Nov 1, 2010

Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Aurora Floyd is a Victorian Sensation novel which tells the story of a young lady of the same name. Miss Floyd is the only daughter of Archibald Floyd, a rich banker who, due to his wife’s unexpected decease, is forced to raise his child on his own. From a very young age Aurora regrettably develops, we are told, some quite unfeminine interests such as race horses and dogs. But that’s not the worst of it – the worst is a secret in her past; a secret surrounding her hasty dispatch to a finishing school in Paris; a secret known only by father, daughter, and certain individuals who know their silence is worth the price of gold. And that, I’m afraid, is as much as I can safely tell you about the plot.

Aurora Floyd is not quite as popular as Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, and I guess I can see why: this is a novel with a slower pace, and while still quite suspenseful, it’s perhaps not plotted quite as tightly as its predecessor. But you know, I think Aurora Floyd is actually my favourite of the two: it’s more ambiguous, more daring, and it raises even more question about what was and was not “natural” behaviour for women than Lady Audley’s Secret does.

I will not, of course, be telling you exactly what Aurora Floyd’s secret is, but it’s quite easy to guess from the very beginning that what she’s trying so hard to hide must involve some sort of misdemeanour of a sexual nature. Of course, in the eyes of Victorian society, anything involving female sexuality was not at all a mere misdemeanour. And yet – and this is where Mary Elizabeth Braddon earned my undying love – Aurora is never demonised. More: she’s not meek, apologetic, or even regretful. She’s a sensible young woman who believes that the past is the past, and that she should be allowed to carry on with her life.

Like I said, I will at all times make sure I don’t give away any plot details, but I still feel that I ought to include a spoilers warning for this paragraph and the following two, simply because I’m sure you’d be able to put two and two together and arrive at conclusions that might tell you more about the story than you want to know going in. Braddon describes Aurora as a woman “whose worst sin had been to mistake a bad man for a good one--the ignorant trustfulness of a child who is ready to accept any shabby pilgrim for an exiled nobleman or a prince in disguise”. She also tells us,
But then, if she had been faultless, she could not have been the heroine of this story; for I think some wise man of old remarked that the perfect women were those who left no histories behind them, but went through life upon such a tranquil course of quiet well-doing as left no footprints on the sands of time; only mute records hidden here and there, deep in the grateful hearts of those who had been blessed by them.
I loved the ironical remarks about the Victorian womanly ideal that Mary Elizabeth Braddon sprinkled throughout the story (about which more soon). Now on to my most spoiler-y comment, which has to do with the fact that the other person involved in Aurora’s past mistake is revealed to be a man of great physical beauty – and this, of course, has all sorts of implications about sexual attraction and the fact that a genteel young woman actually acted on it. The other thing that is never overtly addressed is sexual experience – Aurora probably has it, and Braddon very clearly points out that this does not in any way make her a worthless or unethical person. As much as I’d love to ascribe any belief to the contrary to Victorian ideology, this is a point that still needs to be made: lack of sexual “purity” is not, and has never been, the measure of a woman’s worth.

The impetuous, sensual, dark-eyed Aurora is often compared to her cousin Lucy, who represents the ideal of Victorian femininity. One of my favourite things about Aurora Floyd was the fact that Braddon used the interfering Victorian authorial voice in extremely ingenious ways. I’ve mentioned before, when discussing Middlemarch, that I don’t really agree with the view that Victorian narrators close down the interpretative possibilities of a story. In the case of Aurora Floyd, what the narrator does is perform a sort of sleight of hand – on the surface, Lucy is praised and Aurora is condemned, but of course that in reality Aurora is portrayed as a much more interesting character, and of course that the narrative doesn’t actually frame her past in disapproving terms. I loved the narrator’s slightly mocking tone when describing, with apparent approval, Lucy’s complete meekness and obedience to her husband. Braddon is wonderfully ironical, and she knows both how to be contrary and how to subtly let events speak for themselves.

There are two other characters who are repeatedly compared and contrasted: John Mellish and Talbot Balstrude, who are first introduced as Aurora’s suitors. Talbot and John mainly differ in the fact that one wants a trophy wife, whose chastity and meekness while make a statement about his own identity, while the other wants a person to love, be loved by, and share his life with. For all that it is sensational, Aurora Floyd is actually remarkably free of sentimentality or of attempts to idealise romantic love. In fact, it presents an almost modern and very no-shenanigans approach to love and relationships. Braddon was clearly very much aware that life and love do not necessarily follow a script.

Braddon was also clearly aware that there was no tragedy in a woman not staying forever with her first lover; that people can and do fall out of love, and that as heartbreaking as that may be, life has a way of carrying on. She also knows that a woman’s life story does not end once she’s married – and neither does the story of her love life. Relationships keep changing and evolving, and there’s as much about married or otherwise long-term love worth writing about as there is about courtship. I found her attitude extremely refreshing even in 2010, let alone in 1863.

Of course, as modern as it might be, this is still a novel inescapably entrenched in the ideology of its time: Aurora Floyd is ambiguous at best about class, combining a certain awareness of social privilege with ideas of innate nobility and of “coarseness”; and sadly it’s just downright appalling in its portrayal of disability. These are obviously not things that should be dismissed or swept under the rug, but I remain enthusiastic because there’s still so much about this story that goes against the grain of Victorian society and remains relevant today.

Aurora Floyd might not be as immediately gripping as Lady Audley’s Secret, but it’s an excellent, excellent novel: it’s full of irony and humour, and it raises almost alarmingly modern questions about gender roles, power dynamics, romantic relationships, and female sexuality. Also, it has what it is in Victorian terms a scandalous and subversive ending – my very favourite kind.

Interesting bits:
Have I any need to be ashamed of my heroine in that she had forgotten her straight-nosed, grey-eyed Cornish lover, who had set his pride and his pedigree between himself and his affection, and had loved her at best with a reservation, although Heaven only knows how dearly he had loved her? Have I any cause to blush for this poor, impetuous girl if, turning in the sickness of her sorrowful heart with a sense of relief and gratitude to the honest shelter of John's love, she had quickly learned to feel for him an affection which repaid him a thousand-fold for his long-suffering devotion?

And, indeed, I am disposed to take objection to that old proverb, or at least to believe that contempt is only engendered of familiarity with things which are in themselves base and spurious. The priest who is familiar with the altar learns no contempt for its sacred images; but it is rather the ignorant neophyte who sneers and sniggers at things which he can not understand. The artist becomes only more reverent as toil and study make him more familiar with his art; its eternal sublimity grows upon him, and he worships the far-away Goddess of Perfection as humbly when he drops his brush or his chisel after a life of patient labour as he did when first he ground colour or pointed rough blocks of marble for his master. And I can not believe that a good man's respect for the woman he loves can be lessened by that sweet and every-day familiarity in which a hundred household virtues and gentle beauties--never dreamed of in the ball-rooms where he first danced with an unknown idol in gauzy robes and glimmering jewels--grow upon him, until he confesses that the wife of ten years standing is even ten times dearer than the bride of a week's honeymoon.

Now, my two heroines being married, the reader versed in the physiology of novel-writing may conclude that my story is done, that the green curtain is ready to fall upon the last act of the play, and that I have nothing more to do than to entreat indulgence for the shortcomings of the performance and the performers. Yet, after all, does the business of the real life-drama always end upon the altar-steps? Must the play needs be over when the hero and heroine have signed their names in the register? Does man cease to be, to do, and to suffer when he gets married? And is it necessary that the novelist, after devoting three volumes to the description of a courtship of six weeks duration, should reserve for himself only half a page in which to tell us the events of two-thirds of a lifetime? Aurora is married, and settled, and happy; sheltered, as one would imagine, from all dangers, safe under the wing of her stalwart adorer; but it does not therefore follow that the story of her life is done. She has escaped ship-wreck for a while, and has safely landed on a pleasant shore; but the storm may still lower darkly upon the horizon, while the hoarse thunder grumbles threateningly in the distance.
(I love you, Mary Elizabeth Braddon.)

Reviewed at:
Savidge Reads

(Have I missed yours?)

24 comments:

  1. I had not heard of this novel, but did read Lady Audley's Secret. I liked it a lot and thought that the author did such a great job with it. This book sounds more sedate, but also serious, and I would like to take the chance to read it. I didn't read your spoilerish comment on it, so I can be somewhat surprised by what the book brings to the table. Thanks for the excellent review on this one. I am off to see if I can secure a copy for myself!

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  2. Braddon sounds wonderful–but should I start here or with Lady Audley's Secret?

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  3. I want to ditto Clare's question as that's exactly what I was wondering after reading the review. I have Lady Audley's Secret already, but I can definitely get my hands on this one first if that's what you think is best.

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  4. Zibilee, if you loved Lady Audley then I definitely think you'd love this as well. You know what, you should read it with Aarti - I'd be willing to bribe you both to jointly review this one ;)

    Clare and Trisha: I don't think it much matters. Lady Audley is a quicker read and easier to get into, but this one is more openly challenging of Victorian sexual mores. So if you read Lady Audley first and find it disappointingly conventional, please don't give up on Braddon!

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  5. I loved Lady Audley when I read it in college. I'll add this one as well.

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  6. Okay, I don't even have to tell you this, do I? That I'm way too wimpy to attempt this one? Despite how very incredible you made it sound. *sigh* Yes, yes, yes--you *really* need to pick me a few for our challenge that will break me away from my silly notions!!!

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  7. You have me very curious to know what her secret is!

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  8. I'm a sucker for books with pretty horses on the cover so I shall simply *have* to add this one to Mount TBR :)
    Sounds fascinating.

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  9. This sounds wonderful. I've read two books by Braddon and loved them both (Lady Audley's Secret and The Doctor's Wife) so I really need to read this one too!

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  10. Oh, I love finding more classics I want to read right away and this sounds like one of them. But I might want to start with Lady Audley's Secret? I'm not sure yet..

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  11. Elisabeth: Enjoy!

    Debi: You just wait and see... mwahahahaa ;)

    Kathleen: It's not nearly as shocking now as it would have been then, but the suspense as pretty fun :P

    Fence: Well, that's as good a reason to add it as any :P Happy reading!

    Helen: I need to read The Doctor's Wife! And I wish more of her novels were in print.

    Iris: You, Clare and Trisha should all just flip a coin :P

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  12. For years I keep saying I will read Lady Audley's Secret and just haven't gotten around to it. I didn't even realize she had another book. Oh so behind :)

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  13. I am dying to read this book - why the hell haven't I got round to it yet? Oh yeah, there are two million other books I am dying to read right now too. Sigh!

    I absolutely LOVED Lady Audley's Secret! It was my first foray into the world of Victorian sensationalism and I have never looked back - it's such good FUN!

    Great review, as always, Ana :)

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  14. I skipped your potential spoiler paragraphs. Hummm I just may have to pick this one up. Your passion for the book and author has hooked me.

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  15. I loved Lady Audley's Secret (and need to reread it soon under the aspect of female insanity and puerperal insanity suggested by Showalter) and really want to read more of Braddon's work. This one sounds great, especially now that you pointed out the subversive reading on Victorians' attitude on female sexuality :)

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  16. Like you I love M E Braddon and for similar reasons. I think she's incredably subversive under the guise of sensationalism, perhaps even more so in Lady Audley where I can't help but sympathise with the villianess. I have the Dr's Wife waiting to be read and must get to it soon.

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  17. I think I'll start with this one rather than Lady Audley's Secret. I have very particular ideas about what LAS should be like (it featured luridly in a Betsy-Tacy book I read as a kid), and I think I'd only end up being disappointed in it. I have no preconceptions about Aurora Floyd.

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  18. Iliana: She was extremely prolific and wrote dozens of novels - sadly, only a few are in print today!

    Boof: I know all about those two million other books! But I hope you get to this one soon, as I've no doubt you'd enjoy it :)

    Beth F: I'm glad to hear it!

    Bina: Can you believe I've yet to read any of Showalter's actual books? I know I love her just from the introductions to things she wrote, but it's about time I fix that :P

    Desperate Reader: [Spoilers warning for this comment] I think the reason why I found this one even more subversive was the ending. I sympathised with Lady Audley as well, but as expected she got punished in the end. Of course, that doesn't really erase all the possibilities the story raises, and I really loved it for that. But in this case, she actually allows Aurora to be happy in her second marriage, which I thought was very daring by Victorian standards.

    Jenny: I think you mentioned before that the character was told it was a filthy, shocking book? :P It's funny to think about how tame it seems today.

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  19. If I didn't have a fear of these Victorian novels, I would definitely run out and pick this one up :) It sounds really interesting.

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  20. This sounds wonderful. I love ambiguous, and it's interesting how less sensational can be much more powerful. I have yet to read Lady Audley's Secret but these two are definitely on my to read list!

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  21. Amy: I must come up with some sort of plan to cure all of you who suffer from Victorianphobia ;)

    Rebecca, I hope you'll enjoy them both!

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  22. Great in-depth review! I have to admit that I haven't read Lady Audley's secret, but its definitely been on my list of books to read and I actually will probably try to read Aurora Floyd before I read the other. I am a huge fan of books from this period and am always excited to hear of new books from this period that I have not heard of. Thanks for the post!

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  23. You've done it again – made me want to drop everything and read! I love it when you read older books, too, because I can usually find a free copy of it to download on my Nook :)

    Great review! Love that first block quote you shared.

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  24. Romance Books: You're most welcome! I hope you enjoy them both as much as I did.

    Emily: Hooray for Gutenberg! And I hope you enjoy this :)

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