Posts tagged ‘detective novel’

28/12/2013

Adventures Of Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence

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    “My brother, my only connexion in the world…was declared a robber and a murderer—the worst of murderers, for he had murdered his benefactor—he was a fugitive, hiding from justice, and a price was set upon his head—our name was branded with infamy… Would it not be better, I said to myself, to end my life at once, than drag on a miserable existence, exposed to insult, want, and every kind of wretchedness, till a lingering death terminates my sufferings, or till the cruelty of the world forces me to some act that might justify the ill opinion it entertains of me?
    “But then, again,” I said, “if I could clear Andrew’s character? If I could live to see the day when we might lift up our heads again, and cry to the world, ‘You’ve wronged us!’ For my heart still told me he was not guilty; and that if he were alive, he would surely come forward and vindicate himself; and if he were dead, his body would yet be found, and his wounds speak for him. Would it not be worth while to live through all the wretchedness the scorn of the world could inflict on me, to hail that day at last?”

 

 

 

 

Regular visitors would be aware that I have been looking into the roots of detective fiction, and the emergence of the female detective in particular. Various studies in this area have identified a number of “prototype” works that do not themselves fit the parameters of the detective novel, but which were important stepping-stones along the evolutionary road.

Catharine Crowe’s 1841 novel, Adventures Of Susan Hopley; or, Circumstantial Evidence (which was published in America as Susan Hopley; or, The Adventures Of A Maid-Servant), is one such work. Not only in its publication date, but much more importantly with respect to its handling of its subject matter, this novel sits almost equidistant between the “Newgate Novels” of the 1820s and the sensation novels of the 1860s, and represents a vital step in the process: the domestication of crime fiction. Adventures Of Susan Hopley is as fully steeped in crime as any of the thief- or highwayman-focused works of earlier in the century, but its sympathies are with the victims of crime, and its perspective stays predominantly with its “good” characters—“good”, because while this novel is technically Victorian, it retains the pragmatic attitude of the Regency, with its morality rendered in shades of grey.

Catharine Crowe herself led a life rendered in shades of grey. Like many female novelists, she wrote to support herself; but unlike many of her fellows, she needed to support herself because she had separated herself from her husband, a situation that seems to have had no adverse effect upon her career. (As I say, “Victorianism” hadn’t kicked in yet.) Crowe started out writing plays and had a modest success, but it was Adventures Of Susan Hopley that established her reputation. She became part of a literary circle that included William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Martineau, with whom she shared views on female education, and followed her breakthrough work with several more well-received novels (one of which, Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights, also shows up on checklists of early detective fiction; watch this space).

From the late 1840s onwards, however, Crowe’s life took a different path, as she became increasingly interested in the paranormal. These subjects came to dominate her writing: she wrote numerous ghost and other horror stories which were later anthologised, and achieved another best-seller in Night-Side Of Nature; or, Ghosts And Ghost-Seers. They also may have been behind a bizarre incident when, in 1854 – at least according to gossip – Crowe was found wandering the streets of Edinburgh naked, apparently convinced that “the spirits” had made her invisible. Crowe herself angrily denied this version of the story (and that she was naked) in a letter to a newspaper, but it was too good to be given up and widely circulated; Charles Dickens, supposedly a friend of Crowe’s, was one of those who propagated it. (A compromise version, that Crowe became delirious during an illness and wandered off, seems to me the most likely explanation.) Consequently, search for information on Catharine Crowe today and almost invariably it is the Edinburgh incident (naked version) rather than anything about her writing that is returned.

So let’s try to re-balance the ledger a little, shall we?

Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a story told in retrospect; told, in fact, after the death of its heroine at a ripe old age. It begins in the voice of Harry Leeson, who knew Susan from the time he was a child, and who employed her as his housekeeper until the time of her death:

Worthy, excellent Susan! methinks I see her now, in her neat, plaited cap, snuff-coloured stuff gown, clean white apron, and spectacles on nose, plying her knitting-needles, whose labours were to result in a comfortable pair of lamb’s-wool stockings for my next winter’s wear, or a warm waistcoat for poor old Jeremy; or in something, be it what it might, that was to contribute to the welfare and benefit of some human being; and I believe, if it had so happened that the whole human race had been miraculously provided to repletion with warm stockings and waistcoats, that Susan, rather than let her fingers be idle and not be doing something for somebody, would have knit jackets for the shorn lambs and blankets for the early calves…

As he reminisces, dwelling fondly on Susan’s honesty and kindness – and her valued companionship, particularly after he was widowed – Harry recalls the moment that it occurred to them not merely to talk over the adventures of their youth, as they were very much in the habit of doing, but to write them down. What follows is their joint narrative of a series of extraordinary events…

Susan Hopley and her younger brother, Andrew, are the only children of a day-labourer on a farm. When the lingering illness of Mrs Hopley brings the family into straitened circumstances, they are relieved by a Mrs Leeson, whose young son, Harry, becomes attached to the Hopley children. Susan herself is taken into Mrs Leeson’s service, while Andrew is placed with a Mr Wentworth, Mrs Leeson’s uncle. After the death of Mrs Leeson, Mr Wentworth vows to provide for Harry, and also takes Susan into his own household.

Mr Wentworth, a wine-merchant, earlier took into his business a distant relative, Mr Gaveston, with whom the young Fanny Wentworth fell in love – not entirely to her father’s satisfaction; though as he is forced to admit, he has nothing concrete to allege against him. Nevertheless, Mr Wentworth takes steps to discourage his daughter’s suitor, informing him blandly that he intends to make Harry Leeson his main heir with respect to the wine-business, and that the bulk of Fanny’s substantial fortune will be vested in trustees and tied up in her children.

Gaveston expresses no dissatisfaction with these arrangements, nor evinces any desire to break his engagement. Shortly afterwards, however, young Harry Leeson begins to be plagued by mysterious accidents… Indeed, twice the boy’s life is in immediate danger, once in a riding incident, once from drowning. In the second instance he is rescued by Andrew Hopley, who risks his own life in the process, and is regarded more warmly than ever by the Wentworths as a consequence.

Andrew’s health having been affected by his watery adventure, Mr Wentworth proposes that the young man accompany himself, Fanny and Harry on a short trip to the seaside. In their absence, two memorable experiences befall Susan. The first is a call at the house by a stranger of distinctive appearance, who demands to know when Mr Wentworth is expected home – and who, confronted by Susan’s clear gaze, manages to put out her candle as they are talking:

“When I opened the door, I saw by the light of the candle I held in my hand, a stout man in a drab coat, with his hat slouched over his eyes, and a red handkerchief round his throat, that covered a good deal of the lower part of his face; so that between the hat and the handkerchief, I saw very little of his features except his nose; but that was very remarkable. It was a good deal raised in the bridge, and very much on one side; and it was easy to see that whatever it had been by nature, its present deformity had been occasioned by a blow or an accident. He did not look like a common man, nor yet exactly like a gentleman; but something between both; or rather like a gentleman that had got a blackguard look by keeping bad company…”

Two nights later, after receiving a letter from Andrew full of oblique animadversions against Mr Gaveston, Susan has a deeply disturbing dream:

“I thought I was sitting in master’s arm-chair by his bed-room fire, just as indeed I was, and that I had just dropped asleep when  heard a voice whisper in my ear, “Look there! who’s that?” Upon that I thought I lifted my head and saw my brother Andrew sitting on the opposite side of the fire in his grave clothes, and with his two dead eyes staring at me with a shocking look of fear and horror—then I thought he raised a hand slowly, and pointing with his thumb over his shoulder, I saw two men standing close behind him; one had a crape over his face, and I could not see who he was; but the other was the man with the crooked nose, who had rung the bell two nights before. Presently they moved forwards, and passing me, went into my master’s dressing-closet, which was behind where I was sitting. Then I fancied that I tried to rouse myself, and shake off my sleep, that I might look after them, but I could not; and when I turned my eyes again on the chair where Andrew had been sitting, instead of him I saw my master there with a large gash in his throat…”

By daylight, Susan shakes off the effects of her unnerving experience, only to find herself confronted by an even mote distressing reality. A carriage arrives, bearing a constable, who demands that Susan, Mr Jeremy, the Wentworths’ butler, and Mrs Jeremy, the housekeeper, accompany him to the town of Maningtree—and that Susan bring with her any letters written to her by Andrew during her absence. Upon their arrival at Maningtree, Susan finds herself being pointed out and stared at. She and the Jeremys are taken into the inn, where they find Mr Gaveston waiting for them. It is he who breaks the shocking news to Jeremy: Mr Wentworth is dead, robbed and murdered, and Andrew Hopley has absconded. Furthermore, a dairymaid called Mabel Lightfoot, who Andrew was courting, or trying to court, is also missing from home. The authorities, putting two and two together and getting five, have concluded that Andrew committed his crime in order to fund his flight with Mabel. However, while it was true that Mabel favoured Andrew above any of the other suitors of her own class, that did not mean she favoured him much: the lovely young girl, though not flighty, was notorious for having ideas above her station; and the idea that she might have eloped with a young footman on fifty ill-gotten pounds is simply incredible to her fellow-servants:

Jeremy was silent. There was something in all this inexplicable to him. He was an uneducated, but a very clear-headed man, and one who, to use his own phrase, was rarely deceived in man or woman. Of Andrew he entertained the highest opinion, founded on observation and experience, having known the lad from his childhood; whilst to Mr Gaveston he had an antipathy so decided, that he used to liken it to the horror some people have of cats; and declare that he always felt an uncomfortable sensation whenever he was near him. Then, as for Mabel’s having gone off with Andrew…which, in short, he could not help suspecting was the insinuation Mr Gaveston was driving at, he was as sceptical about that as the young man’s guilt. He not only believed her incapable of countenancing or taking a part in the crime, but he was satisfied that she cared very little for Andrew; and was altogether actuated by views of a very different nature. He was even aware that Mr Gaveston himself had offered to pay her more attention than was quite consistent with his engagement to Miss Wentworth…

And as the investigation proceeds, another bewildering fact is established: Mr Wentworth’s new will has disappeared. Consequently, his entire fortune descends to his next-of-kin, his daughter, Fanny…

It is Mr Jeremy to whom the unenviable tasks of breaking the news to Susan falls. Stunned beyond measure, Susan holds hard to her belief in her brother’s innocence, insisting vehemently that he will return and clear his name; or that, if he does not, then he, too, must have been murdered, perhaps in defence of the master to whom he was devoted. But in that case, where is his body?

The tragedy of Mr Wentworth’s murder soon takes on another, more personal dimension for Susan: she realises to her grief and shame that the name “Hopley” has become infamous; that unless Andrew can somehow be cleared, she too will forever afterwards carry the stain of his guilt. The grief-stricken Fanny Wentworth, although she has full belief in Susan’s own integrity, tells her reluctantly that she must leave the household. Furthermore, though William Dean, the young man by whom Susan is being courted, declares his willingness to stand by her regardless, she knows that this is not fair to him and breaks off their engagement. The one tiny silver lining in Susan’s misery is that she has a loyal friend in Dobbs, the late Mrs Leeson’s housekeeper, now in service in London, who finds her a position with a young married couple. Bidding farewell to everything she has known, Susan collects together her meagre possessions and sets out to begin a new life…

Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a novel impossible to summarise, and I’m not going to try. (Hallelujah! they cry.) With its lengthy, rambling narrative, its extensive cast of characters, its bewildering plethora of intersecting plotlines and the starring role played by “coincidence” in the unravelling of its various mysteries, one might be tempted to call it “Dickensian”—except that, to all intents and purposes, Catharine Crowe got there first.

(Crowe name-checks Dickens at one point, commenting in a footnote that an incident in her work does resemble one in Master Humphrey’s Clock, but was written first; Master Humphrey’s Clock was the serial publication mixing fiction and miscellanea from which Dickens eventually extracted the novels The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.)

Susan Hopley is the key to most – not all – of the novel’s plotlines, mostly due to enforced changes in her employment, and she remains throughout our main focus-figure. However, at various points Susan disappears while other lengthy narratives are interpolated, often in the form of characters telling their own histories, or the histories of others (which, in long-standing novelistic tradition, they couldn’t possibly know in such detail). Although again and again the reader is at a loss to know exactly how a particular narrative fits into the overall tapestry, at length – at length – each of these individual stories plays its part in identifying the murderer of Mr Wentworth and clearing the name of Andrew Hopley.

That said, it is stretching a point too far to call Susan Hopley a “detective”, as one of those studies into early detective fiction does. Though through her intelligence, powers of observation and retentive memory, Susan is instrumental in clearing her brother’s name and bringing the real murderer to justice, she does not actively set out to uncover the truth and vindicate her brother. For one thing, she hasn’t the time, or the resources: she’s a working girl whose first object has to be to earn an honest living. There is some amateur detective work done in this book, however: the active parties are Mr Olliphant, the late Mr Wentworth’s solicitor, and in particular Mr Simpson, originally Wentworth’s head clerk in his wine-business, who has consequently known Walter Gaveston since he was a boy and wouldn’t trust him as far as he could throw him. Separately and together, and with invaluable contributions from Susan, these two men slowly begin to penetrate the fog of mystery surrounding the murder of their employer and friend.

The reader of Adventures Of Susan Hopley, it may be said, is left in far less doubt than the characters in the novel as to the identity of the guilty party – parties – who are of course Gaveston and his friend with the broken nose, briefly identified for us as George Remorden, a well-born young man gone to the dogs. The murder of Mr Wentworth is not the only crime of which they are guilty over the course of this novel, not by a long shot: their careers encompass murder, theft, fraud, blackmail and bigamy, as well as more social sins such as seduction and abandonment. And even more frequently than they commit crimes, the two of them change their identities, hopping from plot-thread to plot-thread in the process and repeatedly showing up again as somebody else. In most cases, there is only that distinctive nose on the face of Mr Remorden to alert the reader to the fact that this has happened; Walter Gaveston himself is a lot harder to spot. Nor are these two the only characters with this chameleon-like tendency. Again and again individuals disappear from one narrative and show up in another, and only the most alert of readers will always be aware that this has happened.

In short—Adventures Of Susan Hopley is a novel that demands the reader pay strict attention at all times. And possibly keep a scorecard.

In spite of the astonishing amount of crime that occurs throughout its pages, this is not a novel without a certain sense of humour, which is heightened by Catharine Crowe’s knack for deft character touches. Here, for example, we find her playing with the “Jew money-lender” stereotype so common in novels of this era (and sadly, for many years afterwards):

Mr Lecky, though still calling himself a Jew, and adhering pretty closely to his own people, as he professed to consider them, had so deteriorated from the type of his ancestors by the frequent alloy of Christian blood they had grafted onto his stock, that he had lost all the distinguishing characteristics of those generally handsome infidels; whilst nature, probably thinking that he could make out no good title to the features of any other sect, had evaded the difficulty by giving him an assortment that would have been unanimously repudiated by every denomination whatsoever…

I’m also fond of this brief visit with an inexperienced opera-goer:

    “Look! he says she shall be mistress of his heart, but that, being a prince, he cannot marry her.”
    “Then I wouldn’t listen to a word more he had to say, if I were her,” said Miss Jones.
    “You think so,” said Rochechouart; “but you wouldn’t be able to help it.”
    “Indeed I should,” replied the young lady.
    “Not if you were in love,” he said tenderly.
    “But I’m not in love,” answered Miss Jones.
    “That alters the case, certainly,” said the duke. “It’s very extraordinary,” thought he; “she’s not the least like any other woman I ever met with;” and he fell into a reverie, forgetting for a time to continue his explanations.
    “He’s gone,” said Miss Jones.
    “Who?” said the duke, starting.
    “The prince,” said she. “Has she dismissed him?”
    “Yes,” replied Rochechouart; “she has sent him away discomfited; and there is the shepherd returned to try his fortune again; but she can’t bring herself to listen to him.”
    “I don’t wonder at it,” returned Miss Jones. “Who would, after being made love to by a prince?”
    “I admire your sentiments,” said Rochechouart, with animation.

Friends of the pragmatic “Miss Jones” know her better as Mabel Lightfoot…

Then of course there’s this piece of inadvertent humour; and while the fate of the young woman in question is sufficiently dismal, it’s not as bad as this passage might seem to suggest:

    “It never rains but it pours, you know,” observed Mr Cripps. “It’s a pity Jemmy arn’t old enough for a husband. I dare say the count would be able to find one for her amongst his great acquaintance.”
    “Oh! the gentleman whom Miss Livy is about to make happy, is a friend of the count’s, is he?” said Mr Glassford.
    “Partiklar,” answered Mr Cripps; “as soon as the wedding’s over, they are all to go together to the count’s castle in Transylvania.”

But while there is plenty of humour in Adventures Of Susan Hopley, intentional and otherwise, there are also some things it takes very seriously indeed. One of the things I find most fascinating about it is how much of its narrative it devotes to the concerns of working-class people, and how sympathetic it is to the difficulties faced by those trying forge a life for themselves at that level. Indeed, I wonder how many 19th century novels have, in a non-didactic context, a servant as their main character? – or spend so much time pondering the fragility of “a good character”? – or show so clearly how servants are at the mercy of the vagaries of their employers? When Andrew Hopley is accused of Mr Wentworth’s murder, Susan finds herself being treated like a leper by the “nice” people:

An elderly lady connected with the family had come down to stay with her; and Susan saw too plainly that the stranger did not regard her with such indulgent eyes as her kind young mistress did. “Good heavens! Fanny,” she heard her say, as she closed the door, “how can you think of countenancing that horrid woman?” whilst she shrunk away as the poor girl passed her, as if she feared to be polluted by the contact of her skirt.

This sort of thing happens so often that Susan develops a terrible sensitivity, expecting insults where none are intended, and sure that the whole world knows of her shame-by-association. In one of our labyrinth of subplots, Susan becomes involved in the affairs of a young wife falsely accused of shoplifting. Discovering a likely alternative suspect but not sure what to do, she carries her theory to Mr Olliphant, whose name she knows as her late employer’s lawyer, who agrees to help but warns it will be difficult to find the evidence they need:

    “Well,” said Mr Olliphant, “I’ll think over the business, and see what’s best to be done; and if I require your assistance, I’ll send you a penny-post letter. What’s your name?”
    “Susan Hopley, sir,” she replied.
    “Hopley, Hopley,” reiterated he. “I’ve heard that name before. Hopley! What is there connected in my mind with the name of Hopley?”
    Poor Susan’s cheeks crimsoned, and if the lawyer had looked in her face at the moment, its expression might have recalled what he was seeking to remember…

But thankfully Susan has not been entirely forsaken. Her fellow-servants, who know her and Andrew as people, as friends, never lose their faith and never let her down. She stays in touch over the years that follow with both Dobbs and Mr Jeremy, and always has someone to turn to for help. The text suggests that this sort of safety-net, with an exchange of care and services amongst people who usually cannot afford to give money, is a common thing at this social level – and rarely found at a higher one.

Adventures Of Susan Hopley makes no bones about the fact that, as a young woman alone in the world, Susan faces some formidable challenges, even with her friends to assist her. A major theme of this novel is what Fanny Burney once called “female difficulties”: the vulnerability of women in a world where men make and break the rules at will. Things are hard enough for Susan, who can at least earn her own living; ironically, they are often even harder for women of a higher class, who lack the practical talents of a good servant. We see all sorts of victimisation over the course of the narrative, including Susan being robbed of everything she possesses the moment she sets foot in London. A young wife finds herself trapped and powerless within a loveless marriage; another has a husband so insanely obsessed with “honour” that tragedy inevitably results. A wealthy girl is married for her money and discarded at the first opportunity; a poor girl is seduced and abandoned, and later finds herself the target of a murderous plot.

The latter plot-thread is perhaps the single most remarkable thing about this novel, with a “fallen woman” becomes an important supporting character, within a narrative that refuses utterly to condemn her. Circumstances conspire to leave a respectable young woman, Julia, homeless and destitute; consequently, she becomes easy prey for the man who has been pursuing her for some time, and who does not hesitate to take full advantage of her desperate situation. Julia bears the man a daughter, and it is made clear from that point that everything she does is with a view to caring for the child, even allowing herself to be palmed off onto another man, a friend of her “keeper”, for whom she cares nothing. (Certain readers may think they recognise these two “gentleman”, who at this point are going by the names of Mr Godfrey and Mr Dyson.)

After Susan is robbed she is taken in for the night by Julia, and given a bed, something to eat, and some money, before being taken to her new place of employment. Though she soon comes to suspect that her rescuer is not a married woman, in spite of her small child, Susan neither judges nor scorns her, still less refuses her assistance. Later, the positions of the two are reversed, and Susan is able to repay her debt of care. Placed at length in a small business, Julia lives an exemplary life; her “sins” are dismissed as circumstantial, not ingrained. Of course young women would rather earn an honest living, argues the text, in effect, and wouldn’t it be nice if the world didn’t make it so very difficult?

Before she reaches her happy ending, however, Julia has two very narrow escapes. One is from the machinations of Walter Gaveston, aka Mr Godfrey, who discovers to his horror that Julia’s main benefactor, and now good friend, is none other than Mr Simpson, Mr Wentworth’s former clerk, and begins to worry that the girl knows rather too much about his movements at the time of Mr Wentworth’s murder… Mr Simpson’s acquaintance with Julia begins when he is one of the two men responsible for saving her life when, abandoned by lover, having pawned everything possible, with no money left and with her child on the verge of starvation, and the two of them turned out onto the streets, Julia takes one of the only two options open to her…

    Matters became daily worse and worse: the child recovered from the maladies, but remained weak and helpless; pining for want of air and exercise, and craving for food which could not be supplied. The love for the infant, which had hitherto given her energy, and enabled her to support this hard struggle, now that she saw that the struggle was in vain, and could no longer be maintained, only added a thousand-fold to her despair.
    At length the dreaded night arrived, and found her houseless, penniless, without a friend to turn to turn to, or a hope to cheer; and with the fearful agony of those cruel words, “Mamma, I’m so hungry,” for ever wringing at her heart.
    For several hours she wandered through the streets, the inhospitable streets, that furnish nothing to the penniless wretch that cannot beg—amongst crowds of busy and incurious strangers, hurrying on their several errands and rudely brushing with their elbows, as they passed, the fainting mother and the starving child;—on she wandered. Ever and anon the broad, grey sheet of the gloomy river, with its sable canopy of fog hung over it, appearing betwixt the divisions of the streets, and reminding her that beneath its dark waters there was a last refuge for the destitute—a bed wherein once laid, no sound can wake them, no cold can shiver them, no hunger tear their entrails, nor cries of starving infants pierce their hearts.
    Who shall condemn her that she sought its rest..?

15/07/2012

The Trail Of The Serpent

…her reign as heroine-in-chief of this dark romance in real life was only put an end to by the appearance of Mr Peters, the hero, who came home by-and-by, hot and dusty, to announce to the world of Little Gulliver Street, by means of the alphabet, very grimy after his exertions, that the dead man had been recognised as the principal usher of a great school up at the other end of the town, and that his name was, or had been, Jabez North… Mr Peters, whose business it was to pry about the confines of this shadowy land, though powerless to penetrate the interior, could only discover some faint rumour of an ambitious love for his master’s daughter as being the cause of the young usher’s untimely end. What secrets this dead man had carried with him into the shadow-land, who shall say? There might be one, perhaps, which even Mr Peters, with his utmost acuteness, could not discover.

For this, my first examination of one of the many, many novels of the remarkable Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I am planning on taking a different approach from my usual blogging—for the reason that, in stark contrast to most of the novels examined at this site, The Trail Of The Serpent has been fairly recently reissued and is still in print. Instead of the usual detailed synopsis that I usually feel compelled to provide, on the assumption that no-one but me ever has or ever will read the work in question, I’m going to concentrate on the features that make this such a surprising and enjoyable book, while encouraging everyone to track down a copy and read it for themselves. Probably I won’t be able to entirely avoid spoilers in this piece, but so numerous are the pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent that there will still be plenty left for you to discover by yourselves.

The first point to be made about The Trail Of The Serpent is that it is not a mystery novel: although it deals with the commission of crimes, and the investigation of some of those crimes, the reader is aware from the outset of the identity of the guilty party. On the other hand, although in structure it bears little resemblance to the kind of novel to which we would apply the term today, The Trail Of The Serpent is a detective novel—perhaps the very first English detective novel—inasmuch as it opens with a crime, follows the pursuit of the criminal by a detective, first in a professional, then in an amateur capacity, and closes when the criminal has been apprehended, the innocent vindicated, and the truth made public.

Whatever else The Trail Of The Serpent is or is not, however, there is no disputing that it falls into that strange and wonderful category of Victorian literature known as “the sensation novel”, which attracted critical outrage even while delighting an audience surfeited upon moral and improving tales. Moral and improving this is not: it is a story of dreadful crimes, of guilt and innocence, of secrets kept and revealed. It is wildly melodramatic, full of outrageous coincidences and contrivances, frequently humorous and sometimes quite shocking—and always enormous fun. A great deal of the pleasure involved in reading The Trail Of The Serpent comes from an unmistakable sense of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s own enjoyment in her work. You almost get the feeling that she down to write this novel with a checklist before her of taboos she meant to shatter, and conventions she meant to toy with. This is a youthful work—and a fearless one; a story told with remarkable assurance and an energy that carries it over its more improbable moments—which are not few in number.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about The Trail Of The Serpent is Braddon’s willingness to rush in where most female Victorian novelists feared to tread. We have spoken in other contexts of the gendered authorial voice, how sometimes it is evident that a book is written by a woman or by a man, and how sometimes you can’t tell. My feeling about this novel is that, if you didn’t know it was written by a woman, you wouldn’t necessarily guess—although it isn’t so much that Braddon’s voice is “unfeminine”, as that so many scenes in this book take place in rather dubious localities, and display a knowledge of the masculine world that nice women weren’t supposed to have.

Not content with a plot featuring crimal activities of all varieties, Braddon also carries her readers from the ugliest of slums into disreputable taverns and dingy shops, and the tobacco-wreathed, brandy-soaked world of feckless young men; even giving us a vivid word-picture of the morning after a strictly bachelor dinner thrown to celebrate the achievements of a pugilist known to the public as The Left-Handed Smasher.

But while all this deliberate shock-value is certainly one of this its major attractions, I don’t want to give the impression that there is no substance to this novel. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of The Trail Of The Serpent is that along with its outrageous central tale we are offered some sincere and bitter commentary upon some of the less savoury aspects of Victorian life:

But of course bad influences can only come to bad men; and of course he must be a very bad man whose spirits go up and down with every fluctuation of the weather-glass. Virtuous people no doubt are virtuous always; and by no chance, or change, or trial, or temptation, can they ever become other than virtuous. Therefore why should a wet day or a dark day depress them? No; they look out of the windows at houseless men and women and fatherless and motherless children wet through to the skin, and thank Heaven that they are not as other men: like good Christians, punctual rate-payers, and unflinching church-goers as they are.

We know that in her youth, Braddon was a voracious reader of novels. Like many writers, we find her in her own work reacting to her reading, putting what she has absorbed to her own purposes. In The Trail Of The Serpent, Braddon quite explicitly echoes the work of Charles Dickens—and manages (at least in my opinion) to beat him at his own game.

Furthermore—I have the impression that this influence wasn’t a one-way street. By coincidence, I have recently re-read Our Mutual Friend; and if (as we shall see) The Trail Of The Serpent references Dickens’ earlier works, his final completed novel, which began serialisation in May 1864, seems to me to bear, in outline if not in central plot, a surprising resemblance to Braddon’s breakthrough work. Both tales are centred about a river, and dwell upon its power of life and death; both draw upon the proverbial dichotomy between hanging and drowning; both weave water imagery and themes of death and rebirth through their text. Both novels open with a murder, and deal with assumed identities; the correct social “placing” of a central character is a significant aspect of each plot’s resolution. Both of them feature a foundling with a single, improbable (and suspiciously similar) name. And both of them, while touching occasionally upon the higher reaches of society, deal predominantly with a world stretching from the fringes of gentility down into depths of poverty.

Braddon’s description of life amongst the lowest is one one the most striking and memorable aspects of The Trail Of The Serpent. She expresses no less anger than Dickens over the misery and degradation suffered by the poor, and no less disgust at the capacity of “nice” people simply to ignore it—or blame the victims:

Jabez soon leaves this square behind him, and strolls through two or three narrow, dingy, old-fashioned streets, till he comes to a labyrinth of tumble-down houses, pigstyes, and dog-kennels, known as Blind Peter’s Alley. Who Blind Peter was, or how he came to have this alley—nobody living knew. But if Blind Peter was a myth, the alley was a reality, and a dirty loathsome fetid reality, with regard to which the Board of Health seemed as if smitten with the aforesaid Peter’s own infirmity, ignoring the horror of the place with fatal blindness. So Peter’s was the Alsatia of Slopperton, a refuge for crime and destitution—since destitution cannot pick its company, but must be content often, for the sake of shelter, to jog cheek by jowl with crime. And thus no doubt it is on the strength of that golden adage about birds of a feather that destitution and crime are thought by numerous wise and benevolent persons to mean one and the same thing…

The significant difference between the two is that Braddon never falls into the trap of sentimentalising. Instead, she tends to go to the other extreme, adopting a casual, shrugging tone that is absolutely chilling and, to my mind, far more effective than Dickens’ over-insistence.

Braddon’s poor, left with no choice, live by the banks of her river, the Sloshy, which winds through her novel like an indifferent god, sometimes giving life, more often taking it away:

The Sloshy is not a beautiful river, unless indeed mud is beautiful, for it is very muddy. The Sloshy is a disagreeable kind of compromise between a river and a canal. It is like a canal which (after the manner of the mythic frog that wanted to be an ox) had seen a river, and swelled itself to bursting in imitation thereof. It has quite a knack of swelling and bursting, this Sloshy; it overflows its banks and swallows up a house ot two, or takes an impromptu snack off a few outbuildings, once or twice a year. It is inimical to children, and has been known to suck into its muddy bosom the hopes of divers families; and has afterwards gone down to the distant sea, flaunting on its breast Billy’s straw hat or Johnny’s pinafore, as a flag of triumph for having done a little amateur business for the gentleman on the pale horse…

The Sloshy assists “the gentleman” in another manner, too, being the site of so many suicides—generally of young women, with or without child in arms—that a publican who operates a tavern on its dismal banks has difficulty keeping them all straight in his memory, or even calling to mind one specific suicide, when he is questioned about it.

Braddon’s lack of sentimentality is perhaps also responsible for one of the most curious aspects of The Trail Of The Serpent: it has no heroine. There are female characters, certainly, and several marriages, including those eventually made by the novel’s dual protagonists; but these never become its focus in the way we might expect.

The love-relationship we see most closely is conducted in one of the foullest corners of Slopperton, between a dying young man called Jim Lomax and a factory girl known as Sillikins (she has another name, but no-one uses it). We can imagine what Dickens might have done with such a situation, but Braddon is made of sterner stuff. She does marvel briefly that such a love should have flowered on the dunghill of Slopperton; but when she loses her Jim, Sillinkins does nothing so predicatably romantic as dying of a broken heart. Instead, she does what real people do: she goes on with her life, be it ever so weary. We meet the girl again, a few years later, still dragging through an existence of grinding misery, and worse off than ever, having made herself responsible for Jim’s grandmother, a frightful, drunken harridan. These moments of pragmatism embedded in the overall extravagance of this novel’s plot invariably catch and hold the attention.

But in one of The Trail Of The Serpent‘s central characters, Jabez North, Braddon raises anti-sentimentality to the level of an artform. Jabez is a rare survivor of the Sloshy, being pulled from its mud as a baby; his mother wasn’t so fortunate. Jabez is first seen as a respectable young man employed as an usher in a school in the town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy; an individual offered up as proof of the wisdom and effectiveness of Slopperton’s approach to dealing with the poor. The more we see of Jabez, however, the more apparent it becomes that if, at the back-end of his career, Charles Dickens did find himself borrowing from a rising young novelist, then that the rising young novelist returned the favour in spades—but did so with what I’m tempted to call malice aforethought.

It seems impossible to interpret Jabez North as anything other than a deliberately conceived anti-Oliver Twist. The background and experience of the two are almost identical, right down to the odd name bestowed by “charitable” officialdom; but while Dickens insists upon Oliver emerging from his childhood ordeal unscathed in his essentials, Braddon contends that this is not possible.

Now there are many natures (God-created though they be) of so black and vile a tendency as to be soured by workhouse treatment; by constant keeping down; by days and days which grow into years and years, in which to hear a kind word is to hear a strange language… Some natures too may be so weak and sentimental as to sicken at a life without one human tie; a boyhood without father or mother; a youth without sister or brother. Not such the excellent nature of Jabez North. Tyranny found him meek, it is true, but it left him much meeker. Insult found him mild, but it left him lamb-like. Scornful speeches glanced away from him; cruel words seemed drops of water on marble, so powerless were they to strike or wound… He was a good young man; a benelovent young man; giving in secret, and generally getting his reward openly. His left hand scarcely knew what his right hand did…

Such is the public face of Jabez North, soon revealed to the reader as an angry and damaged individual; a practised liar and hypocrite; a career criminal in the making. The very first chapter of The Trail Of The Serpent – titled “The Good Schoolmaster” – confronts us with just how daring Mary Elizabeth Braddon could be. After our ironic introduction to Jabez, we watch him slip secretly from his schoolhouse bedroom after dark…and return some time later with bloody hands, muttering furiously that, “It was all for nothing!” There is a witness to Jabez’s return, a small, sick boy left in his care, who cries out in terror at the sight of the blood. It is true that the boy is feverish and delirious, and probably would not be believed; but Jabez isn’t a man who leaves loose ends. He mixes a does of opium—a very strong dose—and having administered it to the boy by force, sets about destroying the evidence of his night-time excursion:

Then Jabez North sets to work to wash his hands. A curious young man, with curious fashions for doing things—above all, a curious fashion of washing his hands. He washes them very carefully in a small quantity of water, and when they are quite clean, and the water has become a dark and ghastly colour, he drinks it…

Jabez’s victim is Montague Harding, recently returned from India to relieve his sister from the financial woes brought on by the selfishness and irresponsibility of her son, Richard Marwood. As it happens, a chastened Richard, physically ill and with barely a penny left to his name, has chosen this very night to return, prodigal-like, to his mother’s roof. A combination of circumstances—including Richard being found some distance from his home the next morning, in possession of his uncle’s money—point to him as the murderer, and he is arrested and brought to trial. Indeed, so convinced are the police—the senior police—of Richard’s guilt that they investigate no further. We learn, much later, that if they had looked, they would have found evidence to support his story, and point to the real killer.

Slopperton is all agog over the matter; not that violent death is all that rare an event in those charming environs:

There had not been since the last general election, when George Augustus Slashington, the Liberal member, had been returned against strong Conservative opposition, in a blaze of triumph and a shower of rotten eggs and cabbage-stumps—there had not been since that day such excitement in Slopperton as there was on the discovery of the murder of Mr Montague Harding. A murder was always a great thing for Slopperton. When John Boggins, weaver, beat out the brains of Sarah his wife, first with the heel of his clog and ultimately with a poker, Slopperton had a great deal to say about it—though, of course, the slaughter of one “hand” by another was no great thing…

The circumstantial evidence is strong against Richard, and he is convicted of the murder; but (for reasons we shall return to presently) he is not condemned to be hanged, but confined in a lunatic asylum—where the novel leaves him for eight soul-scarring years. He survives partly through sheer grim endurance, and partly because he feels he deserves punishment. Richard is no innocent: if not guilty of murder, he is guilty of making his unoffending mother’s life miserable, and one of financial hardship, over a period of years. (We note in passing that his period of imprisonment is almost exactly the same length as his career of prodigality.)

The excitement of the trial over, the world at large promptly forgets about Richard Marwood; all except for his long-suffering mother, a handful of loyal friends—and a single, powerful ally.

With his unjust conviction and subsequent incarceration, Richard is the sympathy figure in The Trail Of The Serpent, but he is certainly not its hero. This title rightly belongs to Mr Joseph Peters, Joe to his friends, who is not only in all likelihood Victorian literature’s first working-class hero, but also its first hero with a disability: for Joe is mute, capable of communicating directly with only the few individuals who understand his particular form of sign language, in which he uses his fingers to spell out the letters of the alphabet.

One of those who can understand him is Richard, who learned the language as a child’s game (and used it to communicate with the girl next door); and when he sees Joe, a lowly policeman, signing to his detective-superior the words N-O-T G-U-I-L-T-Y—and when Joe realises that he is understood—it forges a bond between the two that will, ultimately, see Richard a vindicated man, and Montague Harding’s true murderer brought to justice.

Braddon’s handling of Joe’s communications is cleverly done. At first she makes it painstakingly clear that Joe needs an interpretor, that he can only “talk” directly if someone understands his signing and can translate for him; but as the novel proceeds she lets these moments fade away, secure that the reader understands the situation and her use of the expression “said Joe”.

Joe’s disability cuts both ways. At the time when we meet him is nothing more than a minor functionary, the dogsbody of a detective who treats him with contempt for his supposed stupidity (rather in the spirit of raising your voice when speaking to “a foreigner”), and kept down because of it. Sometimes, however, his muteness works in Joe’s favour—as, for instance, when Jabez North makes the fatal assumption that because Joe is dumb, he is also deaf, and on that assumption, utters in his presence some careless words that fix him in Joe’s mind as the likely murderer of Montague Harding.

This encounter takes place in that pub on the Sloshy, known as “The Bargeman’s Delight” (the narrative pauses for a bewildered moment to ponder what “the” bargeman’s delight could possibly be), where Jabez is reluctantly meeting with his discarded mistress—and his bastard son. The unfortunate woman has given up on Jabez’s promises of marriage, and by the end of an ugly scene has literally thrown his money back in his face. When she leaves she is heading for the river. Joe, torn between his desire to pursue Jabez and his fear of the woman’s intentions, follows her out but loses her in the fog. He reaches the banks of the Sloshy too late to save the woman, but (in one of this novel’s many ironic instances of history repeating) pulls the baby from the river’s muddy grasp.

There will be no workhouse for this child, however: Joe takes him home, hiring a housekeeper-nanny, a local girl called Kuppins, to help care for him, and bestowing upon him the sobriquet “Sloshy”. As this, or as simply “Slosh”, he is known for the duration.

Mute himself, Joe takes great joy and pride in his adopted son’s powerful lungs (just as well, as it turns out). Fatherhood also breeds ambition in our Joe, who sees that he must “get on” in his chosen career, in order to provide properly for the child:

    Mr Peters has risen in his profession since last February. He has assisted at the discovery of two or three robberies, and has evinced on those occasions such a degree of tact, triumphing so completely over the difficulties he labours under from his infirmity, as to have won for himself a better place in the police force of Slopperton—and of course a better salary. But business has been dull lately, and Mr Joseph Peters, who is ambitious, has found no proper field for his abilities as yet.
    “I should like an iron-safe case, a regular out-and-out burglary,” he muses, “or a good forgery, say to the tune of a thousand or so. Or a bit of bigamy; that would be something new. But a jolly good poisoning case might make my fortune…”

(What we have here is one of Braddon’s little jokes: in the course of his spectacular career, Jabez North will be guilty of robbery, forgery, bigamy and poisoning…among other things.)

From the moment of Richard Marwood’s arrest, Joe is doubtful of his guilt. For one thing, when apprehended, Richard showed no fear or even concern (he later explains that he thought he was being arrested for debt, an all-too-familiar experience); indeed, he showed no strong emotion of any kind, until his uncle’s violent death was mentioned—which, as Joe sees clearly enough, comes as a terrible shock to him. Unable to get anyone to listen to him, Joe does all he can for Richard by advising him and his barrister to take a particular course of action, one conveyed in the courtroom via Joe’s busy fingers. At the time we learn only that there is a message of “seven letters”, though we infer from the outcome what those letters suggested: S-H-A-M M-A-D.

With Richard’s life secure, albeit at the cost of his incarceration, Joe is free to follow his suspicions of Jabez—but this line of inquiry comes to a shocking and unexpected conclusion when, on the way home after an outing with Kuppins and Sloshy, Joe finds the body of a man sprawled dead upon the heath, a vial of opium clasped in one hand… Inquiry confirms that this is Jabez North; and although he has gone to his ultimate judgement, his doing so leaves Richard in limbo.

But Joe Peters is not a man to give up on his friends. It takes a full eight years, but finally circumstances allow him to mastermind Richard’s escape from the lunatic asylum, and in a manner that prevents official pursuit, since it seems that Richard has become one of the Sloshy’s many victims. Reunited with his loyal mother, and the band of friends who were Joe’s co-conspirators, Richard is profoundly grateful for his freedom but bitter that Jabez’s death means that he will never be able fully to clear his name—and must indeed go through life behind an assumed identity.

As a reward for his rescuing of—and belief in—Richard, Mrs Marwood settles upon Joe an annuity of one hundred pounds. Now a man of means, Joe moves his household to London and resigns from the police force—but never for a moment does he stop being a detective. Joe is showing young Sloshy the many sights in their new home when he happens to catch a glimpse of a man leaving his palatial mansion: a glimpse that rocks the generally imperturbable Joe to his very core. The world may say of this man that he is Raymond, the Count de Marolles, a Parisian nobleman and nephew-by-marriage of the fabulously wealthy Marquis de Cervannes, but to Joe’s eyes he is none other than Jabez North—Jabez North, who Joe last saw lying dead upon a heath outside Slopperton…

And he is, of course, even more than that:

At last, to the considerable inconvenience of the passers-by, the detective makes a dead stop, and says, “I’m glad you think him han’some, Slosh; and I’m glad you thinks him easy, which, all things considered, he is, uncommon. In fact, I’m glad he meets your views as far as personal appearance goes, because, between you and me, Slosh, that man’s your father.”

Many and varied, and generally successful, have been the schemes of Jabez North; and he has reached the very peak of his ambition when he is confronted by Nemesis in the unlikely shape of Joe Peters…

Many and varied, as I say, are the schemes of Jabez North; many and varied too the pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent, of which I have (honestly!) touched on only a few; enough to encourage people to hunt a copy down, I hope. In spite of all I’ve said, there are at least two other major subplots that I’ve barely alluded to here—and that’s not even counting perhaps the most disturbing subplot of all (at least to modern sensibilities), that of the boy Sloshy who, with his disconcertingly handsome face, his slight, underdeveloped body, and his preternatural intelligence, represents a fierce and ongoing battle between nature and nurture…

The Trail Of The Serpent, as we now know it, began life in another form—as a novel serialised early in 1860 under the title Three Times Dead. Although it was not a success, it caught the attention of the publisher, John Maxwell, who encouraged and helped Mary Elizabeth Braddon to re-work it into the form in which it was reissued later the same year. How great were the changes made, and how much John Maxwell contributed, we do not know for certain. What we do know is that, no doubt assisted by canny promotion by Maxwell, The Trail Of The Serpent sold one thousand copies in the first week of its release, and launched its author upon a long and successful, if controversial, career.

13/07/2012

The sensational Miss Braddon

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.