Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Face in the Glass - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

'The Face in the Glass' from the British Library tales of the weird series is a collection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's gothic tales edited by Greg Buzwell.

'Lady Audley's Secret' has to be Braddon's best known book, I first read it about a decade ago (it was one of the first books I posted about on Here) after a lifetime of meaning to read it. It made quite an impression, and I still don't understand why it isn't as frequently adapted as 'The Woman in White' has been. Both published in the early 1860's and along with 'East Lynne' are the beginnings of Victorian sensation fiction.

I discovered Wilkie Collins novels, appropriately enough in my great great uncles dusty Edwardian library as a teenager. Any valuable books were long gone, but there were yards of slightly damp uncut Wilkie in cheap green covers. House and Library were sold together before I got to discover much more then those and bound editions of Punch which makes me wonder what other Victorian gems I might have missed out on discovering at that impressionable age.

Collins gave an inkling that the place of women in Victorian society might have been more interesting than I had assumed, Braddon more than confirms that, both in her own life and with her writing.

Reading the collection of her gothic tales I'm struck again by both how good she is, and the subtle but profound differences between her stories and those of male contemporaries that I'm familiar with. This collection opens with 'The Cold Embrace' in which a feckless art student is haunted by the ghost of his fiancé.

It's not entirely clear where Braddon's sympathies lie in this story, even if the young artist should have been more constant in his affections his fate seems like a harsh one, and there's a sense that the young woman could have made better choices. 'At Chrighton Abbey' is a good old fashioned ghost story, and as it begins I had assumed the narrator is a young man.

I think Braddon does this on purpose, re reading it she's careful not to mention gender for a good few pages, and when she does it comes as a surprise. Her narrator is the child of a Chrighton cousin, left more or less destitute when her father dies so she heads off first to Vienna, and then to St Petersburg where she earns good money as a teacher. Then in her 30's she goes home for Christmas where she's welcomed with open arms by her relations. This is not Brontë country, but rather a precursor of the independent new woman.

Indeed there are a few independent women in this collection who either set out to earn their own living, or are amply supplied with their own money. They are in stark contrast to the desperate creature in 'The Cold Embrace'. 'The Ghost's Name' is also interesting, both for its humour including a prosaic afternote to the main drama which is an excellent punchline, and the way it discusses  domestic violence.

Altogether this is a wonderful collection, getting just the right balance between being entertaining and providing something more to think about under the stories than just their entertainment value. It's also an excellent introduction to Braddon, why she's so interesting and how she can feel quite subversive.


  1. This sounds terrific! I've only ever read Lady A's Secret. Why don't I have more time to read?

  2. I know that feeling. Lady Audley is my favourite sensation novel (to date) and I think worth finding time for. This collection is another good example of Braddon being brilliant if you have more time for short stories rather than a novel.

  3. I loved Lady Audley's Secret and I keep meaning to read more of her books -- I've also read Aurora Floyd and The Trail of the Serpent which is also really fun. I hadn't heard about her shorter fiction so I'll have to track this one down. Thanks for the review!

    1. I really enjoyed this collection, it's well worth looking out for.