Hazel McHaffie

human psychology

Aurora Floyd

Back in the 1800s there were no sniffy graduates of two-bit creative writing courses to sneer at broken literary rules and anachronisms, to look down their noses at irregular writing styles or suspect accents and idioms. So Mary Elizabeth Braddon could dot between points of view with wild abandon, even interject her personal comments in the middle of a passage of the story, and get away with it! I’m in awe. I find her sheer audacity breath taking.

Yep, I’m back to one of the authors I find compulsive reading. Serialised in 1862-1863, Aurora Floyd appeared in book form in January 1863 – 155 years ago. It’s one of Braddon’s two most popular novels – the other one being Lady Audley’s Secret, which I’ve already reviewed – quintessentially an example of a new-at-the-time genre of writing, the ‘sensation novel’. Back then, there was a real fear such novels might lead to a growing acceptance of crime and vice in real life, so Braddon was viewed with both interest and considerable reservation. How times have changed! By today’s standards her writing is truly genteel and prudish. She even substitutes ‘- inadmissible adjective -‘ for a common swear word!

We often lament the problems of juggling domestic responsibilities with writing, but here again Braddon wasn’t hamstrung by convention or public expectation. She managed to care for no less than eleven children (five those of her publisher John Maxwell with whom she lived; six more she bore him herself) and still produce upwards of 85 books! Busy lady on all counts.

Confession time! I sent for Aurora Floyd online and somehow managed to order a copy in French – immediately passed on to my fluent-in-the-language daughter! No mean task for her given it’s almost 500 pages long. But it’s a most enjoyable read – even when the big secret is revealed in the blurb of the back cover. I’ll attempt to give you a flavour without spoilers, if I can.

The august name of the banking dynasty, Floyd, Floyd and Floyd, of Lombard Street in the great city of London, is without spot or wrinkle and must remain that way, the current Mr Floyd tells incomers. Reputation, honesty and virtue are everything.

Senior partner, and self-confessed eternal bachelor, Archibald Floyd (aged 47) sets the entire neighbourhood by the ears when he precipitately weds a provincial actress, Eliza Percival alias Prodder, (aged but 29) about whom nothing is known, and who has little to commend her beyond exceptionally fine eyes and a deep melodious voice. Rumours abound: she’s a factory girl, a penniless itinerant actress, an equestrian, an adventurist, or something much much worse. Supplying no explanation to scotch the rumours, the wealthy banker, the richest man in Kent, instals his enigmatic bride as mistress of Felden Woods. Her detractors find any excuse to ridicule and demean her, but Eliza herself takes malicious delight in keeping up a jolly manner, and the actress in her revels in treating the second-rate county families with insolent ease and well-bred audacity.

‘How badly they must have wanted you for a husband, Archy, when they hate me so ferociously! Poor portionless old maids, to think that I should snatch their prey from them! I know they think it a hard thing that they can’t have me hanged, for marrying a rich man.’

However, their happy marriage is destined not to last; it’s but one year before the light slowly fades out of those glorious eyes and a bereft Archibald Floyd, is left, a ‘shipwrecked soul’,  with a new baby daughter in his widowed arms. Aurora – the heroine of our story –  becomes his obsession and sole focus, and in consequence grows up abominably spoilt and uncontrolled … and stunningly beautiful, frank, fearless, generous, affectionate, obsessed with horses and riding. She spends hours and hours riding with no other company than her personal groom, chosen by Mr Floyd for his uncommon good looks for Aurora’s exclusive service.

Then everything changes. Archibald Floyd has a terrible row with his daughter, her governess and her personal groom are dismissed, and she is sent away to Paris to a very expensive and exclusive finishing school. By the time she returns, a year and two months later, her father, now 65, has aged dramatically. Aurora too is much changed, haggard of cheek, hollow of eye, low in spirits, nervous, sleeping badly, with no appetite. Both are equally appalled by the change in the other, but they resolve to say nothing of what has transpired beyond Archibald asking one question: Is a certain man dead. He is, she tells him.

Back in Kent, Aurora recovers her vivacity and gaiety of temper – at least in public – and on her 19th birthday her father throws a ball to show off his beautiful daughter, restored to the bosom of the family. It soon becomes clear that she holds a certain powerful fascination over men, and two in particular vie for her hand.

A proud and handsome Cornishman, Talbot Bulstrode, Captain of Her Majesty’s 11th Hussars and only son of a rich baronet, is a rather forbidding 33-year-old, with rigidly impossible standards of morality and dignity, for whom pride and pedigree are all important. Hitherto unloved – even by his mother – Bulstrode wants nothing more than to be adored by some good and pure soul, someone accomplished, virginal and lady-like, with charming propriety and perfect manners. Aurora is the antithesis of his ideal. Wealthy in her own right, she’s not remotely interested in his money, pays him scant attention and seems distracted much of the time. She displays a vulgarly inappropriate and unapologetic interest in horse racing. And yet … her beauty extinguishes all others; ‘an empress’, ‘a goddess’, who reigns by divine right simply by virtue of her royal presence, her wonderful black eyes and her massive diadem of black hair plaited on her low forehead. In spite of his resistance, in spite of the greater suitability of her gentle and pretty cousin Lucy, Bulstrode falls deeply in love with Aurora.

His rival, John Mellish of Mellish Park, 30, is a bluff Yorkshire man, fourteen stone and given to draping his shoulders in a heavy Scottish plaid. Pampered and privileged, he is a keen horseman and hunter, with an easy familiarity and rugged charm that endears him to all. He soon falls under Aurora’s spell and lets his childhood friend, Bulstrode, know of his intentions.

After one refusal, Aurora eventually accepts Bulstrode’s offer of marriage, on the very day the racing papers report a frightful accident in Germany in which an English jockey called Conyers is killed. But she is in a constant ferment as one after another assorted encounters threaten to expose her secret and wreck her father’s peace of mind.  When Aurora refuses to tell Talbot what happened during that fateful fourteen months in France, he says she can never be his: ‘the past life of my wife must be a white unblemished page, which all the world may be free to read.’ John Mellish on the other hand, has no such arbitrary standards; he more generously accepts Aurora just as she is, and he returns to quietly bide his time, until she eventually agrees to marry him. John might be trusting, but Aurora has unwittingly made two enemies – one ‘nursing discontent and hatred within the holy circle of the domestic hearth’; the other ‘plotting ruin and vengeance without the walls of the citadel.’

And then the supposedly-dead James Conyers, appears at Mellish Park as the new groom/jockey/trainer, and John is at a complete loss as to why his name sends Aurora into a state of hysteria. His foreboding mounts as incident after incident tells him his wife is harbouring a terrible secret, and this uncouth servant knows more about it than he does. It feels both cruel and degrading, but such is his obsessive love that he does all he can to suppress the doubts.

We are almost three quarters of the way through the book when, during a dinner party at Mellish Park, there is a murder in the woods. Aurora’s maternal uncle, a merchant captain completely unknown to her, has just been refused admission to the house, and he is the one to find the body and to announce the nefarious happenings to the assembled diners. He is totally bemused. He has come to make his niece’s acquaintance and instead has become embroiled in ‘a tragedy; a horrible mystery of hatred, and secrecy, and murder‘. Death by frustrated poachers, is the immediate verdict; but in his heart John Mellish knows otherwise … the constable finds a wad of documents sewn inside the dead man’s waistcoat … the mentally challenged servant reviews overheard information and notes he has carried between Aurora and the trainer … Aurora’s female companion drops veiled hints of complicity and intrigue … and now the mysterious seafaring stranger who found the body has vanished. The question on everyone’s lips is: ‘Had anyone a motive for killing this man?’

Within the great house, alone together, Mr and Mrs Mellish are left ‘to hug those ugly skeletons which are put away in the presence of company.’ Wracked with suspicion and doubt, faithful John initially sinks into ‘utter desolation of heart,’ but then determines as soon as the inquest is over, to go away to the south of France and start a new life with Aurora, putting all the horrors behind them. Against the mounting evidence, he refuses to think ill of his wife, clinging with a desperate tenacity to her remaining perfect and untouchable; rather he prefers to think she must be nobly bearing the burden of some failing on the part of her beloved father. And yet … he knows that, for ever, there will hang between them the haunting knowledge of this ‘nameless and formless horror’ which Aurora has concealed from him.

The inquest a couple of days later (eat your heart out modern detectives!) seems to put the matter safely to bed. Aurora, agonising for the sake of her husband and her father, dares to hope again. But no. A ‘hideous avalanche of trouble’ slowly but inexorably descends on the hapless John Mellish. The paper found hidden in the murdered man’s waistcoat is washed of its blood and spells out the terrible secret, and he is apprised of its contents. There can be no doubt of the devastating fact Aurora has kept from him. And it’s now that John Mellish’s love is shown in its true light. Or is it? First the murder weapon, John’s own pistol, is discovered … damaging facts as to who was where when are revealed … anonymous letters are sent to the police … the gentlemen of the press are circling … mounting evidence points John in one horrific direction. And as rumour and speculation spreads ‘a hundred perils menaced them on every side.’

Braddon shows a real understanding of human psychology; she sets great store by noble motives and generosity of spirit; she challenges the standards and proprieties of her day; but these agendas are lightly included and add to, rather than detract from, the pace and pull of the story. I was riveted but her writing even though I already knew the plot and story-line!

 

 

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