Sometimes a sensation novel is just what you need.
I read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s two most famous novels – ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ and ‘Aurora Floyd’ many years ago, and I have them on my shelves, in green Virago Modern Classics editions, because I’d love to read them again one day. You see, in those days I didn’t look as far for books as I do now – I just looked in the library and bookshops and found more that enough to read – and nothing else caught my eye.
More recently though I noticed that in this world where so many Victoria authors are readily available online and in cheap printed editions, interesting publishers were printing lovely editions of different titles by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
That said to me that there had to be something about the books and their author that made them particularly interesting.
After reading one of them I can say that I think there was.
‘Henry Dunbar’ was the book that I reached for first, because it was the earliest, because I always like a full name in a book title, and because I saw that it would account for another year in my 100 Years of Books.
It’s a wonderfully readable book, and it illuminates Victorian views of class and gender, of crime and punishment, wonderfully well.
I could say more but I don’t want to say too much; and that reminds me to say that the additional material in the Victorian Secrets edition is fascinating, but the introduction gives away key plot points and so you should read the story before you even glance at anything else.
As a young man Henry Dunbar, heir to the London banking house, Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby, was spoiled and arrogant. When he fell into debt he convinced his friend Joseph Wilmot, a clerk at the bank with a gift for reproducing handwriting, to help him create forged bonds that he could use to pay off his creditors.
When the bank uncovered the fraud and he was confronted, Henry Dunbar denied responsibility and blamed Joseph Wilmot for everything. His uncle banished him to the firm’s Indian office and summarily dismissed his accomplice.
The story opened thirty years after those events.
Henry Dunbar was coming home. He would be senior partner of Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby, as his father and his uncle were both dead, and he would be reunited with his daughter, Laura, who he hadn’t seen since he sent her home many years earlier, after the death of the wife he met and married in India.
Joseph Wilmot, with no character from his employer, had been unable to secure another position without a reference, had fallen into bad company had been transported after a criminal conviction. He was back in England, living with his daughter, Margaret, who knew nothing of his past, when he learned from his brother, still an employee of Dunbar, Dunbar & Balderby, that his nemesis was returning to England.
And so two men set off to welcome Henry Dunbar. One who was sent by the bank and one who was determined to call him to account for the downward spiral that his life had taken.
Only one of those two men would meet Henry Dunbar.
Only one of the three would return to London; much later than he had been expected, and not quite freed from his entanglement in a criminal investigation that had baffled police.
The plotting is very well done, but I’d be giving too much away if I said more.
What makes this book particularly interesting is the two young women – Laura and Margaret. Their stations in life are very different, but each has a suitor and is very close to marriage, and each must come to terms with their father’s past and the fact that there is much to his character of which they were unaware. And of course one has a father who is present, and who is behaving in ways that they can’t quite understand; and the one has a father who has not come home and who she will do all that she can to find.
The joy of this book comes not from the revelation of its secret – which is easy to work out, not least because the author herself drops such heavy hints – but from seeing the reactions to the revelation and watching the drama unfold.
The plot continues to intrigue. There’s a mysterious stranger; there’s a jewellery theft; there’s blackmail; there’s a dramatic chase across country with a police inspector determined to get his man; and there’s a good dash of love and romance.
Everything a sensation novel could want!
Mary Elizabeth Braddon manages her plot very well, she writes engagingly, and if her characters are not quite so finely drawn, her plots not quite so innovative, and those of her contemporaries …. well that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this book, because she did all of the things that she needed to make it work.
If you enjoy sensation novels this one is well worth reading; for the story and for its view of the period.