Becoming frauds: unconventional heroines in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's sensation fiction.

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Schipper, Jan
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Middle Tennessee State University
By focusing on three of her early sensation novels, this study examines how Mary Elizabeth Braddon's fiction challenged conventional assumptions about the feminine and spoke to women's growing discontent with their limited roles as daughters, wives, and mothers. Her novels suggest how a number of women became frauds, in the sense of using deception, inventing false identities, and committing crimes in order to meet conventional society's expectations for the proper female. Braddon's female frauds subverted dominant Victorian ideology's representation of women as domestic ideals by defying the impractical and impossible role of "angel" and rejecting gender and class-based discrimination.
The first chapter places Braddon's fiction within the Victorian cultural climate in which women had limited opportunities and faced unfair economic conditions; many women, like Braddon's fraudulent females, were becoming increasingly discontented and angry. Chapter two examines Braddon's fiction in the context of the sensation novel's rise and fall, mass appeal, rapid reproduction, and largely negative critical reception; exploring the conflict between Braddon's novels and her critics, it offers insights into the alarm generated by their critique of gender and class.
The third chapter examines Lady Audley's Secret, a novel whose central character impersonates the proper Victorian woman while simultaneously resorting to violent actions in order to retain her social position. Aurora Floyd, the focus of the fourth chapter, presents a more conventional female character, one who has money and social status but who feels compelled to resort to fraud, and whose enforced conformity reveals the disturbing implications of society's threat to women. The fifth chapter examines Eleanor's Victory, one of the first Victorian novels with a female detective, but a novel that also illustrates the damage to marriage caused when women many wealthy men in order to gain autonomy. The sixth chapter concludes that while critical opinion remained sharply divided on Braddon's literary merit throughout "the sensation decade," the amount of recent positive commentary suggests that Braddon's novels both informed and reformed.
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