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.
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 Braddon herself wrote unpublished fairy tales and domestic and historical fiction as a teenager.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.
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.
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.”