The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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January 9, 2012

Roots in real life

I'm about two-thirds through it -- parts are so well done, other parts drag a little -- and it's hard to keep reading Lady Audley's Secret without knowing a little more about her. Sometimes, curiousity is rewarded with something better than you would have expected (and with cameo appearances by Henry James, George Eliot and Charles Dickens). :)

Together with Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon dominated the market for what came to be known as "the novel of sensation" during the 1860s. Designed to unsettle, the genre caused moral alarm among critics. Not only did it revel in the dubious subject matter of murder, bigamy, illegitimacy and madness, it seemed to pathologise the very act of reading itself, since its narrative method - which fore shadows that of modern detective fiction -- turned readers into addicts, titillating them with a series of withheld secrets and startling revelations. ...
      [Mary Elizabeth] Braddon published Lady Audley's Secret when she was only 27, astonishing considering the virtuoso technique it displays. Even more amazing was the discovery of her own life story. As one of her many contemporary critics put it, "it has, we presume, been [her] lot to see a phase of life open to few ladies". This woman -- whose novels outraged and fascinated Victorian readers, whose hard-bitten professionalism earned her a fortune from her prolific writing, and who ended up a respectable grande dame of popular fiction -- led a life as transgressive as those of many sensation heroines.
      Henry James thought the defining element of this type of fiction was the way it transposed the lurid elements of the Gothic novel from the medieval castle to the modern bourgeois home, which became a place where nothing was quite what it seemed. Certainly, this was the case in Braddon's middle-class family. The skeleton in the family cupboard was her father, a crooked solicitor, who spent his time gambling, drinking and womanising. But it was not until after her parents separated that the teenage Mary, supported by her mother, took the first truly sensational step of her life: she went on the stage.
      Becoming a professional actress was unheard of for a girl of her background. Aware of possible scandal, she always acted under an assumed identity.... In later life, Braddon understandably kept quiet about her seven or eight years in the theatre... It is assumed her mother played the protective chaperone. But when we read of mother and daughter striking up a friendship with a newspaper proprietor whom George Eliot called the "Don Juan of Coventry", after a chance encounter in a churchyard, one wonders what was going on.
      More bizarre is the relationship between Braddon and a shadowy figure called John Gilby, whom she met in the northern town of Beverley. By this point, Braddon had begun to supplement her theatre work with writing, and Gilby emerges as a demanding svengali, paying her to write epic poetry about Garibaldi, and attempting to control her life. A sinister figure with withered legs, moving around on two sticks ... He committed suicide.  
      Braddon finally disentangled herself from Gilby, who told her in anger "you have become such an actress that you cannot speak without acting". She had met a better patron, John Maxwell, an Irish publisher with a reputation for shady dealing who would become her lifelong companion, and the father of her many children. Oddly, her mother seems to have had no qualms about this relationship (in this she resembles Mrs Ternan, whose actress daughter Ellen became Dickens's mistress). Despite the fact that Maxwell later put a deceptive announcement in the papers to the effect that he and Braddon had married, they continued to live in sin for many years because he had a wife still living, but insane. In literary London, gossips put it about that the true Mrs Maxwell was in an asylum, but it seems in fact that she was being cared for by her family in Ireland. It was only after her death in 1874 that Braddon was finally able to marry the man she had been calling her husband for more than a decade.
      Insanity, bigamy, a secret stage career, fake identities... -- Braddon's life really does seem to mirror the preoccupations of the literary genre to which she contributed so much. Sensation fiction may seem to create a stylised, artful space detached from the everyday world, but in Braddon's case it had its roots in real life.
from an article by Lucasta Miller in The Guardian (2003)

{portrait found here}

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