Aurora Floyd – M. E. Braddon (1863)

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Mary Elizabeth (M. E.) Braddon was a prolific writer (approx. 90 (!) books between 1860 and 1915) and her output consisted of plays, poetry, essays, novels and a number of literary magazines. She had also been an actress in her earlier days, an experience which is said to have helped with her sensation novels published later. (Both Lady Audley’s Secret [1862] and Aurora Floyd [1863] were wildly popular, so much so that certain groups were threatened by her writing and she was criticized as a “purveyor of immoral fiction.”)

Sensation novels were a literary trend in Victorian times usually characterized by mystery, strong passions and opinions (unseemly at the Victorian time) and intricate plotting, all of which are there in large quantities during Aurora Floyd. (See here for a review of her earlier novel, Lady Audley’s Secret.) If you know to expect over-the-top everything going in, it’s a great ride for the reader. It’s a roller coaster ride which speeds along and then ambles in places, but it’s always enjoyable.

The novel spins its tale of murder, intrigue and family over three volumes (at least in my Kindle copy) – this sounds long, but it’s a fast experience as a reader. It’s a fun tale of Gothic romance, incredible coincidences and massive amounts of overwriting, but it worked.

The plot involves the titular Aurora Floyd, the young beautiful daughter of a rich widower in northern England who married a ne’er-do-well husband in her early years, a decision that comes back to haunt her and that involves blackmail, secret-keeping, and loads of money. (You can just feel the frisson that was felt by well-bred Victorian ladies reading this behind their fans in the drawing room on a rainy Monday while their husbands checked the Stock Exchange numbers.)

Typical of sensation novels, Braddon runs a lot of different lines of plot throughout this read, but as each string is added one after another and then linked back, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who is doing what to whom. (“Dickensian” was the way that I’d describe this although this was much more Mills and Boon without delving into the hard-hitting social issues quite so much at all.)

ME Braddon in her younger years

I enjoyed it also as a look into the world of domestic life slap in the middle of Victorian times, for a look at rural vs city life, and also to see how slow and difficult murder investigations must have been before the inventions of cars, telephones, forensic evidence and the internet.*

It’s a fun read, and one that I kept returning to before, during, and after vacation, so it obviously kept my attention and interest. If you’re in the mood for anything Gothic, murder, fainting heroines, black mail, and dastardly husbands, you would probably enjoy this. It’s nothing too deep, but it’s a fun read and I recommend it.

(*Slightly relevant historical side note: The concept of professional police (as opposed to private paying for whoever was willing to do it) was officially introduced in England by Sir Robert Peel when he became Home Secretary in 1822. His work led to the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 which established a full-time professional and centrally-organized police force for greater London are known as Metropolitan Police. By the 1850’s, police forces were established nationally across England, Scotland and Wales.

Peel had this philosophy based on “The police are the public and the public are police” (or “policing by consent” as it’s known in UK circles). These “Peelian Principles”, as they are known and upon which an ethical police force are based, are as follows:

  • Every police officer should be issued an identification number to assure accountability for his/her actions
  • Whether the police are effective is not measured on the number of arrests, but on the lack of crime
  • Above all else, an effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount (thus the idea of “policing through consent”)

(Interesting aside #1: UK police used to have a height requirement for all applicants: at least 5 ft. 10 inches until 1960. [Ah-ha: That’s why Dixon of Dock Green was so imposing…] This was not removed until 1990 when minimum height requirements were dropped. The shortest recorded UK police officer is PC Sue Day of Wiltshire Police at 4 ft. 10 inches.)

Well then. Now you know these things….

(One more slightly interesting aside #2, this time related to the book: There is a 1912 American silent movie of Aurora Floyd which was quickly followed by another US version in 1915. And if you were alive in 1863, you could have seen a stage version in London whilst BBC Radio 4 did a radio version with Colin Firth called A Cold Embrace in 2009 if anyone caught that. Luckily, no one has attempted to do a version only doing mime just yet.)

DixonofDockGreen (Above) This is Dixon, of the TV show “Dixon on Dock Green” which was on the BBC from 1955-1976 and featured the daily life at a London police station.

Lady Audley’s Secret – M. E. Braddon (1860)

This was a good fast-moving whodunit with particularly edgy female characters for that time that it was written. Braddon has written an entertaining novel that I would think was rather shocking at that time of Victorian England.

Why so shocking? Because it is what has been termed a “sensation novel” (cue Wilkie Collins and his ilk) and featured generally female characters who were anything but rule-followers – they were the rebels of the mid-nineteenth century and did not do what their fathers / husbands / brothers / uncles told them to do. There’s murder. Infidelity. Madness. Lies. Money. I can only imagine the illicit thrill Braddon’s work would have given to a well-bred young Victorian lady reading this subversive text in her father’s or husband’s drawing room.

So, with that said, this is a thrilling novel and one that I was completely sucked into. It may have all the pieces of a vaudevillian melodrama, but I did not find it overwrought or heavy-handed in any way. (And it’s not often that you get to link “thrilling” and “Victorian” in the same sentence!)

The plot revolves around Sir Michael Audley, a middle-aged wealthy widower who marries the unlikely choice of a neighbor’s beautiful governess. Everyone around Sir Michael can see that she is marrying for money, and when Sir Michael’s nephew, an idle London barrister, comes into the mix and spots what is happening, the plot really gears up.

However, this is not just a straightforward murder mystery as there are tons of unpredictable twists and happenings along the way. (And you know how I likes me some unpredictable in my plots.)

Forget Dickens. Forget boring. Forget what you had to read in school. Introduce your reading mind to Braddon (or any other sensation novelist) and enjoy a well-written and well-told story. These authors do not claim to be pronouncing judgment on society’s ill (a la Dickens et al.) – they just tell you a good story that sucks you in, and, when you reach the end, makes you sigh with satisfaction.

See also “East Lynne” by Ellen Woods (1861) or Wilkie Collins (“The Woman in White” or perhaps “The Moonstone”). I read these pre-blog, but there is loads of info and e-copies out there on the web for your further review.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (1896)

This is an interesting novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson, with a story line that is referenced as much as Dracula and Frankenstein. I actually had to read this twice through in order to get a better appreciation of what happens, as TBH, it was a bit confusing as the explanations of the actions are held off until the end, by which time, I had got confused who was who. However, the second time around, I loved it, and really appreciated what Stevenson was trying to do.

Stevenson was a Scotsman but was taking a break with his family down in Bournemouth (Southern England), during which time he revised “The Child’s Garden of Verses” (which I had as a child), and “Kidnapped”, and wrote this novella. He called it a “shilling shocker” as it was supposed to be somewhat pulpy and sell quick and easy. It also was published close to when “sensation fiction” was all the rage, and that includes writers like Wilkie Collins, Mrs. Henry Wood et al.  Little did he know that we would be reading it in the 21st century.

The story is well thought out: foggy London, Victorian times, experimenting with human life (see also: Frankenstein and others), and the duality of humans with both good and evil in them. This last duality was a big deal for the Victorians, as they spent a lot of time and energy considering the role of good/evil in people. It seemed pretty cut and dry for them – Good = Godly; Bad = Satanly.

There have been arguments that Jekyll/Hyde suffered from schizophrenia, but I think that is just 21st century psychology talk really. I think it was just a story about a man who struggles between the two sides of himself: the moral good side, and the immoral bad side. (Not officially two personalities, but the tendency, perhaps.) The “good” Jekyll was
fairly handsome, tall, well dressed, well liked; the “bad” Hyde was shrunken, ugly, hideous so the imagery was a bit heavy-handed. However, this lack of subtlety  is also very Victorian as well. (They like to make sure the readers “got” the lesson…!)

But perhaps none of this is true, and Stevenson just happened to write a good story that took hold of popular culture. Who is to know? Different times mean different interpretations for different people. Wikipedia (I know, I know…) mentions that the story was meant as an allegory (which makes sense), and actually, for quite some time, the book and the story were mentioned in sermons and in various religious texts as it made a point in an easy-to-understand way for the masses who could not read then.

Overall, a fun and short read (even if I did have to read it twice to fully appreciate it.) Also didn’t seem half as wordy as Frankenstein. (And also, Avi Puppy didn’t eat this one.)

This was a library copy. Hooray for Texas libraries.