M. E. Braddon Braddon, M. E. - Essay

Mary Elizabeth Braddon


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

M. E. Braddon 1835-1915

(Full name Mary Elizabeth Braddon; also wrote under the pseudonym Babington White) English novelist, playwright, editor, and short story writer.

A prolific writer in many genres, as well as the editor of several popular London periodicals, Braddon was one of the best known and most innovative writers of the sensation novel from the 1860s until her death in 1915. Virtually ignored by critics for decades, Braddon's works gained the attention of feminist scholars in the 1970s, when women's issues moved to the forefront of literary study. Today Braddon is credited with revolutionizing the Victorian female protagonist and introducing elements of darkness and criminality into literary portrayals of middle- and upper-class households.

Biographical Information

Braddon's personal life was nearly as scandalous as those of her fictional heroines. Born in London in 1835, she was the daughter of Henry Braddon and Fanny White Braddon. Early in their marriage, her parents wrote articles together for Pitman's Sporting Magazine under pseudonyms. Braddon herself wrote unpublished fairy tales and domestic and historical fiction as a teenager. But the family struggled with money, and Braddon's father abandoned them when she was in her early twenties. Hoping to achieve financial independence, Braddon sought a career as a stage actress, a decision considered highly questionable at the time. While she did not find much success as an actress, Braddon wrote her first comedy for the stage, which was produced in 1860. She was soon commissioned to write a long narrative poem on Garibaldi's campaign, and she published her first novel, a detective thriller called Three Times Dead (1860), which was reissued in 1861 by a larger publisher under the title The Trail of the Serpent. Braddon's writing found immediate success with the readers of inexpensive periodicals of the time, known as penny dreadfuls, which featured stories of crime and sex. At the same time, Braddon met John Maxwell, a magazine publisher married to a woman in a mental institution. Braddon spent the next fourteen years living out of wedlock with Maxwell and the couple's five children. Braddon wrote prolifically during this period to support Maxwell and their children, publishing nineteen books and plays between 1861 and 1868, as well as editing journals. In 1868, however, she had a severe nervous breakdown in response to her mother's death and was unable to write for the next two years. She returned to writing in 1870 and published her first social novel, The Lovels of Arden, in 1871. Until then, Braddon had concentrated mostly on the sensation novels for which she was most famous. But later in her career she experimented with a variety of narrative styles, finding popular success with each. In 1874 Maxwell's wife died, allowing Braddon and Maxwell to legally marry. They lived together happily until Maxwell's death in 1895. Braddon continued to support herself by writing, and she had a loyal readership, which included such eminent literary figures as Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde, despite critics who had excoriated her works and her lifestyle for years. Braddon died in 1915.

Major Works

Braddon's first two novels earned the notice of readers, but it was with her third novel, Lady Audley's Secret (1862), that she achieved the wild popularity that would last throughout her career. With Lady Audley's Secret Braddon helped to create the Victorian sensational novel, which typically featured an innocent-looking but deceitful female protagonist, bigamy, murder, and madness. Braddon's major innovation in plot was to place these elements in respectable middle- and upper-class households. Lady Audley, for example, appears to be the perfect Victorian angel of the house, married to an elderly baronet. But when her first husband suddenly enters her new life, she attempts to kill him by pushing him down a well to hide the fact that she is a bigamist who falsified her own death. Lady Audley then tries to burn down the inn where two men who know her secret are staying. When her first husband reappears alive, Lady Audley is sent to a Belgian madhouse for the rest of her life. Braddon experienced similar success with Aurora Floyd (1863), John Marchmont's Legacy (1863), Birds of Prey (1867), and Charlotte's Inheritance (1868) all of which were again sensational novels. In 1864 Braddon published The Doctor's Wife, an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's infamous Madame Bovary, but Braddon was much more sympathetic to the unhappily married heroine and had her devote herself to philanthropy in her later years rather than commit suicide. While her novels were always known for their sharp wit, Braddon made social satire the focus of Vixen in 1879, the story of a wild young woman testing the restraints of her middle-class upbringing. In the twentieth century Braddon continued to feature strong women of dubious character in her novels. She is also remembered for her short stories, many of which helped to popularize fictional elements of the supernatural.

Critical Reception

In her lifetime Braddon's works were largely condemned by critics as being lewd and trashy. Yet many illustrious writers of the time, including Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, not only supported her work but wrote articles and reviews announcing their admiration. After her death, Braddon's works were ignored by critics until feminist literary study moved to the forefront in the late 1970s. At that point critics recognized in Braddon's fiction a strong subversive bent against traditional women's social roles. That her female characters are largely unlikeable as human beings—Aurora Floyd, for example, beats a dog, and Lady Audley is a fraudulent, murderous arsonist—does not prevent them from being viewed as heroines trying to live on their own terms, as well as complex psychological studies of women at the time. Additionally, Braddon was one of the first fiction writers to place criminality and perversion in middle and upper-class settings, thus using her writing as a vehicle for social commentary on the moral corruption of the wealthy. Critics also consider Braddon's short stories to be an important step in the development of the mystery and detective genres. Indicating the magnitude of her popularity and success, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Braddon from Samoa, “It is something to be out and away greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and to that you have attained.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Loves of Arcadia (drama) 1860

Three Times Dead; or, The Secret of the Heath (novel) 1860; revised edition, as The Trail of the Serpent, 1861

Garibaldi and Other Poems (poetry) 1861

The Captain of the Vulture (novel) 1862

Lady Audley's Secret (novel) 1862

The Lady Lisle (novel) 1862

Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales (short stories) 1862

Aurora Floyd (novel) 1863

Eleanor's Victory (novel) 1863

John Marchmont's Legacy (novel) 1863

The Doctor's Wife (novel) 1864

Henry Dunbar: The Story of an Outcast (novel) 1864

Only a Clod (novel) 1865

Sir Jasper's Tenant (novel) 1865

The Lady's Mile (novel) 1866

Birds of Prey (novel) 1867

Circe (novel) 1867

Rupert Godwin (novel) 1867

Charlotte's Inheritance (novel) 1868

Dead Sea Fruit (novel) 1868

The Model Husband (drama) 1868

Run to Earth (novel) 1868

Fenton's Quest (novel) 1871

The Lovels of Arden (novel) 1871


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Henry James (review date 1865)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Aurora Floyd, in Notes and Reviews, Dunster House, 1865, pp. 108-116.

[In the following review, James praises Aurora Floyd as an important development in Braddon's literary career.]

Miss Aurora Floyd, as half the world knows, was a young lady who got into no end of trouble by marrying her father's groom. We had supposed that this adventure had long ago become an old story; but here is a new edition of her memoirs to prove that the public has not done with her yet. We would assure those individuals who look with regret upon this assumption by a “sensation” novel of the honors of legitimate fiction, that the author of Aurora...

(The entire section is 2147 words.)

Norman Donaldson (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction by Norman Donaldson, in Lady Audley's Secret, Dover Publications, Inc., 1974, pp. v-xiv.

[In the following introduction to the 1974 edition of Lady Audley's Secret, Donaldson provides an overview of critical comment on the novel through the twentieth century.]

A rare treat is in store for any reader who encounters Lady Audley's Secret for the first time. The book has been strangely neglected in recent decades, but for half a century after its appearance in 1862 it was one of the most popular mystery stories in the English-speaking world. It made an instant reputation for its mysterious young author, Miss Braddon, who was later to...

(The entire section is 3397 words.)

Winifred Hughes (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Wickedness of Woman: M. E. Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood,” in The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s, Princeton University Press, 1980, pp. 106-36.

[In the following essay, Hughes discusses the role of the sinful woman in the works of Braddon and her contemporary, Mrs. Henry Wood.]


“My own Edgardo!—and you still love me? You still would marry me in spite of this dark mystery which surrounds me? In spite of the fatal history of my race? In spite of the ominous predictions of my aged nurse?”

“I would, Selina”; and the young man...

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Jeanne F. Bedell (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Amateur and Professional Detectives in the Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon,” in Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1983, pp. 19-34.

[In the following essay, Bedell examines the role of detectives in Braddon's fiction.]

Unlike Wilkie Collins, her chief rival as a writer of sensation novels, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) is now little known, even to students of mystery and detective fiction. Yet from her first great success, the notorious Lady Audley's Secret (1862), to her skillful and subdued portraits of Edwardian and Georgian society, Braddon was one of the best known and most popular authors of her time. A...

(The entire section is 4789 words.)

Ellen Miller Casey (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Other People's Prudery’: Mary Elizabeth Braddon,” in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 27, 1984, pp. 72-82.

[In the following essay, Casey examines Braddon's handling of Victorian moral conventions in her works, noting that Braddon tended to be far more conservative in her writing than in her life.]

In a seminal article on minor Victorian fiction, Louis James suggested that “the most penetrating and imaginative writers transform social reality in their art. … The ‘bad’ writer on the other hand cannot either apprehend or express the social reality.”1 In James's sense, Mary Elizabeth Braddon is neither good nor bad. She...

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Natalie Schroeder (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion: M. E. Braddon and Ouida,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 87-103.

[In the following essay, Schroeder analyzes the ways in which sensationalist writers like Braddon encouraged Victorian women to subvert repressive social conventions.]

Twentieth-century critics have recently affirmed the historical, social, and literary importance of popular Victorian fiction.1 Mary Elizabeth Braddon's and Ouida's (Marie Louise de la Ramee) sensational novels are especially significant today for what they reveal about Victorian women's resistance to conventionally...

(The entire section is 7117 words.)

Virginia B. Morris (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mary Elizabeth Braddon: The Most Despicable of Her Sex,” in Double Jeopardy, The University Press of Kentucky, 1990, pp. 88-104.

[In the following essay, Morris discusses the ways in which Lady Audley's Secret fits into the pattern of criminal women in Victorian fiction.]

The women who shoot, poison, stab, steal, and blackmail their way through the sensation novels of the 1800s changed the nature of crime and criminals in Victorian fiction. These women are more ambitiously independent and less sexually repressed than traditional heroines, and their criminality is pervasive, violent, and even bizarre. Like comparable characters in other Victorian...

(The entire section is 6446 words.)

Chiara Briganti (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gothic Maidens and Sensation Women: Lady Audley's Journey from the Ruined Mansion to the Madhouse”1 in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 19, AMS Press, 1991, pp. 189-211.

[In the following essay, Briganti discusses the ways in which Lady Audley is and is not a typical sensation novel villainess and Braddon's ambivalence toward her character.]

And I also have no name, and that is my name. And because I depersonalize to the point of not having a name, I shall answer everytime someone says: me.

(Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.)

On the surface, Mary...

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Solveig C. Robinson (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Editing Belgravia: M. E. Braddon's Defense of ‘Light Literature’,” in Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 109-22.

[In the following essay, Robinson discusses Braddon's attempts to influence the critical discussion of “light literature” through the publication of her journal Belgravia.]

In August 1866, the popular sensation novelist M. E. Braddon wrote to her mentor Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “You will wonder after this—if indeed you honour so insignificant a person with yr wonder—to see my name blazoned anon on hoardings & railway stations in connexion with a new Magazine” (Wolff, “Devoted Disciple”...

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Ann Cvetkovich (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Detective in the House: Subversion and Containment in Lady Audley's Secret,” in Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism, Rutgers University Press, 1992, pp. 45-70.

[In the following essay, Cvetkovich examines the subversive implications of the sensational novels' upper-class settings, particularly in Lady Audley's Secret.]

Although it has received little attention from literary critics until recently, Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon was one of the best-selling novels, not only of the 1860s but of the entire latter half of the nineteenth century. It is one of the most important novels of the...

(The entire section is 11639 words.)

Jill L. Matus (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Disclosure as ‘Cover-up’: The Discourse of Madness in Lady Audley's Secret,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 334-55.

[In the following essay, Matus argues that the conclusion of madness in Lady Audley's Secret serves as a distraction from the gender and class issues raised throughout the novel.]

For a work that addresses itself in many ways to the question of madness, Lady Audley's Secret broaches the topic only as it nears its conclusion. In terms of the mechanics of this sensation novel, madness is the most melodramatic of a series of scandalous disclosures. Other revelations may have been...

(The entire section is 9984 words.)

Richard Nemesvari (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Robert Audley's Secret: Male Homosocial Desire in Lady Audley's Secret,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 515-28.

[In the following essay, Nemesvari argues that Lady Audley poses a threat to “male homosocial bonds.”]

Elaine Showalter has characterized Victorian sensation novels of the 1860s as “a genre in which everything that was not forbidden was compulsory.”1 Thus, much to the chagrin of many contemporary reviewers, these works focused on murder, attempted murder, bigamy, adultery, and a series of “lesser” transgressions which shocked and titillated their audience. As well, sensation fiction tended...

(The entire section is 6171 words.)

Pamela K. Gilbert (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Madness and Civilization: Generic Opposition in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 218-33.

[In the following essay, Gilbert maintains that Braddon's narrative structure in Lady Audley's Secret supports a feminist reading of the novel.]

Much has been written in the last few decades rereading Lady Audley as a victim of patriarchy, beginning with Elaine Showalter's famous statement that “Lady Audley's real secret is that she is sane, and, moreover, representative” (167). Attempts to recast the novel, however, have paid little attention to the narrative structure which has...

(The entire section is 8167 words.)

Pamela K. Gilbert (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “M. E. Braddon: Sensational Realism,” in Disease, Desire, and the Body in Victorian Women's Popular Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 92-112.

[In the following essay, Gilbert examines the ways in which Braddon molded her public image through her use of various literary genres and tropes.]

M. E. Braddon (1835-1915), certainly one of the most prolific authors and editors of the period, is central to any understanding of the Victorian novel. Although she came to the middle-class public's attention with Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd in 1862, in fact she had been writing for six years. Braddon's production encompasses over...

(The entire section is 9546 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Wolff, Robert Lee. Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1979, 529 p.

Biography that focuses on Braddon's writing career.


Boyle, Thomas. “The Fishy Extremities of Lady Audley's Secret.” In Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism, pp. 145-58. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.

Examines crime, madness, and social upheaval in Lady Audley's Secret.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “What Is ‘Sensational’ about the ‘Sensation...

(The entire section is 319 words.)