Book Review: New Perspectives on Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Jessica Cox (ed.), 2012. New Perspectives on Mary Elizabeth Braddon (50 QDR Studies in Literature). Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi. 296pp. €62. ISBN: 978-90-420-3579-9.

Continuing the important work of raising awareness of the Victorian woman writer M E Braddon, her life and literature, as well as modern criticism regarding her, Jessica Cox’s edited collection New Perspectives is a vital updating on Braddon scholarly work that built well upon the foregrounding text, Beyond Sensation (2000), as well as complementing the other Companions to Sensation Fiction edited by Pamela Gilbert (2011) and Andrew Mangham (2013). The aim of the collection is to ‘emphasize the diversity of Braddon’s output’ and how her work ‘challenges generic and social boundaries’ (2), displacing stereotypes of Braddon as a purely sensation fiction author. Cox admirably achieves this by including not only four new essays on her most (in)famous novel, but also eight essays on Braddon’s other 1860s fiction, her situation in the literary marketplace, and her later works; the text moves chronologically throughout her career to widen engagement with her later work. The variety of the discussion in New Directions indicates the diversity of Braddon as a Victorian woman writer, albeit still briefly when you consider she wrote almost ninety novels, over one hundred and fifty short stories, nine plays and edited two periodicals; there is a lot more work still to do.

Section I focuses on Lady Audley’s Secret and contains four essays that each develop new arguments or apply new theoretical frameworks to this well-beloved text. Ranging from a re-reading of sanity, insanity and identity (Tabitha Sparks), a revision of feminist readings of the novel to include ‘Imperial Attitudes’ (Nancy Knowles and Katherine Hall), consideration of Alicia Audley as a proto-type of the New Woman (Michelle Lin), as well as Lady Audley’s relationship to domestic spaces as compared to Louisa May Alcott’s American sensation fiction (Grace Wetzel), this first section fulfils the ‘new perspectives’ the collection’s title promises. Each of these essays progresses the discussion of the novel in fruitful ways that demonstrates the novel’s continuing relevance to popular fiction studies specifically and Victorian Studies generally.

While Section II is entitled ‘Beyond Lady Audley’s Secret’, it must be noted that this novel is alluded to, referenced, or cross-examined in most of the following essays, indicating that it is not as easy as it seems to move ‘beyond’ this prominent text. These references back to Lady Audley’s Secret though in no way undermine the aim of the collection’s second half to expand scholarly engagement with her wider oeuvre – this New Perspectives does incredibly well.

Beginning Section II are two articles on some of Braddon’s other 1860s fiction – which are just as sensational and unconventional as Lady Audley’s Secret. Andrew Mangham examines her first published novel, The Trail of the Serpent (1861), and its depiction of female criminality and poisoning with regard to the emerging field of toxicology, and Anne-Marie Beller produces an overview of Braddon’s 1860s fiction with regards to infantilization and female maturation. Both of these essays reveal other ways in which Braddon engaged with deception, crime and women’s representation in her early fiction, proving her overarching interest in these themes.

Braddon and the marketplace, the overarching theme of essays by Juliette Atkinson and Joanne Knowles, is a particularly interesting topic as it expands analysis from her fiction into her own self-representation and influences. Atkinson discusses contemporary critical debates on sensation fiction, postulating that Braddon used their very language in her texts in order to enter into and disrupt their criticism, urging ‘informed, educated reading’ by her consumers (143). Knowles’s examination of Braddon’s links to French literature, namely Balzac and Zola, illuminates the wider impact of Braddon’s fiction on the literary marketplace and how she was instrumental in introducing this fiction to English readers: ‘Her fictions play on popular fears and myths about French culture and habits to subtly questions the assumed moral superiority of her English protagonists and the English way of constructing social relations’ (157).

The essays by Tamara Wagner and Laurence Talairach-Vielmas link together by their interactions with crime and the law, which extends the themes first raised in Braddon’s early 1860s fiction. Wagner’s exploration of inheritance in The Fatal Three (1888) draws on the hotly debated Deceased Wife’s Sister Act and how it impacted on the structure of the traditional inheritance plot, indicating Braddon once again keeping up-to-date with current topics, while Talairach-Vielmas analyses ‘Textual Secrets’ in Thou Art the Man (1894) to argue that in this novel Braddon rewrites her older plots to allow women to detect male secrets.

Finally, Braddon and her links to the theatre are discussed in the last two essays in the collection. Kate Mattacks examines His Darling Sin (1899) with regards to Braddon’s depiction of an actress’s supposed problematic social stance and her own unrespectable status as a sensation fiction writer. Carla E Coleman, on the other hand, illustrates the theatre’s influence on Braddon’s writing from her early work in Rupert Godwin (1867) to her last novels, such as A Lost Eden (1904), to demons treat Braddon’s drive to establish the stage as a respectable profession. Overall, this is an invaluable collection for any Braddon scholar, which remains relevant to anyone studying the wider topic of sensation fiction, Victorian women’s writing, or nineteenth-century studies.

By way of a post script, as Cox notes, the New Directions collection came out of a Braddon symposium held at Swansea University in 2006 – a formula that is being repeated this year. 2015 marks the centenary of Braddon’s death and it is being commemorated by another Braddon conference, this time run by Anne-Marie Beller (Loughborough), and has two projected publications: a Centenary Edition of Essays and a Special Issue of Women’s Writing. I very much look forward to reading more on this important popular writer.

Janine Hatter

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