Thursday, January 18, 2007

4 February: Boreham on Mary Braddon

Lavender and Old Lace
The name of Mary Braddon, the anniversary of whose death we mark today, suggests fragrant memories. As it falls upon our ears we seem to be entering some old-world garden, redolent of hollyhocks, wallflowers, thyme, and mignonette. The name holds a special interest for Tasmanians. For Miss Braddon's brother, Sir Edward Braddon, P.C., K.C.M.G., became Premier of this State, played an important part in framing the Federal Constitution and represented Tasmania in the first Commonwealth Parliament. His sister, remaining in England, achieved her destiny along very different lines.

As a lively little thing, with short skirts and her hair in pigtails, Mary betrayed a flair for fiction. She was indeed only eighteen when her first story appeared in print and she pursued her chosen career so assiduously that, on laying down her pen at last she was able to survey a shelf of 75 novels bearing her name. She owed her introduction into the republic of letters to a singular and somewhat romantic friendship. As a girl of eighteen she became acquainted at Brighton with a youth of her own age, one William Sawyer, who held a modest position on the staff of a local newspaper. Through the good offices of this admirer, several of the woman's contributions were published. The two met frequently, discussing literature in general and their own share in its development in particular. After a while they reached the disturbing conclusion that their talents were being wasted in a provincial town. Why not go to London? Few of the great masters had achieved distinction until they had courted the notice of the metropolis. They agreed to try their fortunes simultaneously, entering into a solemn pact that each would share with the other the profits of the audacious adventure.

An Inborn Flair For Romance
They probably drifted apart as soon as they plunged into the seething maelstrom of the life of the great city; otherwise William Sawyer must have got very much the better of the bargain. Or it may be that, with fine chivalry, he declined to pool his humiliating failure with her brilliant success. However that may be, the fact remains that five years after her arrival in London, "Loves of Arcadia" was successfully produced at the Strand Theatre, and everybody was anxious to know something of the gifted girl who wrote it. In the same year, her first full length novel, "The Trail of the Serpent," entrenched her still more deeply in the affections of an admiring public; whilst, two years later, at the age of 25, she published "Lady Audley's Secret," a romance that took the world by storm. Both as a book and as a play, its success was phenomenal. Racing through edition after edition, the novel will always hold its place among the most gripping and exciting productions of the nineteenth century. To have achieved so outstanding a triumph at a time when Dickens and Thackeray, Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell were in full career was a notable performance indeed.

Miss Braddon displayed, it must be confessed, the weaknesses that are almost incidental to writers of her class. She allowed herself to be swept away on the torrent of emotion that she had herself created. It is easy to see that she seldom had the entire plot in mind when she penned the first pages of her manuscript. It is more than possible that she several times set out to write one story only to discover, when the work was finished, that she had written quite another.

Morality Suffused With Sentiment
It would be extremely unfair, however, to condemn Miss Braddon as purely a sentimentalist. It is altogether to her credit that she ranges at will the entire gamut of human emotions. She can be dainty; she can be elegant; she can be mysterious; she can be terrific. She can etch a doll or a brute with equal facility. In her entrancing pages we have the most delicate humour, the most moving pathos, the most agonising suspense side by side with grim horror and stark tragedy. She knows how to make her characters love, and she knows how to make them hate. She can, at will, endear her creations to us or make them utterly loathsome and detestable. She makes us feel that, when we have laughed at the old Victorian novelists to our heart's content, and have pilloried and parodied them to the point of exhaustion, it is still true that, for sheer interest and appeal, they can hold their own against all comers. To say that Miss Braddon is a sentimentalist is to say nothing to her disparagement.

Mary Braddon, therefore, had good ground for the line that she adopted. She followed the classical models; enriched her craftsmanship with all that was choicest and best in her own personality; made her manuscripts the medium of the highest type of self-expression; and the immense demand for her work furnished her abundant justification. She believed in God; believed that His world must of necessity be a good world; and believed that, in the last analysis, wrong must be overthrown and goodness vindicated. This is the basic theme of all her writings. In private life she was a most delightful woman, exquisitely modest and radiating the charm of infinite kindliness. The pity is, of course, that she wrote too much. If disdaining mere quantity of output, she had contented herself with telling, with a grace of artistry and a beauty of diction that she might easily have acquired, a few stories as thrilling as "Lady Audley's Secret," none among our most eminent writers would have won a fairer fame.

F W Boreham

Image: Mary Braddon

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