Off-blog, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately; not merely Golden Age, but Silver and Bronze as well. And since I’m apparently genetically incapable of simply reading anything, this side-hobby has turned into an investigation into the evolution of the detective novel. The fact that the majority of mystery novelists took pride in the accuracy of their stories makes these early novels a fascinating repository of information about the process of law and the state of criminal investigation in both Britain and the States at the time of their publication. Did you know, for example, that although the technique was officially adopted at the turn of the century in England, it was well into the 1920s before fingerprints were widely employed as an investigative tool in America?
Inevitably, this course of steady-ish reading has also found me creeping ever further backwards, trying to determine “the first” detective novel on both sides of the Atlantic—an exercise in wading in intriguingly muddy waters. It is evident that the detective story, that is, the short story that dominated this school of fiction through the second half of the 19th century, and the detective novel evolved down two quite distinct pathways; and while the latter was necessarily influenced by the former, it did not grow out of it. Instead, the detective novel was an offshoot of the sensation novel, which appeared as a recognisable genre during the 1850s.
It is easy enough to see how this came about: the sensation novel was often about a central mystery, the unravelling of a dark secret by circumstances; all that was required was for an individual, either amateur or professional, to devote himself—or herself—to the deliberate pursuit of a secret. Understandably, then, in the early days the line between “the mystery novel” and “the detective novel” is drawn in shades of grey. “Detectives”, as a recognisable real-life entity, were still becoming established; and the ambivalence of the public towards these professional investigators is very clear in the literature of the day, where they tend to be viewed as a necessary but distasteful phenomenon. This is particularly reflected in the tendency of early detective novels to be set amongst the middle- and upper-classees, with the investigation itself often regarded as an outrageous invasion of privacy, and in which the identity of the guilty party is as likely to be hushed up to avoid a scandal as exposed in open court. (Climactic suicide is popular.)
In America, the first detective novel was long held to be Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, from 1878, in which a police detective recruits a gentlemanly young lawyer as his assistant specifically because, as a gentleman, he has access to people and places that the working-class policeman does not. However, while it might rightly be regarded as the first modern detective novel, The Leavenworth Case is not the first per se, an honour held by Metta Fuller Victor’s The Dead Letter, published in 1866. This murder mystery does indeed feature a professional private detective, who is associated with the police but not of the police, but betrays its sensation novel roots by having the detective assisted by his clairvoyant young daughter. Victor followed The Dead Letter with The Figure Eight, which has a young man turning amateur detective in order to clear his own name, after being accused of the robbery-homicide of his uncle. He eventually succeeds in solving the robbery, while the murderer is exposed in sensation novel terms, via a subplot involving somnambulism.
Meanwhile, over the pond, the dogma is wrong again (as dogma is with remarkable regularity). Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, published in 1868 and featuring Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, has long been considered “the first English detective novel” (even though the detective doesn’t solve the crime). Recently, however, the good people at the British Library have unearthed and reprinted The Notting Hill Mystery by Charles Felix (aka Charles Warren Adams), which was serialised in 1862 and then published in book form in 1863, and features a startling number of the features we associate with modern detective fiction, including the use of chemical analysis.
Of course, no sooner was this rediscovered novel trumpeted as “the first” than a number of still earlier contenders for the title were offered up by interested parties—the most cogent challenge, or so it seems to me, coming from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Trail Of The Serpent, published in 1860.
M. E. Braddon is a novelist for whom I have enormous affection and admiration; a talented novelist whose choice of the sensation novel as her preferred vehicle has tended to overshadow her very real abilities. And while I need another reading-thread like a hole in the head, I have taken her appearance at this critical juncture in my off-blog reading as a sign that I should promote her to Authors In Depth.
So!—I will be starting with The Trail Of The Serpent, before (at some point) stepping back to look at her first, long-forgotten novel, The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana.
Behind the sensation novelist who attracted both praise and outrage for her choice of material was a woman who, in Victorian terms, lived a life still more outrageous and shocking. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s parents separated when she was still a child, she and her brother and sister remaining with their mother. (Braddon’s brother, Edward, who possibly deserves a biography of his own, was Premier of Tasmania from 1894 – 1899.) The separation was amicable, and for some years Henry Braddon continued to support his family; but the Braddon finances had always been rocky, and finally the money stopped coming.
To help support her family, Mary Braddon began to write short stories. At the same time, at the age of only seventeen, she began a career on the stage under the name “Mary Seyton”, and found some success, albeit mostly in provincial companies. While touring, she continued to write and publish, trying her hand at plays and poetry as well as fiction. In 1859, her first attempt at a novel, The Octoroon, was serialised, and she gave up acting to concentrate on writing.
In 1860, a second novel, Three Times Dead, was serialised. It was not a success with the public, but it brought Braddon to the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who had already published several of Braddon’s short stories in his magazines. Inspite of its flaws, in Three Times Dead Maxwell recognised a talent worth cultivating, and he offered to help her revise the text. Reworked as The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon’s second novel found an appreciative audience and some critical attention. She continued with her novel-writing, and 1862 published Lady Audley’s Secret, a cause célèbre of the first order. From that notorious pinnacle, she never looked back. In 1866, using her own profits and with John Maxwell’s encouragement, she founded the Belgravia Magazine, an affordable vehicle for serialised novels, poems, travel narratives, biographies, and essays on fashion, history and science.
Meanwhile, Braddon’s private life was following a path every bit as scandalous as her novels.
The attraction between Mary Elizabeth Braddon and John Maxwell was almost instantaneous, but Maxwell was already married—in a manner of speaking: his first wife (also Mary, uncomfortably enough) had suffered a severe mental breakdown some years earlier, and as a consequence had been institutionalised for a period of time, leaving Maxwell with the care of their six children. Under the laws of the day, a divorce was out of the question. In 1861, Braddon and Maxwell began living together unmarried.
I like to think of Mary Elizabeth Braddon as the sensation novel’s answer to George Eliot. Only George Eliot didn’t write better than eighty novels while raising twelve children.
As soon as she moved into his house, Braddon took over the care of Maxwell’s existing family (disproving all the step-motherly myths in the process, it seems), and over the following years bore seven children of her own, of which six survived. One of them, William Babbington Maxwell, born in 1866, would eventually follow in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a prolific and popular novelist. In 1874, the tragic Mary Maxwell died in Dublin. As soon as they decently could, Braddon and Maxwell got married—and the former’s novels began to be trumpeted as “—by MRS MAXWELL.” Amusingly, it didn’t stick: Braddon was by then far too famous, not to say infamous, under her maiden name.
For all of her success, there is still some uncertainty over exactly how many novels Braddon did write. Remarkably, in spite of her popular and financial success amongst the middle- and upper-classes, with Maxwell’s encouragement Braddon continued to write (albeit pseudonymously) for magazines aimed at the working-classes. In recent years a great deal of scholarly effort has gone into unearthing and preserving these hitherto unrecognised works, and is still ongoing.
There are, however, plenty of novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon for us to be going on with in the meantime.