Women and Hard Work

Kids home, house to spring clean, a book proposal in gear and working on a funding bid to do life writing workshops for women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions in post conflict regions.  And I am having a meeting with my agent and a dinner party next week.  Typical week in the life of many working women, and has been for some time.  But nothing compared to the hard work done by sensation novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon author of one of my very favourite Victorian novels: Lady Audely’s Secret  

Here’s a bit about Braddon:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (October 4, 1835February 4, 1915)

• A crooked, womanizing lawyer who abandons his family.
• A strong-willed, independent woman who becomes the main bread-winner.
• Assumed names. Secrecy.
• A withered cripple with Svengali like powers.
• Adultery. A wife hidden in a lunatic asylum. Accusations of bigamy.
• A close friend imprisoned for homosexuality.
• An actress who becomes a leading figure in Victorian society.

These may seem like a list of probable ingredients for a ‘novel of sensation’. In fact, they are elements of Mary Braddon’s own life story. While her readers may have read her novels as a form of literary escapism, for Braddon they reflected a lived reality.

Born in London, Braddon was privately educated and worked as an actress for three years in order to be able to support herself and her mother Fanny, who had separated from her father Henry  when Mary was just three.

In1860 Braddon met John Maxwell, a publisher of periodicals, and began living with him 1861. Maxwell was married with five children and his wife was living in an asylum. Mary acted as the stepmother of the children till 1874, when Maxwell’s wife died, and they could get married. She then had six children by him.

Braddon was an extremely prolific writer, producing some 75 novels. The most famous is her first, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)which won her fame and fortune. The novel has been in print ever since, and has been dramatised several times.

Braddon also founded Belgravia Magazine (1866), which presented readers with serialized sensation novels, poems, travel narratives, and biographies, as well as essays on fashion, history, science. The magazine was accompanied by lavish illustrations and offered readers a source of literature at an affordable cost. She also edited Temple Bar Magazine.

75 novels, 6 children, 5 stepchildren, journalist, editor, publisher – and I think I’m busy?

Here’s what one of the male characters in Lady Audely has to say about women and work:

“Who ever heard of a woman taking life as it ought to be taken? Instead of supporting it as an unavoidable nuisance, only redeemable by its brevity, she goes through it as if it were a pageant or a procession. She dresses for it…and gesticulates for it. She pushes her neighbors, and struggles for a good place in the dismal march; she elbows, and writhes, and tramples, and prances to the one end of making the most of the misery. She gets up early and sits up late, and is loud, and restless, and noisy, and unpitying. She drags her husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament. She drives him full butt at the dear, lazy machine of government, and knocks and buffets him about the wheels, and cranks, and screws, and pulleys; until somebody, for quiet’s sake, makes him something that she wanted him to be made. That’s why incompetent men sometimes sit in high places, and interpose their poor, muddled intellects between the things to be done and the people that can do them, making universal confusion in the helpless innocence of well-placed incapacity. The square men in the round holes are pushed into them by their wives. The Eastern potentate who declared that women were by the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. They don’t know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramises, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeths, and Catharines the Second, and they riot in battle, and murder, and clamor and desperation. If they agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they’ll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills, and social storms in household teacups. Forbid them to hold forth upon the freedom of nations and the wrongs of mankind, and they’ll quarrel with Mrs. Jones about the shape of a mantle or the character of a small maid-servant. To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the more self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators — anything they like — but let them be quiet — if they can.” Robert Audeley,  in Lady Audeley’s Secret (1861)

As Louisa May Alcott once wrote “Housework is no joke” and a writer like Braddon demonstrates that such tasks are only part of the hard work that women take upon themselves for the good of themselves and their families. Speaking of which, I’d better go see what the kids are doing.

By the way – here is a very nice (though sadly unusual I think) male perspective on parenting: http://brianbrivati.com/2012/04/14/indifference/

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