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Review: Aurora Floyd, by Mary E. Braddon


Pages: 384
Original date of publication: 1863
My copy: 1984 (Virago Modern Classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, September 2011

Aurora Floyd is a member of that genre of novels called Victorian sensationalist fiction. Published in the 1860s, sensationalist novels, mostly written by women, addressed the fears that people of that era had and addressed issues such as adultery, bigamy, murder, and other scandalous social issues. Nothing is ever what it seems in a novel like this. This novel has all the classic elements of this brand of novel: a young woman, Aurora Floyd has a deep, dark secret, which leads her to reject marriage proposals from two men (but then accept one). As the story plays out, her secret threatens to come out as well and destroy the life she’s created.

Aurora isn’t your typical Victorian heroine, but given the heroines we seem in fiction these days, she’s pretty much the same as the rest: she’s strong-willed, unfeminine, active, and willing to defy contemporary social issues. She’s not subversive in the way that Lady Audley is; she doesn’t actively try to create a new persona for herself. In the end, despite her so-called unlikeable traits, we come to like her and sympathize with her. Still, Aurora is a fascinating character. Also fascinating are the themes; it’s interesting that she’s the daughter of an actress, because in essence the whole novel is kind of like a stage play, with melodrama and dramatic illusion.

Although the subject matter is tame to our modern sensibilities, it’s important to look at the environment in which they were written. Lady Audley’s Secret was written just before this book; and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne was published at around the same time. The newspaper reviewers of the time were brutal towards writers of sensationalist novels, especially towards what they perceived as moral laxity. “Sensationalist novels as a whole were called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite,” wrote the Quarterly Review in 1863. Writers of sensationalist fiction poked fun of various aspects of daily life, including conventional marriage (Aurora’s cousin Lucy is an example of such). So its interesting to see how the exposure of the underbelly of Victorian mores, as well as the reaction to it, both say something about the time period in which these books were written.

Comments

I keen to read this one, as I loved the other two sensational novels you mention. I'm glad it sounds like a good match to those two.

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