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Braddon, Mary Elizabeth (1835–1915)

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth (1835–1915)

English novelist and editor. Name variations: Mrs. M.E. Maxwell; (as an actress) Mary Seyton. Born Mary Elizabeth Braddon on October 4, 1835, in London, England (some sources cite 1837); died on February 4, 1915, in Richmond, Surrey, England; daughter of Henry Braddon (a lawyer and writer) and Fanny (White) Braddon; sister of Sir Edward Braddon, prime minister of Tasmania; married John Maxwell (a London publisher), in 1874; children: seven, including two sons, William B. Maxwell and Gerald Maxwell, who became novelists.

Selected writings:

The Trail of the Serpent; or Three Times Dead (1861); Lady Lisle (1861); Lady Audley's Secret (1862); Aurora Floyd (1863); Eleanor's Victory (1863); John Marchmont's Legacy (1863); Henry Dunbar (1864); The Doctor's Wife (1864); Birds of Prey (1867); Charlotte's Inheritance (1868); The Green Curtain (1911); Mary (published posthumously, 1916).

Born on October 4, 1835, in London, Mary Elizabeth Braddon was four when her parents separated, and she was raised by her mother. Early on, she began writing for magazines in order to supplement the family income. In 1861, after a brief fling on the stage under the name Mary Seyton, she produced her first novel, The Trail of the Serpent; or Three Times Dead. That same year, she was praised for an epic poem on Garibaldi, as well as a short novel, Lady Lisle. Her most famous novel, Lady Audley's Secret, was written in 1862, for Robin Goodfellow, a serial owned by London publisher John Maxwell, but was published later in three volumes in the Sixpenny Magazine, owned by William Tinsley. Favorably reviewed, it not only established Braddon's reputation as a novelist, but made a fortune for Tinsley, who built a villa called Audley Lodge from the proceeds. The book, one of the first sensation novels of the 1860s, involved bigamy, arson, and murder attempts, subjects hitherto unacceptable in fiction, but made palatable by Braddon's style and treatment. She followed with Aurora Floyd (a novel with a strong affinity to Madame Bovary) and Eleanor's Victory, in which murder was a central theme.

Braddon is credited with introducing an innovation into popular fiction whereby wickedness, traditionally portrayed as ugly, is imbued with grace and beauty. She is also known for inventing a crime mystery surrounded by everyday circumstances, yet devoid of the formulaic "detective novel" mechanism. Her later novels were noted for their artistic form and finish, and her Mohawk was considered an excellent study of fashionable life in the time of Pope, Walpole, and Chesterfield.

While Braddon's literary career took off, a love affair with publisher John Maxwell developed. Maxwell was unable to marry because his wife was in an asylum, so the couple lived together, with Braddon bearing a child in 1862. They finally married in 1874, amid great scandal, and had six more children.

In the meantime, Braddon turned out novels in rapid succession, all in the same vein, all achieving instant popularity. By 1899, 57 of her titles were available in cheap editions called yellowbacks. She also published in a variety of popular periodicals of the period, including Reynolds' Miscellany, the London Journal, and All the Year Round. She edited Belgravia for ten years beginning in 1876, and the Belgravia Annual (1867–1877), both owned by Maxwell.

As Braddon wrote well into her 70s, she became less sensational in her later fiction, refining her artistic form and concentrating more on the psychological aspects of her stories. Her 80th book, The Green Curtain (1911), was published when she was 74. Her last novel, Mary, was published in 1916, a year after her death.


Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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