On Saturday 14th November, the University of Hull opened its doors to academics and the public alike to spend the day discussing, debating and most importantly having a cuppa over the life and work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon – the popular sensation fiction author that shook mid-Victorian sensibilities. The study day was aimed specifically at a dual audience so that everyone’s views and comments would be welcome and have equal value; we as academics have as much to learn from the public as they do from us! The full programme began at 12 and ended at 6, and was a mixture of a keynote talk, a panel of papers, a reading group and an exhibition viewing, giving people a wide variety of activities for their £10! This half day event is the first of its kind at The University Hull as it was a joint venture between the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and the OpenCampus programme, which was ran in conjunction with the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association as well. The day was well attended – with almost 30 people packing out the room – and the three organisations worked harmoniously together to put on a varied, bumper, yet overall relaxed day that left people eager to read more Braddon.
The study day opened with a keynote by Anne-Marie Beller of Loughborough University on ‘“Queen of the Circulating Libraries”: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Changing Constructions of Victorian Authorship’. Beller discussed Braddon’s processes as an author, noting the criticism she came under for her continual ‘machine-like’ production of novels: writing two a year for almost fifty years! Beller argues that this method of production over inflated the market with Braddon novels leading to people thinking that she could not have written so much that was so good – of course, as any reader of Braddon knows, they are wrong!
After a short break in which we all enjoyed the delights of the Brynmor Jones Library café – especially their coffee and cake – we moved to the panel on Braddon’s Gothic writing entitled: ‘From Sensation to Gothic: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Spookier Stories’ chaired by Dr Jane Thomas of the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. This panel of three speakers focused away from Braddon’s more well-known sensation fiction to examine her supernatural tales. Victoria Margree from the University of Brighton discussed the use of ghosts in ‘The Shadow in the Corner’ and ‘The Cold Embrace’ arguing that the female dead body becomes a political, rather than aesthetic body, in Braddon’s fiction as she uses it to challenge women’s limited positions in the nineteenth century. Helena Ifill from Sheffield University discussed more Braddon short stories – ‘Dr Carrick’ and ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ – demonstrating how Braddon dropped ‘supernatural’ hints throughout these two tales, only to undermine this narrative by having a rational explanation for the sinister events; doctors are not always what they seem – you have been warned! Finally, Janine Hatter from the University of Hull talked about Braddon’s rewriting of the Faust myth in the aptly titled Gerard; or, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, arguing that Braddon, while drawing on French and German literature, once again updated supernatural occurrences by rationalising the horror, bringing it up-to-date for the fin-de-siècle.
The panel on Braddon’s spookier stories moved seamlessly into the reading group entitled ‘From Sensation to Detection: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Detective Story “The Mystery at Fernwood”’. The change in genre again demonstrated Braddon’s versatility at writing more than just sensation fiction, as well how she helped to establish this other important Victorian genre. Importantly, the reading group was aimed at including everyone (the tale was circulated in advance) so that all voices could be heard equally to break down the usual divide between academic speakers and public listeners. The story generated a lot of discussion, almost overrunning as people continued their discussion into the drinks reception. It was noted that Braddon utilised gothic genre techniques – such as the isolated house, vulnerable heroine and sinister family past – to build up the suspense well. That her ‘mystery’ was not so mysterious (it was quite easy to guess), but that the fun of the tale was watching the amateur detective, Isabel, try (and fail) to work out the mystery. The ending thought did hold a gruesome twist that not everyone saw coming and is quite detailed in its bloodiness for Braddon’s fiction (I won’t give away more than that – you should go out and read it!).
Finally, we moved into the last part of the afternoon – the drinks reception and a private viewing of the exhibition ‘Theatre, Crime and Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Hull and the East Riding’, curated by Dr Janine Hatter. The Brynmor Jones Library has just been renovated and this light, airy and spacious room showed off the exhibition to its full potential. Spread out over six boards and utilising both sides, people could wander down and through the exhibition to take it all in over a glass of wine. This relaxed end to the day seems to have been appreciated as people mingled to discuss Braddon’s links to the local area – her time as an actress in Yorkshire and writing her first poetry and novel while a Beverley resident – and left with the intention to find more about this dynamic Victorian author. Feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive with comments such as:
‘Knowledgeable participants. Very open, collaborative atmosphere.’
‘Very competent speakers. New ideas to mull over. Thank you to everyone.’
‘Very well organised. Nice variety of talks. Fascinating subject.’
‘Really enjoyed the reading group.’
‘Interesting and useful topic. I enjoyed the presentations, and question and answer sessions.’
‘An almost new topic for me – very good speakers and lively and well informed and relaxed discussions.’
‘All the different aspects of Braddon’s writings and connections to other authors.’
‘I’m now looking to hold my own day school on local women writers.’