On 4 February 1915, one of the most prolific Victorian writers died. For a quarter of the previous century, Mary Elizabeth Braddon had been "the queen of circulating libraries", a best-selling author who managed to earn a comfortable fortune and a place in society through over 90 novels. A hundred years after her death, she is mainly remembered for her role in establishing sensation fiction: Lady Audley's Secret remains her best-known novel. Recent years, however, have seen an ongoing effort to expand Braddon scholarship beyond this limited view of her literary achievements with the publication of two essay collections (2000 and 2012), the Braddon archive at Canterbury Christ Church University, the establishment of the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association in 2013, and a two-day centenary conference to celebrate Braddon's achievement and legacy this September.
Although Braddon's incredible success and popularity distinguish her from many other writers for the popular market, her career shares some concerns with most Victorian professional authors. Above all, she was not only a writer, but also manager of a brand name and type of fiction. Flooding one's market and thereby devaluing the worth of one's brand was one of the biggest concerns for Victorian popular writers: properly spacing publications was not possible without a secondary income or the ability to command extremely good prices. With that said, publishing too frequently would oversaturate demand and therefore many writers were their own competitors. Braddon's navigation of this problem reveals her astute business sense and ability to adapt her writing to a range of outlets and publics. Although Braddon's success was likely facilitated by her relationship with the publisher John Maxwell (which facilitated access to magazines and increased the profit of successful novels beyond the royalties normally paid), her diversified publishing strategy allowed her to avoid situations like those of her equally prolific contemporaries, Margaret Oliphant and Augusta Ward, whose lives were governed by their constant debts to their publishers.
After her breakthrough with Lady Audley's Secret (1862), Braddon published two novels each year; and especially in the 1860s, they serve two distinctly different purposes. One was clearly aimed at undiscerning readers, following formulaic plot patterns and utilizing extremes of good and evil reminiscent of Braddon's origins in penny fiction and melodramatic theatre. While thus providing critics of sensation fiction with perfect examples of badly written potboilers, Braddon also published a companion novel designed to prove to critics her value as a writer of more serious and respectable fiction and attract more critical readers. In her correspondence with her literary idol Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Braddon confesses to being 'always divided between a noble desire to attain something like excellence – and a very ignoble wish to earn plenty of money' and advises him to ignore Only A Clod (1865), which was then being serialized, as it was a hastily composed 'hand to mouth affair'. Braddon's 'serious' novels from this decade still feature her trademark sensationalism, but bigamy, affairs and/or murderous villainy are much more restrained and more likely to be motivated by character and situation than just a plot mechanism. They clearly found favour with a slightly more fastidious reading public still wanting to be entertained, and enabled her to expand her readership to a more middle-class public.
Braddon expanded her brand with the establishment of the Belgravia magazine in 1866, which was edited by Braddon and published by Maxwell. Conducted almost completely in the family, the magazine was a lucrative business and a perfect platform for the serialization of Braddon's novels. Belgravia's title is, in Braddons own words, 'snobbery' and 'the best bait for the shillings of Brixton and Bow', a name devised to create the illusion of participating in aristocratic circles in its lower-middle class readership. Yet despite Braddon's mockery of the magazine's title, her choice also reveals her own insecurities about her brand of writing. Belgravia was selling up her fiction into the respectable realms of monthly serialization, away from the murder-filled penny-dreadfuls in which she had her first print appearance. Although she was extremely deferential in requesting 'the smallest fragment of verse – the merest chip from your quarry of gems' from Bulwer-Lytton, her approach to serializing her novels proves that the magazine was a valuable asset to her. All of Braddon's stronger novels were first published as monthly serials in Belgravia, while the less carefully constructed ones appeared in weekly newspapers, sometimes even without direct attribution to her. Thus, Braddon attempted to protect her name from becoming a by-word of cheap fiction, reserving her proper name for her highest quality production, and assigning inferior texts to secondary outlets.
This secondary brand had, in fact, been established much earlier. From 1860 onwards, she supplied Maxwell with cheap fiction for his various weekly penny magazines. Even Lady Audley's Secret briefly started in an ill-fated Maxwell weekly before its breakthrough into the world of respectable three-deckers. Lady Audley's Secret is not, as brief histories of sensation fiction tend to suggest, Braddon's first full-length novel; it was only one of eleven written during the brief span of three years. Most of these were published anonymously, or as being 'by the author of The Black Band', thus giving the reader enough context to recognize a possible favourite, but not connecting Braddon's names with cheap working-class fiction.
At the beginning of her penny-dreadful career, she seems to have considered the establishment of another pseudonym, Lady Caroline Lascelles; but this pretence of desirable exclusiveness was dropped after the first few instalments of The Black Band (1861). Braddon's career was already closely entangled with Maxwell's at this point: she wrote most of the serials for his new Halfpenny Magazine, and her mother took the role of general editor. The majority of these early works never saw publication in book form, and sensation fiction's dangerous potential for bridging the gap between respectable middle-class and working-class reading habits was still recognised by most reviews. Braddon's close affiliation with Maxwell was an open secret in the publishing world, but Braddon had succeeded in keeping her name clear from any traceable connection with penny fiction. With her breakthrough into a (lower) middle-class market, 'the author of The Black Band' redirected her energy into novels by 'M. E. Braddon, author of Lady Audley's Secret', but the attribution was kept in use for some of the weekly serials for the rest of the decade.
Only once did the use of pseudonyms fail her: the novel Circe (1867), ostensibly by 'Babington White', was not only inspired by Octave Feuillet's Dalila (1865), but contained literal translations of the French original – a practice common in Victorian theatre, but not appreciated by literary critics. A journalistic debate ensued, which abounded with forged letters, attacks under pseudonyms, and condemnations of both plagiarism and the Pall Mall Gazette's public crusade against a lady. Apart from publicity for Circe, which had been ignored by critics up to that point, the debate did not change much; but Braddon's use of pseudonyms dropped markedly after this point; possibly from the realisation that her style of fiction and preferred outlets were by now famous and recognisable enough that even anonymous publications would be traced back to her.
It is tempting to offer Maxwell's business experience as explanation of this careful negotiation of intended audiences and names, but evidence from Braddon's earlier life suggests that she was quite adept at managing her public image on her own. When Robert Lee Wolff published his substantial biography Sensational Victorian in 1979, he drew on Braddon's son W.B. Maxwell's hazy memory of his mother's brief acting career and a couple of old playbills from Hull to suggest that Braddon must have appeared on stage as Mary Seyton around 1857. Jennifer Carnell pursued these glimpses of an earlier career in The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (2000) and unearthed compelling addition evidence. Braddon's acting career did not lead to fame, but nevertheless she played in London and provincial theatres for eight years until 1860, always accompanied by her mother.
Even more interesting is the fact that 'Mary Seyton' also appears to have regularly published poetry in Yorkshire newspapers from 1857 onwards. Wolff found evidence that a gentleman from Beverly had acted as a literary patron to Braddon, supporting her through the writing of Garibaldi and Other Poems (1861) and some of her earlier works (their relationship ended stormily when he discovered Braddon was beginning to be associated with Maxwell). Carnell's evidence gives a plausible explanation of how and where he could have become acquainted with her, even if pseudonymously at first. Although Braddon's theatrical origins were well-know locally, and explain the strong influence of melodrama on her work, the topic was never discussed in interviews or major reviews of her works. Widespread knowledge of her acting career would have been priceless ammunition for her critics, but her judicious use of an assumed identity allowed this part of her life to be forgotten for over a century, much to the detriment of literary scholarship.
Braddon's 1865 portrait (below) by her friend William Powell Frith shows her dressed in sober black, standing in a handsome living room next to a writing desk stacked with books. The portrait is that of the professional woman writer at her place of work. Braddon's successful navigation of the fictional market shows how well deserved this image is.
Anne Reus holds a MA in English and Comparative Literature, and a MA in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture. Her PhD project explores Virginia Woolf's complex relationship with nineteenth-century women writers through an examination of Woolf's retelling of their biographies in her literary criticism. More generally, Anne's research interests are Victorian women writers, their professional identities and mid-Victorian popular literature.
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