As I delve into the critical literature for my current writing project, I am rereading several of the texts that first brought Mary Elizabeth Braddon to my attention. One such book is Jan Davis Schipper’s Becoming Frauds: Unconventional Heroines in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Sensation Fiction (2002). In this slim volume, Schipper focuses her attention on Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd, and Eleanor’s Victory, all published in the early 1860s when Braddon and the term sensation fiction were new to the novel. These three novels, with their subversive heroines, aided Braddon and the sensation novel in becoming dominant forces in the mid-century literary marketplace.The thread of Schipper’s argument challenges us to rethink critical understandings of Victorian femininity and to read a message of subversion and resistance in Braddon’s unconventional women.
I find Schipper’s use of the term fraud in her work inspired. It speaks to the way in which women with unconventional desires and ambitions carefully cultivate a dual identity so often in Braddon’s work. Conventional attitudes towards femininity require that these characters maintain an outward appearance of propriety that masks their true natures. Sometimes this dual identity is accidental and sometimes it is criminally intentional, but the fact remains that many of sensation fiction’s female characters are living a life of carefully concealed secrets. Schipper writes that Braddon’s sensation novels suggest “Victorian ideology had created just the opposite of what it intended… patriarchy had created a number of women who used deception in order to guarantee financially secure futures, escape their discontented lives… or gain autonomy” (3). While the relationship between women and cultural norms has been shown in recent critical work to be more complex than Schipper’s supposition of a monolithic Victorian ideology implies, her underlying argument remains effective. The idea of the feminine fraud is important to Braddon scholarship and will be useful to scholars reading other nineteenth century popular novelists. The term fraud is perfect for describing duplicitous Lucy Audley or bigamous Aurora Floyd, but can equally be used to consider Collins’ Magdalen Vanstone or Dickens’ Lady Dedlock. According to Schipper, Braddon’s unconventional heroines commit fraud by “using deception, inventing fraudulent identities, and committing crimes” to fulfill the expectations the reader has for womanly behavior and sentiment (2). Her definition of fraud expands from individual fraudulent actions to encompass the process of duping the reader about the very nature of womanhood. The implications of defrauding the reader are evident in critical reception of sensation fiction, which often express a sense of being affronted at having sympathized with a morally ambiguous or criminal woman.
The female protagonists of the texts addressed by this study could not be more different. Lucy Audley, the beautiful fiend, physically embodies the Victorian ideal but uses her appearance to mercenary purposes. Aurora Floyd, ‘the pretty horsebreaker,’ commits her fraud unwittingly and her rehabilitation forces the reader to forgive a bigamist. Eleanor Vane, the amateur detective, is driven to unconventionality by filial devotion combined with her desire for justice. By focusing on three novels with disparate heroines, Schipper effectively brings our attention to the fact that femininity in popular fiction like Braddon’s novels was not monolithic at all. For Schipper, the common thread connecting these unconventional heroines is their willingness to challenge gender and class based boundaries in order to live lives disruptive to “conventional hierarchy, which in turn threatened the established order” (94). As she writes in her concluding chapter, the ideal Victorian woman was at best a social construct with little basis in women’s lived experiences. I would expand on this statement to say the “angel in the house” was purely a work of fiction, and not even one that appears with regularity in works of fiction. As Schipper illustrates, the pages of popular novels are inhabited by numerous unconventional heroines whose unwomanly behaviors contradict assumptions about normative Victorian femininity. Her conclusion emphasizes the importance of studying Braddon’s life and work for examples of the “disquieting likelihood that many women were unhappy” (99) and evidence of popular fiction’s significance to Victorian Studies.
Anna J Brecke