In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Elizabeth Braddon

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Primary Texts
  • Sensation and Women’s Popular Fiction
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Crime, Disease, and Madness
  • Readership
  • Publishing History
  • Global Print Circulation
  • Theater
  • Illustration and Art
  • Race, Class, and Politics

Victorian Literature Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Pamela K. Gilbert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0007


Mary Elizabeth Braddon (b. 1835–d. 1915) was a Victorian popular novelist best known for her sensation fiction. Born in the Soho section of London, on 4 October 1835 (sometimes cited as 1837), Braddon worked as an actress for several years to support herself and her mother Fanny, who had separated from her father Henry in 1840. She also tried writing for local publications, and by 1860 she began publishing “penny dreadful” short stories in the Welcome Guest, the Halfpenny Marvel, and magazines published by John Maxwell, who became her lifelong domestic partner in 1861. Maxwell was already married with five children, his wife being hospitalized for insanity; Braddon lived with him unwed until 1874, when Maxwell’s wife died. They then married. In July 1861 Maxwell’s magazine Robin Goodfellow serialized the first chapters of Lady Audley’s Secret, the first of her two famous “bigamy novels.” Robin Goodfellow went out of business quickly, and Lady Audley’s Secret was taken up by the Sixpenny Magazine, where publishers Edward and William Tinsley noticed her work. The novel made her fortune, helping her transition from penny fiction to the middle-class three-volume novel. Braddon and Maxwell had another six children, and Braddon was the primary breadwinner for the entire family, including her stepchildren. Braddon is estimated to have produced over ninety books (some under pseudonyms, such as Babington White) and a great deal of periodical fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and drama. The runaway best-seller Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) is perhaps still her best-known novel, but that is now changing, as her work has garnered increased interest in the last three decades. Braddon also founded and edited Belgravia Magazine (1866–1876), which published fiction, poetry, and essays, often written by Braddon herself, though many other famous writers contributed regularly. She lived to see a silent film version of her novel Aurora Floyd in 1913. She died on 4 February 1915 in Richmond, Surrey. Since foundational studies on Braddon and on sensation laid the groundwork, scholarship has developed along several lines, among which there is much overlap: studies of gender and sexuality, including, most recently, queer readings; discussion of Braddon’s sensation novels and modernity; her work and Victorian ideas about crime, medicine, and science; her relation to contemporary cultural issues, especially attitudes toward marriage; studies of individual works; issues of reception; history of publishing; theater; and visual arts.


Outside of the usual reference sources such as the Dictionary of National Biography, there are two full-length biographical studies of Braddon. The long-standing authoritative biography is Wolff 1979. Carnell 2000 updates Wolff 1979 and draws on newly available source material. It also includes primary material invaluable to the Braddon scholar. Readers may also wish to consult the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Pages, compiled by Jennifer Carnell.

  • Carnell, Jennifer. The Literary Lives of M. E. Braddon. Hastings, UK: Sensation Press, 2000.

    This “life and work” biography updates R. L. Wolff, working with sources not available to Wolff. It brings to light new material about her acting career in the 1850s, her earliest writing in the 1850s, and her relationship with her partner and publisher John Maxwell. Appendices concentrate on Braddon’s career as an actress, listing the companies she acted with and roles she played. The second appendix also provides an updated bibliography of her work.

  • Carnell, Jennifer. Mary Elizabeth Braddon Pages.

    Carnell’s website also includes a bibliography and links to full texts of several works and some scholarly bibliography, though the bibliography is incomplete. Carnell’s Sensation Press also has republished many of Braddon’s works, unavailable elsewhere.

  • Wolff, Robert L. Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. New York: Garland, 1979.

    The definitive biography up to the time of Carnell’s, which corrects and supplements this one without fully supplanting it; the student should begin with Wolff.

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