Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Trail of the Serpent, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915)  is best known for her novel Lady Audley's Secret, published in 1862.  This wonderful mystery was very popular, and has remained in print ever since.  (I defy even experienced readers to guess the true nature of "Lady Audley's secret" before the end.)

Miss Braddon was a very prolific author, though, with more than 150 novels to her credit, and her other work deserves attention too.  The Trail of the Serpent was one of her earliest novels.  It was originally serialized in 1860 as Three Times Dead, in which form it met with only a cool reception from the reading public.  In 1861 she re-worked the novel and published it in book form under its new title.  In this form it became a best-seller that remained popular for many years.

The book is a sensational pot-boiler of mystery and dark humor.  The story begins on a "bad, determined, black-minded November day" in the town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy:
 "A foggy wet windy November day. A bad day—a dangerous day. Keep us from bad thoughts to-day, and keep us out of the Police Reports next week. Give us a glass of something hot and strong, and a bit of something nice for supper, and bear with us a little this day; for if the strings of yonder piano—an instrument fashioned on mechanical principles by mortal hands—if they are depressed and slackened by the influence of damp and fog, how do we know that there may not be some string in this more critical instrument, the human mind, not made on mechanical principles or by mortal hands, a little out of order on this bad November day?"
In Slopperton we meet an outwardly angelic young schoolmaster, who soon proves to contain an immense reservoir of cunning, evil ambitions.  The novel traces his rise and fall, but the foreground is often filled by a large cast of colorful characters whose lives become entangled with his.  In particular, we follow the course of one innocent prodigal son, who returns home only to be wrongly accused of a brutal murder.  The novel has enough twists and turns to make even the most jaded reader delightfully lost, and pleasantly surprised at how all the paths come back together at the end.

Miss Braddon's life had a few twists, too.  Her parents separated when she was three years old, and Mary stayed with her mother and two siblings.  In her teens she began a career as an actress, and worked successfully for several years until turning to writing in 1859, producing her first novel The Octoroon.

Lichfield House, Richmond,
Braddon's home for most of her life
Now travelling in the world of writers and publishers, she soon met and fell in love with magazine publisher John Maxwell.  Maxwell was a married man whose wife was in an insane asylum.  (This puts him in company with Thackeray and Bulwer-Lytton, whose wives were also in asylums.)  Mary moved in with Maxwell and acted as a surrogate mother to his five children until his wife died, at which point she and Maxwell were married.  They had six more children of their own.

Miss Braddon went on to become editor of the magazines Belgravia and Temple Bar.  Her novels and these periodicals are the foundation of the Sensation fiction of the 1860s and 1870s.  These works took the themes of earlier gothic novels (mystery, crime, insanity) and moved them out of remote castles in the Apennines and into the bedrooms and ballrooms of Belgravia.  Henry James wrote of Miss Braddon's work:
"What are the Apennines to us, or we to the Apennines? Instead of the terrors of "Udolpho", we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible."
The Trail of the Serpent is full of melodrama and unlikely coincidences, but it also contains a lot of underappreciated social criticism.  For example, on the equation of poverty with criminality:
 "So Blind Peter was the Alsatia of Slopperton, a refuge for crime and destitution—since destitution cannot pick its company, but must be content often, for the sake of shelter, to jog cheek by jowl with crime. And thus no doubt it is on the strength of that golden adage about birds of a feather that destitution and crime are thought by numerous wise and benevolent persons to mean one and the same thing."
and, regarding the nearsightedness of the upper class:
"When John Jones, tired of the monotonous pastime of beating his wife's skull with a poker, comes to Lambeth and murders an Archbishop of Canterbury for the sake of the spoons, it will be time, in the eyes of Belgravia, to reform John Jones. In the meanwhile we of the upper ten thousand have Tattersall's and Her Majesty's Theatre, and John Jones (who, low republican, says he must have his amusements too) has such little diversions as wife-murder and cholera to break the monotony of his existence."

No comments:

Post a Comment