Hazel McHaffie

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote about secrets and lies; walking a tightrope in domestic life when things are not what they seem. She was the queen of ‘sensation fiction’ in the 1800s and early 1900s – a species of writing that, according to the satirists of Punch, was conceived for the purpose of ‘Harrowing the Mind, Making the Flesh Creep, Causing the Hair to Stand on End, Giving Shocks to the Nervous System, Destroying Conventional Moralities, and generally Unfitting the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life.

Most famous for Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Braddon was in fact a prolific writer, often working on several pieces of writing simultaneously – magazine serialisations as well as books – much like her contemporary, Charles Dickens.¬† Her work was ‘perfectly attuned to the spirit of the years in which it flourished‘ but seems to have fallen into a vacuum these days – very few booksellers I’ve spoken to have even heard of her, and it’s taken me years to track down more of her books in real bookshops. Then, just this month, I found two volumes in Wigtown in a newly opened bookshop, Well-Read Books, thanks to its knowledgeable owner, Ruth Anderson, QC.

The one I want to tell you about today is a slim volume, a composite of two of Braddon’s novellas. In brief, The Lawyer’s Secret tells of orphaned Ellinor Arden who is summonsed from Paris to London to hear her guardian read the will of her estranged uncle, Squire John Arden of Arden, a relation she never even met. She is amazed to learn that she’s named as his sole beneficiary … on one condition: she must marry his adopted son, Henry Dalton. Long ago John Arden had loved Henry’s mother, but she’d rejected him in favour of a younger humbler poorer man, a country surgeon. Henry was adopted by the Squire after the death of his parents, but brought up to stand on his own two feet, not to inherit the Arden fortune.

Against his own finer feelings, Ellinor’s rather dashing guardian, lawyer Horace Margrave, urges her to comply with the stipulation, but we know from the outset he is in possession of some deep dark secret. Naive, romantic Ellinor is quickly disillusioned when her new husband denies her access to the money and curbs even her philanthropic intentions. She appeals to her ex-guardian, but he insists his role is finished now she has a husband to protect and advise her. Ellinor engineers her own escape back to Paris, and only discovers the truth when she is summonsed to the bedside of a dying man who refuses to divulge his name.

The descriptions are somewhat overwrought by our standards today, the dialogue stilted by Victorian convention, nevertheless the suspense lies in not knowing whom to trust, who to believe. (Ruth, I couldn’t resist the legal allusions!!)

The second half of this little book is devoted to an even shorter novelette: The Mystery at Fernwood. After a brief six week acquaintance, Isabel Morley, orphan heiress of a wealthy Calcutta merchant, is engaged to be married to Mr Laurence Wendale, handsome, privileged, and vivacious son of ailing Mr Lewis Wendale, owner of the country mansion, Fernwood, ten miles from York. From page 2 we know that her life is heading for shipwreck; she tells us so herself. The ‘why’ creates the suspense.

Fernwood is a rather dreary isolated sprawling place, offering precious little diversion for a lively 19-year old girl, but Isabel is intrigued to find an invalid relation, ‘Mr William’, has been cared for in a suite of rooms in the west wing of the house for over twenty years. Laurence tells her he has never ever met William, and indeed shows remarkably little curiosity about the man, but his half-sister, Lucy Wendale, has been a devoted visitor. On the death of the invalid Lewis Wendale, knowing precious little of the family history, Isabel prepares to take over as mistress of Fernwood, enthused by her fianc√©’s energetic plans to bring the ancient building into the modern era. When she finds Laurence trapped in a locked room, she turns the key, and inadvertently releases the most blood-chilling events which change the lives of everyone completely.

I confess I suspected what lay behind the mystery from early on, but the horror was still real and the detail still shocked.

Braddon is indeed an accomplished writer, and I’m placing her books with great reverence amongst my collection of classics. I’ll tell you about her full length novel, The Doctor’s Wife, in a separate post.

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