The case of Aurora Floyd horrified mid-Victorian England. It is true that her fate evinced sympathy too, but the horror was the greater. We would not be so horrified today, though the offence she committed remains proscribed in English criminal law. Aurora Floyd was a bigamist; her crime, and even more so her sin, was to have two husbands living concurrently. And newspaper editors knew then, as they know today, that the English-reading public likes nothing better than to speculate on a spot of sex and crime over the breakfast table. Aurora was pretty too, and had married fortunately, or at least she had the second time. Her husband was a stolid member of the landed Yorkshire aristocracy. The story of Aurora Floyd came to the attention of mid-Victorian middle England over the winter of 1862, as the nation struggled to come to terms with the murderous bigamy of Lucy Audley, discovered the year before. Aurora and Lucy had something else in common too, aside from their shared criminality, They were fictive, the eponymous heroines of the two "sensation" novels with which Mary Elizabeth Braddon had taken literary England by storm in the first years of the 1860s. The fact that Aurora and Lucy were fictional did not, of course, lessen the threat that many perceived in their creation. On the contrary, it made their crimes all the greater. The case of Lucy Audley has long attracted critical commentary; Lady Audley's Secret is still recognised as the one of the canons of mid-Victorian fiction, more particularly still mid-Victorian "sensation" fiction. Literary history has not been so kind to Aurora Floyd, which has in comparison, largely evaded critical attention during the last century and a half. (1) The purpose of this article is to revisit Aurora Floyd, and more particularly the crimes of its protagonist, as an exercise in legal and literary history.
The 'sensational' novel: vain if not vicious
During the early 1860s, sensation novels enjoyed an extraordinary popularity, not just amongst the novel-buying public, but also, and just as importantly, amongst the novel-borrowing public. It is estimated that the reading audience for the sensation novel during the decade was around five million, predominantly female, and middle class. (2) This audience was greatly shaped by newspaper editors and the acquisitions policy of the circulating libraries favoured by middle-class women. (3) The "queen of the circulating libraries" was undoubtedly Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to read the latest Braddon. As Fraser Rae testified in 1865:
Others before her have written stories of blood
and lust, of atrocious crimes and hardened
criminals, and these have excited the interest
of a very wide circle of readers. But the class
that welcomed them was the lowest in the
social scale, as well as in mental capacity. To
Miss Braddon belongs the credit of having
penned similar stories in easy and correct
English, and published them in three volumes
in place of issuing them in penny numbers.
She may boast, without fear of contradiction,
of having temporarily succeeded in making the
literature of the Kitchen the favourite reading
of the Drawing Room. (4)
Aristocratic daughters and their scullery maids were brought together in one voracious common readership. Rae was not, however, an admirer. Sensation novels, he observed, were "one of the abominations of the age." (5)
Anthony Trollope described the public as reading sensational novels "as men eat pastry after dinner not without some inward conviction that the taste is vain if not vicious." (6) Few were so sanguine. "There is," wrote one of the more vehement critics, Dean Mansel, "something unspeakably disgusting in this ravenous appetite" for this particular species of literary "carrion." (7) Critical anxieties were various. (8) First was a concern about decency. Sensation novels were, almost invariably, about sex and crime. …