chapter  12
Mary Elizabeth Braddon: the secret histories of women
Pages 31

In particular, the sensation novel habitually focuses on the secrets and secret histories of women. All of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's early novels are structured around women with a concealed past: women who, for a variety of reasons, conceal their present motivations and desires, and who have a hidden mission which drives their lives. In most cases these feminine concealments both result from, and foreground, a tension between the proper and the improper feminine. The secret at the heart of Braddon's novels usually involves a former transgression of the bounds of the proper feminine, or it involves a guilt by association, which taints or threatens the heroine's respectability. The concealment most often results from a conflict between a particular woman's self-appointed mission and the accepted codes of the proper feminine, or from the necessity for women to act by stealth, and often through male agents, in a society which casts them in a passive, dependent role. Except in the case of Braddon's two best-known novels, the secret involves a conflict between the heroine's mission to avenge a wronged father (or fathersubstitute) and that code of the proper feminine which defines woman as self-sacrificing, loving and forgiving. Revenge thus serves as a generalised metaphor for a commanding secret passion, a hidden desire which motivates a woman's actions.