Reflections: Mary Elizabeth Braddon - pioneering author who helped shape Lyndhurst
BY the latter years of the 19th century Bournemouth had become a town and resort of national repute.
During the summer various hotels were involved in promoting charabanc excursions (horse-drawn in those times) to the surrounding countryside and amongst these a great favourite was the New Forest tour which generally included a visit to view the exterior of the mansion Mary Braddon and her husband John Maxwell had newly built in a beautiful location at Bank.
Sited incongruously in this picturesque and isolated settlement of modest dwellings with a few cottages, why should this large house called Annesley be especially attractive? Solely because it was renowned as the home of Mary Elizabeth Braddon one of the most popular and reviled authors of the Victorian era; strangely little known today and with only one of her books currently to be found on booksellers’ shelves.
A sketch of her life before Lyndhurst
Mary was born on 4th October 1835 into a Cornish family but her parents separated when she was only four and she and her two siblings moved to Sussex with their mother, settling shortly afterwards in Kensington. Here her schooling was in Scarsdale, a private school for girls. But it was evident she was hankering after making some kind of impression in the wider world of the arts. Before attaining the age of 20, she joined an acting company in Bath and made sufficient success due to her competent commitment to this, a then often dubious profession.
She adopted the stage name of Mary Seaton (sometimes Seyton) and moved to the Theatre Royal in Southampton and to Winchester, then to theatres in the Midlands, and to Hull and Beverley in Yorkshire, always accompanied by her mother Fanny Braddon. She took part in farces, comedies and tragedies and all the while in her spare moments was writing, which became an enduring passion in her life.
Her early works were published as serials in the cheap popular journals that proliferated in early Victorian England. This was a common outlet for literary works and even giants such as Charles Dickens used this media to get their works into the public eye. Braddon was herself a prolific reader and was soon communicating, usually quite casually, with established authors.
When reviewed, most of her early works were condemned, not for literary deficiency but for their morality and often incipient horror – but she had supporters in the publishing world because her works were very popular amongst the public. A Mary Braddon story would sell.
Her most renowned novel today is the best-selling Lady Audley’s Secret, published in 1862 but probably written mainly in 1861 when she was around 26 and still in the midst of her acting career. It made her fortune. It also established her as one of the key authors of stories recorded at the time and, subsequently, as ‘Sensation Novels,’ while Wilkie Collins became the best known of the male authors in that genre. In the history of detective fiction Braddon has been quoted by some as the earliest to introduce the ‘private eye’ in the person of Lady Audley’s nephew-in-law Robert Audley.
One publisher who became central to her life was John Maxwell, who managed several periodicals. By 1861 Mary and her mother had taken up residence with Maxwell in his house in Ingatestone, Essex. He published Lady Audley as a serial in 1862.
In the census of 1861 Mary is described as ‘Novelist, Poet, Dramatist’ and her place of birth as Frith Street, Soho. Due to the huge financial success of Braddon through her writing and most particularly Lady Audley, she was by 1871 a very wealthy woman which enabled her to buy a large house in Richmond, Surrey which accommodated both her and Maxwell and their children including three (of five) by his first wife, who was then living but held in a lunatic asylum in Dublin, and four conceived in the union of Maxwell and Braddon. However, the census, quite wrongly, claims she was his wife as they did not marry until 1874, following the death of Maxwell’s first wife.
Braddon and Maxwell in Lyndhurst
It is not clear when the Maxwells took up residence in Bank. They were certainly there in 1880 (but not permanently) when one of Mary’s letters to The Times was published, giving Bank as her address. Maxwell and Braddon had discovered the hamlet when on a driving tour in the New Forest and immediately fell in love with the delightful ambience and glorious location.
I get the impression that from the outset they wished to create a little fiefdom and, in pursuit of this, Maxwell purchased “a fair number of cottages” and the occupants were moved to other abodes in Bank or to cottages in nearby Gritnam which he had also purchased. Some of the removal was implemented to make space for the, as yet, unbuilt mansion to be called Annesley Bank. No fewer than four cottages were cleared away to make room for the entrance!
In his autobiography their son, William Babington Maxwell, wrote: “My father, still indefatigable even in bad health, had bought a considerable quantity of property in Lyndhurst and about the New Forest. At Lyndhurst he did a great deal of building, including many badly needed cottages, and was always making improvements by building at Bank. After his death my mother continued this work, making out of the original nucleus of two or three of those small houses some excellent little residences, as well as beautifying the old Bank cottages.
William was in his late teens when the Maxwells finally settled in their new house and was to recall that “The New Forest, was a glorious place for children.”
He provides a snapshot of his relationship with the existing residents, describing, amongst others, the family of Sims, he having formed an attachment to the eldest son, George, who was of a similar age. William describes him as “a dear fellow who had developed a regard for me, and bubbling over with affection made me accept trophies of birds’ eggs that he had collected on my account.”
He also observes that the mothers and fathers of the Bank children “are most unquestionably fond of my mother.” But evidently it wasn’t all quite plain sailing, for William comments: “Although hitting it off so comfortably with the inhabitants of small consequence, we made a bad start with the gentry, who naturally thought themselves very important, and I am not sure if we ever lived down the discredit of our beginnings.”
Mary continued to work hard even before Annesley was completed and was soon engrossed in a romantic novel entitled Vixen, (the soubriquet of the heroine Violet Tempest). It was also the name given to Braddon’s favourite pony though the mare she more usually rode was called Peggy. Her main exercise was riding and Thursdays were set aside for this. She also rode to hounds as fox hunting was another of her passions.
William recalled: “In the spring-time my mother usually hunted twice a week. She had a truly magnificent mare called Vixen and a stockier, less interesting brown mare called Peggy. My mother was very brave but not a very safe rider. She was much too absent minded...I began to suffer agonised apprehension every day she was out. I longed for the day to be over and all its risks at an end...” (I should remind readers that all this was done side-saddle!)
The Maxwells pursued building with enthusiasm and both Max and Mary were equally involved in this. First was their mansion at Bank worked on by Frank and William Payne, the building partnership based in nearby Emery Down. The first recorded payment was made on 3rd April 1883 and the final (so far as I can discover) was a cheque for £100 on the ‘J. Maxwell House Acct.’ made on 12th December 1885.
But it was not only their house and other nearby properties that focussed their attention but also Lyndhurst itself where they financed the construction of several properties, among the most notable being the three-storied, four bay, brick property, next to the Crown Inn. Their monogram, I believe, is displayed on the gable pediments, similar to the one cast in lead over the stable at Annesley. Personally, I think it is only John Maxwell’s comprising the intertwined letters JM but I see that in the just-published Hampshire:South in the beautifully updated Buildings of England series commenced by Nikolaus Pevsner, the author Bruce Bailey states the initials represent the first names of Mary Braddon and John Maxwell. Of course, he may be correct. Either way it is praiseworthy that he acknowledges the many architectural additions the couple made to the development of late Victorian Lyndhurst.
The role of women in society and her social concerns.
I find one of the most intriguing aspects of Lady Audley incidental to the story is a diatribe contrasting the difference between men and women in their relationships. I conclude with a couple of rather emasculated extracts.
“What a wonderful solution to life’s enigma there is in petticoat government! A man might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses, and fancy it ‘always afternoon,’ if his wife would let him! But she won’t, bless her impulsive heart and active mind! She knows better than that. Whoever heard of a woman taking life as it ought to be taken?
They [women] want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators – anything they like – but let them be quiet – if they can.” (Bear in mind this was written in 1861-2.)
And (surprisingly?) from the same book Robert Audley’s observation: “‘I hate women’ he thought savagely. ‘They are bold, brazen abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors.’”
However, Braddon was no suffragette, nor even a radical – but in her political outlook a staunch Conservative. After all husband Max was for many years a Conservative councillor in Richmond and they retained the fine house there until Mary’s death in 1915.
Braddon actively supported the principle, and financed the provision, of free decent meals for working class schoolchildren.
Was Mary the wonderful woman as described by her son? I am strongly inclined to agree; and if not wonderful, she was truly a very remarkable woman.
I must thank Dr Jennifer Carrell for her comments and her very fine study entitled, The Literary Lives of M.E. Braddon (Sensation Press 2000) and also the valuable contribution in the short piece by Georgina Babey, ‘Literary Connexions: Mary Elizabeth Braddon 1835-1915,’ Nova Foresta Magazine. Vol 3, No 2 (Summer 1997).