Rough Reviews: The Evolution of M.E. Braddon’s Critical Reception

by Janine Hatter on January 11, 2016

Amy Steffen, University of Missouri-Kansas City

The works of Mary Elizabeth Braddon consistently received negative reviews in the newspapers and journals of her time. Despite public popularity and a number of attempts at writing a higher form of literature, critics tended to condemn Braddon’s writing, and often criticized her personal life and moral character as well. As details of her personal life and marital situation – she lived and had children with her publisher, John Maxwell, until the death of his first wife made it possible for them to marry – became known to the public, many of the reviews about her work reflected a prejudice against her lifestyle choices (Sutherland 80). Other Victorian women writers received the same kind of backlash for their writing, but sensationalist authors tended receive the most derogatory reviews, which often referenced the author’s morals as an influencing factor of the quality of their work. Two popular Victorian-era publications, The Saturday Review and The Athenaeum, reviewed many of Braddon’s novels. The Saturday Review aimed to be “the voice of the educated upper middle class,” and “the robust, at times rambunctious nature of its prejudices and reviews led to its nickname, the Saturday Reviler” (Tilley). The Athenaeum: London Literary and Critical Journal reviewed books and was “one of the most influential papers of its day…However, the journal lost some of its prestige when certain reviews seemed to reflect deeply ingrained prejudices and there was evidence of logrolling” (Demoor). Eventually, as the end of the century approached, literary decorum and critical reception evolved, and Braddon finally started to receive the respect she deserved.

Braddon is now referred to as “the ‘Queen of the Circulating Libraries’ and the most consistent of Victorian bestseller novelists” (Sutherland 80). It all started with the serial publication of her first novel, Trail of the Serpent, which was reprinted in single-volume format after the success of her second novel, Lady Audley’s Secret. An 1866 review of Trail of the Serpent was given almost a full page in the Saturday Review. It denounces Braddon’s writing as immoral and unrefined, and the critic accuses Braddon of relying on the fame she gained from Lady Audley’s Secret for the sure success of Trail of the Serpent. Addressing Braddon’s preface in Trail of the Serpent, in which she admits that it was written in haste, this article wonders “how anybody with any sense of literary self-respect could think it worth while to republish a book avowedly composed in such a fashion” (275). Like other reviews of Braddon’s work, this one discredits her novel despite its popularity with the public.

A review published in the same edition of the Saturday Review as mentioned above evaluated a new novel, Aunt Margaret’s Trouble, which was published anonymously. The critic assumes that the novel writer was female, and praises the simple style and modest themes that she utilizes in her writing. This reviewer even compares the author of Aunt Margaret’s Trouble to Braddon, saying that “there is scarcely one of our modern novel-writers who has not served an apprenticeship to simplicity and comparative insignificance … even Miss Braddon worked at the oar before she hoisted sail with Lady Audley’s Secret, and plunged headforemost into the great sea of popularity” (280). So, within the same edition of the journal that they discredit Braddon for Trail of the Serpent, they also use her as a favorable comparison to this new anonymous author.

Eleanor’s Victory, in which Braddon was attempting to write in a ‘higher’ literary style in order to gain the approval of her reviewers, was reviewed in the September 19, 1863 issue of The Saturday Review. The analysis begins with a backhanded compliment: “This appears to us to be the best of Miss Braddon’s novels, for it is a sensation novel without any glaring impropriety in it, with several characters cleverly drawn, and with a plot that does the authoress great credit” (396). It goes on to reservedly give credit to Braddon for her writing ability. However, they do strongly suggest that she’s copying Willkie Collins, if not outright, at least in style. Towards the end of the review, the critic again decided that Braddon has some good things to offer. “Miss Braddon gives us something more than a cunning plot cunningly worked out, and a story written in easy, flowing, and lively English. She gives us something peculiar to herself and given by no one else. She alone can write of women’s things like a woman, and of men’s things like a man” (397). Although there are undertones of moral judgement in this statement, overall this should be considered a huge compliment. As modern critics now agree, the male gaze is the considered the ‘default’ while the female gaze is the ‘Other,’ and it is a huge accomplishment to successfully capture both sides.

Unfortunately, the critic then notes that “it is impossible not to be amused with the artless way in which Miss Braddon betrays her intimate knowledge of easy male society, although without the slightest approach to impropriety” (397). Further, it is declared that she is obviously familiar with men’s customary drunken shenanigans and vulgarity. “And it ought to be expressly said that, although she evidently knows how fast young men behave and talk and disport themselves in moments of unrestraint, she never treads even on the borders of indelicacy” (397). Victorians were obviously well versed in cold, backhanded ‘compliments.’ Even with the initial impressions of a favorable review, it turns out Braddon had not yet earned critics’ respect.

The image below depicts Braddon and the critical reception of her lifestyle and her work. Not only does it have derogatory implications about her social life, with the image including her partner/publisher John Maxwell as ringmaster and her appearance as a performer, but it also implies that she was not in control of her publications, despite the many titles that are represented here, including her own magazine Belgravia.

Belgravia Magazine
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The following image depicts Braddon as an author, pictured with a mask of sensationalism and robed in a rich, flowing gown. She is surrounded by her accoutrements of writing, including a skull-shaped ink pot, and a copy of her latest novel, Asphodel, is half submitted into a box labelled Mudie. Mudie’s Select Library was an extremely influential Victorian circulating library which stocked only “the principal New and Choice Books in circulation,” due to Mudie himself “refusing to stock what he considered immoral books” (Armetta). This illustration was printed in Punch magazine in the series known as “Fancy Portraits,” which depicted prominent members of Victorian society. The title, “Just As I Am!” was the title of another of her recent novels, and as pictured here, implies Braddon’s pride in her work, despite the many negative reviews she received in the press.

Image 1.1
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Even at the advanced stage of her career at which Braddon published Rough Justice, she still received scathing, condescending reviews for her work, despite the public success she had achieved. The February 19, 1898 issue of The Anthenaeum describes Braddon’s depiction of the story’s murderer as basically ineffective. The reviewer believes that in order “fully to realize such a character demands more skill than Miss Braddon possesses, but she has succeeded fairly” (244). She did as well as could be expected, according to this reviewer. It ends with a snarky and sexist remark: the novel is “filled with the adroitness with which we have been long familiar. The “rough justice” … is not the worst example of the writer’s knowledge of humanity. But if a man had written the book, we think he would not have shown so much sympathy with the less guilty of the two. The doings of Faunce, the detective, are as well managed as can be expected” (244).

She fares no better in The Saturday Review, which even comments on the formatting of Rough Justice as it diverges from her serial norm. “Miss Braddon has contrived to amuse the world for so many years with a long series of novels built largely after the same pattern, that there must needs be some savour of ungraciousness in any suggestion of falling off in her latest work. Yet it is plain that, in departing from her familiar formulae, as she has done in ‘Rough Justice,’ she has achieved less than her usual success” (401). It appears that critics were not impressed with this new format, and critics were generally in agreement about her abilities as well.

Again, Braddon’s abilities are degraded, as her depiction of the villain and the fact that “he represents Miss Braddon’s most elaborate essay in psychology, he is altogether a failure…This does not, however, diminish the interest of the book as noticeably as might be expected, for on the development of the plot and the delineation of the other characters, Miss Braddon has brought to bear all her old spirit and skill.” Despite the successful career in serialized novels and a solid attempt at the new standard of single-volume novels, Braddon continued to be a favorite scapegoat for critics’ contempt. However, the critics do seem to subtly acknowledge the popular readership value and the skill that Braddon demonstrates in certain aspects of authorship, but they are unable to credit her without more loudly bashing her.

By the end of the 19th century, other prominent publications, including the popular literary journal the Bookman and The Academy, which was the “more scholarly, and signed, version of the Athenaeum,” both printed glowing reviews of Braddon and her work (Kent; Easley).

An 1899 edition of The Academy claims that “you would travel far before you reached the zone where the name of Braddon failed of its recognition. Miss Braddon is part of England; she has woven herself into it; without her it would be different. This is no mere fanciful conceit. She is in the encyclopaedias; she ought to be in the dictionaries, a common noun, for she stands for something which only schoolboys need ask to be defined” (E. A. B. 431). Finally, Braddon had achieved the positive critical reception that she deserved, and this “Enquiry,” as it is so titled, is not only analyzing one of her novels, but her whole literary career.

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The above full-page advertisement in the American Bee Journal indicates that by 1891, Braddon had been critically acclaimed as one of the “greatest authors who ever lived” alongside Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, W.M. Thackeray, and her friend Edward Bulwer Lytton. This advertisement shows that her appeal to readers of all kinds extended beyond Great Britain to the United States as well.

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The Bookman devoted nine pages to Braddon for their evaluation of her family, her life, and her work. The public’s affection for Braddon is celebrated here: “A fresh novel by Miss Braddon is still looked forward to with deep interest, not only by those who have read her books with pleasure since she first began to weave the long series of fascinating works of fiction that appear in ‘Who’s Who’ and publishers’ catalogues under her name, but by those whose memory of her work may only go back a comparatively few years” (Holland 149).

Although I did not find any completely positive critical reviews of Braddon’s works in The Saturday Review or The Athenaeum, these final pieces of evidence indicate that, at least for the last few years of her life, Braddon received the kind of recognition that she deserved.

Works Cited

Armetta, Flora. “CIRCULATING LIBRARIES.” Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism. Web. C19: The Nineteenth Century Index. 19 Dec. 2015.

“AUNT MARGARET’S TROUBLE.” Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art 22.566 (1866): 280-1. ProQuest. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Demoor, Marysa. “ANTHENAEUM (1828-1921).” Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism. Web. C19: The Nineteenth Century Index. 19 Dec. 2015.

E, A. B. “Miss Braddon.” The Academy, 1869-1902, 0269-333X.1432 (1899): 431-2. ProQuest. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

Easley, Marie Alexis. “BOOKMAN (1891-1934).” Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism. Web. C19: The Nineteenth Century Index. 19 Dec. 2015.

Famous Fiction by the World’s Greatest Authors. American Bee Journal 02 July 1891: 763. Internet Archive. Web. 11 December 2015.

Holland, Clive. “MISS BRADDON: THE WRITER AND HER WORK.” The Bookman 42.250 (1912): 157. ProQuest. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

Kent, Christopher Andrew. “ACADEMY (1869-1916).” Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism. Web. C19: The Nineteenth Century Index. 19 Dec. 2015.

“MISS BRADDON’S FIRST NOVEL.” Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art 22.566 (1866): 275. ProQuest. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

“Miss Braddon in Her Daring Flight.” The Mask (June 1868): 139. GoogleBooks. Web. 11 December 2015.

“Rough Justice.” Saturday review of politics, literature, science and art 85.2212 (1898): 401. ProQuest. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

“Rough Justice.” The Athenaeum.3669 (1898): 244. ProQuest. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Sutherland, John. “Braddon.” The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford University Press, 1990. EBook.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Miss M.E. Braddon. (Punch’s fancy portraits, no. 21)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1881.

Tilley, Elizabeth. “SATURDAY REVIEW OF POLITICS, LITERATURE, SCIENCE, AND ART (1855-1938).” Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism. Web. C19: The Nineteenth Century Index. 19 Dec. 2015.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lucy Prim January 12, 2016 at 1:45 am

Wonderful article Amy! I’m so glad she didn’t get completely discouraged from all the snide remarks and quit writing.

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Mary Monnin January 12, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Great article! Despite those unflattering reviews, her immense popularity shows that she struck a chord with Victorian women. I believe this was just as much for her criticized independent lifestyle, which had so much more freedom than the average woman of the time, as for her exciting stories. Not only could female readers “escape” through her novels, perhaps they vicariously enjoyed the way she disregarded the strict social rules of the 19th century.

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