The Maniac in the Cellar: The Wickedness of Woman: M.E. Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood

From this chapter, I learned that there was a critical tendency during the 1860s to lump Braddon and Wood together “unceremoniously, without inquiring into any particular differences between them” (107). This really surprised me, since I found Lady Audley’s Secret and East Lynne so different that I originally didn’t think I could include them both in the same dissertation–East Lynne just didn’t seem “sensational” enough to me, at first. And beyond that, these are two completely different writers… other than their wild popularity, I don’t see how one could be mistaken for the other. But Hughes helps out with that question: “both Miss Braddon and Mrs. Wood demand sympathy for their fallen heroines, their bigamists or adulteresses, by making them suffer tremendously at the hands of fate and their own remorse. Both write about marriage as an unsatisfactory or illusory state instead of relegating it to the happy ending. Both rely heavily on ‘involuntary’ motivation–destiny, insanity, circumstance” (108).

Here, according to Hughes, is the main distinction between Braddon and Wood:

Mrs. Henry Wood, for all her dalliance with seduction and unexplained drownings and the dead alive, preserves the conventional meanings of stage melodrama, while herself doing much to foster the ‘increasing tendency of the heroine to die of sin,’ through the numerous dramatized versions of East Lynne. M.E. Braddon, however, deliberately undermines the traditional moral assumptions. If Wood’s novels show a new emphasis on the repentant sinner within the compass of authentic melodrama, Braddon’s show the beginning of a change in substance that will eventually make melodrama itself an empty and outdated form. (110)

Wood, apparently, lived a quiet life with an unassuming husband who eventually left her a widow. She didn’t have much scandal in her life, and she pretty much just talked about her servants and her furniture, it sounds like. One interesting thing that Hughes points out about her novels is that the murders usually take place offstage, “but the deaths from remorse or consumption are vividly dramatized” (112). That’s certainly true in East Lynne, and signals the strong domestic current in her fiction. Going to Hughes again:

The narrow focus on emotional states, while effective in its way, deprives East Lynne of much of the violence and excitement that enliven more typical sensation novels. Although she invokes the darker elements of evil and crime, so that at least her plot outlines look recognizably sensational, Wood makes no attempt to portray them in any depth or to explain her criminal characters. (116)


On a popular level, this is again symptomatic of the banality of evil as the Victorians perceived it–the “decay of murder” in Leslie Stephen’s terms. By the 1860s the primitive vitality of the stage villain has receded even in an unsophisticated melodrama like East Lynne, leaving behind only his established physical traits. (116)

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, on the other hand, did not lead a quiet, scandal-free existence. In fact, she was insanely badass. At 22, she decided to support her mother after her father disappeared by taking to the stage under an assumed name. Then, as she was making her name during the 1860s, she shacked up with John Maxwell, “a rising magazine publisher with a wife in a mental institution” (120). They eventually had 5 illegitimate children. Take THAT, Victorian gender constraints!!! Lady Audley’s Secret was actually an attempt to save one of Maxwell’s publishing ventures (ladies to the rescue!), and she wrote the entire first installment overnight. In commemoration of her awesomeness, I’m going to write the first installment of my dissertation overnight. HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

Probably my favorite point in this chapter comes from at quotation from a critic writing for the Christian Remembrancer, who says that Braddon “consistently deals with ‘human nature … in a scrape … And it is with people in a scrape, or ready at any moment to fall into one, that she sympathizes.’ Her heroines possess what might be called ‘expansive natures,’ impetuous and undisciplined, while their villainous counterparts, from Lady Audley to Olivia Marchmont, ominously fulfill the role of ‘the ordinary feminine ideal'” (Hughes 123). This is an absolutely beautiful point, and I don’t think I need to elaborate any more on why this makes me admire Lady Audley’s Secret even more than I already did.

Here’s Hughes again:

The feminine ideal, as she portrays it, is potentially treacherous, for both the women who conform and the men who worship them; the standard feminine qualities–childishness, self-suppression, the talent for pleasing–inherently contain the seeds of their own destruction. By reversing conventional expectations, within the safe and familiar framework of stage melodrama, Miss Braddon redefines the heroine and relocates the traditional conflict of good and evil firmly within the boundaries of middle-class domesticity. Instead of abandoning the popular conventions, she circumvents them, using them against themselves, investing them with a new ironic significance. (124)

I think it’s also worth remembering for my project that, while her work and what she represents inspired outrage during the sensation craze, by the end of the century, she came to be associated with a cozy sense of nostalgia for the proverbial simpler times. Hughes cites a tribute that calls her “part of England; she has woven herself into it; without her it would be different … She is in the encyclopaedias; she ought to be in the dictionaries” (qtd. in Hughes 135). That’s a great place to leave this post!


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