Biography of Mary Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was born in 1835 to a literary family in London; her father was a solicitor by trade, but relied on magazine writing to supplement the family income. Her father's lack of financial success made the entire family's situation perilous, especially after Braddon's parents separated in 1840. Motivated to help support her mother and sister, Braddon began working as a professional actress in 1852, the first of many ways in which she would depart from the social expectations for a Victorian woman. As she toured England giving stage performances, she also began writing plays and poems. By 1860, Braddon was ready to expand her literary practice. She wrote a crime novel, initially entitled Three Times Dead, which drew on the increasing demand for lurid and sensationalist plots. This first version was not initially successful, but it did attract the attention of London publisher John Maxwell. He helped Braddon revise the novel, and in 1861 it was reissued under the title The Trail of the Serpent. This version sold extremely well, and made it clear that Braddon had a talent for dramatic plots and shocking twists.

John Maxwell played a significant role in Braddon's personal life, as well as her professional one. When they met, Maxwell was married and the father of five children. His wife, however, suffered from mental illness and was living in an asylum in Ireland; despite this, the laws at the time did not make it possible for them to divorce. Flouting social convention, Braddon moved in with Maxwell in 1861 and gave birth to the first of their six children in 1862. The two finally married in 1874, after Maxwell's wife died. They enjoyed a happy marriage until Maxwell's death in 1896.

Braddon’s experience with Maxwell may well have shaped her interest in the difficult situations created for individuals due to legal codes and social norms surrounding marriage in the nineteenth century – her novels display a strong preoccupation with this theme. In 1862, she published Lady Audley's Secret, followed by Aurora Floyd in 1864, both of which explore the consequences of unsuitable marriages. Braddon's interest in representing dark and shocking secrets within a seemingly blissful domestic world aligns her work with the rise of sensation fiction in the 1860s. This led to personal attacks from critics: Lyn Pykett notes that "several of the negative criticisms of the sensation novel’s preoccupation with bigamy and irregular liaisons focused on her novels and made allusions to her personal situation with Maxwell" (130).

Over the span of her career, Braddon produced more than 80 novels as well as numerous short stories and poems. Between 1866 and 1876 she worked as the editor of the magazine Belgravia, and she also founded and edited a Christmas annual to which well-known writers contributed poems and stories. Throughout her long career, Braddon understood herself as a professional as well as an artist, and she remained attuned to considerations of what would be popular with readers. She experimented with a number of different genres, ranging from crime fiction to historical romance, but displayed a consistent interest in writing about women's place in society, and the discontent caused by their limited roles. Braddon was also interested in the influence of French fiction, which often dealt more openly with taboo subjects than English novels did. For example, her 1864 novel The Doctor's Wife presents a reworking of the plot of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, but introduces substantial changes so as to make the content less controversial.

Braddon's critical reception was mixed. Many reviewers and literary critics felt that her writing was merely designed to sell large quantities of books as a result of being provocative or shocking. The topics explored in her fiction such as bigamy or murder also raised charges that her writing was immoral. However, no one could deny the wide spread and enduring nature of her popularity. When she died in 1915, she was commemorated as a significant and successful novelist. For most of the twentieth-century, however, she was not well known or typically studied in academic settings. Many of her works went out of print. The rise of interest in popular literature and women's writing at the end of the twentieth century led to a resurgence of interest in Braddon's writing, and she has now become well known as a Victorian writer who was able to tackle complex and controversial subject matters in a way that was both reflective and entertaining.

Study Guides on Works by Mary Braddon

Lady Audley's Secret was first published in serial form, meaning it appeared in short installments at regular intervals rather than all at once. This method of publishing, which was common in the Victorian period, suited works that were dramatic...