A Perfect Eel

Elaine Showalter

‘There is no accounting for tastes,’ the Westminster Review declared in 1866. ‘Blubber for the Esquimaux, half-hatched eggs for the Chinese and Sensational novels for the English.’ The extraordinary popularity in the 1860s of sensation fiction, or ‘bigamy novels’, as these books were sometimes known, led critics to conclude that the genre was ‘a sign of the times – the evidence of … a craving for some fundamental change in the workings of society’. Sensation novelists seemed especially interested in the consequences of the divorce reform act of 1857; in ‘monogamous countries’, the Oxford philosophy professor Henry Mansel noted in a review of 24 sensation novels in an 1863 issue of the Quarterly Review, the obsession with bigamy served as ‘a vehicle of mysterious interest or poetic justice’.

Few of the novels Mansel reviewed are still read, but Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), the biggest seller of them all, is a significant exception. Mary Elizabeth Braddon was the most prolific of the sensationalists, publishing more than eighty novels, as well as poems, short stories and plays. She began to write at a time when the publishing market offered a wide variety of outlets designed to appeal to various classes of reader, and she worked simultaneously for several of them. In 1861, when she began Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon was writing four other serial stories for different magazines. Lady Audley’s Secret started out as a thriller for the penny magazines: it was first serialised anonymously in a new one, Robin Goodfellow, and then moved to the Sixpenny Magazine when Robin Goodfellow failed. But its popularity with readers from all classes led to its publication as a three-volume novel in October 1862, under the name M.E. Braddon. By December, Lady Audley’s Secret had gone through eight editions, and Braddon’s tale of false identities, desertion, detection, bigamy, blackmail, arson, madness and murder had brought her celebrity and become the template for a genre.

By the end of her long career, Braddon had earned a grudging respect from her contemporaries. Henry James acknowledged that her novels were ‘brilliant, lively, ingenious and destitute of a ray of sentiment’. In a letter of 1911 he told her that ‘I used to follow you ardently.’ But after her death Braddon’s reputation declined, along with the reputations of many other innovative Victorian women writers. When I was researching her work in the early 1970s her books were out of print. Dover Books brought out a paperback edition of Lady Audley’s Secret in 1974, and in 1987 David Skilton edited it for the Oxford World’s Classics. In the interim, as Lyn Pykett’s excellent introduction to a new Oxford edition explains, both Braddon and sensation fiction in general experienced a revival as a result of the rise of feminist criticism and cultural studies. As Pykett says, Lady Audley is now a ‘fixture on many university and college courses’, and indeed Victorianists refer to a ‘Braddon boom’, or ‘Braddon studies’, and stress the influence of her novels on a flourishing genre in contemporary fiction known as ‘neo-Victorianism’ or sometimes ‘neo-sensationalism’, whose exponents include A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters and Michel Faber.

M.E. Braddon’s secrets would make a sensational novel of their own. Brought up and educated by her mother, she was ‘a keen, precocious and eclectic reader’ of Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray and Wilkie Collins, but modelled her first literary efforts ‘chiefly upon Jane Eyre’ and believed that Charlotte Brontë was the most passionate Victorian novelist. Braddon also enjoyed the popular fiction in penny magazines and was a ‘genuine enthusiast’ of French fiction, especially Balzac, Flaubert and Zola. When the Braddons urgently needed money, she turned to the theatre with her mother’s encouragement, acting under the name Mary Seyton. But writing was more lucrative than the provincial stage. In 1860, when she was 25, she met John Maxwell, an Irish entrepreneur who published some of her short stories in one of his many magazines, and he successfully marketed her first novel, Three Times Dead, by giving it a new title, The Trail of the Serpent.

Their subsequent affair was shadowed by scandal. Maxwell’s wife, the mother of his five children, had long been in a Dublin lunatic asylum. Most Victorian women would have rejected his advances even so, but what devotee of Jane Eyre could have resisted him? Braddon moved in with Maxwell, along with her mother, and while Lady Audley’s Secret was making its appearance she gave birth to Gerald, the first of their six children. Soon she was supporting the household by her writing. When Mrs Maxwell died in 1874 the irregularity of the ménage became public knowledge, but they married immediately and seem to have been accepted by society.

None of Braddon’s novels so captured readers as Lady Audley’s Secret, which defeats other contenders not only because it’s shocking but also because it’s stylish, accomplished and original. Braddon structured the novel around two mutually reinforcing plots. The Lady Audley story describes the rise and fall of a poor girl called Helen Maldon, who strikes out on her own when she is abandoned by her hot-headed husband, George Talboys. Helen leaves her baby son with her father, changes her name to Lucy Graham and becomes a governess. Soon she escapes from the ‘dull slavery’ of her job by becoming the trophy wife of the elderly Sir Michael Audley and the mistress of his magnificent house, Audley Court. Although she is a helpless-looking blonde, the epitome of the Victorian ‘Angel in the House’, Lady Audley is strong and determined, and when her position is threatened by her first husband’s return she takes murderous action.

Braddon does not openly sympathise with Lady Audley: she keeps her protagonist at a careful narrative and moral distance but endows her with intelligence, cultivated tastes in music and art, and her own kind of integrity. Although Braddon never enters her consciousness or portrays her dreams (as she does with other characters), she gives her convincing motives and sets her up as a counterpart to the self-made men the Victorians so admired. ‘My ultimate fate in life,’ Lady Audley explains, ‘depended upon my marriage, and I concluded that if I was indeed prettier than my schoolfellows, I ought to marry better.’ She is not a heartless fortune-hunter: when Sir Michael proposes she tells him honestly that she does not love him, and confesses that she ‘cannot be disinterested; I cannot be blind to the advantages of such an alliance.’ He marries her anyway, accepting her terms, and she is a faithful and affectionate wife in exchange for the security and wealth he brings her. While she condemns Lady Audley’s crimes, Braddon also hints, through the anti-feminist diatribes of Robert Audley, Sir Michael’s nephew, that women are frustrated and destructive because they are confined to passive domestic lives:

If they can’t agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they’ll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills … They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators – anything they like – but let them be quiet – if they can.

Before he meets his new step-aunt, and becomes both attracted to and suspicious of her, Robert is an ‘indolent, handsome and indifferent’ young barrister who spends his time lounging around reading French novels. When George Talboys returns from Australia with a fortune, determined to lay it at the feet of the wife he deserted three years before, and then mysteriously disappears, Robert is shaken out of his lethargy, and is soon busily seeking clues, compiling evidence and interrogating witnesses. By the end of the novel, he is a ‘rising man upon the home circuit’ who ‘has distinguished himself in the great breach of promise case of Hobbs v. Nobbs’, married George’s sister Clara, and moved with their baby into a ‘fairy cottage … between Teddington Lock and Hampton Bridge’. The spectacle of female ambition, sexual appeal, calculation, social daring and resolve galvanises Robert into becoming a model Victorian hero and head of a household.

Braddon’s literary career, like Lady Audley’s marital career, has a clear-sightedness and logic that is modern and chilling. In a correspondence lasting many years with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, to whom she dedicated Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon admitted that she had learned ‘to look at everything in a mercantile sense’. Although she told Bulwer-Lytton that she aspired ‘to write for Fame & do something more worthy to be laid upon your altar’, she knew that her talents and her needs meant she had to write for the mass market, and she felt no guilt about supplying the ‘crime, treachery, murder, slow poisoning and general infamy’ that was required. ‘I am just going to do a little paracide [sic] for this week’s supply,’ she told him. Braddon told him she wanted ‘to serve two masters. I want to be artistic & to please you. I want to be sensational, & to please Mudie’s subscribers.’ The library’s subscribers would always win, however, and Braddon realised that the great artistic novel she fantasised about writing some day would never appear. ‘This unwritten novel always seems to me destined to become my magnum opus,’ she wrote to Bulwer-Lytton, but she knew it could never live up to her hopes: ‘I can never write anything half as good, for that Archetype is a perfect eel in the matter of slipperiness.’ Braddon poured all her literary energy into her commercial novels and made them readable, convincing and sometimes even subversive, while Bulwer-Lytton’s artistic novels now please no one.