M. E. Braddon’s The Rose of Life (1905) – From Notebook to Publication

by Janine Hatter on April 21, 2015

One aspect of Braddon’s writing that I found intriguing was the transmission of a novel from draft or notes to final publication. One of the most ‘famous’ criticisms levelled at sensation fiction authors was the accusation by Henry Mansel in the Quarterly Review (April 1863) that they had created a literary marketplace in which the quantity of literature produced was of more importance than the quality.[1] During my time at the HRC, I was particularly keen to find evidence of Braddon’s compositional practices in an effort to understand how she wrote and whether this refuted or supported Mansel’s assertions.

Unfortunately, there is little extant evidence in the form of dairies, contracts or journals from the early part of Braddon’s career, thus making it difficult to confirm writing practices or professional negotiations in the period in which her fame was first established. The majority of surviving authorial materials come from the latter part of her life and these constitute the core collection at the HRC.

The Wolff Collection includes diaries and notebooks used by Braddon to record notes, sketches and outline for novels; they also acted as commonplace books filled with quotations, observations and notes from her reading. There does not appear to be any overall, or indeed an internal, coherence to these notebooks. Rather the jottings range from examples of Hindoostani and Biblical quotations to travel notes and drawings.  Hidden amongst the everyday, prosaic observations are hints at the work which must have been a constant backdrop to daily life. The scenarios are contained within a single notebook in the Collection. The notebook itself measures 18.6.cm by 15.4 cm (7.4 inches x 6 inches) and is bound in green cloth. The notebook appears to have been used previously, perhaps as an address book, as it contains a list of names and surnames crossed through at the back of the volume. There is an alphabetical index of the contents of the notebook towards the rear of the volume. It contains for the most part, notes for plays, novels and novellas but also some examples of travel writing.

The material for one of Braddon’s later novels, The Rose of Life (1905), provides a concise example of the transmission of ideas from notebook to publication. The outline sketches for The Rose of Life take various forms, not all the information in the notebook later appears in the single volume edition of 1905. For example, the notebook contains character sketches, passages of dialogue, brief notes on a character’s history and details of key moments in the plot. Within the notebook there is evidence of emendation to the outlines – character’s names have been changed and details of their background story have been altered. On occasion entire pages have been crossed through, but it is unclear whether this is indicative of discarded ideas, or whether the crossing out is done later to indicate material already incorporated into a draft. In Braddon’s diaries for 1903 and 1904, we see some of the very few references made to the ongoing progress of any of her novels. The Rose of Life is mentioned in May and August of 1903 and three times in January 1904. Braddon makes the following entries in her diaries:

1903 Memoranda – Daniel

Aug 31 p.139;

May 6 [whilst in Bude] wrote letters and a little Daniel;

August 19 [whilst in Hamburg] Revised Daniel – morning.

1904: Jan 19 At home, writing letters and Daniel – all morning;

Jan 27 Revise Daniel; Jan 28 Revising Daniel. [2]

The novel was serialised in Tit-Bits in eighteen weekly parts between 18 June and 15 October 1904, with Hutchinson & Co. publishing a single volume edition in 1905. The entries in her diaries suggest that Braddon was writing the novel in May 1903, that she was revising the text in August that year and continued revising into January 1904. As there is no further mention of the novel in the diaries, it is impossible to say how many months ahead of serialisation Braddon was at this point.

There are several examples of long dialogues between characters that have survived from the notebook virtually intact. Below is the transcription of such an example, taken from the notebook on the left and followed by the passage from The Rose of Life which corresponds to the extract on the right.[3]


Recto 136 [half way down the page]He confesses the forgeries with a calm

audacity –

Yes, I was a brigand – for the nonce –

but I meant to pay you by and by –

I shall write a book that will set the town in a blaze – sell by tens

of thousands – and then I shall come and pour my gold into yr. lap.

What you mean to crush me with

the jail – to strangle one of the


Verso [unnumbered page]


biggest minds of yr. ea era –

Are you capable <of> <that> such a crime as that Gertrude.


A man who was yr. playfellow – yr.

first teacher – who opened yr. eyes on

the vast panorama of life – who was

almost yr. brother – in those pleasant

days when all the world was young


because we were under thirty – five

and twenty – No, Gertrude you cd. not do it

He laughed aloud – his great genial laugh wh. had won him more friends

other men’s        deeds

than ^ good actions ^ won for them. He walked to the window, looking out at the great trees in their spring foliage. There were birds singing among the branches and the sky behind them was cobalt blue –

‘No, Gertrude, you won’t do it. I know you too well.


Rose of Life“And you would let them?” he cried, starting up before her, a noble figure, with massive shoulders and broad, commanding brow, terrible in his indignation. “You would destroy me – me – a man who was your playfellow, your first teacher, who opened your eyes on the panorama of life, who was almost your brother, in those delightful days when all the world was young because we were under five-and-twenty? No, Nora, you could not do it.”

He laughed aloud, his great genial laugh, which had won him more friends than other men’s good deeds win for them. He walked to the open window and stood for a minute looking at the flowers in the balcony, then came suddenly back to the spot where he had been standing in front of her chair,

“Yes, I helped myself to your money,” he said, with a grand audacity. “I was a brigand for the nounce, but I meant to pay you by-and-by. I mean to pay you. I shall write a book that will set the town in a blaze, sell by the tens of thousands, and then I shall come and pour my gold into your lap. Money is such a paltry thing for those that have more than enough…”


One of the striking elements of the extract is the reordering of the speech given by the main character, Daniel. In the published edition Daniel’s claims for writing a great novel that will enable him to repay the money appears at the end of his speech to Lady Nora Beauminister whereas in the notebook this is the opening to his argument. The change in structure of the argument alters the impact of the speech itself. The notebook version begins with reassurances that the money will be repaid, Daniel then appeals directly to Nora, playing on their shared experiences whilst growing up. The movement of the character to the window to contemplate the scene and his self-assured ‘ “…you won’t do it. I know you too well” ’ implies that Daniel is the character in control of the situation. However, with the structure reversed the reader has a different impression not only of Daniel but also of the scene as a whole. Beginning with an indignant outburst, Daniel’s character already appears less self-assured than his first incarnation. What could be read as an appeal in the notebook version takes on a sarcastic tone in the published version. Moving the reassurances for the return of the money to the close of the speech shows it to be an after-thought – and the grand scheme to recoup the money is both flawed and impractical. Daniel’s laugh is constant in both – it is indicative of his inability to take the situation seriously and also his contempt for Gertrude/Nora and her ability to take action against him. The words of the dialogue, if not the precise order, have been largely preserved as Braddon moved from notebook to published edition. The germ of Daniel’s defence for his actions remains the same – that he could not help himself, that he claims he meant to repay the money, that he does not believe his friend will inform the police – are common to both versions of the speech. Yet careful revision has shifted the emphasis from Daniel as essentially good, if a little extravagant, to a slightly darker, more selfish version who had no plans to repay the money and is only sorry that he was caught.

There has never been any doubt that Braddon was a prolific and successful author; criticisms have always dwelt on the quality of the literature which in turn was seen as essentially the result of the quantity produced.  There is no denying that Braddon produced a phenomenally large oeuvre of work during her lifetime. The £68112 1s and 3d legacy left at her death is testament to the commercial success she enjoyed as an author. Yet there is so much more to Braddon as an author than the sensational reputation, the volumes upon volumes of novels produced and the scandalous private life. Braddon struggled, as do so many authors, to reconcile financial and artistic pressures and failed as often as she succeeded. The latter years of her career, when the necessity of providing money was reduced but the strong work ethic was in place, demonstrate the craft and care Braddon was capable of bestowing on a novel. There are tantalising hints of this in her early work, but as the majority of extant material survives from the 1890s onwards, these provide the clearest indications of Braddon’s revising, and even revisioning, of her work.

Elizabeth Adams

[1] [Henry Mansel] ‘Sensation Novels’, Quarterly Review, vol. 113 no. 226 (April 1863), 482-514, (p.483).

[2] Wollf Collection, Containers 28.3 and 28.4.

[3] Wolff Collection, Container 32.1 Notebook pre.1895; Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Rose of Life, (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1905), p.220.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kath Beal April 21, 2015 at 10:53 am

What a facinating insight into the develpment of her novel. Really enjoyed reading the notebook extracts. Thank you for introducing this.


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