About a week ago Heather (from The Library Ladder) hinted that she may host a Victorian Reading Challenge this winter, sorely tempting me to begin compiling a list of possible titles - tis a challenge I couldn't possibly resist. Half a dozen novels spring immediately to mind: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, a Dickens (probably Bleak House), some Trollope (although I wouldn't know where to begin - Barchester Towers?), Vanity Fair, Mary Barton by Elizabet Gaskell. Oh, and some late Victorian stuff, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. And how about some Victorian novels that are both out of print and out of fashion now? Like the work of Edward Bulwer Lytton, or Charles Kingsley, or George Meredith, or Charles Reade? Reade is frequently referenced in Pinkerton's Sister (most particularly his 1863 novel, Hard Cash, which I picked up on Ebay - an edition from the late 1880s - for £1) and I'm curious to test him. Or poetry. Or social and political commentary - like Ruskin, Carlyle, Morris and others I've never heard of. I have quite a stack of old editions of Ruskin and Carlyle that I bought in my third year at university, I forget why, although I remember reading parts of Past and Present and The Stones of Venice and being both wooed and provoked. Maybe this would also be a good time to tackle The Origin of the Species... If you're looking for more ideas, here is a list of best selling novels from between 1837 and 1861; and The Victorian Web has an excellent list of authors/writers. Personally I can't wait.
Heather's suggestion also brought Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon back to my mind, a novel I read several weeks ago and have kept meaning to post about. First serialised in 1861/2, and considered one of the founding 'Sensation' novels (along with Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White), it would be a perfect candidate for the challenge. It is not an entirely satisfactory read by any means - the plot is rather pedestrian, as is the prose; the denouement totally predictable - but it is thoroughly entertaining and neatly straddles mid-Victorian culture, revealing its prejudices, taboos and fixations.
It begins with the marriage of Miss Lucy Graham, a young, pretty governess - orphaned, penniless and excruciatingly charming - to Sir Michael Audley, a baronet of advancing years who conceives of an indulgent love for her, despite her low socio-economic status. No doubt Victorian alarm bells were already ringing at this point - penniless women shouldn't aspire beyond their station, not if they're as demure and chaste as Lucy Graham appears to be. Undoubtedly, penniless women who lure elderly rich gentlemen into unequal partnerships are Bad News.
At almost precisely the same moment a vigorous young man named George Talboys is sailing back to England from Australia (where he has made his fortune prospecting gold) in high spirits - he has been away for three long years and expects to find his wife and young son waiting for him. Woe, however. No sooner has he arrived back in London than he discovers that his wife Helen has recently died, leaving their infant son in the care of her father on the Isle of Wight. Bereft and disappointed, George leaves his son with the said father-in-law and takes refuge with an old school friend from Eton who is none other than Robert Audley, the nephew and heir of Sir Michael Audley. (Do you see where this is going yet?)
A year passes; George puts off his mourning, if not his grief, and agrees to accompany Robert to the Audley estate for some hunting and fishing. Once established at the village inn Robert makes repeated attempts to introduce his friend to his lovely step-aunt only to be rebuffed and brushed off - Lady Audley always has a headache, or urgent business in London, and is unable receive visitors. One night, disappointed once again in their hostess, the pair break into her private apartments to view a portrait of her that Sir Michael is having painted in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites. Robert is impressed by its likeness to her, if a little disconcerted by her expression, but George is transfixed, frozen to the spot by the likeness of Lucy Graham:
'It was so like and yet so unlike; it was as if you had burned strange-coloured fires before my lady's face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliance of colouring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint medieval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.'
Afterwards he can neither speak nor eat nor sleep. The next day he steals away from his friend and disappears, without explanation, never to be seen again. Robert Audley, greatly distressed, decides to investigate the circumstances of his mysterious flight - as times goes by he rather suspects George may be dead - and embarks on a series of enquiries that bring him back, eventually, to Audley Court and the secret past of its Lady.
Braddon writes what follows on a slow-burning fuse, eeking out the circumstances of George's disappearance at a glacial pace. No doubt this is partly a function of its serialisation, chapter by chapter, in cheap magazines, each installment containing a recap and a neat cliff-hanger. There can be no doubt that Braddon wrote for a very particular market - the formulaic mechanics of her structure and style are a sign of the novel as commodity in the increasingly commercialised literary marketplace of the 1860s. But her prose is sound (if a little eccentric and wandering at times) and she is very practised at creating atmosphere. Her setpiece 'shock' scenes are chock full of mist, and the eery, whistling wind, and branches that tap, tap, tap on window-panes. Take this, for example, just before the viewing of the fateful portrait:
'The sun was low in the skies as they took a short cut through the meadows, and crossed a stile into the avenue leading to the archway - a lurid, heavy-looking, ominous sunset, and a deathly stillness in the air, which frightened the birds that had a mind to sing, and left the field open to a few captious frogs croaking in the ditches. Still as the atmosphere was, the leaves rustled with a sinister, shivering motion which proceeds from no outer cause, but is rather an instinctive shudder of frail branches, prescient of a coming storm.'
She has a sense of humour too, and likes to make pointed asides to her reader - take for example, her dig at the Pre-Raphaelite painter of the portrait above. If her story proves somewhat predictable for modern tastes, there is a strange pleasure in watching your suspiscions proved correct, and the novel has other points of interest.
Lady Audley's Secret has pretty much everything a sensation novel should: concealment, fraud, murder, arson, resentment, a false marriage and, of course, a nefarious heroine. By far the most provocative of these elements is the latter. I remember reading once that women were central to the structure and purposes of the 'sensation' novel; not only that many of its writers were women but that its great innovation was to make a spectacle of feminity, be it passive and angelic, as the archetypal 'angel in the house', or murderous and scheming as the femme fatale, the she-devil. In many ways, Lady Audley is the epitome of both. Apparently kind, loving and naive, she often behaves with a childish innocence - I can't help but feel that Sir Michael is partly attracted to her infantalised womanhood - but is also assertive, cunning and ruthless. A transgressive creature of passion who marries above herself, she will do anything to maintain her new position in society; more than anything she dreads a return to poverty and drudgery of her early life. Thus she stands at the intersection of a number of Victorian anxieties. Her marriage to Sir Michael makes a mockery of the conventions of family and society (in more ways than one), and suggests the danger that lurks within the heart of the well-to-do families of Middle England, not to mention within women themselves; her rise through the classes expresses a fear of 'infiltration' and social mobility, which is, in turn, tied to the desire to preserve of property and wealth within the family. Her actions throughout the novel, and particularly toward the end, spotlight womanhood itself as an inherently problematic state, to which duplicity and unpredictablity are inherent. She is painted, by turns, as a savage, a hysteric and a whore. They way she is portrayed and the way she is finally 'dealt with' (or, in anthropological terms, 'made safe') is a fascinating window on the expectations of Victorian culture and society.