Braddon’s Trajectories

The passage below forms part of a letter from Mary Elizabeth Braddon to her literary mentor, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, dated November 3rd 1868. The address from which the letter was sent – the ‘here’ which forms something of its subject – is Lichfield House in Richmond, a leafy town-cum-suburb to the south west of central London.  Braddon had bought this large residence in mid 1866, and by the spring of 1867 had moved there with her family, from No. 26 Mecklenburgh Square, in east Bloomsbury. The new place, an earlier letter to Bulwer informs us, was ‘a big red house built by some Bishop of Lichfield & with a rare old fashioned garden.’[1] The ‘she’ whom Braddon is writing of is her mother, who had recently died.

I must tell you that it was a passage in yr Caxtoniana that decided me, after considerable wavering, on removing here from London, a place she always detested, a year & a half ago. I cannot now quote the passage but it is the remark of a man who tells his friend that immediately prosperity enabled him to do so he gratified his mother’s love of a flower garden by giving her the best he could provide.

             This turned the balance & decided a family Hegira from Mecklenburgh Square hither – & thank God that it was so, for here she found much happiness in the devotion of my stepdaughters, who came home from their convent-school to this house, & who have tended her with watchful and devoted attention ever since…[2]

This passage is intriguing for a number of reasons. Notable is Braddon’s insistence that a dimly remembered passage from Bulwer’s Caxtoniana proved determinative in her decision to make the move. Her claim locates literary writing at the centre of her ‘every day’ material dealings with real life (and real places). How might we read this curious literary emphasis? Braddon is paying no small flattery to her hero-of-letters by telling him that such a momentous life choice was catalysed by something she’d once read in a collection of his whimsical essays and sketches. There is probably an element of self-definition here too, a compliment to herself that she chooses to be informed by a writer she holds in very high esteem: she takes counsel upon matters great and small from the great and the good. Yet such possible motives of flattery and self-definition do not undermine the passage’s emotional veracity, conceived as it was in the shadow of her beloved mother’s death.

The letter is revealing more broadly about the complex significance of the move to her at the time, and of a sense of place in Braddon’s thinking life. She seems to need to work through and write about the move from Bloomsbury to Richmond – to a fellow writer – and to connect it with other kinds of journey she had undergone in the past few months and years. She vividly returns to the decision she made one and half years ago to invoke the moment while it was still in the ‘balance’, remembering her own ‘considerable wavering’ against how much her mother ‘detested’ living in West-Central London. Though the ‘thank God that it was so’ conveniently resolves this tension with a sigh of relief, such a long period of wavering on the one hand and detesting on the other might well have been a strain on the mother-daughter relationship. Braddon’s wavering had reason in it, for in a letter to Bulwer dated January 1865 she had written that living in central London suited her better than its south western suburbs: ‘while I work against time, & I am here close to the Brit. Mus. if ever I can get time to read.’[3] The benefits of being located in literarily-central Bloomsbury, indeed, were not only in terms of her reading, but extended also to her social life. In a letter from March 1866, for example, Braddon warmly mentions meeting Charles Reade, the famous novelist, ‘at a theatrical dinner party in Bloomsbury’[4]. Removing herself across the river to the genteel exile of Richmond would then perhaps have required something of a ‘push’ to counteract the ‘pull’ of Bloomsbury’s social and bookish attractions.

There was indeed a ‘push’, alluded to in that odd word ‘Hegira’, the Arabic for Mohammad’s flight to Mecca. Sticking out as an elaborate appropriation among the other words, ‘hegira’ reframes the move to include a sense of the unusual, and of danger, moreover. The analogy is only partly meant ironically, for leaving Bloomsbury for Richmond can be seen in the context of Braddon’s personal life at the time as something of a withdrawal out of harm’s way. Braddon had faced in recent years sustained and sometimes savage criticism of both her morals and writing, the thinly veiled motivation for such vitriol being the fact that she was living unmarried with the publisher John Maxwell and his children  – the devoted ‘step-daughters’ she mentions – in their house in 26 Mecklenburgh Square.[5] For Braddon, moving into a large detached place out of the immediate public eye of central London – and her critics – might well have felt like a welcome retreat. Though not mentioned explicitly in the letter, Braddon’s representation of the move nonetheless makes reference to these attacks and her desire to escape them, with recourse to exotic language that both highlights and makes light of its presence – a characteristically Braddonesque stylistic ploy.

The other related journey gently touched upon in the passage, perhaps most important of all, is that of Braddon’s recent and ongoing ascent to fame and fortune as a writer, her own ‘prosperity’ lying behind that of the notional man that once bought his mother a flower garden. The house in Richmond was purchased with the money Braddon had earned through royalties and other fees from her writing, and most of all, from the sales of her best-selling novel Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Her letters to Bulwer-Lytton and others indicate that she was proud of this new wealth, this new self-sufficiency. The move represents a significant step-up in her career, and a in her sense of self as a successful independent writer. This could indeed be an unconscious reason why she insists upon mentioning the passage from Caxtoniana to its hugely successful author, claiming a genealogy of thought from the material and real back to the literary and fictional. The world of literature, or, more specifically, the literary industry, did after all have a determinative role upon Braddon’s decision to move out of Mecklenburgh Square and take up residence in an old Bishop’s mansion in Richmond, but not necessarily in the way she says.

One of the intrinsic qualities of the letter genre is its locatedness. The letter as missive declares that it has come from somewhere and indeed discloses this place of origin, its specific cultural location in both time and space, its materiality, in the top right hand corner of the page. The letter is clearly tied up with the complex messiness of reality – its given-ness, juxtapositions, trippings up, overlayerings. So, as in Braddon’s letter to Bulwer-Lytton on her mother’s death, a literary insight is allowed to stumble in upon the practice of everyday life, amidst the reliable tensions of a complex and dynamic domestic scene, a daughter’s grief, a lover’s apprehension, an entrepreneur-writer’s pride. Letters might then be seen to possess a structural facility at presenting what seem like often tactful glimpses – as in the above – of what Merleau-Ponty understood to be the ‘placed-ness’ and ‘embodied-ness’ of the self.

[1] Letter dated Aug 9th 1866. Letters all presented by Robert Lee Wolff in Harvard Library Bulletin 22 (1974) (p5-35, 129-161).

[2] Letter dated Nov 3rd 1868.

[3] Letter, Jan 1865.

[4] Letter, Mar 1866.

[5] See Robert Lee Wolff’s Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1979) and Jennifer Carnell’s The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Study of her Life and Works (Hastings: Sensation Press, 2000).

[6] The Examiner March 28th 1863

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