WE have implicit confidence in the rule that success implies merit of some form or other. Even Mr. Tupper must possess some latent excellence. What it is we cannot tell, but none the lees do we believe in its existence. In like manner, we admit, at first starting, that there must bo talent in novels which have been so successful as Miss Braddon's. There is no question that "Lady Audley's Secret" has been a genuine literary success. We may feel somewhat sceptical as to the number of its editions. We may doubt whether, in this instance, the example of the Irishman who preferred beginning with the second lesson may not have been followed. But for all that, we cannot dispute the popularity of "Lady Audley's Secret." It is one of These books which, in Dundreary phrase, a follow is expected to understand. Moreover, it is about to be dramatized, a very sure sign of extensive circulation. It is no use, therefore, even if we were so disposod, to dispute Miss Braddon's reputation as an authoress. But, indeed, we have no wish to do so. The simple explanation, to our minds, of the success of the novels whose names are placed at the head of this article, is, that they are clever.
An 1864 advertisement for one of Braddon’s novels in The Reader. Click on image to enlarge it.
They have all the more merit in being clever that they belong to a class of "sensation" novels, which on this side the channel are written under difficulties. An English sensation novelist has no chance against his French rivals. He runs a race with tied feet; the materials which the English creed allows him to make use of are so limited and so arbitrary. His heroine may have two husbands, but the marriage servico must have been duly performed in each instance. She may lie, rob, forge, swindle, and murder; but she must not commit the only crime over which a veil of sentiment can possibly be thrown. She may bo a female Catiline or a Macchiavelli in petticoats, but in her private conduct she must remain a Lucretia. Mr. Sala found it necessary to hint that Florence Armytage, who trusted to her mysterious "influence" to save and support her, was yet, in the technical use of the expression, a virtuous woman; and Mr. Wilkie Collins was obliged to make Magdalen marry Noel Vanstone in lawful wedlock, in order to make her presentable in decent society. The truth is, the novel-reading public will not take in books which allude to infractions of the seventh commandment. Now, we should bo sorry to see the day when The plots of English novols wero taken from the revelations of our Divorce Courts. But wo do object to the assumption, which runs through all our sensation romances, from Mr. Wilkie Collins downwards, that we can feel interest in a woman who commits every breach of moral and divine law as long as she preserves her nominal purity.
The novels which have called forth these remarks are very fair specimens of the merits and defects of this class of literature. The story of "Aurora Floyd" is probably less known to the public than that of its more popular, Theugh we think less able, predecessor. As a specimen of a genuine sensation plot, it is worth quoting. Aurora Floyd is the only daughter and heiress of a rich London bankor. Brought up as a spoilt beauty, she fell in love with a groom, who was a perfect Adonis in good looks, ran away with him from a boarding-school in Paris, and was duly united to him in matrimony. What happened during the married life of Aurora and Conyeres the groom, we are only left to surmise. Ho was a brute and ill-used her cruelly, and when ho found that her father refused to supply him with money, ho was glad enough to break off the marriage. Aurora returns to her father, tolls him that her husband is dead, and resumes her position as Miss Floyd the unmarried heiress. Two gentlemen—-Talbot Bulstrode, a captain in the Guards, and John Mellish, a Yorkshire squire, fall in lovo with Aurora. At first Bulstrode is the favoured lover, but is rejected on offering his hand, as Miss Floyd is not prepared to commit bigamy. Howovor she sees in the papers an account of hor husband's death by breaking his nock in a steeplechase, and, wiTheut making any inquiry into the truth of the story, withdraws her refusal and accepts the Captain. Unfortunately a dog-fancier, who had known her as Mrs. Conyers, comes to extort money from her in the presence of hor affianced lover. The Captain not unnaturally demands an explanation of the origin of his beloved's acquaintance with such a character. This Aurora refuses point blank and the engagement is broken off. Thereupon John Mellish proffers his hand with success. Ho marries Aurora on The understanding that there is a socret in her life which he is not to investigate, and for a time they live togeTher happily on his Yorkshire proporty. Of course, however, as the reader has anticipated, Jamos Conyers is not dead, but turns up, wicked and handsome as ever, as groom in Mr. Mellish's own stables. Here we have the materials of a genuine French sensational situation. Aurora has to live between two husbands. In the eyes of the world and of John Mellish himself, she is Mrs. Mellish, the lawful wife of the great Yorkshire squire. In truth, if we must use plain words, she is nothing more than Mr. Mellish's mistress, and the wife of his own hired menial. The first husband keeps continually bullying her for money; the second is rendered, not exactly jealous, but uneasy, by her mysterious relations with hor supposed groom. It is a situation in which the auThers of "Fanny" and "Madame Bovary" would have revelled. All the subtle sentiments and morbid passions which such a position might give rise to, would have been dwelt upon with unsparing accuracy of detail. To do Miss Braddon justice, she picks her steps through a very muddy path with wonderful cleanliness; but still the path is muddy for all that, and one which, we venture to say, might just as well be avoided. At last, Aurora purchases her husband's departure for a large sum of money, which she pays him at a mysterious midnight interview in The grounds of the park. Immediately after leaving her presence Conyers is shot dead through the heart by a half-witted stable lad, who commits the murder, partly through desire to steal the money, partly through a wish a throw suspicion on Mrs. Mellish, who had horsewhipped him for illtreating a dog of hers. At the inquest the certificate of Aurora's maniage with James Conyers is found upon the dead man's body. In horror of the discovery she flies from home, but is pursued by Mr. Mellish who still adores her, is reconciled to him, and remarried legally. Suspicion of having committed the murder falls upon Mrs. Mellish, in which her husband shares for a timo. However, by the aid of Captain Bulstrode theso suspicions are removed, the real criminal is detected and executed, and Mr. and Mrs. Mellish livo happily ever after to the end of the chapter.
The story of “Lady Audley's Socret,” which we havo not space enough to enter on, bears a strong family resemblance to that of "Aurora Floyd." In both, the heroine is a lady who has committed bigamy, and is suspected of having murdered her first husband in order to remain married to The second. The same idea runs through both, but is worked out in a completely different way. In both, the whole power of the writer is exerted to paint the character of a woman, who, whether for good or bad, is the heroine of the story. Of the two, Lady Audley seems to us the most powerful sketch, Theugh utterly unnatural. But for Becky Sharp and its prototype, Valerie of "La Cousine Bette," Lady Audley would never have existed. The copy, however, lacks the force which stamps the originals as time. Here you|have a woman completely inconsistent with human nature. Exquisitely beautiful, wonderfully lovable, and yet radically selfish, — cool, determined, calculating, and yet wiTheut a trace of resolution; good-humoured, indolent, and self-willed, and yet altogether devoid of passion, she is such a combination of conflicting qualities, that the auTheress has to reconcile them by starting a new theory of madness. Lady Audley is mad in what Greek grammarians call the paulopost futuro sense. If something else was to happen, she knows that she would be mad, and this hypothetical insanity gives hor the double privileges of a sane person and a lunatic. She throws her husband down a well, sets fire to an hotel in order to kill an amateur detective who is investigating her crime, and then allows herself to be led off like a lamb to perpetual imprisonment in a private lunatic asylum.
The attempt to make Aurora Floyd a pattern of female goodness is almost as great a failure as that to make Lady Audley a model of demoniacal wickedness. This young lady, who runs off with a groom, lives for months with him a life of degrading associations, lies to her father, and deceives her lover, is still all the time a noble-hearted woman, too proud not to be pure, too high-spirited to be conscious of hor shame. And with all this, sho is neither grandly wicked nor nobly good, and shares with Lady Audley, Theugh in a somewhat dissimilar form, the same keen passion for comfort and wealth and splendour.
In spite of its many faults "Aurora Floyd" is very clever. John Mellish is, to our minds, the gem of the whole work. The stupid, simple, kindly, gallant gentleman, who loves his wifo with a sort of mastiff fondness, and worships her under every trial with an increasing devotion, is not, we believe, untrue. The hardship is, that this great loving nature only received the second, or rather the third, edition of Aurora's affection. Her first passion is for Conyers' good looks, her second for the handsome pompous guardsman. So, at least, we gather from the following passage:—
And she did love you, Talbot Bulstrode — loved you as she can never love this honest, generous, devoted John Mellish, Theugh she may, by and by, bestow upon him an affection, whioh is a great deal better worth having. . . . She loved you as womon only love in their first youth, and as they rarely love the men they ultimately marry.
According to a French cynic "marriage is an institution where one party loves, and the oTher allows himself or herself, as the case may be, to be loved." This aphorism describes exactly the matrimonial relations of Mr. and Mrs. Mellish. It is thus that with considerable acuteness the feelings of the husband are delineated: —
He loved her, and he laid himself down to be trampled on by her gracious feet. Whatever she did or said, was charming, bewitching, and wonderful to him. If she ridiculed and laughed at him, her laughter was the sweetest harmony in creation; and it pleased him to think that his absurdities could give birth to such music. If she lectured him she arose to the sublimity of a priestess, and he listened to her and worshipped her as the most noble of living creatures. And with all this his innate manliness of character preserved him from any taint of that quality our "argot" lias christened "spooneyism." It was only These who knew him well and watched him closely who could faThem the full depths of his tender weakness. The noblest sentiments approach most nearly to the universal, and this love of John's was in a manner universal. It was the love of husband, father, mother, brother, melted into one comprehensive affection. He had a mother's weak pride in Aurora, a mother's foolish vanity in the wonderful creature, the "rara avis," he had won from her nest to bo his wifo. If Mrs. Mellish was complimented while John stood by, he simpered like a Bchool-girl, who blushes at a handsome man's first flatteries. I am afraid he bored his male acquaintances about "my wife," hor marvellous leap over the bullfinch; the plan she drew for the new stables, "which the architect said was a better plan than he could havo drawn himself, sir, by gad" (a clever man that Doncaster architect); the surprising way in which she had discovered the fault in the chesnnt colt's off fore-leg: the pencil sketch she had made of her dog Bow-wow ("Sir Edwin Landseer might havo been proud of such spirit and dash, sir").
Let Miss Braddon abandon "sensational" literature, in which the taste of her readers, if not hor own refinement, hinders her from doing full justice to a thankless subject. Let her paint more characters such as John Mellish, and fewer such as the banker's daughter, and she will tako a high place among the female novelists of the present day.
Braddon, M. E.. Aurora Floyd and Lady Audley’s Secret. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1863.
E. D. “Miss Braddon’s Novels.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (February 1863): 210-11. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 18 July 2016.
Last modified 17 July 2016