Gendered Cover-Ups: Live Burial, Social Death, and Coverture in Mary Braddon's Fiction

Article excerpt

Over a century before Betty Friedan controversially claimed that gendered discrepancies in personal and social fulfillment were resulting in "the mass burial of American women," Mary Braddon was using this historically resonant metaphor to critique the legislation and gender politics of the 1860s and 1870s. (1) Anticipating the radical rhetoric of second-wave feminism, Braddon's novels use re-gendered images of (male) premature interment to critique the contemporary female experience of death-in-life. Cognizant of her culture's specific anxieties about live burial, Braddon plays upon this concern to demonstrate that women in Victorian society were always metaphorically facing live burial: through coverture, when married; through social death, when widowed; and through isolation, when unwilling to fulfill the culture's rigid gender roles. This polemical image retains its power for authors striving to redress grave imbalances of social power, and visibility. (2) The deep feminist radicalism of Braddon's imagery of live burial derives from her skilful drawing together of two powerful anxieties of the 1860s and 1870s: a growing fear of premature interment; and an increasing agitation about marital laws governed by the principle of coverture.

An approach which views Braddon's feminist politics with "mixed feelings" has become critically popular since Ann Gvetkovich's 1992 publication, resulting in such conclusions as that offered by Lillian Nayder that Braddon's "subversive qualities are, at best, heavily qualified and contained." (3) Through an examination of the live burial motif, this essay reasserts the pertinence of feminist approaches to Braddon's fiction. Positioning Lady Audley's Secret (1862) and Taken at the Flood (1874) within a broader consideration of the gendered deployment of languages of live burial in Braddon's fiction of the 1860s and 1870s, I contend that Braddon uses such imagery to challenge social, legal and literary paradigms of female disempowerment. A rich seam of intertextuality is charted through Braddon's responses to earlier literary uses of live burial, particularly by those authors whose influence she felt to be particularly important to her own work; Walter Scott, Charlotte Bronte and Wilkie Collins. I argue that Braddon polemically re-genders traditionally inscribed narratives of live burial as punishment for female transgressors, instead using metaphors of live burial to critique a range of specifically female experiences of social death (or death in life) inflicted by her contemporary society. This rhetorical strategy gains impetus from escalating fears of the possibility of live burial during Braddon's early career.

This period yields a range of testimony to a widespread and increasing horror of premature interment. As the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Premature Burial" (1850) asserts, "no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremes of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death." (4) The over-determined fear of live burial in the decades following the burial reforms of the 1850s is evident in personal records and a wider investment in preventative invention. Numerous wills included instructions to avert this fate; Harriet Martineau left her doctor ten guineas to ensure that her head was amputated, Francis Power Cobbe specified that the arteries in her neck be severed, Edward Bulwer Lytton left his doctor instructions to lancet his heart and Lady Burton (widow of Sir Richard Burton) "provided that her heart was to be pierced with a needle." (5) Braddon's contemporary in the sensation genre, Wilkie Collins, suffered from a similar fear, and at foreign hotels he "always put a note on the bedroom mirror, saying that in the case of his (presumed) death, he should not be buried until a competent English doctor had been consulted." (6) Importantly, this fear was not restricted to the literati--it was experienced across the social spectrum. …