Sensational Victorian Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Report on our meeting held on 22nd October 2018

Our speaker was Dr. Janine Hatter, Honorary Research Associate at Hull University. Her topic was Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a nineteenth-century theatrical and literary sensation who shocked Victorians with scandals in both her writing and personal life.

Janine explained that Mary started her career in about 1852 at the age of 17 as an actress touring nationwide for 8 years, eventually taking leading lady parts and working alongside famous male actors.  Her stage name was Mary Seyton. She took on male roles more often than most actresses and this led to some condemnation.

Her final performance was at the request of a Hull’s Queen’s Theatre owners Messrs Wolfenden and Melbourne, and was a benefit concert to raise funds for creating a park on land in Hull donated by the Lord Mayor Zachariah Pearson. Janine showed how this was not universally welcomed. One Trust member regarded this theatre as a curse to the town which led to a dram shop opening on every corner and therefore an unsuitable benefactor.

Mary settled in Beverley as a governess and began to write. Her topical poems were about the horrors of the Indian Mutiny (her brother Edward was a soldier serving there); and Garibaldi and the Italian war of independence against Napoleon. Mary also wrote short stories and a novel at this time.

Janine gave examples of her writing and explained the mixed fortunes she had with agents. It was John Gilby who successfully promoted her work and offered her a living wage so she could concentrate on her writing.

One novel “Three Times Dead” is considered the earliest piece of crime fiction in the English language. She wrote for popular periodicals too, including the ghost story “Cold Embrace”.  It was the popularity of her sensational novel about a murderous women “Lady Audley’s Secret” that secured her financially.

By now Mary was living in London but her heart remained in Yorkshire and her literature reflected this. Many stories were set in Yorkshire towns, some with tweaked names. Her Wildensea in “Lady Audley’s Secret” is clearly Withernsea. Janine quoted Mary’s comments when moving south. Mary “learnt to love the Yorkshire people, and left Yorkshire almost broken-hearted.”

If Mary’s acting and writing shocked society, Janine thought that her private life would also have shocked. She lived with a married man who already had five children and she bore him an extra six. Mary died in 1915.

The Prior Garry Sunley asked Kay Kenny to give the vote of thanks.  In her thanks to Janine for the remarkable life story of Mary Braddon she remarked what a strong Yorkshire woman Mary must have been.