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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bigamy, she wrote

How a woman with a lax attitude to marriage wrote an enduring "sensation" bestseller

In view of the current debate about the overturning of Amanda's Knox's conviction for sexual assault and murder, it seems peculiarly appropriate that the online biography of the day should be that of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who made a fortune out of writing about such things.

In 1857, at the age of 22, London-born Mary Elizabeth, the daughter of a woman who had been deserted by her prolifigate lawyer husband, launched herself onto an acting career, in an effort to save herself and Mama from a life of genteel poverty.   In 1861 she was rescued from this unrewarding business by a combination of sales of poems and short stories, and maintenance money handed out by an admirer, "Mr. Gilby." 

Mary Elizabeth's stories were of the "penny dreadful" variety, published in a number of cheap magazines, one of which was owned by an Irishman named John Maxwell (apparently no relation of the currently notorious Rupert).  Attracted to the man who was publishing her work, she first became his editorial assistant, and then something more than that.

Maxwell had a sad personal life: his wife was confined to a mental institution, so he had the sole responsibility of raising his family of five.  Abandoning Mr. Gilby, Mary Elizabeth moved in, along with her mother.  To all appearances the arrangement was a model of Victorian respectability, Mary passing herself off as John Maxwell's wife, and the children's stepmother.  Indeed, she started producing children of her own.

John Maxwell did very well indeed out of the unusual arrangement. When Mary moved in, he was in financial trouble, as his magazine, Robin Goodfellow, was on the verge of failure.  Just before it went under, however, it featured the first episodes of  a novel by his new "wife," called "Lady Audley's Secret."  The magazine's collapse meant that the serial was transferred to Sixpenny Magazine, where it caught the attention of publishers Edward and William Tinsley. 

Launched as a book, it was a runaway success, selling hugely, and going into many editions.  Suddenly the guilty pair were very rich.  Unfortunately, it also meant that Mary Elizabeth became famous -- leading to salacious revelations about the true state of their union.  A notice was put in the papers advertizing their marriage, but no one was fooled.  Shocked and scandalized, all their servants handed in their notice and left, which must have been annoying.  The notoriety, however, did not do sales any harm at all.

Ironically, the novel may have been partly inspired by the author's own personal history. The Lady Audley of the title is a demure and beautiful blonde by the name of Lucy Graham, who abandons her child for a bigamous marriage to rich Sir Michael Audley.  When husband number one turns up unexpectedly from the Australian goldfields, Lucy puts him out of the way by shoving him down a well.  Pursued by his best friend (and the lover of her erstwhile sister-in-law), she sets fire to a hotel, hoping to get rid of him.  Foiled, she eventually confesses in true dramatic Victorian style. 

The main inspiration, however, was the notorious Constance Kent case, which gripped the nation at the time.  A small boy was murdered grotesquely, knifed several times, and almost decapitated.  The murder went unsolved until his half-sister, Constance Kent, confessed the crime to a priest.  The trial that was held in a blaze of publicity found her guilty, but whether it was justified or not has been a matter of debate to this day.  Indeed, a well-reviewed book that clears Constance, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale, was published only recently. 

Undeterred by the gossip and open insults in the press, Mary Elizabeth Braddon kept on writing, producing over eighty novels before dying at the good age (for those times) of 80, in 1915.

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