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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Thou Art the Man: Sensation, Epilepsy, Genetic Determinism, and Feminine Spunk

For the podcast, click here:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837-1915) is known for her sensation novels – novels written for all levels of Victorian readers, randing from those grabbing a cheap book bound in yellow covers and sold in railway stations to those who read work serialized in popular magazines (one of which she founded and ran). 

Her novels explored the dark sides and inner workings of Victorians at all levels: prim and proper professionals, landed gentry, impoverished women, people in desperate poverty. Her novels also explore secrets and the question: “What on earth do you do if you find yourself in an impossible situation?”  In that manner, she is not so far from Jane Austen, who explored the issue of women in states of abject powerlessness almost a century earlier in Sense and Sensibility. 
Mary Elizabeth Braddon in her early years when she earned her living as an actress. 

I often wonder what kind of father Mary Elizabeth Braddon had. Her books are chock-full of absolutely amoral (if not immoral) fathers, who are frauds, imposters, scam artists, wastrels, cheats, bigamists, and, in some cases sociopathic murderers.

In Thou Art the Man (1894), Braddon’s father figure plunges to a new low. He has used his friend’s fishing knife to stab a beautiful young woman to death in a dark grove simply because she rejects his proposal of marriage, which was motivated by a combination of self-interest (she had been promised a large dowry by her adopted (who turned out to be her real) father) and lust. The father figure, Hubert Urquhart, the heir apparent of an impecunious earl who married stunningly well, into wealth, beauty, and breeding, is a dissipated, gambling, vice-prone former cavalry officer, who is also a widower with a young daughter.

To listen to a reading, please visit the Librivox recording of Thou Art the Man click here

Urquhart gets away with it because his friend, Brandon Mountford, whose fishing knife he used, suffers from epilepsy and has memory losses after his convulsions. Not surprisingly, when Mountford happens across the dead woman, the sight of it triggers a grand mal seizure. He comes to consciousness with no idea what has happened. He does not think he had any reason to kill – but Victorian psychology held that epileptic seizures turned people into demons (remember, this was the age of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) who slipped into uncontrollable homicidal rages, that generally targeted lovely (and often hot-blooded) women who happened to stray into their way.

In fact, the mystery in Thou Art the Man revolves around the question of guilt and also the nature of epilepsy itself. Mountford has lived in a kind of existential horror as he has witnessed his seizure disorder slowly destroy his dreams of being an attorney, and then of love, since he was determined never to marry, have children, and potentially pass along the disease. He read the medical literature of the day which detailed the progress of the disease and the prevailing belief that the seizures transformed the sufferer into a violent beast with no self control, and later, no memory of their actions.

Exploring debilitating conditions brings to mind other sensation writers, namely Wilkie Collins. 

Three years later, Urquhart’s young daughter, Coralie, happens upon the aftermath. Mountford, thinking himself to be a ravening monster, runs away (with the help of the murderer, who wants to make Mountford look guilty). Sibyl, the wealthy heiress in love with Mountford, marries Urquhart’s brother, the Earl, because she thinks that the community thinks that she was somehow part of the murder because she helped Mountford get away. So, in this loveless situation, she moves forward with her life, until a few fate-triggering incidences happen – she helps Urquhart’s unfortunate daughter and invites her to stay with her, and a mysterious note is delivered to her by a wild-eyed possibly mad vagrant.

I’m providing a little bit of plot summary just to give you an idea of how tangled and dark the webs are that Braddon weaves, and how every little sticky thread has a secret, a hidden past, a shameful horror, and a glittering prism of feelings, ambivalence, and confusion about one’s own identity and the identity of one’s loved ones.

Unlike many of Braddon’s earlier novels, in Thou Art the Man, it’s hard to know who is the hero. I maintain it is Coralie, although in theory, it could be Lady Sibyl.  Sibyl is not as interesting, though, and even though she is the one who really solves the mystery of the murder, it is Coralie, whose ambivalence and questionable morality both problematize her and make her sympathetic. After all, she knows she is her father’s daughter, much to her growing horror.

So, when the story opens, we meet Coralie, who had been relegated to a finishing school, where she is constantly on the verge of being ejected for lack of payment, and whose clothes are so worn that she is mocked by her fellow students.  By the way, this condition is nothing extraordinary in Braddon’s novels. I can think of at least a dozen young women in Braddon’s novels, who, talented and sensitive, must bear the horrors of abject dependency on the good will of the female owner of a young ladies’ school. In Thou Art the Man, Urquhart’s daughter, Coralie, is rescued from this cold, humiliating limbo by Lady Sibyl, who gives Coralie a place to live and a dress allowance – just enough, as Coralie says, to keep her completely aware of her dependence.

And this, I think, is a good place to talk about what is really revolutionary and fresh about Braddon’s novels, and Thou Art the Man in particular.

Coralie’s voice constitutes a large part of the narrative. It’s not all of it, nor is the structure something like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which is, in essence, a series of letters, reports, and documents, none of which give us the calming “we live in an ordered universe” feeling of the omniscient narrator.

Coralie has her own thoughts. She innately distrusts (wise girl!) her father. When her father asks her to observe Lady Sibyl’s household and send reports, she decides to keep two journals: one for him, and one for herself. It’s fascinating to read her reports to her father, and then to read her personal diary and learn what she really thinks, and how she truly questions what is happening.

I’m not aware of any other novel that contains such a technique. What is interesting, too, is that Coralie herself has doubts about her own integrity. She readily admits that she tends to prevaricate, and that it is difficult for her to be transparent. The reader sympathizes immediately because the poor girl has been absolutely abandoned in the world except for a very damaged (and damaging) scion. Like many of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s heroines, such as Violet Tempest in Vixen, Coralie is perhaps not a hothouse orchid, but is a quick-witted and intelligent young woman, who, if not a classic beauty, an energetic, practical and attractive woman, drawn to horses and long, revitalizing walks in nature.  

Darwinian ideas are alluded to in Thou Art the Man, and they are challenged at every turn. Braddon champions the idea of self-determination, and provides refutations at every turn of the over-deterministic notions that you are and must be the product (or consequence) of your perverse parental genes.

Secrets, deception, and hidden motives are standard fare in the Victorian sensation novel. In Wilkie Collins's novels, the core dilemma is often a challenge to middle class mores and a secret longing for polygamy (or at least legitimized bigamy). The requirement for monogamy destabilizes identity and has all sorts of pernicious consequences; one being murderous tendencies, and the other, a sad longing for oblivion, usually in the form of laudanum.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s world is animated by secrets, but most are driven by the need to survive, and can be often excused as misdirected pluckiness. That is, except for the truly dissipated and scoundrel father figures, which are often undeservingly forgiven at the end.

In Thou Art the Man, perhaps the most satisfying moment comes when Hubert Urquhart meets his end. He is now an Earl. He is powerful.  He is rich. And, he is miserable and in hideously poor health, thanks to years of vicious living. The fact that he murdered the one true love of his life and then murdered his own brother never escapes the reader; nor does it escape the reader that he is part of the British aristocracy.

Yes, Braddon is subversive, but not in ways that favor anarchy. She uses sensation to problematize hierarchy, and thus encourages her female readers to dream and to envision their own personal path to self-actualization and empowerment.


Just a quick response to TinkieToes’s review: Thank you.  I recorded on Librivox as beyondutopia. I held myself back – I thought that some of the passages were almost pleading for an exaggeratedly operatic delivery.  Sensation invites the “camp” response. 

But – Coralie’s diaries and her realistic voice militated against high camp, so I read in what I thought was the most modulated and almost flat way possible. I’m a bit surprised that it was considered at all dramatic. Well. It’s good to know how others respond. At any rate, I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to read, and also of the positive response. Thank you.



Now, just a very quick aside -- Brandon Mountford is portrayed in terms that are usually reserved for the feminine. As such, the dominating rhetorical mechanism is that of pathos. The character functions to trigger feelings of empathic helplessness, objectification, abject dependency upon the action of something or someone else...  and in that dependent state, there is an erotic trigger that is, above all, unhealthy. Braddon recognizes this.

So, when Mountford is held captive in an underfunded curate's crumbling extension of his cottage, it is not too surprising that he is utterly helpless and in his impotence, he is weirdly eroticized.

I suppose at the heart of it is the idea of power dimensions and differentials: the difference between Brandon's power (absolute ZERO) and anyone else's was something utterly empowering (and intellectually eroticizing). His seizure disorder stripped away his self-determination and made him weak and vulnerable. 

The implicit message is that you can have your way with him. That may not have been true, but it was the message. And, it was the message usually reserved for females. Does it take this sort of psychological atrocity to wake us up? It is good we know how it works.

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