Eighty novels in just shy of eighty years is a worthy milestone for any author, but Mary Elizabeth Braddon was more beyond that notable achievement, a former actor who also founded and edited the illustrated literary magazine Belgravia which not only published serialised novels and other works of fiction but essays on history and science, matters sometimes considered beyond the interests of women.
Despite this admirable enlightenment, it was in another male-dominated arena in which she made her name, short stories of Gothic and supernatural horror: “The thing that haunts the room may be an unresting conscience burdened with a crime unatoned, or a wicked soul that died and made no sign, and even in the grave is tortured with its lust of sin, hate, jealousy, wicked love – who knows?”
Her reputation perhaps overlooked a century past her death in February 1915, fourteen of her short stories have been collected by editor Greg Buzwell for the British Library as part of their Tales of the Weird series in The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, written through the period from 1860 to 1896 and arranged chronologically, though one was not published until 1907, taking the author from around age twenty five to her early sixties.
Opening with The Cold Embrace and Eveline’s Visitant, both are straightforward and representative of the broad strokes of the genre of the period, a lover spurned, a duel between romantic rivals, a tragedy or a curse, but are unusually well-written with an eye for detail which carries them forward despite their vintage, while My Wife’s Promise is more adventurous in setting though thematically similar.
The tale of the ill-fated expedition to the Arctic of explorer Richard Dunrayne, sworn to remain with his wife but inevitably called to the north, all three of the opening stories are told from a male perspective though obviously crafted with the insight of a woman into these men who have loved their wives faithfully and fully to the grave and beyond.
That cold setting is carried into the Christmas gathering of 1871’s At Chrighton Abbey as sceptical schoolteacher Miss Sarah Chrighton visits her ancestral home, a poor cousin welcomed home for the celebrations only to find a family haunted by the past, the herald of ill omen a phantom hunt, red-coated on horseback, whose appearance always brings death.
Braddon conveying a great sense of period and place, she also has an awareness of class and gender without being beholden to the conventions of it; Sarah is well-travelled and independent, unlikely to grow pale and swoon and require sal volatile, but even those rare few who are married and genuinely loved are beholden to their husbands: “So does a great sorrow change the current of a woman’s life.”
The experiences of Braddon as a performer plays a part in the next two stories, the stylistic shift of Three Times from first-person to a more complex narrative as a lion-tamer is haunted to his death, the characters and their quirks sharply drawn and with as much black humour as blood spilled in the traumatic death of Herr Rudolph Prusinowski, while Her Last Appearance returns to Braddon’s familiar travelling companions of passion, betrayal and tragedy.
Again ahead of her peers, the attic room is the location of 1879’s The Shadow in the Corner as the master of Wildheath Grange determines to allay the unfounded fears of a frightened servant girl by spending a night in the room himself in a story which sets science and religion against each other, while the title story is another wintry tale as on a cold night of bright full moon the newlywed Hugh and Ruth Monroe break the ennui of their weather-enforced isolation with a ghost hunt in the upstairs rooms where Hugh indeed catches sight of The Face in the Glass.
Braddon in her mid-fifties when His Oldest Friends was written, her protagonist possibly conveys the feelings of his creator when he muses on mortality, the tally of friends lost to war, disease, drink, suicide, on how much easier it was to make friends in his youth, but when a dinner guest asks the host for a ghost story only to be told there is none in the restored chateau he has inherited, is Braddon mocking her readers or setting a trap for them?
The latter is certainly the case with The Ghost’s Name with its carefully telegraphed twist, all the necessary clues presented amidst the accustomed trappings of the genre, an unhappy marriage, a woman trapped in the expectations of society, the ancestral ghost, all conjured with a sharp turn of phrase, often humorous: “It was only the first week of September… people were still pretending to think it summer.”
Demonstrating Braddon’s powers of mood and description, The Island of Old Faces also hints at a prosaic explanation to the riddle presented though the brief narrative chooses not to make the solution explicit, while The Higher Life is an almost abstract piece which shows how deftly she can sum up the salient point of the personality of an individual and their value to another while using those archetypes to present some of her broadest ideas.
Miss Violetta Hammond, a lady considered reckless of the future and forgetful of the past as she winters in Italy, falls victim to another cursed mirror in Herself, Braddon offering no explanation for the object despite the readers’ awareness of it, a mechanism of the horror but not the purpose of it, while the the collection closes with one of the most surprising stories as poor but determined Bella Rolleston of Walworth seeks a position as a paid companion.
With no accomplishments and no education, she is initially grateful to the of Good Lady Ducayne but that generosity hides a darker purpose in this tale published the year before Dracula but whose simple and horrifying premise was far in advance of its time, another confirmation that Mary Elizabeth Braddon was one of the finest Gothic writers of her era, and praise is due to the British Library and Greg Buzwell for keeping her memory alive.