Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Aurora Floyd is Pretty Bad, But It’s also Pretty Good.
My rereading of Dracula has rather lapsed, through no particular fault of the novel’s. It’s just that I’m also reading a lot of other things, some for fun (Wolf Hall), some, as always for work. In the latter category is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Aurora Floyd. Aurora Floyd is an example of what is known as a ‘sensation novel,’ a genre that is generally considered to have emerged in the 1860s: Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is often considered the novel that launched the genre, largely because it was seen by contemporary reviewers to be doing something new and shocking, though just how firm a line can in fact be drawn between sensation novels and other novels of the period is debatable. Just why the Victorians perceived, or wanted to perceive, sensation fiction as something distinct is another interesting question, but one for another day. Until quite recently, sensation novels were not just noncanonical but basically unknown, inside and outside the academy; The Woman in White and Collins’s later masterpiece of crime fiction, The Moonstone (also, in its day, understood more or less as a kind of sensation novel) are the exceptions. In recent years, however, there has been a surge of interest in sensation novels, motivated by increased attention to popular and ‘genre’ fiction of all kinds as well as to ‘women’s fiction’ (Elaine Showalter, in A Literature of Their Own  was one of the first critics I know of to have taken sensation fiction at all seriously). The recent Palgrave volume Victorian Sensation Fiction: A reader’s guide to essential criticism maps the now substantial array of scholarly sources available.
Though I was never assigned a sensation novel myself in any graduate or undergraduate course, I have included Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret on the syllabus for my 19th-century novel courses almost since I began teaching them. I think there are lots of good reasons for doing so. First, it’s a whole lot of fun and most of my students love it. Second, it’s a genuinely interesting novel that engages with all kinds of issues that come up in our other readings as well: social mobility, particularly for women; the morality of marriage; gender roles (Lady Audley’s Secret is particularly playful about standards of masculinity); aesthetics; literary traditions and conventions, especially the Gothic (sensation fiction is essentially updated and domesticated Gothic fiction); and literary devices, including strategies of narration, characterization, symbolism, and so forth. Finally, it gives me a chance to talk to them about questions of canonicity and literary merit, including ways categories and standards shift over time. When Great Expectations was first reviewed, some, including Margaret Oliphant, considered it Dickens’s excursion into sensation fiction; one reviewer considered George Eliot’s Mrs. Transome, in Felix Holt (1866), Lady Audley’s cousin. But today, both Dickens and George Eliot are obviously canonical, and these novels are (typically) not considered ‘sensational.’ Can we understand why? Do we agree with those critics (then and now) who see Braddon’s work as conspicuously inferior, artistically or morally? Does Braddon’s work have other merits, distinct, perhaps, from the qualities we value in those other writers? What are the qualities of a ‘good’ book? Must they be aesthetic qualities, or should entertainment, or ingenuity, or political subversiveness, or philosophical acuity, also be taken into account? (Are we sure those are not ‘aesthetic’ qualities? Is artistry the same as craft? Is plot an aspect of craft or, as some critics held, and hold, is it juvenile or at least of secondary importance? What about suspense? Is it a ‘literary’ quality?) Is popularity a good reason to single a book or author out for attention in our course, given that inevitably, any syllabus is a zero-sum game? Especially because the students usually, in a straightforward readerly way, like Lady Audley’s Secret a lot (many report that it is their favourite book of the term), it is fun and, I think, productive and instructive, to involve them in thinking about why, and about the relationship between that readerly pleasure and other ways to measure the quality or value of a novel.
I’m just been working through Lady Audley’s Secret again, not just with my survey class on the 19th-century novel, but also in an upper-level seminar focused exclusively on sensation fiction. We’re reading four ‘major’ examples of this ‘minor’ genre: The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, Aurora Floyd, and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne. Then we’re taking some time to examine Victorian responses, and then contemporary critical responses, before reading Sarah Waters’s brilliant revision of sensation fiction, Fingersmith (2002) (which, just by the way, I highly recommend). This is definitely a context in which the (in)famous question ‘But is it any good?’ is bound to be on my mind, along with the other kinds of questions that came up in the recent thread about reasons for teaching (or not teaching, or liking or not liking) Dracula. I have to be honest and say that to my mind, the quality of the writing as writing in this week’s novel, Aurora Floyd, is not that impressive. Lady Audley’s Secret is more efficient and artful (not much more, mind you); Aurora Floyd rather rambles on, with what often strikes me as too much--too much description, too much repetition, too much foreshadowing, too many narrative intrusions, too much writing for not enough plot. I feel this as I read, though it is difficult to point to any specific example and say, “here, this strikes a false note,” or “this has to go.” After all, my favourite and most-admired novels are also long and full of narrative intrusions. Still, I believe Aurora Floyd is a badly written novel. And yet I also think it is a good novel, considered from a different perspective, or held to a different standard. Basically, it is a very interesting novel, taking up themes that are found in many other 19th-century novels and manipulating them in unexpected ways. It is also quite readable, for all of its faults, suspenseful and full of highly charged bits and pieces, of which this is the most notorious:
Aurora was on the threshold of the gates opening from the stables into the gardens, when she was arrested by a howl of pain from the mastiff Bow-wow. Rapid as lightning in every movement, she turned round in time to see the cause of this cry. Steeve Hargraves had sent the animal reeling away from him with a kick from his iron-bound clog. Cruelty to animals was one of the failings of the “softy.” He was not cruel to the Mellish horses, for he had sense enough to know that his daily bread depended upon his attention to them; but Heaven help any outsider that came in his way. Aurora sprang upon him like a beautiful tigress, and, catching the collar of his fustian jacket in her slight hands, rooted him to the spot upon which he stood. The grasp of those slender hands, convulsed by passion, was not to be easily shaken off; and Steeve Hargraves, taken completely off his guard, stared aghast at his assailant. Taller than the stable-man by a foot and a half, she towered above him, her cheeks white with rage, her eyes flashing fury, her hat fallen off, and her black hair tumbling about her shoulders, sublime in her passion.
The man crouched beneath the grasp of the imperious creature.
“Let me go,” he gasped, in his inward whisper, which had a hissing sound in his agitation; “let me go, or you’ll be sorry; let me go!”
“How dared you!” cried Aurora--"how dared you hurt him? My poor dog! My poor, lame, feeble dog! How dared you do it? You cowardly dastard! you--”
She disengaged her right hand from his collar, and rained a shower of blows upon his clumsy shoulders with her slender whip; a mere toy, with emeralds set in its golden head, but stinging like a rod of flexible steel in that little hand.
“How dared you!” she repeated again and again, her cheeks changing from white to scarlet in the effort to hold the man with one hand. Her tangled hair had fallen to her waist by this time, and the whip was broken in half a dozen places.
John Mellish [her husband], entering the stable-yard by chance at this very moment, turned white with horror at beholding the beautiful fury.
“Aurora! Aurora!” he cried, snatching the man’s collar from her grasp, and hurling him half a dozen paces off. “Aurora, what is it?”
She told him, in broken gasps, the cause of her indignation. He took the splintered whip from her hand, picked up her hat which she had trodden upon in her rage, and led her across the yard toward the back entrance to the house. It was such bitter shame to him to think that this peerless, this adored creature should do anything to bring disgrace or even ridicule upon herself. He would have stripped off his coat and fought with half a dozen coal-heavers, and thought nothing of it; but that she--
“Go in, go in, my darling girl,” he said, with sorrowful tenderness; “the servants are peeping and prying about, I dare say. You should not have done this; you should have told me.”
“I should have told you!” she cried, impatiently. “How could I stop to tell you when I saw him strike my dog--my poor, lame dog?”
“Go in, darling, go in! There, there, calm yourself, and go in."
Awful, isn’t it? And yet, at the same time, I find it irresistible--not just that Braddon offers us a heroine who cannot control her passions (and take my word for it, defense of harmless puppies is the least of her offenses against womanly decorum) but that she steadfastly refuses to demonize her. She even gives Aurora a foil, in the person of her tediously pretty and virtuous cousin Lucy, who looks dull as dishwater next to the tempestuous Aurora. Collins does something similar with his dark heroine Marian Halcombe, but it’s her tepid blonde half-sister Laura who is the love interest in The Woman in White, while Marian’s “ugly” face (complete with mustache) marks her as unfeminine in her strength and resolution (it’s possible, and indeed I think probably true, that Collins intends some irony at the expense of his hero, Walter Hartright, whose heart is conspicuously not right in his preference for Laura--but that’s another story). Aurora, on the other hand, is all woman all the time, and she gets (and gets to keep) a good husband without really being subdued (we’re told she is just “a shade less defiantly bright” at the novel’s conclusion). It’s a sort of crazy, uneven, novel. I find myself thinking of it as bulbous, though I’m not sure how that can be so! It’s novel that provokes me. It’s a novel I might even decide I like. Maybe, like the Victorianist who started J. C. Hallman down his long path to, well, wherever he has ended up, I’m just one more example of someone who has completely lost her literary bearings thanks to the corrupting influence of academic criticism. Or maybe there’s more than one legitimate reason to like a book. Even a bad one.
This is totally irrelevant to all your significant points, but I have to know: “Taller than the stable-man by a foot and a half”?! Is the stable-man a midget? Is Aurora a giantess? Or is this just a bit of excess in describing the scene?
Actually, it’s not an altogether irrelevant question. The stable-man, also known as the “Softy” because he’s, well, soft in the head, is later described as “hump-backed”; he was injured in a fall from a horse, which I think is responsible for his physical deformity, though at the same time the narrator encourages us to read his “repulsive” aspect as Nature’s warning to “avoid that creature”: “it is nature which has planted that shuddering terror in your breast.” Anyway, I assume that Aurora towers over him because he is stooped.