The Early Years
Mary Elizabeth Braddon was born in Soho, London on 4th October, 1835 – though she frequently in her older years stated she was born in 1837 to appear younger than she really was. Braddon was the third child born to mother, Fanny (White) Braddon and solicitor Henry Braddon (Junior); her sister, Maggie, was older by eleven years and her brother, Edward, by six. When Braddon was four Fanny left Henry because of his infidelities. This separation was unconventional for the period and Fanny brought up Braddon alone, striving to maintain respectability as a single mother in Victorian England.
Braddon attended several schools, one at Scarsdale and then a boarding school in Dartmouth Lodge where she was given a good education, but it was her godfather’s gift of a writing desk at aged six that sparked her interest and talent to become an author. She wrote several stories as a child, each of which were based on traditional fairy stories and had a sensational outcome, prefiguring her later, more well-known novels.
As her career developed she went from playing extras in crowd scenes, to having small speaking parts, eventually rising to major supporting roles and finally becoming a leading lady. Braddon worked hard, had a talent for acting, enjoyed her career and so was able to support her family through this profession. The majority of plays Braddon acted in were comedies and farces, but she also performed in burlesques, pantomimes and Shakespearean productions, including comedies, histories and tragedies.
In 1856, once she had achieved leading lady status in the provinces, Braddon moved to the Surrey Theatre to launch her career in London. This move was intended to consolidate her position as a credible actress and allow her to take on more demanding, prestigious, and thus more profitable, roles. However, she received varied reviews which slighted her début, meaning her first season in London was a failure and she returned to the provincial circuit. On her return from London she joined the company of Messrs. Wolfenden and Melbourne in Hull’s Queen’s Theatre, who, for six nights, performed in the Beverley Assembly Rooms, and then in 1857 she moved to Brighton, joining Henry Nye Chart’s company. Here she seems to have begun playing parts that were mostly too old for her, which suggests her waning popularity and her inability to sustain her acting career, confirming the short ‘life-span’ that actresses were all too aware of; her suitability for playing leading ladies was over and so she left to pursue her writing career.
During her theatrical career Braddon met John Gilby and Edward Bulwer Lytton, whom she describes as ‘the throne of power’. Both men became her literary mentors, advising her on what exhibitions to see, sending her books to read and proof reading her work. Gilby also paid her to write her first poetry collection Garibaldi and Other Poems (1861). Before this commission though, starting in 1857, Braddon had published several poems, under her stage pseudonym, in the Beverley Recorder and General Advertiser and the Brighton Herald. She had also been simultaneously commissioned to write Three Times Dead (1860) by the printer C. R. Empson. Three Times Dead was later reissued as The Trail of the Serpent and it can be found under this name today. Braddon’s first novel was not a financial success, but it gave her practical knowledge of the publishing industry and serialisation for future reference as she moved to London to establish herself.
Lady Audley’s Secret and the rise of Sensation Fiction
In London she began her writing career in earnest by assuming yet another pseudonym, this time the gender-ambiguous pen name M. E. Braddon. It is here in the 1860s that Braddon achieved lasting fame with her sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret. Having begun its serialisation in John Maxwell’s Robin Goodfellow, Braddon abandoned it when the journal went bankrupt and began her next novel, Aurora Floyd. The public, however, had other plans, and urged her to continue the narrative, which she did in another of Maxwell’s journals, The Sixpenny Magazine. This novel cemented her reputation as a scandalous author who probed the darker side of the upper classes, leading one critic to argue that Braddon had ‘temporarily succeeded in making the literature of the Kitchen the favourite reading of the Drawing-room’. From this point on, Braddon wrote two novels a year and was able to buy a large family home in Annsley Bank.
Family Life and Scandal
On 5th September 1874 Maxwell’s wife died, reviving the public revelation that their union was unsanctioned by law. Maxwell sent Mr. Crowley, Mary Ann’s brother, three messages urging him to keep the funeral quiet. Knowles published in most of the London newspapers an announcement of the death of Mary Ann, and Maxwell, countering these messages, circulated a private memorandum to friends and family discrediting the news. When Knowles discovered Maxwell’s ruse, he revealed the whole story and the domestic staff gave notice and left. On 2nd October 1874, as soon as they legally could, Braddon and Maxwell married at St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. Afterwards, they moved to Chelsea, letting the gossip subside, returning to Litchfield a year later. During this period the Maxwells continually hosted dinner parties and saw friends; their social standing had not been irreversibly damaged.
Maintaining Popularity and Editorships
Despite her many illnesses, Braddon consistently moved with the times: around 1912-3 she bought a car; in 1913 she attended the cinematic release of Aurora Floyd and in 1914, when World War 1 broke out, she helped hospital patients, continuing the charitable work that she maintained throughout her life. On 4th February 1915 Braddon died following ‘the gradual breaking of a number of minor blood-vessels in the brain’. At the end of the nineteenth century, E. A. B. in The Academy wrote that: ‘Miss Braddon is a part of England; she has woven herself into it; without her it would be different. This is no mere fanciful conceit. She is in the encyclopaedias; she ought to be in the dictionaries’.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon, married name Mary Elizabeth Maxwell, (born October 4, 1837, London, England—died February 4, 1915, Richmond, Surrey), English novelist whose Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) was the most successful of the sensation novels of the 1860s.
Braddon’s mother left her father, a solicitor, when Braddon was four years old. Educated at home, Braddon published her first novel, The Trail of the Serpent, in 1861. In the same year appeared Garibaldi and Other Poems, a volume of spirited verse. In 1862 her reputation as a novelist was made by the success of Lady Audley’s Secret. A three-volume novel, it told a lurid story of crime in high society, yet it managed not to transgress the Victorian bounds of propriety. She wrote it at the request of John Maxwell, a publisher with whom she was living; she married him in 1874 on the death of his first wife, who had previously been confined to a mental hospital.
Braddon published more than 70 novels, frequently producing 2 a year, and in the 1880s a number of plays. In the best of her fiction she demonstrated a skill for social observation and the ability to create appropriate atmosphere. Among her novels are Aurora Floyd (1863), John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863), Dead Men’s Shoes (1876), Vixen (1879), Asphodel (1881), London Pride (1896), and The Green Curtain (1911). Her sons W.B. Maxwell and Gerald Maxwell also became novelists.