Book Review: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Yorkshire

by Janine Hatter on May 3, 2015

Ruth Morris, 2013. Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Yorkshire: Dialect, Place and Setting in Victorian Sensation Literature, Palo Alto, CA: Academica Press. 146pp. £65. ISBN: 978-1936320-54-7.

Ruth Morris’s Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Yorkshire is her third book published by Academica Press in three years. Her other texts – Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Jewish Question (2011) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Belgravia (2012) – are also examinations of Braddon’s oeuvre, so together they demonstrate Morris’s expansive knowledge of Braddon’s novels, which she gained from studying Braddon for her PhD at Aberdeen. Overall, Braddon and Yorkshire’s target audience is other Braddon scholars, but those interested in local culture, regional dialects and literary representations of the North will find note-worthy examples within the text as well.

Braddon had a prolific writing career, lasting for over fifty years in which she wrote over eighty novels, one hundred and fifty short stories, numerous poems and articles, while she also edited two periodicals. This expansive contribution to literature means there is a vast amount of fiction to be surveyed when it comes to examining one particular theme or setting within her fiction, but Morris handles this well in a study that specifically considers Braddon’s depiction of Yorkshire. Morris’s study highlights that Braddon engaged with Yorkshire within her fiction for over a forty-year period, from 1860 to 1900, that ‘[o]ver fifty of her novels mention Yorkshire’ (5), and that her edited periodical, Belgravia, also contains numerous articles relating to the county. Yorkshire is therefore a pervasive presence throughout Braddon’s oeuvre and so is a worthy aspect of study.

Morris begins her critical text by briefly indicating that there are biographical reasons for examining Yorkshire in Braddon’s novels. Braddon lived for six months in Beverley (as well as Hull), and she acted in both locations – though she did not act ‘on the Yorkshire stage as Mary Seyton between 1852 and 1860’ as Morris suggests (5) – her acting in Yorkshire specifically was limited to 1856-7 and 1859 (see Carnell). Morris also notes Braddon’s first novel The Trail of the Serpent (1860) was published by the Yorkshire publisher, Charles Empson (5), to which I can add that she published her first poetry in the Beverley Recorder and that she wrote her first two short stories in the county as well – ‘Captain Thomas’ and ‘The Cold Embrace’ (both 1860). These connections, Morris postulates, ‘can arguably be read into her work’ (5) and it is these connections that are the main focus of her study.

Braddon and Yorkshire opens with a foreword by Graeme Garvey of the Yorkshire Dialect Society that outlines the birth of this critical text and highlights that Morris’s main contribution, for him, is her technical study of the Yorkshire dialect, which demonstrates Braddon’s own keen ear for language and her serious literary intent. This is merely one aspect of Morris’s critical framework, though. The book is split into five distinct chapters that progress her overall aim, which is to highlight the pervasive depiction of Yorkshire in Braddon’s works and to demonstrate its strong influence over her. To achieve this, Morris begins by outlining other authors – all of whom have an association with Braddon – and their depictions of Yorkshire. Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, George Eliot and the Brontёs are all considered when discussing Yorkshire’s representation in the literature of the nineteenth century. Chapter Two onwards then focus on Braddon’s canon specifically to examine how Braddon’s depiction of Yorkshire contributes new understanding to the county’s representation during this period.

To explore this fascinating and worthwhile topic, Morris identifies three categories of Yorkshire within Braddon’s canon: Yorkshire traditions (horse-racing, architecture and food), Yorkshire characters (dialect, men and women’s characteristics) and Yorkshire as a place (the Moors, its magnitude and resistance to change). Morris also distinguishes that Braddon references real places, locations that recall real places, and fictional places that she situates within Yorkshire. Each of these has its own significance to Braddon’s work and her depiction of the county and its people, with Morris arguing these references connote ‘certain qualities’ about Yorkshire within the novels (70). The main criticism to be levelled at this study though is the lack of explanation of what these Yorkshire ‘qualities’ are and the effect this has on Braddon’s work as a whole. Morris’s study is somewhat descriptive in its discussions of Yorkshire’s representation, and would have benefitted from having a stronger overall argument that united the themes discussed and stated clearly the effect this has for her oeuvre.

Furthermore, throughout Braddon and Yorkshire, Morris includes tables that house many of the Yorkshire quotations – this seems to a be clunky style of formatting as they take up a lot of space and do not fully utilise the quotations in the most effective way. They demonstrate the large range of quotations used by Braddon, but many of them are repeated throughout the chapters to much better effect and so incorporating the remaining quotations into the main body of the critical text would have streamlined the argument and the formatting of the volume. Having said that, the added map of Yorkshire, which indicates where most of the named locations are and how many times they are referenced, is an invaluable addition to the text that clearly indicates the range of Braddon’s knowledge of Yorkshire and the differences between localities within this county.

On a more positive note, aside from the extensive cataloguing of Yorkshire’s references in Braddon’s novels (especially in ‘Appendix One: The References to Real Places in Yorkshire in Braddon’s Novels’), the book’s greatest strength is Morris’s interrogation of one of sensation fiction’s main criticisms, that of ‘using repetitive, banal descriptions and stock characters’ (4). Morris argues that this criticism of sensation fiction as a genre cannot be levelled at Braddon’s descriptions of Yorkshire because they are both varied and nuanced. Thus, her characterisation of the Yorkshire people is a key aspect that drives some her novels (Aurora Floyd and The Doctor’s Wife) and so counters critics’ remarks that her fiction was purely plot driven. This is the overarching argument that should have been outlined more clearly from the start, as it directly states the importance of Yorkshire to Braddon’s fiction.

While Morris surveys a wide variety of themes and aspects relating to Yorkshire in Braddon’s novels, including dialect, food and setting, there are limitations to the scope of the book and these she notes in her conclusion. Morris has focused on Yorkshire, but she states there are many other locations and dialects that also emerge throughout Braddon’s fiction (122), and she has only briefly touched upon Braddon’s edited magazine, Belgravia, while much more could be done to expand her research using this resource (122). I could also add including her short fiction, plays and poetry to the list to be examined for Braddon’s representation of Yorkshire (and other settings), as they too are a significant body of work within Braddon’s canon and should not be neglected. Morris notes that her book is meant as a ‘springboard’ to wider study (121), and more research in this area would be a much welcomed addition to Braddon studies.

Janine Hatter

 

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