Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The French Connection: Gender, Morals and National Culture in Braddon's Novels

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The French Connection: Gender, Morals and National Culture in Braddon's Novels

Article excerpt

In his discussion of English attitudes towards France, Peter Keating notes that in 1 888 in the House of Commons, Samuel Smith MP went so far as to introduce a debate on "the rapid spread of demoralising literature in this country", which "had overspread that country like a torrent, ... its poison ... destroying the whole national life".1 France was viewed by Britain as the home of corrupt morals and behaviour, and as the source of the increasing traffic in obscenity perceived to be found in periodicals, novels and culture in general. However, there existed a simultaneous, sometimes grudging, respect for France as a fertile place of culture and enlightenment. In particular, as the novel developed as a distinct and important genre during the nineteenth century, French writers were credited with forging new parameters for fiction and with establishing the theory of the novel - a contribution resisted for much of the Victorian period, and mildly resented even beyond that. Works on the history of British novel criticism tend to have an ambivalent view of the role of French writers in establishing the theoretical tradition. For instance, Richard Stang states his intent to dismiss the "persistent cliché of novel theory appearing in France only" until England is "infected or fertilized, depending on one's point of view", by Henry James or George Moore in the 1880s.2 Metaphors of infection such as this were commonly used in Victorian publications to describe the spread of French culture, both with reference to its theorizing or dissecting approach to the form of the novel, and to its content in handling scandalous topics such as adultery.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon's enthusiasm for engaging with France can be seen in many of her fictions. Given its status in the nineteenthcentury imagination as home of ground-breaking writers, cultural developments, answers to social problems, and moral ideas that shock the English, Braddon deftly uses this contrast to display how ingrained attitudes and cultural expectations dictate the actions of her English protagonists. This essay uses the starting point suggested by critical readings of Braddon's affiliations to French literature to examine the intersections between gender, morals and national culture in some less well-known Braddon novels. While many of the novels in Braddon's vast oeuvre demonstrate her consistent use of these themes and connections, the essay focuses on two novels in particular: Charlotte 's Inheritance (1868), which divides its action between English and French protagonists and scenes, and Vixen (1879), which has an English setting in which French influences are referenced in order to define, ostensibly defend, but in fact to covertly undermine, the Englishness espoused and championed by its protagonists. Both novels incorporate a range of similar themes and attitudes, but most importantly, they share a use of a liminal geopolitical space, the Channel island of Jersey, to figure the potential for blending Anglophone and Francophone cultures and social mores.

Braddon risked losing her position as doyenne of the fiction marketplace by openly avowing her Francophilia. Novelists such as Henry James (a great admirer of Braddon and her work) declared their admiration for French fictional techniques and/or subjects: James, who considered Zola's topics immoral, nevertheless admired French writers for developing a theory of fiction; for taking the novel as an art form, and novel-writing as a craft, seriously.3 This was an admiration Braddon shared, without being able to indulge in the luxury of this artistic approach to writing fiction. Instead, she used her knowledge of French language and culture4 to develop her fascination for French cultural developments and moral codes into an expedient Other in her fictions, readily invoked by her English characters as the seat of immorality and iniquity.

Considering the more favourable views of French literature held by some nineteenth-century writers, Keating observes: "It was to France that British novelists looked for fictional models which would lead them away from the simple-minded hypocrisy of the mid- Victorians. …

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