Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Braddon Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Braddon
1835-1915

Known in the second half of the 1800s as the "Queen of the Circulating Libraries," Mary Elizabeth Braddon had immediate success as a novelist upon the publication of her first novel, Lady Audley's Secret, in 1862. Her second, Aurora Floyd, which appeared the following year, was equally popular.

Braddon stoked the phenomenon of the "sensation novel," which had first appeared in England with the publication of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) and Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne (1861). Sensation novels, which were frequently serialized, played out mystery, violent crime, and intrigue in ordinary middle- and upper-middle-class settings. The popularity of sensation novels coincided with two key events in the history of reading in England: the repeal of the stamp duty on paper in 1855 (which dramatically increased the circulation of newspapers and generated a larger reading public for them), and the proliferation of circulating libraries throughout the Victorian period, where "triple-decker" Victorian novels were plentiful and easy to obtain.

Braddon's life itself could have provided ample material for her novels. She had a brief career on the provincial stage from 1857 to 1860. In 1862, she began to live with the publisher John Maxwell, at whose request she wrote Lady Audley's Secret in a matter of weeks to boost circulation of his fledgling magazine. Maxwell was married at the time to a woman who was institutionalized. Braddon married Maxwell in 1874, but in the intervening years had given birth to six children while rearing five from his earlier marriage. The sensation genre which Braddon was instrumental in popularizing remained vibrant throughout the rest of the century, although its heyday was the 1860s.

Braddon would go on to write more than 80 books, most of them novels, during her lifetime; she could count among her admirers Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Although conservative critics lambasted sensation novels for their violence and "immorality," an argument can be made that they mirrored the social landscape of the 1860s, in which novels and newspapers both brought prosperous middle-class Victorians into confrontation with the underbelly of English prosperity: poverty, prisons, and madness.

In the years before her death in 1915, Braddon watched as the novel-centered literary scene was transformed by film, and in 1913, she viewed the silent film of her Aurora Floyd.