‘Another Skeleton in the Braddon Cupboard?’
By David Barton
It wasn’t on a library bookshelf or an academic reading list that I first come across Mary Elizabeth Braddon. My grandmother, Hetty Louise Braddon, had a battered copy of All Along the River, written, she told me, by a member of the family.
Years later, through family history research I learned more. I had traced my Braddon ancestors back to the late 1500s in Cornwall and found that they were interesting people: such respectable pillars of the community as farmers, clergy and solicitors but also bankrupts and smugglers.
And among them was Mary Elizabeth, my second cousin five times removed. The more I read both by her and about her, the higher was my regard for her significance as a writer and her personal courage and determination.
As one does as a historian, even an amateur family historian, notes were assembled of all potentially relevant facts and connections. Certainly with such a subject as MEB there was plenty to discover about her early unsettled years and her unconventional family life.
Her life was as dramatic as the plots of her novels: a feckless philandering father, who reduced the family to poverty; touring as an actress to support her mother; ‘living in sin’ and having children with a married man. Even murder featured in her close family in 1858, when her favourite uncle William died of wounds inflicted in the burglary of his home.
Much of this is confirmed in the full and excellent biographies by Jennifer Carnell* and Robert Lee Wolff**.
But is there ‘another skeleton in the Braddon cupboard’? Was her father, Henry, a bigamist?
MEB’s parents Henry Braddon and Fanny (née White), married in 1823, had separated in February 1840, as a consequence of his infidelity and financial mismanagement. They never divorced and were both alive in 1844.
A Henry Braddon was recorded on his 1844 marriage certificate to Emma Brokenshir and on their 1851 census return (when living together as husband and wife) as son of Henry Braddon, gentleman, as born at St Kew, Cornwall in 1798 and as a solicitor. These statements all match the facts of MEB’s father and not any other Henry Braddon I have found.
Here are the key findings:
- In December 1798 Henry Braddon was born and christened at St. Kew, Cornwall, the son of Henry and Phillis Braddon. (For some reason he and his brother Edward Nicholas received a second christening there on the same day – 26 July 1802).
- On 6th January 1844 Henry Braddon (full age), Bachelor (!), Gentleman, son of Henry Braddon, Gentleman, married Emma Virco Brokenshir (full age), Spinster, daughter of Benjamin Brokenshir, Tailor at St. James, Paddington.
- 1851 census: 13 Manchester Buildings, Newington, Lambeth. Henry Braddon head of family, married, age 52 (i.e. born 1798-9), solicitor, born St Kew, Cornwall. (NB: the transcriber has read this as St Ives but to me it reads St. Kew). Emma V Braddon, wife, married, age 24.
- Emma Virco Braddon died in 1858.
- Fanny Braddon died in 1868 at Litchfield House, Richmond (MEB’s home) and was buried in Hendon.
- Henry died in 1872 in Bournemouth, a solicitor, age 74.
The question might well be asked as to why the couple risked all by committing such a serious offence. While divorce from his first wife, Fanny, was not an option, many others in the same position would live with their new partner in a ‘common law marriage’. After all, that was the solution adopted by MEB and John Maxwell before the death of his first wife in 1874. We can only speculate but perhaps Emma insisted on being a wife rather a mistress.
There is no evidence that MEB, or other family members, were aware of Henry’s second marriage, so it cannot be claimed that it had an impact on her life or writing. It is interesting, though, to think that it is yet another event that makes the story of her life as sensational as any of her novels.
*Jennifer Carnell, 2000. The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, A Study of her Life and Work, Hastings: Sensation Press.
**Robert Lee Wolff, 1979. Sensational Victorian: the Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.