A Look at “Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED”

On March 25, 2015, PhD candidate Anna Brecke delivered a talk entitled “Constructing Femininity: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Material Culture, and the OED” as an installment of the University of Rhode Island’s English Department Graduate Colloquium. The monthly Colloquium serves as a forum where graduate students with advanced standing can engage the University at large in their research. The intimately set talks incite thought-provoking conversations among both students and professors, and highlight the often interdisciplinary nature of the research undertaken by English graduate students. Brecke’s work on M. E. Braddon is no exception: it blurs boundaries of literary and gender studies, incorporating elements of material culture alongside scholarly close reading rooted in hands-on archival work.

Brecke is no stranger to the world of this prolific sensation writer. In this talk, she spoke about Braddon’s lasting mark on the English language, taking a close look at entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attributed to Braddon. Although most widely known as the author of Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon penned more than 150 novels and short stories, nine plays, and countless poems and other scholarly writings over the span of her forty-year career, becoming the sixth most cited female author in the OED at present. Brecke drew examples from three of Braddon’s lesser-known novels, Asphodel, Mount Royal, and Vixen, where words abound that Braddon herself either coined or utilized in a new way. These words run the gamut from abstruse anachronisms to commonplace contemporary terms. Words currently in disuse like “horsiness” and “dogginess” were used by Braddon in describing the habits of female characters as liking the outdoors or enjoying hunting. Braddon in fact refers to the “horsiness” of her own activities in her diaries, which, Brecke interestingly points out, focus more on horses and riding than they do on people. Braddon’s novels utilize these and similar terms as a way to distinguish her “natural heroines” from the commodified girl culture that was often pressed in social circles and popular culture. It is here in her connection to material culture that Braddon’s mark on the English language can best be seen.

Drawing on her work in the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Archive held at the International Center for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW) in Canterbury Christ Church University, England, Brecke spoke to the apparent preoccupation with issues of appearance and social expectations of dress voiced in Braddon’s works. Brecke recognized a theme of materiality in Braddon’s terms, pointing to the abundance of words that relate to material culture, specifically fashion, fabric, or clothing, that make up the over 1,400 OED entries in which Braddon is cited. The novel Vixen is cited for the first use of the word “fashion magazine” in print, while the term “chic” cites Mount Royal as an instance of first use for its meaning. The third text Brecke discussed, Asphodel, boasts “aglitter,” “fad,” and among its contributions to the English language. The female characters of Braddon’s texts use this specialized fashion vocabulary as a way to consume girl culture being broadcasted in the very magazines Braddon names. Brecke’s talk included pictures of Victorian fashion plates, or drawings of the most popular clothing styles of the time, similar to those that characters in a Braddon may have themselves looked upon.

Although Braddon’s project may not have been to propagate and encourage girl culture, her contributions to the world of material culture—particularly fashion—are astonishing. As Brecke pointed out in her question and answer session, there is certainly a doubleness to Braddon’s use of the terms, where successful heroines find moderation between consumer culture and anti-consumerism tendencies. Brecke’s talk served to highlight this lesser-known author whose contributions to the English language are impressive and astonishing, and whose influence stretches beyond the literary page.


Ashton F. Foley

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