This Week in My Classes (October 16, 2009): Aurora Floyd

It’s all Mary Elizabeth Braddon all the time, this week. Having just finished discussions of Lady Audley’s Secret in my upper-year seminar on Sensation Fiction, we’ve begun our work on it in my ‘regular’ 19th-century fiction course. In the meantime, in the Sensation Fiction seminar, we’ve moved on to Braddon’s second blockbuster success, Aurora Floyd. Judging from the students questions coming in for their letter assignment in the novels class, LAS is as popular as always: there’s a reason, or two or three, that it was a bestseller in its own day, after all, and perhaps readers haven’t changed that much in the intervening century and a half.

I’ve written before in this series about Lady Audley’s Secret, including as recently as last week, so I’ll focus on Aurora Floyd for this instalment. It’s a novel I don’t know nearly as well myself as LAS, having read it only a couple of times all through and taught it only once before. It’s an odd book, uneven, even somehow ungainly. It seems to want to be something more than it is: where LAS rushes ahead with a sort of gleeful pleasure in its own tawdry excesses, Aurora Floyd manifestly aspires to something more than straight sensation, and even its sensational elements are conceptually more complex and thus more interesting than those in its famous predecessor.

What I mean by that is that while LAS makes the most of the shocking inconsistency between Lucy Audley’s angelic appearance and her fearful capacity for deceit and violence, the most surprising thing about Aurora Floyd is that she is depicted as strong-willed, passionate, even sexual, and yet not villainous. Her youthful error of running off with her father’s handsome groom (“wonderfully and perfectly handsome–the very perfection of physical beauty, faultless in proportion, as if each line in his face and form had been measured by the sculptor’s rule, and carved by the sculptor’s chisel. . . yet it is rather a sensual type of beauty”) does not disqualify her from marriage to an excellent husband (of course, it should have, seeing as how the result is bigamy and all, but my point is that other than that small technical problem–which, to be perfectly fair, is accidental, as Aurora believes her first husband to be dead–Aurora is a good wife for John Mellish). Sure, she loves riding horses, and even betting on them, more than is strictly proper, but again, this aberration from conventional feminine propriety does not signal her incompatibility for the role of “heroine” of the novel. To some extent, she is tamed and chastened by the disasters that follow from her early indiscretion, but she is only “a shade less defiantly bright” at the end. So while in LAS Braddon panders to, or at least takes advantage of, fears of powerful women who pursue their own desires rather than subduing them, in AF she tries, I think, to complicate questions of feminine nature and identity by creating a protagonist who is neither angel nor demon, but something more complexly human.

That said, there are many irritating features of the novel, though I have had a hard time deciding why I don’t tolerate , from this author or in this book, literary strategies I don’t object to in others. For instance, I find Braddon’s narrative intrusions too intrusive in Aurora Floyd; they strike what seem like false notes, creating awkward shifts in register. Is there something inept about them, or is my response conditioned by my expectations for ‘sensation’ novels–e.g. that they should not even try to be realist or philosophical novels? Braddon is not an exceptionally gifted stylist in any case: there’s nothing distinctive about her prose, though as I remarked last week about LAS, it can be very effective in creating certain kinds of moods or pictures. She can’t resist heavy-handed foreshadowing (“That home so soon to be desolate! — with such ruin brooding above it as in his darkest doubts, his wildest fears, he had never shadowed forth!”). Still, it’s a perpetually interesting book, not just at the level of plot (it develops into a murder mystery) but in terms of its manipulations of literary and social conventions and tropes.

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