The Face in the Glass:
The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon
by Sarah Johnson
The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, edited by Greg Buzwell and published by The British Library, is part of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series.
This is a series I’ve grown to love, celebrating as it does the work of a variety of authors, and much of which has not been published in recent years. Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) wrote novels and short stories of crime, mystery, and the supernatural. Much of her work was considered ‘sensation fiction’ by critics of the time, with Professor Catherine J. Golden writing in 2006 that she was the ‘undisputed queen of Victorian sensation fiction.’ As a genre, it was popular, of its time, and frequently derided by reviewers for emotional excess and lurid storylines, being indicative of ‘a widespread corruption’ according to Henry Longueville Mansel in 1863. Nevertheless, Braddon’s writing was commercially successful, challenging Victorian ideals regarding marriage, domesticity, and female sexuality. As Greg Buzwell writes in the introduction, Braddon is probably best known for the novel Lady Audley’s Secret, while her tales of the supernatural attract less attention. This collection of fourteen stories celebrates her accomplishments in the genre, offering a variety of tales that span the years 1860 to 1896.
As a regular reader of horror anthologies, I am familiar with some of the stories, such as ‘The Shadow in the Corner’ and ‘The Higher Life’. The latter is memorable for its Dickensian touch, with Braddon writing ‘There is no paradise for the soul that has forgotten man’s duty to man,’ as Sir Stephen Stilyard discovers upon death a different type of suffering than that usually prescribed in Christian theology. Reading these again is a pleasure, but when included in a collection of Braddon’s stories, they gain significance with regard to the themes and characters that populate her work. The introduction by Buzwell also provides context and insight.
My real enjoyment of the collection, however, lies in those stories that are new to me, ‘Three Times’ being a highlight. I found this inventive, with elements of the unexpected that defy genre boundaries. The vivid descriptions evoke a strong sense of time and place, with imagery that makes the setting and characters dynamic and flamboyant.
‘The music quickened, broke into a stirring march, and then, at a fortissimo chord from the full orchestra, the lion-tamer bounded on to the stage – a striking figure, broad-shouldered and muscular, in close-fitting flesh-coloured raiment, a scarlet girdle round his waist, and a leopard’s skin over his shoulder.’
Braddon was an actor before becoming an author, and as ‘Three Times’ is set in the theatre, it might be her experiences that help to create the sense of reality which makes the characters believable. I think it is the most modern story in the collection – richly visual in conjuring images that are cinematic in nature. A touch of humour adds levity, but this does not detract from the growing feeling of unease the characters experience as the protagonist, Herr Rudolph Prusinowski, approaches a fate that is avoidable but inevitable. As to the supernatural elements, it is left to the reader to decide whether or not malign influences determine the outcome, and I enjoy this ambiguity.
A more traditional Gothic tale, ‘At Crighton Abbey’, satisfies the desire for haunted mansions, cursed aristocrats, ghostly omens, and blameless governesses. As with ‘Three Times’, the writing is strongly evocative and it is easy to imagine Crighton Abbey and the people who attend the Christmas party where tragedy occurs. Narrated by Sarah Crighton, a poor relation of an aristocratic family, the numerous references to her lowly position in life illustrate the plight of a penniless woman of rank reduced to employment as a Governess, apparently ‘a dreadful thing for a Crighton to be obliged to do.’ Through the narration it becomes apparent there is little status in being single, aging, poor, and female in the world described. Sarah Crighton at the age of thirty-three considers herself ‘a confirmed old maid’ and ‘life at its best was calm and colourless, like a grey sunless day in early autumn, serene but joyless.’
It is striking how this character accepts the role in life allocated to her by conventional society, so unlike Braddon herself, who took to the stage to support her family and lived with a married man from 1861 to 1874, becoming step-mother to his five children. The details of Sarah Crighton’s life and her observations regarding other characters do not drive the narrative, but provide insight into a woman’s place in conventional Victorian society. Her level-headed attitude lends credence to the reality of the supernatural events she experiences, accepting them with the stoicism she applies to life in general. For Sarah, the real horror of the story seems to be her position in society, rather than the ghostly figures she encounters.
There is much to be enjoyed in The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Numerous stories offer the traditional delights of Gothic and supernatural fiction, whereas others are more original in characters, settings, and events. The writing is consistently evocative and the descriptions a joy to read, whether of people or places. The horror tends towards the eerie, occasionally disturbing, but always atmospheric and is perfect for gentle thrills if this is what you seek.