Oct 10, 2011

Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Henry Dunbar by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Henry Dunbar opens with a story that takes place some thirty years before the actual action of the novel: the title character, the heir of the banking house of Dunbar, Dunbar and Balderby, is involved in a forgery. In an attempt to find his way out of gambling debts, Henry Dunbar convinces his loyal servant Joseph Wilmot to help him forge some bills. When the two are discovered, Henry Dunbar’s guilt is hushed by his father and uncle, the owners of the bank, who send him off to India to avoid any scandal. Mr Wilmot, however, loses his job and has to live with the stigma of criminality for the rest of his life. Thirty years later, Henry Dunbar is due to return to England after his father and uncle’s passing to claim his inheritance. And Joseph Wilmot has not forgotten that he was used, betrayed, and cast aside.

This is all you need to know about the plot going in: everything that happens in Henry Dunbar is determined by these events, but I won’t tell you any more. Henry Dunbar is a suspenseful novel, but not because there are any secrets, twists or surprises. Within a few chapters you’ll likely guess what’s going to happen, even though the text never outright says it. Still, the suspense is very much there, and it’s entirely of the will-he-get-away-with-it kind – think The Secret History. For most of the novel, Mary Elizabeth Braddon only shows us the title character from the outside, and it’s amazing how skilfully she nevertheless gets across his inner turmoil, all through silences, gestures, actions, or their absence. And it’s equally amazing how not having the text confirm something that you do know to be true keeps you turning the pages.

Like most Victorian sensation fiction, Henry Dunbar is concerned with criminal going-ons in “respectable” middle- and upper-class circles. It’s also concerned with what Anne-Marie Beller calls “the performativity of class” in her excellent introduction: Braddon carefully puts together an argument against essentialism of any kind, against an ideology fixed aptitudes, against the very idea of neat little boxes into which people will easily fit, all of which were crucial for the Victorian class system.

And even more importantly, at the centre of is novel is a critique of the biases of the penal system (and of capital punishment in particular), which is as pertinent today as when it was written in 1864. To quote from the introduction again, Henry Dunbar deals with the “prevailing double standards in perceptions of criminality and the very practical ways in which these assumptions influence the judicial process”. If this is a contentious topic today, imagine at the time. The novel was met with outraged reviews, some of which are included in the Victorian Secrets edition for our reading pleasure.

Gender is not as central to Henry Dunbar as it was to the two Mary Elizabeth Braddon novels I’d read before, but the story is nevertheless concerned with disenfranchised women; with women who transgress the boundaries of gender acceptability. Once again, Braddon has written a heroine who takes matters into her own hand, and who in many ways subverts traditional gender roles and Victorian social norms and yet is not shunned for it.

Another reason to love Henry Dunbar is Braddon’s customary incisive writing. Who said the Victorians had no sense of humour? Here’s an example:
In short, everybody felt that the Abbey wedding was destined to be more or less a failure. It seemed very hard that the chief partner in the firm of Dunbar, Dunbar, and Balderby could not, with all his wealth, buy a little glimmer of sunshine to light up his daughter’s wedding. It grew so dark and foggy towards eleven o’clock, that a dozen or so of wax-candles were hastily stuck about the neighbourhood of the altar, in order that the bride and bridegroom might be able, each of them, to see the person that he or she was taking for better or worse.
Yes, the dismal weather made everything dismal in unison with itself. A wet wedding is like a wet pic-nic. The most heroic nature gives way before its utter desolation; the wit of the party forgets his best anecdote; the funny man breaks down in the climactic verse of his great buffo song; there is no brightness in the eyes of the beauty; there is neither sparkle nor flavour in the champagne, though the grapes thereof have been grown in the vineyards of Widow Cliquot herself.
(…)
I think the Lisford beadle, who was a sound Tory of the old school, almost wondered that the heavens themselves should be audacious enough to wet the uncovered head of the lord of Jocelyn’s Rock.
As I have discussed before, sensation novels (particularly Wilkie Collins’, though I love them all the same) often have endings that seem deliberately designed to keep up the appearance of Victorian respectability; endings which are concessions towards a much greater degree of conformity than what is suggested by the questions raised throughout the course of the novel. These endings are understandable but frustrating, and often I have to force myself shrug them aside. There is some of that in Henry Dunbar, but for the most part Mary Elizabeth Braddon surprised me with how far she was willing to go. The ending is unexpectedly daring – no wonder her writing was so passionately dismissed.

Henry Dunbar is a page-turner and an excellent October read: dark, suspenseful, subversive, subtly humorous, and full of social commentary that remains relevant 150 years later.

You can download it as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

14 comments:

  1. I am still meaning to read something by Braddon; maybe one of the two I have on my pile should be read now that it is the time of year for sensation novels...

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  2. I have two of her books on my shelves, and I haven't read either yet! Bad me!

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  3. You do find some fabulous books. I haven't heard of Braddon but I like the sound of it. Especially being Victorian!

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  4. I have read one book by Braddon, but I had never even heard of this one before today. It sounds like it may be promising, even if it is a little easy to figure out where the plot is leading. I liked your analysis on this book, and think I am going to have to find it. I swear, Ana, you are one of the biggest contributors to my ever growing TBR list and my towering shopping carts! I just love the books you read and review!

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  5. I loved Lady Audley so I'll definitely read her other works as well(after the thesis, guh). I love how these sensationalist novels have been so differently interpreted and regarded since their publication. Wonder which angle readers in a hundred years will take.

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  6. I have to say, I have a thing for revenge stories. You've intrigued me on this one. :)

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  7. It's so impressive when an author can keep a story suspenseful even though you know what's going to happen. This book sounds excellent, I'll be on the lookout for it! Great review, as usual :)

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  8. Books that are suspenseful despite the lack of mystery are odd ducks, but I like them. It takes a good writer to make suspense where it seems like there should hardly be any.

    I don't have much experience with Victorian novels, but that's really interesting what you say about the endings keeping up appearances. Sounds like a real bait and switch when it comes to asking so many questions and then backing off in favor of the expected conformity to the norm. I'll have to read a few to see what you mean, and I think Henry Dunbar will be one of them!

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  9. Wonderful review, Ana! I want to read this book now! I loved your observation - "it’s equally amazing how not having the text confirm something that you do know to be true keeps you turning the pages."

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  10. This sounds like such a good read. When I was first reading your description I kept thinking this sound like it could be a biography!

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  11. Though I have not read in her many years, I consider myself a fan of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It's great to see more of her work is available. She must have quite a backlist out there, waiting to be re-printed.

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  12. This sounds like a great read, especially for this time of year. And you're certainly not the first person to review and recommend Braddon's work to me, I really need to pull my finger out and read some of her work.

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  13. "but for the most part Mary Elizabeth Braddon surprised me with how far she was willing to go"

    I like the way that you've expressed that; it's true that we often have to accept that the distance to which the envelope has been pushed is the greatest consolation when it comes to resolution, alongside the elements of the novel that we have enjoyed unproblematically. I've only read one of her novels, but I've gathered a couple of others and am looking forward to them!

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  14. Thanks for the great review! I'm about to start this as a project on LibriVox (volunteers reading audiobooks in the public domain) and it was the best summary I read online when deciding which book to get cataloged.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.