(Mary Elizabeth Braddon Biography)
Jennifer Carnell

This is the first new literary critical biography of the sensation novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon for over twenty years, and its predecessor, Robert Lee Wolff's Sensational Victorian, has never been reprinted and is not easy to obtain. The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon concentrates on sources not available to Wolff, and in doing so examines the entire eight years of her career as an actress in the 1850s (Wolff believed it to have been only three years in duration), her earliest writing in the 1850s, her rise to fame as an equal of Wilkie Collins at the height of the controversy over sensation fiction in the 1860s, her relationship with the publisher John Maxwell, the many influences on her work, and the respect she eventually earned in the literary world. Each chapter is a blend of biography and literary criticism.

The book also includes two large appendices, the first mapping Braddon's entire career as an actress, listing the companies she acted with in London and the provinces, the plays she acted in, and the roles she played. The second appendix provides a new bibliography of her work, listing the first editions and serialisations of her ninety novels, penny bloods, short stories, plays, poems and essays; importantly, this includes details of the following previously unrecorded works: 1 opera, 19 short stories, 4 songs, 46 essays, 1 play, and 27 poems. The book reproduces the entire text of 15 of her earliest poems, the first of Braddon's work to be published, never before recorded or republished, which were written for provincial newspapers while she was an actress.

This book is an important resource, providing critical analysis for the undergraduate, and research information for the graduate and professor.

Contents: Acknowledgements; Introduction; The Early Years; Chapter 1 Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Career as an Actress (The Lost Years: Mary Braddon's Early Career as an Actress, Provincial Circuit and a Debut in London, Henry Nye Chart's Brighton Company, Brighton and on Tour in Coventry, etc.); Chapter 2 The Struggle for Fame: Braddon's Earliest Writing (Braddon as a Poet in the Provincial Press, The Actress and Her Patron: Braddon and John Gilby, Masterful John Maxwell, A Trip to Brighton and Three Letters from John Maxwell); Chapter 3 Mary Braddon and the Rise of Sensation Fiction (John Maxwell and the New Publishers of Sensation Fiction, What was Sensation Fiction?, The Newspaper Novel of Real Life Crime, 'It is a shame to women so to write'); Chapter 4 Melodrama, Penny-part Fiction and French Realism: Mary Braddon's Negotiation of Other Cultural Forms (The Influence of Melodrama on Sensation Fiction, The Influence of Working Class Fiction and Braddon's own Contribution to the 'Literature of the Kitchen', Braddon's Interest in and Use of French Fiction); Chapter 5 Detectives and the Detection of Secrets and Crime: Braddon's Contribution to the Detective Genre (Sensation Fiction to Detective Fiction, Class and the Professional Detective, The Gentleman Detective and Joshua Slythe, The Female Detective as Avenging Angel, Braddon's Contribution to the Development of Detective Fiction'; Chapter 6 The Years of Success and Security: The Later Years of Braddon's Life and Career; Appendix 1 Calendar of Braddon's Theatrical Career 1852-1860; Appendix 2 A New Annotated Bibliography of Braddon's Writing: a. Novels b. Short Stories c. American Editions d. Books Edited by Braddon e. Plays f. Poetry g. Lyrics and Libretto h. Parodies and Non Fiction. The index of the text sections of the book (not including the appendix sections) can be viewed: here

Hardback with text of 448pp. and 6 illustrations.

An extract of a review of The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon in the journal Victorian Periodicals Review by Professor Benjamin F. Fisher can be read on the site Victorian Database Online Critic's Choice:

MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON (1835-1915), the author of approximately ninety books written between 1860 and 1915, was one of the most popular and prolific novelists of her age. As well as being an editor of two magazines, Belgravia and the Christmas annual Mistletoe Bough, her vast output also included poetry, plays and essays. In the 1860s she was one of the most successful and controversial novelists of her generation, rated alongside Wilkie Collins (she cited him as her 'literary father') as a pioneer of the sensation genre. These novels were characterised by mystery, strong passions and opinions, and intricate plotting. After the publication of the two novels which made her famous, Lady Audley's Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863), Braddon was criticised as a purveyor of immoral fiction.

Novel after novel flowed from her pen, often at the rate of two per year. Braddon also wrote novels influenced by French realism, working class fiction, detective novels (her contribution to the development of detective fiction is an important one), historical novels and 'straight' novels. Her use of, and contribution to, popular culture over many decades provides an excellent insight into the development of genre fiction.

Braddon was born in 1835 at 2 Frith Street, Soho, London, the daughter of a Cornish solicitor and an Irish mother. In about 1840 her parents separated after Mrs. Braddon discovered her husband had been having an affair, and Braddon and her mother Fanny moved to St. Leonards-On-Sea in East Sussex for a short time, after which she spent the rest of her childhood in London, finally settling in Camberwell.

Despite the separation of her parents, Braddon's childhood years were not unlike that of other middle class girls without ample means. Yet far from waiting to get married, Braddon's path was to be very different. Tall with curly auburn hair, and later described as having a very fine speaking voice, she decided upon the then shocking career of actress.

In the early 1850s she took to the stage under the name of Mary Seyton, her mother accompanying her throughout as 'Mrs. Seyton.' During her theatrical career she performed with several companies in numerous provincial towns and cities in England and Scotland, and also acted at the Surrey Theatre, London for one season.

While pursing her career as an actress, Braddon wrote poetry and plays in her spare time, and it was during these years that her first works were published. She left the stage in February 1860 to become a full time writer and her first novel, Three Times Dead, was published by a local publisher in Yorkshire.

In September of 1860 Braddon moved to London, and the following year the novels which were to make her famous, Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd, began to be serialised in two magazines belonging to the publisher John Maxwell (1824-1895). Braddon also wrote a number of anonymous novels (penny dreadfuls_ for lower class journals, of which The Black Band; or, The Mysteries of Midnight (1861-1862) and The White Phantom are the most well known.

Shortly after meeting him, she controversially set up home with her publisher, becoming stepmother to his six children, and having six children of her own. Maxwell was separated from his first wife, due to her mental instability after the birth of their last child, and Braddon and Maxwell were not able to marry until after her death in 1874.

In 1866 Braddon became editor of Maxwell's magazine Belgravia, and this became the vehicle for most of her novels in the following ten years. Subsequently, many of her novels were serialised in newspapers and magazines.

Despite her scandalous past, by the 1880s Braddon was a respected literary figure. She mixed freely in high society, and she and her husband were prominent figures in the two areas in which they owned large houses, Richmond and the New Forest.

In total, Braddon was the author of ninety novels (several were unacknowledged), numerous short stories, essays and several plays. From controversial beginnings as a purveyor of immoral sensation fiction, she became a respected writer. She lived to see a silent film version of Aurora Floyd in 1913. Her last novel, Mary (1916), was published posthumously.


Jennifer Carnell received her Ph.D for her research on M.E. Braddon. She has edited editions of several novels by Braddon for the Sensation Press, including The White Phantom and The Octoroon, and is a contributor to the book Beyond Sensation (State University of New York Press). She recently published a biography of her Victorian ancestor James Townsend Saward, Criminal Barrister: The True Story of Jim the Penman.

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