Tuesday 30 January 2024

A Master Class in Character Introduction from Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It’s been a while since I published a writing “master class” on this blog, doing a close reading of a Victorian novel to discuss craft techniques that are still relevant to authors today. But this week, I’m turning to one of my favorite nineteenth-century reads—Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational 1862 novel, Lady Audley’s Secret—to explore how she introduces her title character.

If you’re pulling up the e-text of the novel or grabbing a dogeared copy, the passage I’m focusing on begins “But Miss Alicia's day was over…” and ends with “declaring that Lucy Graham was the sweetest girl that ever lived.”

The first thing to note about Braddon’s introduction is that anyone reading the novel for the first time is going to be waiting to find out about Lady Audley in the opening pages of the book. The character is, after all, mentioned in the title and the reference to a “secret” makes her an immediate source of intrigue. What Braddon chooses to do to build on this intrigue, and tease readers even further, is not start with Lady Audley at all. She is in fact the third character described, after her husband, Michael Audley, and stepdaughter, Alicia Audley, in a move that utilizes the writerly rule of three and creates a crescendo of anticipation before Lady Audley/Lucy’s dramatic reveal. Modern writers should consider the power a title character holds in readers’ imaginations and how starting with secondary characters before highlighting the primary can be an arresting technique when writing omniscient or multi-perspective prose.

What happens once Lady Audley is introduced? Braddon attaches multiple positive attributes to her, but in such a way that the author is constantly seeding doubt. Lucy is “amiable,” yet Alicia feels “prejudices and dislike” for her. She has made an “advantageous match,” yet this has turned her into an object of “hatred and envy” for other women. A reference from her former employer seems to have been glowing, yet “no one knew anything about her.” Her accomplishments are “brilliant and numerous,” but strangely she’s happy to accept low pay. At the core of Braddon’s technique here is employing telling vs. showing and overusing modifiers (adjectives and adverbs)—both techniques that strike a deliberately false note. If, as a writer, you want to establish a character as kind or talented, it’s best to show them doing kind or brilliant things. But here Braddon’s apparent encomium is also a clever takedown of Lady Audley/Lucy before she’s said a single line of dialogue, already setting her up for readers as someone who cannot be trusted. 

Lady Audley’s physical appearance isn’t mentioned until later in the introductory passage. Braddon describes Michael Audley as a “big man, tall and stout, with a deep, sonorous voice, handsome black eyes, and a white beard,” while the lines dedicated to Alicia paint her personality rather than her portrait. But, when it comes to Lady Audley, specific features matter less than the effect her face has on people. We’re told that “in the cottages of the poor her fair face shone like a sunbeam,” and that “Miss Lucy Graham was blessed with that magic power of fascination, by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile.” A few lines later we learn that “perhaps, it was the sight of her pretty face, looking over the surgeon's high pew every Sunday morning” that secured her a wealthy husband. The genius of this is that each reader can picture a face that we find personally attractive and imagine a woman who might have this sort of impact on us. What Braddon demonstrates so well is how describing a character can involve not describing them directly, and instead giving readers the chance to co-create with the author via their imaginations. 

What nineteenth-century novel would you like me to write about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want Victoriana sent straight to your email once a month? Sign up here

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