Wednesday 16 October 2013

Review: John Marchmont’s Legacy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1863)

Cartoon of Braddon as a circus girl, The Mask (1868)
In case my previous blog posts haven’t quite given you the impression that I’m something of a Braddon-fanatic, this review of top sensation fiction specimen John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863) should do the trick. This novel has it all – inheritance plots, deaths, fires, madness, false imprisonment, bigamy and unrequited love, while being a rich source of material for students as well as those just looking to spice up their morning commute.

John Marchmont, a former schoolmaster turned stage supernumerary, unexpectedly comes into a large fortune, but, being consumptive, doesn’t last long to protect his daughter (and heir) Mary from the mercenary machinations of his cousin Paul. Throw in a poor choice of second wife to act as evil stepmother, and a dashing soldier beloved by both women, and the plot is soon set in motion.

For the general reader: This is Braddon at her best – exciting, original and dramatic, while situating her story in a world which is believable and rich in observational detail. The plot, at times, kept even a hardened sensation fan like me guessing, but this isn’t detective fiction – much of the joy of reading here comes from knowing more than the characters themselves, and I found myself simultaneously longing for resolution while not wanting the story to end. This is a novel which cries out for film of TV adaptation. It’s fast-paced and structured around incident rather than reflection. It’s not the sort of book you need to ‘get through’ or struggle on to the end with. Maybe the saccharine, childish Mary is a little hard to swallow as a heroine but Olivia (her stepmother) is a brilliantly drawn complex character and Braddon’s morality by no means clear cut. I’ll be writing for the FWSA blog in the next week about whether we can identify Braddon as in any way ‘feminist’. John Marchmont’s Legacy is the kind of novel (and Olivia the kind of character) which demonstrates that it is worth asking these questions, because, rather than in spite, of her incredible contemporary popularity.

For students: Like other sensation novels I've discussed, this is a text obsessed with the relationship between life and drama  – the performance of roles inherent to the everyday and the extraordinary. Nineteenth-century interpretations of Shakespearean tragedy in particular (on stage and off) are a key context throughout the novel and something I plan to return to in a later post. The ‘inheritance’ itself – Marchmont Towers – and the fire which happens there clearly links the novel with other Gothic (or semi-Gothic) treatments of the grand country house. Perhaps Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) could prove fruitful points of comparison. Paul Marchmont’s profession – as a painter – is also interesting. His violent reaction to a portrait – by Millais, not of his own making – is a fascinating moment, which could be tied into some of the ideas about gendering portraiture I’ve already raised. For those reading Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), the multiple women in this novel linked to ‘madness’ of one form or another would be of interest, while a Charles Reade novel I reviewed a couple of months ago also deals with the threat of false detainment in the period on mental health grounds.

What would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And, if you’ve read John Marchmont’s Legacy, let me know what you thought!

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