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Saturday, 29 March 2014

'Aurora Floyd' by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd was published shortly after her most famous novel Lady Audley's Secret, and explores some of the same themes. Aurora Floyd is incredibly beautiful and is not short of male attention. However, her first great love affair is ruined by a secret so terrible she dare not tell her lover, Talbot Bulstrode. He can't accept that her past is not entirely spotless, claiming '…the past of my wife must be a white unblemished page, which all the world may be free to read'. An utterly frustrating, near infuriating sentiment to the modern reader, but rather telling of the Victorian morals and emphasis on the especial importance for women to appear wholesome and pure. Don't be fooled in to thinking this is going to be merely a fraught love story however, it is so much more. Luckily for our eponymous heroine she has a more trusting admirer in the form of John Mellish, whose love for her far outstrips any concern for respectability - he's willing to marry her without knowing her secret. It's telling of the huge amount of pressure put on the upper classes to maintain respectability at all times that she is so fearful of the shame that revelation of her past will bring on her and her family that she feels incapable of sharing the burden with her most generous lover. It seems she has managed to put her past behind her, and settle in to contented married life, but then a reminder of her youthful mistakes is thrust upon her and it seems she can never truly escape her past. The reader is kept guessing for a large portion of the novel, and when we are let in on the secret the revelation is quickly followed by another mystery. 

The writing is description heavy and may not be to everyone's taste, but I loved it. It's always a joy to read a book where you can luxuriate in the beauty of the writing. That's not to suggest it's all decoration and lacking in content, far from it, this is quite a page turner. There's rather unsettling foreshadowing which just serves to increase the anticipation of finding out what's going to happen. 

The novel is littered with an interesting array of characters from our heroine, the dark beauty Aurora who does not follow convention to her more demure cousin Lucy, who embodies the Victorian ideal for a wife. We get a glimpse of Braddon's opinions on the rules of society with the admittance that although Aurora's passion can cause problems, the men would still rather have her as their wife. John Mellish and Talbot Bulstrode offer opposing views, but they are both good-hearted men. John may not appear the most intelligent but his devotion to his wife is admirable, and his preference for love above all else is a happy departure from a lot of the male characters you meet in nineteenth century novels. 

Mrs Powell and Steeve Hargraves give us an insight in to the workings of a household, and the complex relationship that could be formed between the wealthy families and their staff. Steeve is dismissed from the estate after greatly upsetting Aurora, leaving with a burning resentment. Mrs Powell is no more fond of her tempestuous mistress but remains in the household, delighting in any opportunity to undermine Aurora. How dangerous it could be to have your closest servants wanting to see your downfall.

Aurora Floyd feels very much a novel of its time, whilst exploring themes that would have seemed quite scandalous at the time of publication. With its strong willed, passionate heroine at the centre of a story of mystery, violence and deceit, this is a wonderfully engaging book. Braddon's beautifully written, intelligent, gripping novels are some of my favourites from the period, and I can never understand why she is not more widely read.

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