f the title "King of Sensation" rightly belongs to Wilkie Collins for inaugurating the genre of the Sensation Novel with The Woman in White in 1860, the title "Queen of Sensation" probably should be awarded to the prolific and highly influential Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), to whom more than eighty novels can be attributed, the exact number being a matter of debate because her husband John Maxwell published some of her work under a variety of pseudonyms in his various literary magazines for the working class.
Memorial plaque for Mary Braddon at St Mary Magdalene Church, Richmond.
Some accounts of her life use the year 1837 as the year of her birth, apparently because, as she grew older, she attempted to lop several years off her age. Today chiefly remembered for the furore which her best-selling potboiler Lady Audley's Secret (1862) engendered, M. E. Braddon (eventually Mrs. Maxwell) wrote novels and plays; contributed essays, short stories, and poems to such high-circulation periodicals as Punch and The World; and edited the two literary magazines most closely associated with the Sensation Novel, Temple Bar and Belgravia. In 1899, the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph named Lady Audley's Secret, which had been staged in countless adaptations, as one of the world's best one hundred novels, despite the fact that it had been published almost four decades earlier. Braddon and a handful of other young, revolutionary novelists in their artistic responses to the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 had created dangerous, scheming heroines embroiled in the complications of what negative reviewers termed the "Bigamy Plot." She, Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins, Ellen Price Wood, Edmund Yates, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu created a new genre while championing the rights of women against an obviously male-biased law that determined that, while a wife's adultery alone was sufficient cause for a divorce action, a husband's adultery was insufficient unless accompanied by physical abuse. In the 1860s, the decade that was the high-water mark of Sensation, M. E. Braddon wrote at least twenty novels, sometimes at the rate of three per year, all while giving birth to six children and raising her own plus six step-children.
One of three siblings, Mary Elizabeth Braddon was born at No. 2, Frith Street, Soho Square , London, on 4 October 1835. Her mother, Fanny White, was Irish; her father Henry Braddon, a Cornish solicitor, attempted to get himself out of debt by writing for such periodicals as The Sportsman's Magazine. In 1839, when Braddon's parents separated, she remained with her mother, who was an avid reader of Dickens, Thackeray, and Bulwer-Lytton. For a short time, she and the family lived at St. Leonard's-on-Sea, but most of her childhood was spent in London. In 1847, when Braddon was just twelve, the family unit was depleted by the departure of her brother Edward (1829-1904) to work in a cousin's mercantile establishment in Calcutta, India (he afterwards managed a number of indigo factories near Krishnagar, volunteered to serve with the British forces in 1857 to put down the Sepoy Mutiny, and from 1894 to 1899 served as Premier of Tasmania). Beginning at age seventeen, with her mother's help, Braddon pursued a career on the stage under the pseudonym "Mary Seyton," acting mainly in provincial theatres from 1852 to 1859. For one season she performed at the Royal Surrey Theatre, London, but in February 1860 decided, after writing the novel The Octoroon; or, The lily of Louisiana (1859), to leave the stage and become a writer full time. The year 1860 was a turning point in her life as her play The Loves of Arcadia was staged at The Strand Theatre, London, her second novel, Three Times Dead; or, The Secret of the Heath was published, and Yorkshire squire John Gilby of Beverley commissioned her to write a lengthy poem about the exploits of Garibaldi, liberator of Italy. That same year, she met publisher and editor John Maxwell (1824-1895), who brought out several of her short stories such as "The Cold Embrace" in his various magazines. The two felt an instant attraction.
In February 1861, she published Garibaldi and Other Poems for Gilby, who quickly stepped aside as her mentor because of Maxwell's growing influence over her personal and professional life. John Maxwell inaugurated his new magazine Robin Goodfellow with Lady Audley's Secret in serial, after which she began living with Maxwell. On 1 July 1861, her novel The Black Band; or, The Mysteries of Midnight began its serial run in The Halfpenny Magazine. Despite the lack of public response to the Robin Goodfellow serial, Maxwell, believing that she was fully capable of producing a best-seller, reworked her second novel, Three Times Dead, retitled it The Trail of the Serpent, and sold a thousand copies within its first week of publication. Quickly she went from being Maxwell's literary protégé to a surrogate wife and mother to his children, after his first wife, Mary Anne Crowley, had been confined to a Dublin asylum after she lost her sanity. Braddon and Maxwell began living together in 1861, and celebrated the birth of a son, Gerald, in March 1862. Subsequently they had five more children. On 26 May 1862, her novel The White Phantom began its serial run in The Halfpenny Journal. Maxwell recommenced the serialization of Lady Audley's Secret in his Sixpenny Magazine. Braddon dedicated the novel when it appeared in three volumes in October 1862 to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the contemporary novelist she both admired and emulated. Meanwhile, Aurora Floyd had been running serially in Temple Bar. Simultaneously, John Marchmont's Legacy ran in serial, and was published in volume form in 1864. Andrew Sanders has recently praised this still-little-known novel as "tautly constructed, with a series of unexpected contrivances and cliff-hanging twists to the plot which seem to oblige a reader to collude in the process of solving the central mystery" (446).
Although she soon established herself as a versatile and prolific writer, Braddon had few illusions about the tastes of her largely working-class readership, which, as she lamented in a December 1862 letter, tended towards "crime, treachery, murder, slow poisoning, & general infamy . . . . " She might have added that her readers enjoyed her attacks on both smug, middle-class morality and upper-class respectability; she revealed the hypocrisy of both governing classes as she attacked their marginalization of women and their social pretensions. She regarded serial writing as a "curse" since it forced her to write more than one novel at once--mere "hand to mouth composition," as she remarked in a letter to Bulwer-Lytton. Serialization, like her youthful reading and seven years on the provincial stage, however, served her well. In terms of narrative pace and construction, sharply defined characterization, narrative flair, and theatrical scene changes, her knowledge of contemporary comedy and melodrama enabled her to write quickly and with emotional intensity.
In 1863, her second-most-popular novel, Aurora Floyd, was published in three volumes. A son, Francis, and a daughter, Fanny, were born in January and December 1863 respectively. Loosely adapted from Gustave Flaubert's radical French novel Madame Bovary (1857), which like Braddon's works challenged Victorian morality and the doctrine of separate spheres for the sexes, The Doctor's s Wife was published. In turn, it may well have influenced Hardy's treatment of marriage in The Return of the Native (1878), which ran serially in Belgravia. In 1866, M. E. Braddon took up the post of editor for the monthly Belgravia, a literary magazine which John Maxwell owned, and which published the short fiction of Wilkie Collins. At this time, riding a tide of prosperity and literary celebrity, she and John Maxwell purchased Lichfield House, Richmond-upon-Thames. Although they spent a great deal of time at their country house at Annesley Bank, near Lyndhurst, Hampshire, Lichfield was their principal residence. The borough often appears in the novels she wrote after the mid-1860s, as, for example, The Conflict (1903), which is set in Richmond and Twickenham, and London Pride, which utilizes Hampton Court and Mortlake. In the King's Road area of Richmond-upon-Thames Maxwell made a number of real estate investments, naming some of the expanding borough's new roads after characters from his wife's novels, including Marchmont Road and Audley Road. "The Winning Sequence," a short story set partly in Suffield House, Richmond, near Braddon's own residence, appeared Lloyd's Magazine on 27 December 1896.
Braddon and Maxwell lost one son, Francis, in 1866, but had another, the future novelist William Babington Maxwell, later that same year. In 1868, Braddon published Charlotte's Inheritance. On 1 November, Braddon's mother died, just weeks after Braddon had received the news of her sister Maggie's death in Italy. In December, Braddon gave birth to a daughter, Winifred, then succumbed to a nervous breakdown complicated by puerperal fever. In December 1870, Braddon's last child, Edward, was born. When John Maxwell's wife died on 5 September 1874, he and Braddon were finally free to marry, and did so on 2 October. In 1876, Braddon published Joshua Haggard's Daughter, and resigned her editorship of Belgravia. But in 1878 she founded another publication, the Christmas annual The Mistletoe Bough, to which she frequently contributed over the next fourteen years as well as edited. There followed a succession of sensationally-plotted novels: The Vixen (1879), Ishmael (1884), London Pride (1896), and The Infidel (1900) being but a few examples. Unfortunately, in 1891, John Maxwell's health markedly declined, and he died on 5 March 1895. Ten years later, having enjoyed her workspace at Lichfield for almost fifty years, M. E. Braddon died of a cerebral hemorrhage, aged 79, in February 1915, and was buried in Richmond Cemetery. The following year, Braddon's last novel, Mary was published posthumously.
- A Mary Elizabeth Braddon Chronology
- The Rediscovery of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) — "Queen of Sensation"
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Last modified 1 November 2020