ICVWW, Second International Conference: Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1860s and 1870s, Canterbury Christ Church University, 6-7 July 2015
Part 1: Mary Braddon Papers
Having attended last year’s First International Conference: Reassessing Women’s Writing of the 1840s and 1850s I knew I would be in for a treat speaking at this second conference, but nothing prepared me for how Braddon-filled it would be. I should not have been surprised though. Mary Braddon is becoming more and more popular every year on university undergraduate and postgraduate courses and is becoming a regular feature in many nineteenth century, women’s writing and English Literature conferences. At this conference, held at Canterbury Christ Church University, there was an entire Braddon panel with four speakers, other Braddon papers dotted around the programme and a round table discussion, held in conjunction with myself as a Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association representative (to be discussed in another post).
The Braddon panel followed an excellent keynote by Clare Horrocks on the women in Punch, and consisted of Anne-Marie Beller (Loughborough), Andrew Humphries (Canterbury), myself (Hull) and Jess Cox (Brunel). I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that we had a fantastic time giving our papers and found the ensuing discussion enlightening. Anne-Marie Beller chose Circe, Braddon’s novel of 1866, as the topic of her paper, discussing how Braddon adapted her novel from Octave Feuillet’s Dalila (1857). This caused controversy at the time, as the Pall Mall Gazette published articles on how Braddon’s novel was a plagiarized direct translation of the source text, citing one particular passage to illustrate this point. While the novel was based on Dalila, Beller noted, and she did translate one passage, the original was a play meaning all of the descriptions, setting and narrative were of Braddon’s own construction. Beller hinted that Braddon might have understood that she was being too close to the original as she published this text under her pseudonym Babington White, thus distancing herself from it. Beller then linked Braddon’s rewriting of this text to her wider artistic practice. Dalila centres on the nature of artistic production, and Braddon during the 1860s was in the middle of writing for money and for fame, thus it was an apt text for Braddon to draw on.
Andrew Humphries’s talk was on the representation of trains and the railway as a monomania of modernity in Braddon’s ever popular Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). The railway features heavily in many of Braddon’s novels – Henry Dunbar (1864) and John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863) being other 1860s examples – and was used as a means for reassessing gender boundaries. Humphries linked women’s progression regarding the law over the nineteenth century to the progression of the railways, as women were becoming more socially and economically mobile. Lucy Audley made full use of this means of transport within the novel, for instance catching trains to London to secure some documentation, and Humphries argued that Robert needed to match her knowledge of this system in order to counteract her manoeuvres. Humphries then went on to discuss train travel’s effect on the nervous system and how scientists believed travellers underwent lots of small concussions while travelling at speed. By linking the train track to the lime tree walk, Robert eventually was able to banish Lucy to a life outside of the business of time, and she eventually dies of languor and no movement.
For my paper I discussed Braddon’s John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863) and her depiction of the hero, Edward Arundel. Edward is a returning lieutenant on sick-leave from the East India Company and his soldier training is a vital aspect of his hero construction, because it informs his physical, educational, mental and moral construction as a Victorian ideal man. I noted that Braddon’s writing career began by engaging with the military and war, as her first poetry was based on the Indian Mutiny for the Yorkshire magazine The Beverley Recorder and General Advertiser, thus she was well versed in this topic. Edward’s training, as well as establishing him as the ideal man, also prepares him well for the mystery surrounding his beloved’s disappearance, as he turns from soldier to pseudo-detective, relying on his physical and mental training to solve the mystery. Nevertheless, Edward’s heroic representation is undermined by his mental break down and violent outbursts, which are at odds with his middle-class bourgeois surroundings. I argued that overall this indicates Victorian hegemonic masculinity, just like femininity, is an unstable stereotype that can be taken to extremes that ultimately subvert them.
The last speaker was Jess Cox who, instead of focusing on one novel, surveyed Braddon’s 1860s fiction generally while discussing the figure of the working mother. Having noted that Braddon herself was a working mother, as was Queen Victoria (and indeed so is Jess), Cox went on to outline contemporary criticism of mothers who work. Articles vilified mothers who left their children at home, arguing they left their most prominent work undone; only mothers who had to work for financial reasons should. Cox noted how Braddon was actually financially secure from an early stage of her writing career, indicating she wrote because she enjoyed it. Braddon was also careful to maintain a strong family bond as she was step-mother to Maxwell’s five children, while having six of her own. Looking after such a large family, as well as producing so much literature, was no easy feat, but Braddon had household staff who took on some of her motherly duties for her. Cox then discussed Braddon’s heroines, indicating how they only produce children after their sensational affairs are done and they are secured within marriage, as well as Braddon’s other trope of the absent or dead mother in Aurora Floyd (1863), Henry Dunbar, The Lady’s Mile (1866), The Doctor’s Wife (1864) and John Marchmont’s Legacy. Cox surmised how it was motherhood, not marriage, which restored women to the home in Braddon’s fiction.
Though not part of the Braddon panel, Helena Ifill also presented on Braddon and her representation of marriage. Ifill took Aurora Floyd and Lost for Love (1874) as her focus novels, discussing Braddon’s overall cynical and pragmatic tone regarding marriage and love. Her narrators in particular are especially sarcastic regarding first loves, and Braddon’s periodical, Belgravia, published articles on the practical aspects of marriage for women. When considering her two focal texts, Ifill argued that their heroines both have the choice and marry for love, though they are not trained to make that choice. First loves are based on passionate love and impressions, and are therefore not trustworthy in the long term. This means that when Braddon’s heroines do marry, they may not actually be in love with their husbands, but they grow to love them over time, which strengthens their marriage. Overall, Ifill argues, sensation fiction was condemned for corrupting its female readers, but Braddon teaches her readers to be careful and practical in marriage; love is the product of, not the basis for, her heroines’ relationships.