Hazel McHaffie

Lady Audley’s Secret

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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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 fiancé’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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An overlooked classic

My brain is throbbing with the intensity of creating characters and connecting plot lines for my current novel, so it’s doubly important to build in relaxation to maintain sanity and have the space to engage with real life. A lady called Mary Elizabeth Braddon has helped me wind down this week. Heard of her? Nor me till now – to my great shame. And that in spite of numerous TV, radio and stage adaptations of her work apparently!

Because Ms Braddon (1835-1915) published over ninety books and became a household name in the Victorian era, hugely admired and respected by other famous authors like Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray.

And this particular book, Lady Audley’s Secret, written when she was just 27 and a struggling actress, was the one that made her famous. It was serialised in the early 1860s at the same time as Dickens’ Great Expectations. Braddon quickly became the ‘Queen of the Sensational novel’, and to this day this book remains a classic Victorian spine-tingler. And there it was, amongst my own collection of not-yet-read classics! A hidden gem, but so good that I instantly want to buy all her other writings!

The back cover blurb says:
Miss Lucy Grantham is a newcomer to the parish of Audley. She may be an impoverished governess, but she is also kind and ineffably beautiful. When Sir Michael Audley sets eyes upon her he finds himself in the grip of ‘the terrible fever called love’. Their courtship raises eyebrows, but Sir Audley has set his heart on the sweet-natured girl, and before long they are married.

So, a light-hearted Georgette Heyer romance, huh?

No such thing. This is something much deeper and darker – shades of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, maybe? It’s a cleverly constructed mystery set in a grand country house and involving strange disappearances and duplicity on a grand scale. It’s Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert, who begins to suspect his new aunt is not all she seems to be, and his investigations lead him into a past full of inconsistencies, and very troubling secrets indeed, bigamy, blackmail, arson and murder among them.

Furthermore, below the surface, the tale is also an attack on the suppression of women in the Victorian era and the double standards set for the different classes as well as the different genders, with all their grave injustices and anomalies – hence perfectly timed. Lady Audley’s Secret called into question not only the role of women and the legal, economic and societal dominance of men, but also the insulting (to us) assumption at the time that women were inherently mentally unstable because of their hormonal fluctuations and therefore uniquely liable to insanity; a belief cleverly captured in the ruthless and manipulative Lady Audley’s own defence of insanity when exposed for the criminal she is: ‘the hidden taint I had sucked in with my mother’s milk.’

But the appeal of Lady Audley’s Secret has far outlasted the Victorian craze for melodramas, and goes beyond feminist politics. Why? Well, Professor Robert Giddings believes ‘the continuing fascination might be in the character of Lady Audley herself. Such a crafty, villainous woman is not portrayed in the traditions of the villainess, but as an irresistibly attractive, innocent-seeming Pre-Raphaelite beauty.‘  Her charm, her feathery mass of golden ringlets, her delicate features and her strange deep blue eyes, predispose us to like her; but the portrait Robert and his friend George Talboys see of her reveals the ‘beautiful fiend’ within.

The language is a little OTT and repetitious at times, the speeches run into several pages in places (including one by a dying man!), and I do dislike the frequent references in direct speech to what the characters thought, but for all that it’s a riveting read. I galloped through the almost 500 pages effortlessly and will definitely seek out more of this amazing writer’s work. And it’s all there – the richly interesting characters; the careful backstories; the perfectly calibrated shocks; the interwoven connections – all the things I’ve been working at with my own writing. Seemingly effortlessly woven together. What a find!

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