Top positive review
Intelligent and interesting.
on 3 May 2014
This is a beautifully written book which stimulated my imagination and provoked me to quite deep thought. I expected a bit of a pot-boiler. Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote over eighty novels, most of them serialised in magazines, and some people have described her as 'the queen of sensation' because of the (for the time) sensational nature of her stories. Her most famous book was 'Lady Audley's Secret'. Actually, this book is quite different from it. Both are enjoyable, but this one is both much more humorous and also more truly tragic. One of the main characters is actually a 'sensation novelist' and M.E. Braddon has fun affectionately mocking the genre by which she makes her living.
The book describes the struggles of an intelligent but emotionally and intellectually neglected young woman to become an adult and cope with the real world. Her struggle is shown with insight and sensitivity and is sometimes quite moving.
The usual themes of a sensational novel of the time are present - death, adultery,dark secrets and terrible betrayal - but there is also (I think) an aspect deeply personal to M.E.Braddon. As a woman who earned her own living, perhaps she wanted to defend and further the rights of women in an age when they did not have as much freedom as men. In particular, she shows how women had to deny and submerge their own identity and longings in order to do their domestic duty to their husbands, since this was regarded as the role of every respectable female. As has often been pointed out, the book is like Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary', though the choices of the heroine are different and therefore, so is the outcome.
Lacking parenting, moral guidance and education, and with a dark secret in the family, Isabel Sleaford can feed her mind only with romantic novels and poetry. As a result, she is full of illusions and unrealistic dreams. She accepts a proposal of marriage from George Gilbert, a doctor. This is not because she finds an intellectual equal in him but because she is discontented working as a governess, longs for romance and he clearly adores her. He is kind and well-meaning but insensitive to her needs and, after their marriage, he bores her. Too immature to value his good qualities, she finds friendships with other men who seem more interesting and exciting. One of these relationships deepens into romantic love and, although nothing of a sexual nature takes place, the naïve Isabel is gossiped about, judged and condemned by her neighbours.
Through terrible and painful circumstances, she matures and her true nature is refined and strengthened through surviving these cruelties. (I find it interesting that Mary Braddon herself flouted convention. She lived with John Maxwell, her publisher, for a number of years because he was married and his wife was in an asylum. Only after her death did Braddon and Maxwell finally marry. I wonder whether M.E. Braddon knew what it was like to be discussed and censured by respectable society).
This is not your average sensationalist novel, although it belongs in that genre. A modern novelist would treat aspects of the story differently, no doubt. However, M.E.Braddon is writing about a topic that she feels deeply and cares about and she does so with intelligence. There are passages in the book that I will remember because of the profound psychological truth contained in them. A worthwhile read!