to promote their ideals of freedom of expression and emancipation of the marginalized; on the other, they needed to sell subscriptions, and thus the espousal of radical ideas – such as women who leave the protection of their homes, marry men beneath their social class, and then have the audacity to marry again – must be tempered with more conventional material.[9]

Indeed, as Peter Blake argues, Temple Bar’s first serial novel, For Better, For Worse, was chosen precisely for its suitably domestic themes (“Paradox” 195-96). Sala and Yates deliberately sought a “Trollope-and-milk” story to lead their new schilling monthly to reassure their intended audience that Temple Bar was morally sound enough so “that Filia-familias may read with as much gratification as Pater or Mater-familias” (“Prospectus” qtd. in Blake, “Paradox” 185). Published anonymously in ten instalments,[10] For Better, For Worse follows the fortunes of the Atherton family, who are left almost destitute after the death of their patriarch, the Dean of Wylminstre, in the first chapter. Throughout its forty-two chapters, the novel emphasizes the bourgeois virtues of industrious, honest work; devotion to God (and the Church of England specifically); fidelity in marriage; and righteous care of the poor. In the first instalment, which led the magazine’s inaugural issue in December 1860, the novel’s central heroine, Margaret, declares: “We shall […] have the consolation of at least endeavouring to do our duty. We have been dreamers hitherto; we must be workers now. […] while I have health I must exert the powers God has given me for the good of my fellow-creatures” (1: 13). The novel ends on a similar homily in November 1861’s final instalment, in which Margaret, whose new husband has been elected to the House of Commons for Wylminstre, “calls to mind a field of usefulness open to all who interest themselves in the welfare of others in that vast overgrown city [London]” (3: 235). The novel thus conforms to what Brown outlines as the standard conventions of domestic realism at mid-century. The novel is “made up of unremarkable people” who confront the “complexities of everyday life,” and whose plot is driven by the “exploration of internal states” and moral choices of the characters rather than the external events that happen to them (Brown 102-103). Despite some material setbacks and a few moral conundrums, in the end everyone does their duty to their spouses, to the Church and to the Empire.

By January 1862, however, this conventional style was supplanted by the appearance of more sensational fiction, as evidenced by the inclusion of a short story by Robert Buchanan called “A Heart Struggle,” and the first instalment of Aurora Floyd. “A Heart Struggle” is a hyper-sensational story in two parts that includes an emotionally abusive father, a Byronic hero, a violent lunatic, and a gruesome murder (which the heroine witnesses). Given this almost hyperbolic cast of characters and dark plot twists, this story’s inclusion within Temple Bar almost seems to be the editors’ satirical response to critics of sensationalism, a direct challenge as to what passes for family-friendly fiction. Blake notes that by this time Sala in particular seems to have preferred sensation fiction because of its ability to capture the drama of lived experience than simply for its scandalous appeal (“Paradox” 202).[11] Indeed, one of the frequent charges levelled against sensation fiction in the press was its inspiration from the scandals and criminal activities published by daily newspapers. As a critic for the London Review puts it: “We can hardly take up a Times without perceiving the skeleton of a sensation novel only waiting to be appropriated by Mrs. Wood or Miss Braddon […] tricked out with the necessary amount of tawdry morality and high-flown sentiment” (175). However, this was also one of the chief arguments for why sensation fiction was popular and should be published: these passionate tales proved that the truth was indeed stranger than fiction.[12] As Brown writes: “Sensation fiction suggested that the sordid and the criminal might just be as real as the domestic and the provincial” (103). Therefore, the inclusion of more sensational fiction in Temple Bar may have been Sala and Yates’ way of both capitalising on this increasingly popular genre and differentiating the magazine from its competitors.

Part of the societal hand-wringing about sensation fiction was due to its perception as a largely “feminine phenomenon” based on its many female authors and its wide consumption by female readers (Pykett 32). In particular, its heavy use of femme fatale figures like Lady Audley or Aurora Floyd revealed deep anxieties within mid-Victorian views on female power. As several scholars note, the consumption of sensation fiction encouraged women to think about their own (lack of) power. Karen Tatum observes that sensational stories (and Braddon’s novels in particular) were “subversive because they expose [the] process of abjection […] of the female body, on which the Symbolic order is founded, […] a revelation that is most threatening to a system that depends on concealment” of this abjection (504). Schroeder and Schroeder agree, noting that:

Sensation fiction itself was both symptom and evidence of widening fissures in the Victorian domestic ideal. […] [It] taunted the complacent stereotypes of the separate spheres, […] the wife as submissive angel, for the mere existence of sensationalism amounted at least tacitly to an admission that marriage might not always be the idyll of domesticity upon which the predominant ideology insisted. (Sensation to Society 16)

Such fears may have also been a symptom of the times. Deborah Wynne argues that the early 1860s were “an ‘anxious’ age” in general, as the relative peace of the 1850s had by this time collapsed due to factors such as “political irritability,” economic depression, and moral uncertainty due to a rise in violent crime (8). That sensation novels made use of this uneasiness only fuelled concerns about the possible corruption they would have on the “angel of the house” (to use Coventry Patmore’s famous term for the ideal Victorian housewife). Reading about illicit passions and domestic crime would corrupt her innocence, taint her purity, and distract her from her domestic duties.

Nevertheless, while Aurora Floyd’s publication elicited these fears,[13] its final domestic tableau complicates its supposed powers of ideological corruption. On the one hand, Braddon’s heroine, a married woman, commits bigamy and regularly acts outside the constraints of her male guardianship under first her father and then her husband(s). On the other hand, though not locked away like Lady Audley, she still suffers the humiliation of vicious gossip and the near-ruin of her and her husband’s respectability because of her bigamous activities. Furthermore, the final third of the novel removes Aurora almost entirely from the action; it is the male characters who take over to hunt down Jim Conyers’s murderer, a move Tatum sees as indicative of the male need to suppress female sexual power (517-18). These more conservative choices and the novel’s marriage-plot ending therefore do not only satisfy readers’ “demand for a happy ending, particularly one which was based on romance” (Flint 21), but were also designed to ameliorate the more sensational aspects of the plot, thereby preserving the ideological assumptions of Temple Bar’s middle-class readers. Furthermore, as I will later argue, the complexity of balancing the domestic with the sensational in Aurora Floyd’s characterisation of women seems to follow a pattern established throughout these early years within Temple Bar under Sala and Yates’s leadership.

Drawing an Actively Domestic Woman

First, however, it seems prudent to illustrate how Braddon constructs this complex femininity in the female characters in Aurora Floyd. The first woman introduced is Eliza Prodder, Aurora’s mother. Though only physically present in the opening chapter, her influence is felt throughout the novel, both in her absence as a mother and in that she exemplifies the sort of “active domesticity” within her marriage that Aurora herself eventually achieves. What I have been calling active domesticity describes a woman’s freedom to act on her own judgment without her male guardian’s (usually her husband’s) oversight or direction, and her ability to pursue activities that take her outside the domestic sphere. Eliza exhibits this sort of active independence even before her marriage. As a thirty-year-old actress, a working-class position that may have called her chastity into question, ideologically speaking,[14] she would at first glance appear to be an unconventional marriage partner for a respectable, middle-class banker like Archibald Floyd. Indeed, after their marriage, her neighbours snidely refer to her as an “artful, designing minx” and a “daring, disreputable creature” (9).

In spite of these unfeeling misnomers, Braddon’s narrator treats Eliza with sympathy, calling her a “successful adventuress” (9) and stressing her gentility. When Archibald inquires after Eliza’s character before deciding to propose, he hears “nothing but good. Temptations resisted; insidious proffers of jewels and gewgaws indignantly declined; graceful acts of womanly charity done in secret; independence preserved through all poverty and trial” (13). Moreover, Eliza’s independence in particular is called out as a marker of her “well-bred audacity” in marrying the banker (15). Such a characterisation strikes directly at middle-class assumptions of ill breeding among the lower classes. The satiric tone of the passages relaying the neighbours’ gossip certainly implicate Temple Bar’s own readers, who themselves might espouse such prejudices if a rich gentleman of their acquaintance were to marry such a woman.

The narrator also takes pains to ensure readers know that Eliza’s simple spirit is not corrupted by her sudden wealth. Her love is founded on unwavering gratitude, and as a result, the couple is “one of the happiest couples who ever wore the bonds of matrimony, and changed them into garlands of roses” (16). Their marriage is an equal match suitable to both partners, despite their differences in class and upbringing. The narrator concludes her illustration of Aurora’s mother by pointing out that Eliza’s “angelic” qualities have nothing to do with her domesticity, but rather her service to “her gardens, and pineries, and graperies, her dogs and horses, and her poor” (17). As Schroeder and Schroeder note, “Eliza refuses to be merely a decorative wife,” eschewing her domestic role for a more practical, active one (71). Thus, Eliza is Braddon’s first indication that the ideal woman is one who maintains her independence and autonomy alongside her domesticity.

Eliza’s presence, or rather, lack of presence, becomes a defining feature of Aurora’s characterisation as both an independent and domestic woman. The word “motherless” appears four times in relation to Aurora’s follies throughout the novel, and Aurora is often called a “motherless girl.”[15] Braddon uses Eliza’s death as a way to ameliorate Aurora’s wildness, noting that it is Eliza’s absence, and Archibald’s subsequent grief, that causes Aurora to become spoiled. The narrator writes:

We do not say a flower is spoiled because it is reared in a hot-house where no breath of heaven can visit it too roughly; but then, certainly, the bright exotic is trimmed and pruned by the gardener’s merciless hand, while Aurora shot whither she would, and there was none to lop the wandering branches of that luxuriant nature. (20)

The image of an unkempt exotic plant recalls the “garlands of roses” invoked by the happiness of Eliza and Archibald’s marriage, but without Eliza’s influence, the garland becomes unwound and thus untamed. Furthermore, when contrasted with Lucy Floyd, Aurora’s cousin who is “mercilessly well-educated” (26) by her own mother in the ways of Victorian female propriety, the oversight of a watchful mother seems to be a crucial ingredient to curbing independence in women, from an ideological perspective. This reasoning reveals Braddon’s attempt to negotiate between creating a married woman who acts authoritatively outside of her domestic sphere while also still appealing to her primary audience, the middle-class (often female) readers of Temple Bar. Whatever Aurora’s flaws, she hints, they stem from her lack of a proper female role model (though, as noted earlier, her mother was hardly the typical Victorian wife).

Aurora’s other qualities also mark her as the antithesis of an angel of the house. She frequently challenges this construct by participating in masculine-coded pursuits like hunting, horseracing and husbandry, interests that often take her “into other spaces where her aggressiveness competes with masculine interests” such that her “natural inclinations appear unmistakably masculine” rather than feminine (Schroeder and Schroeder 73). Her interests and boldness earn her a reputation as a “fast” woman, a common mid-century term for women who asserted themselves outside the home and participated in traditionally masculine pursuits. Women deemed “fast” were also often rumoured to be sexually promiscuous, and Aurora’s elopement with her father’s groom and subsequent marriage to John Mellish reinforces her signification as a morally loose woman whom most middle-class readers would be wary of having their daughters emulate.[16] Indeed, many scholars note the novel’s famous whipping scene, in which Aurora whips John’s disabled groom for mistreating her favourite dog, as a sexually coded physical manifestation of her un-feminine character.[17]

However, Schroeder and Schroeder rightly point out Aurora’s penchant for moving “fast” makes her especially vulnerable to the troubles that befall her (75-76), and Braddon capitalizes on Aurora’s vulnerability as the primary reason why she should elicit readers’ sympathy. Aurora’s flaws – her wildness and sensuality – thus contribute to her heroic stature. The narrator remarks: “But then, if she had been faultless, she could not have been the heroine of this story; for has not some wise man of old remarked, that the perfect women are those who leave no histories behind them” (393). This is certainly true of Aurora’s literary foil, Lucy. As the embodiment of conservative Victorian femininity, Lucy is “some gentle and feminine creature […] spotless as her own white robes, excelling in all womanly graces and accomplishments” who “only exhibited them in the narrow circle of a home” (40). After her marriage to Talbot Bulstrode, Lucy’s character and “inclinations” become “fatted lambs” on the altar of respectable marriage and she fades into the background under the doctrine of femme couverture (347). Indeed, her entire presence in the novel serves to highlight Aurora’s distinctly un-feminine nature. As the narrator snidely remarks: “There are so many Lucys but so few Auroras; and while you never could be critical with the one, you were merciless in your scrutiny of the other” (48). In short, within the male-dominated hegemony of marriage, there is no room for a “luxuriant” female nature such as Aurora’s to grow, and this, Braddon suggests, should be challenged.

Furthermore, despite her wilful independence, Aurora’s desires remain ideologically sound – she wishes to be married to a respectable man. Her elopement with Conyers is a mistake that she readily admits and suffers for. She commits bigamy by accident (believing Conyers is dead), not by premeditated scheming. Though characterised with the classic signifiers of a femme fatale (e.g., the darkness of her hair, eyes, and complexion; her assertive and sometimes aggressive attitude; and her “fast” reputation), she is ultimately innocent of the fundamental crime in the novel, the murder of Jim Conyers. As Schroeder and Schroeder put it: “Aurora is impetuous, not strong-minded or calculating, and by the example of her marriage, she helps redefine the relation between husband and wife. She does not, however, struggle defiantly against the ideological bonds of marriage” (68). Instead, as a young woman who lacks a “proper” female education that would dictate she rely on her male guardians for assistance, Aurora acts independently in her attempt to right the wrongs of her past. By characterising Aurora this way, Braddon draws a distinctly different kind of portrait of femininity for mid-Victorian readers. Female independence does not necessarily poison marital happiness; in fact, it can help it thrive. In this way, “Braddon subverts our expectations of conventional light and dark heroines [… and] shows us that what we presume to be innocent is truly dangerous, and that what we presume to be dangerous is really not horrifying at all” (Tatum 504). In other words, though Braddon’s characterisation of Aurora flirts with the femme fatale figure so prominent within sensation fiction, she nevertheless crafts the possibility for domestic happiness for such a woman.

Entering the Feminine Gallery within Temple Bar

This portrait of active domesticity was not limited to Aurora Floyd within Temple Bar. In constructing the novel as a negotiation between domestic realism and sensationalism, Braddon follows the example of Charles Kenney, another journalist of Dickens’s school, who wrote a collection of biographies entitled “Daughters of Eve” for Temple Bar between March 1861 and June 1863. Described as a “portraiture [of] a little picked troop from among my sisters in the great Earth-peopling family,” the series chronicles the lives of women who are “not […] meteoric beings flashing upon the world with high and splendid endowments, but of the plainer and humbler material whereof the companion of man is ordinarily moulded” (Kenney, “Elizabeth Inchbald” 483-84). As discussed earlier, Sala and Yates’s goal was to appeal to “the conservative lady reader” and thereby grow their readership because they “realized that respectability was essential for the success of a family magazine” (Blake, “Paradox” 194). Hence, Sala commissioned this series from Kenney to that effect, asking Kenney to explicitly minimize any “sexual naughtiness” or other behaviours that could potentially offend his middle-class audience (qtd. in Blake, “Paradox” 194). However, in spite of this call for “respectability,” the women Kenney chooses to write about are anything but domestic angels. They are actresses and authors, women who leave abusive husbands and live alone abroad, women who break their husbands out of jail, and paupers who rise through the social classes to become queens. Thus, “Daughters of Eve” contains a gallery of portraits of women like Aurora, who were both active and domestic.

Notable among them is Lady Elizabeth Berkeleigh (sometimes spelled “Berkeley”), the Margravine of Anspach, who is the subject of the series’ second instalment published in May 1861.[18] Of her, Kenney writes: “I do not warrant my heroines without blemish; I only warrant them without vice; and the utmost I can say is, that I shall concern myself with their good points chiefly, only noticing their faults as the foils of these, or as affording a lesson how the best may err” (“Elizabeth Berkeleigh” 241). Such a statement echoes Braddon’s narrator’s own emphasis that Aurora’s so-called flaws are what actually make her an interesting and heroic figure. The Margravine’s “blemishes” mirror Aurora’s social transgressions too: she resists parental authority in her early years; she travels as an “unattached” woman in Europe after separating from her adulterous husband; and she lives with the married Margrave of Anspach until both of their spouses died in 1791.[19] Kenney describes the Margravine as having a naturally “vivacious” character, “disposed to gaiety and enjoyment,” and he calls out her mother’s neglect in particular as the primary reason for her wildness: “there can be little doubt that had the Margravine of Anspach experienced more maternal tenderness, some part of her character would have been much improved” (“Elizabeth Berkeleigh” 243), recalling Aurora’s own lack of maternal oversight. Also like Aurora, the Margravine leaves a philandering, emotionally abusive husband and dares imagine herself as a separate entity from him, even while he is still living. Finally, her story also closes with a presumably happy marriage, despite her sensational reputation. As Braddon does with Aurora, then, Kenney wants the reading public to recognize the Margravine as a wronged character, someone to be pitied instead of slandered. He writes: “Hers was not a nature, […] to pine under wrong, or allow itself to be crushed by the unjust judgment of the world” (“Elizabeth Berkeleigh” 253, emphasis added). Kenney argues that once properly contextualized within the scope of her entire life, the Margravine’s independence and unconventionality should be celebrated rather than deplored.

The only serial instalment of “Daughters of Eve” to appear alongside Aurora Floyd appeared in June 1862, and detailed the life of Louise Emilie Beauharnais, Comtesse de Lavalette. The Comtesse (“Countess”) is an unjustly forgotten figure of the French Restoration, argues Kenney, who should be revered because of her faithfulness and great courage in breaking her husband out of jail the night before his execution for his close association with Napoleon Bonaparte. Kenney opens the article in the following way:

To bear the holy name of wife is the truest and ripest fulfillment [sic] of [a woman’s] destiny; no other mission has she so plain and unmistakable; around it cluster the most essential purposes of her being, her sweetest instincts, her most sacred duties; on its assumption her moral beauty bursts into bloom and fragrance, never more to fade, save it wither in the blight of sin. (“Louise Emilie Beauharnais” 415)

On the surface, this fairly conservative statement satisfies gendered assumptions of femininity within Temple Bar’s readership. Yet, when read in light of June’s instalment of Aurora Floyd, the message becomes more complex. The instalment begins with Conyers’s arrival at Mellish Park and concludes with Aurora’s agreement to give him two thousand pounds to leave her alone forever. It is also the point at which she asserts her right to act independently from her husband, asking John for his blind trust, saying: “If you only want the truth from me, John, you must ask me nothing. Remember what I said to you at the Chateau d’Arques. […] You trusted me then, John, – you must trust me to the end” (174). Kenney invokes a similar language of unequivocal trust between the Count and Countess. The Countess Lavalette managed to smuggle her husband out of jail by dressing him up her in own clothes and remaining in his cell. By the time the ruse was discovered, her husband had fled safely into exile. Perhaps imagining how their conversation about the coup would go, Kenney invents a dialogue between them that echoes the spirit of Aurora’s supplication to John. The Countess says: “Make no objections [to the plan]; if you die, I die. Do not therefore reject my proposal. I have a deep conviction we shall succeed; I feel that God is sustaining me” (“Louise Emilie Beauharnais” 427). Like Aurora, the Countess’s forceful initiative and her leadership in carrying out the rescue allow the couple to eventually live happily ever after. Though imprisoned for a month for her treason, the Countess was eventually freed and reunited with her husband in 1822. Therefore, though Aurora’s bigamy and the Countess’s subterfuge are “sinful,” these two active women are ultimately to be lauded for their fidelity and for their bravery in attempting to right serious wrongs.

Affirming the Portrait of an Egalitarian Marriage

Even if middle-class readers could accept the complexity of active domesticity, the implications of it on marriage were still uncertain. Eliza Lynn Linton’s essay, “Domestic Life,” published in February 1862, addresses these uncertainties. Along with Braddon, Linton, or “E.L.L.” as she was often known in print, was one of the other prominent women journalists who regularly wrote for Temple Bar, surprisingly so, perhaps, given her well-founded reputation as an antifeminist. Linton’s critique of the male-dominated ideology of mid-Victorian marriage in “Domestic Life” therefore seems particularly progressive, especially given its context within a family magazine. Nevertheless, Andrea Broomfield persuasively argues that as an example of the type of work ELL did this early in her career, “Domestic Life” is more indicative of her determination “to make the journalism profession work for her benefit,” which would include pandering to the tastes of her editors and (some of) her readers (268).[20]

“Domestic Life” details the domestic habits of many European societies as observed by an Englishwoman, and Linton acknowledges right away that domestic inequality seems to be at the heart of most cultures. She writes:

[W]e find a singular diversity of ideas and usages in the homesteads of various peoples; but in how many is the old Greek mistake continued of “the matron for marriage and the hetaira [mistress] for love”! and in how many more do women crouch by the footstool when they ought to sit on the throne! […] the woman on her side and the man on his, feel mutually the want of a truer and purer form of domestic being. (404-5, emphasis added)

Interestingly, this passage argues that it is not just women who are degraded by male-dominated ideologies of marriage, but also men. Linton goes on to critique the inherent boredom that occurs among women who are restricted to simple domestic pursuits, arguing that such things as gardening, walking and riding are “only palliatives, not vocations, and do nothing towards filling the void of inner life” (414). She speculates that such pursuits dull the senses and make married life boring for both men and women, devoid of any intellectual and emotional satisfaction. She then goes on to extol French domestic life, of all things, as being the most suited to conjugal happiness – not because the French are more permissive of mistresses and paramours, but because they seem to value equality among the sexes to engage in life outside the domestic sphere. She writes that unlike the French: “We English, insular and isolated, close the street-door fast, and call that emphatically ‘home’ which is only a carcass of four walls subdivided into certain cells” (412-13). She therefore implies that the gendered ideology of marriage that imprisons women in domestic spaces under masculine control can only lead to an isolated and depressed society, devoid of life.

Linton’s critique of English domesticity appears in close proximity to February’s instalment of Aurora Floyd, in which Talbot Bulstrode proposes to Aurora (only the magazine’s regularly featured “London Poems” separate the two texts). Talbot represents the masculine embodiment of Victorian domestic ideology, and his proposal to Aurora will require the capitulation of her independence to his authority within their complementarian marriage. The juxtaposition of Linton’s critique and this chapter of Aurora Floyd thus foreshadows the ultimate failure of Talbot and Aurora’s relationship, because such a match could never end in wedded bliss. In Talbot’s worldview, there is no room for Aurora’s active domesticity, her insistence on maintaining her independence and equality with her partner. Thus, their supposed marital home would become a “carcass” devoid of life and (in Talbot’s eyes) respectability. As ELL observes, “even carefully nurtured English women have instincts and natural desires which war against these artificial barriers [i.e., domestic submission] painfully, and show themselves by their effects of gloom and discontent” (414). This statement opens up the possibility that even Lucy, the quintessential “carefully nurtured” girl, will inevitably become gloomy and ineffectual once she ascertains the confines of her narrowly defined role within her marriage. Indeed, Talbot’s later proposal to Lucy nicely illustrates Linton’s pessimism. Of it, the narrator writes: “Talbot Bulstrode saw that he was beloved; and, in very gratitude, made Lucy a dismal offer of the ashes of that fire which had burnt so fiercely at Aurora’s shrine” (159). That the offer is “dismal” and offered from the “ashes” of Talbot’s “fierce” love for Aurora should be clue enough that such a match, while perfectly appropriate according to prevailing ideologies of Victorian marriage, is not actually desirable at all.

By the end of Aurora Floyd, then, the reader is predisposed to favour the marriage between Aurora and John, which is built upon equality and trust rather than male domination and female passivity. When read sideways along with “Daughters of Eve” and “Domestic Life” in particular, Aurora Floyd’s move toward a more egalitarian marriage mirrors a movement within Temple Bar itself, which draws several portraits of women whose active domesticity becomes a key factor in their overall marital happiness. Such portraits, tessellated through several genres and texts presented throughout the periodical, encourage Temple Bar’s readers to envision such a relationship for themselves. By situating Aurora Floyd properly within its periodical context, then, the ending is anything but a capitulation to the male-dominated, mid-century ideology of marriage. In fact, it illustrates that true wedded bliss and familial affection thrive in a marriage of equals. Therefore, instead of feeling betrayed by the end of Aurora Floyd, readers then (and now) should find a portrait of marriage worth pursuing.

 

Notes

[1]. All citations from Braddon’s text will be taken from P. D. Edwards’s Oxford edition of Aurora Floyd (2008) and cited in-text. While my argument centres on reading the novel within its periodical context, I have chosen to reference a standard scholarly edition of the text in the knowledge that scholars and students may not have ready access to extant copies of Temple Bar, the magazine in which Aurora Floyd was first serialised. A digital facsimile of the magazine’s full print run may be accessed for free on the HathiTrust Digital Library at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000500041.

[2]. For example, Patricia Stubbs argues on the one hand that Aurora’s domestic dénouement ultimately makes her an “utterly traditional” heroine whose tribulations only underscore the value of her eventual “domestic happiness” (46-47). On the other hand, Kimberly Reynolds and Nicola Humble disagree, stating that although somewhat subdued, “all that [Aurora] has been required to forfeit in exculpation for her bigamous crime is the full passion of her interest in horse-flesh” (114). She is still the same person, they argue, though perhaps “a little changed, a shade less defiantly bright” (Braddon 459). Natalie Schroeder concurs, noting that in avoiding the usual “punishment” reserved for women who exert such “aggression and self-assertiveness,” Aurora provides her predominantly female audience an example of “woman’s potential for power, a power that ironically flourishes in a patriarchal society” (“Feminine Sensationalism” 90).

[3]. The Saturday Review’s article serves as a good representative example. The reviewer finds “no genius, or poetry, or high feeling, or delicate painting, or subtle observation in [the novel]. No one, we should think, could care to read any page of it twice,” and further observes with some alarm that Braddon seems to know intimately “all about men and their ways. She is up to everything” (149). A writer for the London Review similarly notes that “A masculine woman with a heart is not a loveable being; but a masculine woman without a heart borders on the repulsive, even though her eyes are unexceptionable” (176). For a full account of Braddon’s harsh treatment by the literary press, see Chapter 6 of Wolff’s biography, pp. 188-221.

[4]. See Linda K. Hughes, “SIDEWAYS!: Navigating the Material(ity) of Print Culture.” Victorian Periodicals Review vol., 47, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-30.

[5]. I borrow Katie Lanning’s term here because it helpfully illustrates why such a reading is important. She argues that in reading serialised fiction, Victorian readers “actively rearranged” the ideas imbedded within several texts, fitting or piecing them together to create “mosaics of meanings” (1). While Lanning demonstrates how such tessellations work in relation to material objects in the serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), I find it useful in conceptualizing how Victorian (and contemporary) readers make sense of the various textual “portraits” of femininity being drawn in Temple Bar during its early years.

[6]. See Richard Nemesvari, “‘Judged by a Purely Literary Standard’: Sensation Fiction, Horizons of Expectation, and the Generic Construction of Victorian Realism.” Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre, edited by Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina, Ohio University Press, 2006, pp. 15-28; and Daniel Brown, “Realism and Sensation Fiction.” A Companion to Sensation Fiction, edited by Pamela Gilbert, Wiley, 2011, pp. 94-106, especially pp. 102-5.

[7]. See Margaret Beetham, “Towards a Theory of the Periodical as a Publishing Genre.” Investigating Victorian Journalism, edited by Laurel Brake, Aled Jones, and Lionel Madden, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 19-31; Lorraine Kooistra, “Charting Rocks in the Golden Stream: Or, Why Textual Ornaments Matter to Victorian Periodicals Studies.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 49, no. 3, 2016, pp. 375-95; Debra Rae Cohen, “‘Strange Collision’: Keywords Toward an Intermedial Periodical Studies.” ESC, vol. 41, no. 1, 2015, pp. 93-104; and Mark Turner, “Time, Periodicals, and Literary Studies.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 39, no. 4, 2006, pp. 309-16.

[8]. It should be noted that the more progressive tone of Temple Bar faded after the departure of Sala in 1866 and Yates in 1867. After the magazine was bought by Richard Bentley and Son, the new editor, George Bentley, “introduced a more conservative and less sensational element to the magazine” (Blake and Onslow, par. 4). For example, Austin Alfred’s “The Vice of Reading,” a diatribe against the supposed dangers of reading sensation fiction, was published in the magazine’s September 1874 issue.

[9]. See Peter Blake’s “The Paradox of a Periodical: Temple Bar Magazine Under the Editorship of George Augustus Sala (1860-1863)” for a full and fascinating account of the stratagems and commercial maneuvering Sala, Yates, and publisher John Maxwell undertook to successfully launch their new family magazine.

[10]. The Wellesley Index accords authorship of For Better, For Worse to an unknown Quaker lady based on Yates’ published recollections, though the 1894 volume of Temple Bar mistakenly identifies Braddon as the author. After its serial run in Temple Bar, the novel was published anonymously in 1864 as “edited by E.Y.”

[11]. For Sala, sensation fiction’s “shock factor” worked well not only to sell magazines but also, he hoped, to expose the inherent biases of his largely conservative middle-class readers. In this regard, he differed in style from his mentor, Charles Dickens, in how to use the press to bring about social change. As Blake observes in “Charles Dickens, George Augustus Sala and Household Words,” Dickens often sought to “cajole his middle-class readers” into more philanthropic, non-judgmental behaviour through his depictions of poverty and the lower class, rather than shock them through the criminal or sensational aspects of their lives (26).

[12]. Sala argues as much in his famous “Cant of Modern Criticism,” published in Braddon’s Belgravia in November 1867. The characters of sensation novels, he argues, “walk and talk, and act, […] like dwellers in the actual, breathing world in which we live. If we read the newspaper; if we read the police reports; […] if we have ever troubled ourself [sic] about a Yelverton marriage, a Titchborne baronetcy, a Thellusson will, a Road murder, a Cornhill burglary, a gold-dust robbery, a Roupell forgery, a Simla court-martial, we shall take no great harm by reading realistic novels of human passion, weakness and error” (52-53).

[13]. See notes 3 and 16 for specific examples.

[14]. Lindal Buchanan nicely outlines how the confluence of gender, chastity, and theatrical performance converge within the pregnant body during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While she ultimately celebrates several actresses who found ways to balance their professional careers with their domestic activities, she nevertheless highlights the challenges such women faced due to an assumed “sexual licentiousness” within the theatrical profession and the development of the separate spheres doctrine by the mid-nineteenth century (283). See pp. 283-90 in particular.

[15]. It is also worth noting that Eliza herself has no mother, having been raised by an aunt. Like Aurora, Eliza rebels against proper (single) female employment as a florist and, “being a daring and energetic young person,” walks into a Liverpool theatre and basically demands to play the lead female role (14).

[16]. Many contemporary critics were quick to point this out for their readers. For example, the London Review critic writes: “We give [sensation authors] every credit for the attempt to point the moral, by involving the misguided heroes and heroines in every description of misery – though they usually end happily – but we utterly dispute the efficiency of the means to the end. […] we do not see what point is gained by making the heroine marry a rich Yorkshireman while she is still the groom’s wife, and, the groom being subsequently opportunely shot, live happy ever after” (176).

[17]. See Wolff, p. 149-50; Reynolds and Humble, pp. 115-16; Schroeder, “Feminine Sensationalism,” pp. 94-96; and Tromp, pp. 97-100.

[18]. The very first instalment of “Daughters of Eve” in March 1861 details the life of eighteenth-century actress and playwright, Elizabeth Inchbald, whose life somewhat resembles that of Eliza Prodder, Aurora’s mother.

[19]. Indeed, her relatively quick marriage to the Margrave only a month after the death of her husband (the Margrave’s first wife having died earlier in 1791) caused even more scandal than had already circulated about their ménage à trois of the previous years. For more information, see Katherine Turner’s entry on the Margravine in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[20]. For more on the contradictions within ELL’s career and possible explanations for them, see Broomfield’s article in particular, as well as Susan Hamilton, “Women’s Voices and Public Debate.” The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830-1914, edited by Joanne Shattock, Cambridge UP, 2010, pp. 103-7; Deborah Meem, “Eliza Lynn Linton and the Rise of Lesbian Consciousness.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 7, 1997, pp. 537-60, especially pp. 537-43; Nancy Fix Anderson, Woman Against Women in Victorian England: A Life of Eliza Lynn Linton, Indiana UP, 1987; and Vineta Colby, The Singular Anomaly: Women Novelists of the Nineteenth Century, New York UP, 1970, pp. 15-45.

 

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