Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s unconventional life appears to have been excellent preparation for pushing Victorian boundaries in her inventive fiction. She was the product of a broken English home and, at the age of seventeen, she turned to acting as a means of providing some support for her family – a potentially scandalous decision in her day. She achieved some success, adopting a pseudonym and earning a few leading roles. But her star quickly faded and she turned to writing. It was then that she met and started an affair with John Maxwell, a somewhat disreputable publisher who announced their marriage despite the fact that his first wife, though insane, was still very much alive.
It was during this time that Braddon wrote her most enduring novel, “Lady Audley’s Secret”. This high society narrative, which featured bigamy and insanity (sound familiar?), as well as murder and other crimes, quickly became a bestseller. Braddon had found her calling, one that ultimately would make her quite wealthy, and she set about writing novels in earnest. She produced more than seventy of them! And yet, Braddon somehow found time to produce some genuinely chilling short stories.
In one of her best, “At Chrighton Abbey”, Braddon tells of a curse that stalks the heirs of an ancient estate – a common enough theme. But her approach to telling the tale sets it apart. Braddon gives us an overview of the action and propels the narrative forward to its climax through a clever plotting device: she haunts the narrator, a close family friend and visitor to the estate, rather than those who ultimately suffer the dire effects of the haunting. Moreover, the narrator is inclined to dismiss such visions as those she sees at Chrighton Abbey. “I was fortunately of a matter-of-fact disposition, utterly skeptical upon the ghost subject . . . .” And so, when supernatural forces appear, as they must, the narrator proves a reluctant and ineffectual prophet and the action moves inevitably toward its climax. At the same time, Braddon skillfully weaves her narrator into the social fabric of the estate so that the details she shares about various players in the drama contribute to a growing sense of foreboding.
Literary journalist Lucasta Miller wrote an insightful article for the Guardian about Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s life and its influence over “Lady Audley’s Secret”. And the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association’s website contains a wealth of information about the author.