Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

on January 22, 2014

Most of you will already be familiar with Braddon’s more famous novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (which will be reviewed later), but I wish to talk about this equally fantastic piece of Sensation fiction. It was published relatively quickly after her success with the character of Lucy Audley, and gained almost the same popularity. However, when we talk of Braddon’s novels, we instinctively still choose Lady Audley’s Secret. Granted it is a thrilling read, but I felt that Aurora Floyd pulled me in more as a reader. Of course, you can make your own choices on which text you prefer, but in case you’re not familiar with the book at all, here’s my little synopsis 🙂

Appearing around 1863, Braddon’s next Sensation novel arrived when her writing was at its most popular. Focusing upon Aurora Floyd, Braddon constructs a similar character to that of Lucy Audley with some glaring differences, the most important being hair colour. I know it seems pretty silly to bring up, but the depiction of hair colour was extremely important to Victorians. They believed it instantly gave an insight into a person’s nature. Women with fair/blonde hair were more likely to be innocent and amiable, those with dark hair (like Aurora) were thought to embody the passionate and dangerous woman, and those with red hair… well, I’ll touch on that when I turn to Wilkie Collins’s Armadale. Instead of the golden-haired so-called angel Lucy Audley, the reader is introduced to the boisterous, tempestuous, dark-haired Aurora. She grows up without a mother around and has essentially wrapped her father around her little finger. She gets away with doing what she wants, when she wants and therefore she is portrayed (at least at the beginning of the novel) as a character with a great deal of agency over her life. In her younger years, she refuses to conform to what is expected of her, stating:

‘What is the use of this big world, if we are to stop for ever in one place, chained to one set of ideas, fettered to one narrow circle of people, seeing and hearing of the persons we hate for ever and ever, and unable to get away from the odious sound of their names?’

She desires to see more of the world and hates being restricted in her environment. Aurora likes to read horse-racing magazines and gets into heated debates with men, not exactly the proper behaviour expected from a young lady. Conversely, the reader sees Aurora’s cousin, Lucy Floyd, as the perfect embodiment of Victorian womanhood and the pinnacle of domestication. Lucy conceals and restrains her emotions as a proper lady should, even hiding the fact that she is in love with Aurora’s first fiancée. Strangely, Lucy is the one portrayed at the start of the novel as the victim; she is not really allowed a voice and a sense of her own agency the way Aurora is. In this way, Aurora is seen and portrayed to be the more exciting girl out of the two. Braddon therefore seems to make the ideal conception somewhat boring. Braddon sets up Aurora to be the more interesting and passionate girl who has far more men interested in her than Lucy, even describing Aurora’s appearance as that of a Medusa:

‘Aurora was lying upon the sofa, wrapped in a loose white dressing-gown, her masses of ebon hair uncoiled and falling about her shoulders in serpentine tresses, that looked like shining blue-black snakes released from poor Medusa’s head to make their escape amid the folds of her garments,’

again, the concept of Aurora’s passionate personality being portrayed by her dark colouring. However, as the reader discovers, it is ultimately Lucy and her behaviour that wins out in the end. She marries the man she adores, and shows Aurora that fitting the role of submissive female is the way to solve all of her problems. Braddon therefore endorses behaviour such as Lucy’s to the reader; women who are dutiful do not have the hassles and troubles associated to passionate women like Aurora. Without a proper female influence around, Aurora never learns how to deal with male attention in an appropriate manner, so when the groom Conyers convinces her that he’s in love with her, she makes the rash and unfortunate decision to elope with him, breaking her father’s heart in the process. I have read of critics who believe that Braddon’s choice to leave Aurora without a mother could have been a literary device in itself; when Aurora makes foolish decisions, one could always give her the benefit of the doubt and essentially make excuses for her by saying ‘Remember, she had no mother’ – a bit of a cop-out if you ask me.

When she finally returns to her home, Aurora wishes to put the whole sordid affair behind her and marries John Mellish, a man who has devoted his whole heart to her. Of course, she is still married to Conyers, but chooses to hide her bigamy from everyone and tries to become a more domesticated version of herself. She lives a relatively peaceful and content life with her new husband, but occasionally the old passionate Aurora screams to the forefront. The main problem with Aurora is her inability to accept any responsibility for her past actions. She brushes them under the carpet and never really shows the reader that she feels any remorse for the pain she has put her father through. This is what I found most frustrating about her. It’s even noted in the text that she never atones for her past, and this makes Aurora a very difficult character to feel any sympathy with.

As I said earlier, the passionate side of Aurora doesn’t simply disappear when she re-marries. The most violent of incidents the reader sees is the whipping altercation. Upon seeing one of the older servants mistreat her dog, Aurora takes discipline into her own hands. You could almost imagine the fire lighting up in her eyes as Braddon describes the incident:

‘Aurora sprang upon him like a beautiful tigress, and catching the collar of his fustian jacket in her slight hands, rooted him to the spot upon which he stood. The grasp of those slender hands, convulsed by passion, was not to be easily shaken off… Taller than the stable-man by a foot and a half, she towered above him, her cheeks white with rage, her eyes flashing fury, her hat fallen off, and her black hair tumbling about her shoulders… She disengaged her right hand from his collar and rained a shower of blows upon his clumsy shoulders with her slender whip… stinging like a rod of flexible steel in that little hand… Her tangled hair had fallen to her waist by this time, and the whip was broken in half-a-dozen pieces.’

So, to cut a long story short, she really goes for it! She is only interrupted by her husband, John, otherwise who knows what would have happened. Just when the reader begins to wonder what else will happen in Aurora’s life, Conyers reappears! He threatens to tell everyone of her bigamy unless she pays him off, which of course once more enrages Aurora. She meets him in secret to tell him how much she abhors him; she can’t stand the fact that he could potentially ruin the life she has made for herself, but this has its own problems when Conyers is found dead. Of course, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in suspecting Aurora as the prime suspect, but all I’ll say is she is innocent – I’ll let you take the time to find out who the real killer is 🙂

The most notable thing I have to write about is Aurora’s transformation by the end of the novel: ‘we leave Aurora, a little changed, a shade less defiantly bright, perhaps, but unspeakably beautiful and tender, bending over the cradle of her first-born,’ a complete alteration to the character we meet at the beginning who rejects domestication and longs for more action in her life. Her passions initially run riot, but she is eventually pruned to fit in with the way society expects her to behave, only exhibiting the desire and passion to be a wife and mother. It would seem that the novel is partly suggesting that one must eventually embrace domesticity in order to live happily, as shown through Lucy Floyd’s contentment and eventually Aurora’s. However, if Aurora had simply been yet another conforming woman, there would have been presumably no events in her life to report. There would have been no regrets, no concealment, essentially, no novel. The narrator directly addresses the reader in the last few pages and states that: ‘if she had been faultless, she could not have been the heroine of this story.’ The heroines of sensation novels need to have something to hide and have assertiveness and the ability – or perhaps desire – to transgress at their heart. Therefore, to the reader, Aurora embodies such desires, and is a suitable and adequate heroine for the genre.

As a follow-up to the more well-known Lady Audley’s Secret, I’d say that Braddon does a fantastic job of creating a completely different character from that of Lucy Audley. Aurora Floyd had me hooked from beginning to end, and I never knew what was going to happen next; in my opinion, an author who can do that is very special indeed. If you enjoyed Lady Audley, then I hope you’ll love this too! 🙂


4 responses to “Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

  1. Janette MciInnes says:

    Interesting to know the Victorians thought there was a connection between hair colour and personality.

  2. Yes – I loved Aurora Floyd immensely, as you say I enjoyed it more than I did Lady Audley, although that’s exciting too. And yes, right to link Aurora with Lydia Gwilt who remains my real heroine. I don’t remember having picked up any others of Braddon though – where would you go next?

    • emma says:

      I loved Lydia Gwilt – such a conflicted character and I’ll be writing on her soon 🙂 To be honest, I’ve only read 3 of her novels including this and Lady Audley as a lot of her works are out of print, but my next read of hers was The Doctor’s Wife. Personally I was really disappointed with it – took the reader to the brink of adultery and then just stopped 😦 Completely different to what I was expecting, but it’s still a good novel nonetheless 🙂

  3. […] I mentioned in the review of Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, hair colour was regarded as symbolic in the Victorian period. Here we have a woman with flame-red […]

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