Saverio Tomaiuolo, In Lady Audley’s Shadow: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Victorian Literary Genres.

Posted by Fran Tomlin on May 15, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

Saverio Tomaiuolo, In Lady Audley’s Shadow: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Victorian Literary Genres. Edinburgh University Press, 2010. ISBN: 978 0 7486 4115 4

Reviewed by Fran Tomlin, Edinburgh University

This book is published as part of the ‘Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture series’ which, according to series editor Julian Wolfreys, draws on “the most provocative, thoughtful and original research” to offer “timely…revisions of Victorian literature, culture, history and identity” (viii).  The research and revisions in this case centre upon the prolific but largely unsung Mary Elizabeth Braddon who, if she is remembered at all, tends to be remembered solely for Lady Audley’s Secret, her “artless and somewhat trashy first great success” (9).  In this volume Saverio Tomaiuolo addresses Braddon’s work more broadly, exploring her relationship with Victorian literary genres by examining elements of Gothic, detective and realist fiction within her writing, while using Lady Audley as a reference point to highlight how Braddon continually attempted to break away from the branding of ‘sensation novelist’ and be taken seriously as a writer.

Tomaiuolo’s research is thorough and extensive.  The reader is provided with a fascinating insight into the society in which Mary Elizabeth Braddon lived and wrote, whether it be legal issues pertaining to claiming one’s wife insane and ensuring her committal to an asylum, as featured in Lady Audley’s Secret; the place of detectives as guardians of national security, touched upon in Rough Justice; or the shocking impact of Darwinian thought on Victorian society, negotiated in The Trail of the Serpent.  The author demonstrates great skill in drawing such historical, social and political issues back to Braddon’s works, thus enabling her to be understood within a clear Victorian cultural context.  Also included are many examples of contemporary reviews and opinions of Braddon (from such as the formidable Margaret Oliphant of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine), alongside extracts from letters written by Braddon herself, which illustrate her own dissatisfaction with her work and her awareness that time-pressures from publishers inhibit her from writing as “conscientiously” as she might like (156).  Add to this myriad references to other Victorian and pre-Victorian writers such as Dickens, Collins, Tennyson, Brontë and Austen, and it must be said the constituent parts add up to an incredibly comprehensive and engaging study, not just of Braddon but of Victorian culture and literature as a whole.

However, I feel the subject matter of In Lady Audley’s Shadow is let down by a somewhat uneven writing style.  In places the language becomes a little too tangled up in wordy academic phrasing (referring to “manicheistic antitheses” (24), for example) which can too easily interrupt the flow of the text.  On the other hand, there are times when the style switches to something much more informal, possibly even playful – one can assume that the misquotation from Pride and Prejudice which begins Chapter Eight is intended as an amusing diversion, but in context it comes across as inappropriate, possibly even cringe-worthy.  Also, within the quoted sections I found Tomaiuolo’s frequent use of italics as an emphatic device rather irritating.  To me this implies a lack of confidence in the perceptiveness of the reader, which is in turn contradicted by the embellished academic style evident elsewhere in the text.  Besides this, I cannot help feeling that the book would have benefited hugely from a separate, select ‘further reading’ list.  For a relatively short text (around 200 pages) the extremely extensive footnotes and bibliography are undeniably impressive, but would require some in-depth sifting by the reader wishing to further his or her knowledge.  It also seems a great pity that so many fascinating nuggets of Tomaiuolo’s research, from exploring the paradigmatic power of Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ to expanding upon the Victorian fear of menstruation (and its vampiric associations), should be banished to the footnotes.

These issues should not detract from the value of In Lady Audley’s Shadow as a critical text, though.  It offers an important contribution to the field of Victorian studies by placing the long-neglected Mary Elizabeth Braddon squarely in the middle of it.  Indeed, after having read this book it seems remarkable to me that Braddon is so little discussed today – considering that she not only produced over eighty novels in her lifetime, but also wrote numerous short stories and edited two magazines, while still finding time to raise eleven children and conduct “a busy social life at Richmond” (9) – with such a great body of work to her name she does seem an ideal writer through whom to examine the social and cultural codes of Victorian society, and this Tomaiuolo does, and does well.  For me, though, the final tragedy of Braddon lies in Tomaiuolo’s (sad, but probably accurate) implication that she is incapable of shaking off the shroud of her most famous creation.  Aside from the title, In Lady Audley’s Shadow also begins by diving straight into the scandalous true story of outspoken Rosina Wheeler and Edward Bulwer Lytton, who tried to have her branded insane.  Thus from the very first page the book demonstrates how a ‘sensation’ story can be used to entice the reader.  Following on from this, the brief summaries of Braddon’s novels themselves are so uniformly rollicking, strewn with lost treasures, ‘dead’ characters returning to life and enough romantic complications to put modern soap-operas to shame, that one would unhesitatingly name Braddon an entertaining writer, but not a serious one.  Tomaiuolo’s writing is scrupulously even-handed when examining Braddon’s works but I still struggled to keep a straight face when the village of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy (The Trail of the Serpent) was mentioned.

In fairness the book does not set out to prove Braddon a ‘serious’ writer, merely stating her own desire to be viewed as such, but this volume does her no favours in that area.  In fact, through starting the book with the tale of a contemporary scandal and then presenting such entertaining overviews of her novels Tomaiuolo seems to place Braddon more firmly within the ‘sensation’ bracket she was so anxious to get out of.  The lack of a concrete conclusion to the text doesn’t help here; a brief paragraph stating that “for better or worse” Lady Audley’s Secret will always “remain a reference-point” (187) for those examining Braddon’s work seems insufficient.  Having been presented as a fascinating character in her own right, I was left with a sense of poignancy that, at the end of such an exploratory and well-researched book, Mary Elizabeth Braddon should be left firmly lodged in the shadow of Lady Audley, having only briefly been led forward into the light.

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