‘If Robert were as noble and she as irredeemably evil as he presumes, the novel would be both duller and less subversive’ (Rohan Maitzen)
Two years ago, I approached the Braddon Society Blog for help with my new A-Level course. The UK exam board, Edexcel, was about to launch the new A-Level specification in September and I had decided to teach the ‘Crime and Detection’ strand, comparing Braddon’s, Lady Audley’s Secret and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Following my post, I had some fabulous suggestions and remain incredibly grateful for all the tips and ideas people passed on. This post is just to update on how I have found the course – it would be fabulous to chat to anyone else who is teaching Braddon – either at A-Level or at university level.
As expected, the challenge of taking on a new book, one that is normally the preserve of university students, has been invigorating. I was very aware that there were no study notes available for Braddon and that this removed a useful layer of revision material for my students. On the flip side, it really has freed us – made us think and explore and discover together. I have had to create bespoke resources and although this has been a substantial amount of work, it has meant that I have full Victorian-obsessed control of what they use!
The task for the paper is comparative, so I chose to begin teaching Lady Audley first before moving on to The Moonstone. The novel is a joy to teach – accessible in terms of length and complexity and a good bridge for GCSE students who may have not yet negotiated studying a pre-twentieth century text for examination. As a group, what we discovered was that while the text is accessible, the ideas that it generates are complex; the sympathy we feel for Lady A is surprising and as Rohan Maitzen comments: ‘If Robert were as noble and she as irredeemably evil as he presumes, the novel would be both duller and less subversive’. The Moonstone seems to operate on an inverse scale: fiendishly difficult on first reading, it distils nicely into key ideas; the two texts are the perfect match in their subversive attitudes and refusal to accept neat categories.
As part of the new exam, my students need to link writer’s craft with a keen eye for context. Obviously we have worked on the woman question, on issues of privacy in an age of print culture, on the institution of the family, and on detectives but two things surprised us; the first was how Darwinian the novel is and how his ideas affect the volume structure of the novel. The second thing that shocked us was the political edge the book has – contemporaries may have criticised Sensation Fiction for being overly concerned with action rather than plot but there seems to be more fizzing beneath the surface: when Helen Talboys dies in 1857, the date carved on her tombstone is deliberately chosen to chime in with the public fascination for the 1857 Indian Mutiny, allowing Braddon to allude to and filter historical events set in distant India in a metaphorical way. When Lady Audley pushes George down the well it dislocates the Indian rebellion into the domestic setting of Audley Court. Thus, the crime scene of the ‘stagnant well’ in Audley embodies the Bibigarh Well in Cawnpore, in which the Indian mutineers threw the bodies of their British victims. This juxtaposes the bucolic country house setting to the violent ‘historical narrations’ of the Cawnpore Well, as Braddon demonstrates that the oppression of anyone, women or foreigners, provokes rebellion.
It has been a fascinating two years and we await the results of our first (new) A-Level cohort in August. If anyone is teaching this text, it may help to know that we have found these resources invaluable:
- Kate Summerscale’s, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Bloomsbury, (2009)
- The opening chapter of P. D. James, ‘An Introduction to Detective Fiction’ in Talking About Detective Fiction, Faber, (2009)
- ‘Was the author of the first English detective story stabbed in the back?’ Susan Hall/IPTC Lawyer – a blog post suggested by this blog
- Rohan Maitzen’s wonderful article, ‘Second Glance, Fatal Beauty’ for Open Letters Monthly
- A (50 minute) documentary by Lucy Worsley on Victorian murder and the rise of detectives in Victorian society available online.
Please do comment/contact me if you have any questions or suggestions. Lady Audley’s Secret has worked so well for us and the students adore it! We’d love to hear from anyone else teaching it at any level.
Guilford High School