Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood: Professional Identities

While their most famous anti-heroines Lady Audley and Isabel Vane, from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood’s respective bestsellers Lady Audleys Secret (1862) and East Lynne (1861),are as different as the women who created them, several similarities in the literary lives of the two writers ensures that the study of Braddon is integral to any study of Wood. Pitched as the two ladies sandwiching Wilkie Collins as significant figures in the birth of the ‘school of sensation’, Wood and Braddon were, and continue to be, constantly compared. Therefore, in my current PhD study of Ellen Wood’s literary identities, Mary Elizabeth Braddon remains a significant figure in my research of the women writers that Wood competed against for the attention of her readers in the saturated periodical press. In this post I will outline the significance of the literary rivalry between these two popular fiction heavyweights that will have a great influence on my PhD study into professional identities, women writers, and the literary marketplace in the nineteenth-century.

In terms of biographical context, Wood and Braddon’s beginnings as women writers could not be more different. Ellen Wood, née Price, had an established role as a 46-year-old wife and mother of at least 5 children at the publication of East Lynne, having commenced her writing career as an anonymous contributor to the New Monthly Magazine ten years previously. Contrastingly Braddon’s tender age of 27 at the publication of Lady Audleys Secret provides a stark contrast in the starting point of their literary lives, as Braddon’s unconventional living arrangements with John Maxwell, whose wife was living in an asylum in Ireland, and the Maxwell’s five children created much scandal in literary circles.

Despite the numerous differences between the two, both biographically and in terms of their literature, several aspects pull the two writers together. Both embarked upon a prolific, and ultimately successful, literary career as a writer and, eventually, became editors of successful magazines in order to promote their own writing and support themselves financially. Braddon provides an extremely useful point of comparison in my research of the literary marketplace for a woman writer. Despite the differences in their approach to literary careers, both Braddon and Wood found it necessary to construct a literary persona under which to publish their writings. While Braddon used her theatrical stage-name, Mary Seyton, and the gender-ambiguous M.E. Braddon, Wood similarly cultivated pseudonyms to enter into the literary marketplace. Her most famous sobriquet ‘Mrs Henry Wood’ provided a highly-religious moralising narrative voice, which became known for its melodramatic tone and ‘woman-to-woman’ address[1]. Defining herself as a wife first and a writer second, both through the ‘Mrs Henry Wood’ name and the gossipy, feminine tone used throughout, Wood clearly identified her audience and strived to distance herself from the more scandalous sensation novelists like Mary Elizabeth Braddon, as an ex-actress living with a married man. Wood effectively utilised the ‘improper’ private lives of other novelists, such as Braddon, as a way of distinguishing herself as ‘the conservative sensationalist’: still writing about the sensational topics that defined sensation fiction, yet adopting a sobering, moralising narrator in order to allay the scandal of the novels exciting content.

However, Wood’s most famous, and overtly feminine, pseudonym is not the only identity that I am interested in exploring. Much of Wood’s success, and a lot of her literary plaudits, came from the Johnny Ludlow series, which were published in the Argosy magazine from 1868 until after Wood’s death in 1887. The stories were narrated by the titular character ‘Johnny’, supposedly a schoolboy recounting college and boyhood adventures. While Braddon, Wood’s sensational rival, was often criticised for her extensive knowledge of exclusively male environments, (Henry James wrote that ‘she knows much that ladies are not accustomed to know’[2]) ‘Mrs Henry Wood’s’ conspicuous femininity, together with her use of male personas and the publication of the Ludlow tales in Wood’s religious and moral magazine, offered some protection from such criticism, despite Wood’s texts displaying considerable knowledge of masculine environs. Braddon’s representation of male-only environments often implied a distinctly unfeminine sexual knowledge, which tended to increase the criticism she received at the hands of male reviewers, in contrast with the more innocent knowledge of schools and colleges that Wood displayed through the Johnny Ludlow tales. Rather than disguising her position as a female writer, Wood’s masculine identities were adopted to add authenticity to the tales by supposedly originating from a knowledgable source and this adoption of a specifically male voice so at odds with the overtly feminine ‘Mrs Henry Wood’ upon which Wood had build a trademark, adds another dimension to my research of Wood’s negotiation of the literary market. Wood’s ability to maintain a righteous, Christian persona, despite criticisms which threatened to ‘compromise … personal reputations’,[3] enabled her to compete with the success notoriety afforded Braddon whilst ensuring her respectability as a wife, mother, and woman remained untainted.

While my research will focus on Wood primarily, failure to engage with Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s material and identities would be foolhardy- not to mention much less interesting! By incorporating research into Braddon’s marketing techniques, in terms of publication, pseudonyms, and content of texts, into a more extensive study of Wood’s literary strategies to attain success in the periodical press, my PhD study will provide an insight into the position of ‘Mrs Henry Wood’ in the nineteenth-century literary market, ensuring the study of Wood’s literary arch-rival Mary Elizabeth Braddon is essential to the success of my research.

Chloé Holland, Liverpool John Moore’s University


[1] Lyn Pykett, The Improper Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 138.

[2] Henry James, ‘Miss Braddon’, (first pub. Nation 1865 repr. Notes and Reviews Cambridge Mass., 1921, 115-5) quoted in Kate Flint, The Woman Reader 1837-1914 (London: Clarendon Press, 1995) p. 275.

[3]Beth Palmer, Womens Authorship and Editorship in Victorian Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 2.

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