Mary Elizabeth Braddon was born in 1835 in Soho, London, the youngest child of a solicitor. Her parents’ marriage broke down due to her father’s financial irresponsibility, and she moved to the Sussex coast with her mother.
At the age of 22 she began an acting career in order to earn reasonable income, and also started writing short fiction and poetry. By 1861 she was working as an editorial assistant to the publisher John Maxwell, and they soon became lovers. Maxwell was married with five children, and his wife was confined in a Dublin mental institution. It was the subject of much controversy, therefore, when Braddon moved in with Maxwell as his common-law wife and step mother to his children. When criticising her sensation novels, Mrs Oliphant commented archly that she “knew too much about bigamy for her own good.”
In 1861, Maxwell’s magazine Robin Goodfellow began serialising Lady Audley’s Secret, the first of Braddon’s two “bigamy novels”. The publisher William Tinsley was sufficiently impressed to publish it as a novel, a wise decision, as it went through nine editions in the first year. Tinsley was able to build himself an impressive house on the proceeds, which he named “Audley Lodge” in acknowledgement. The apparently wicked eponymous heroine caused moral outrage amongst critics, which of course did wonders for sales.
Braddon’s next novel, Aurora Floyd, also featured a transgressive heroine as its heroine, and she earned an unfortunate reputation as an improper author. Mindful of the need to maintain sales, she ensured her subsequent novels were more conformist.
Although her writing was attracting less controversy, her private life caused moral outrage. Maxwell’s estranged wife died in 1874 and he promptly married Braddon, an event which highlighted the illegitimacy of the five children they had together. They were forced to move house while the gossip died down.
Her later writing career was greatly influenced by Zola, with novels such as The Golden Calf notable for their use of naturalism. She wrote more than eighty novels during her long career, and died in 1915 at the relatively advanced age of 79.
Victorian Secrets publishes Henry Dunbar.