Sunday, September 04, 2016

Escaping "Helpless Poverty" in Safety-Net-less Victorian England: Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Dead Men's Shoes (1876)

Victorian England was a time of industrialization and social change, which brought prosperity to some, and the end of traditional livelihoods to others. Social and income inequality created a huge chasm, the spectre of which inspired true dread because it could mean falling into wretched poverty and social oblivion.

Secrets, masks, deception, and deeply buried pasts with all their convoluted relationships lurked at the fringe, always threatening to destabilize an individual or a family, and cast them downward in social and economic hierarchies.

This was writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon's world, and her special perspective was one that plunged deep beneath the surface to explore the fear, greed, treachery, and longing of Victorians with secrets. Braddon, born in 1835 and dying in 1915, lived in the latter part of Queen Victoria's reign, and also into Edwardian England. Braddon's world was marked by the transformational magic of technology (transportation and manufacturing, in particular) which created opportunities for people to disguise themselves and their identities in order to achieve their desires.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon when she was an actress "treading the boards."
In Victorian England, one could be "transported" to Australia, escape, and return to avenge oneself, or go to India to become either a nabob or at least someone capable of approximating a shipping mogul in the eyes of the individuals who felt both awe and vague resentment, jealousy, or distrust of those who left for the far reaches of the British Empire.

But, above all, the yawning chasm of poverty could be encountered at almost every step. Women were most vulnerable.

There were quite a few ways to fall into the chasm of sickness, poverty, and social isolation. For women, if one did not marry, and marry well, a live of grinding servitude awaited. There were more ways to earn one's own living, but still there were not many, and of those, many carried the unpleasant miasma of social opprobrium.

If you were a woman and from a "gentle" class, you could become a governess and slowly starve. You might start a small school for young women. Or, you could scandalize yourself and "tread the boards" (become an actress), write salacious novels (hoping for best-sellers in three-volume sets), become an artist or musician, or, lower yourself and start small shops or tea rooms.

Ellen Terry playing Juliet during Victorian England. A way to earn a living, but with social risk.
Writing "sensation novels" - an emerging profession for literate women. Many published anonymously or as "Mrs. Fulana de Tal"  to avoid social censuring.
Or, you could involve yourself in intricate plots to capture the heart of someone who might leave you a legacy. Before reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Dead Men's Shoes (1876), I really did not know what the term meant. Basically, hoping for a "dead man's shoes," means to become a vulture and hover around, waiting for someone to die so you can take their shoes and wear them.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon captures the fear, social humiliation, and desperation of people living on the margins of gentility. In Dead Men's Shoes, the heroine, Sibyl Faunthorpe, who has made an unwise marriage to an impecunious but kind-hearted and creative gentleman, and because of his inability to find work, she is literally starving even as she is about to give birth to she and her husband's child.

The desperate need to do whatever she can is what forms the motivation for what appears to be greed of truly staggering proportions. The plot is absorbing and quite complicated, but to summarize, she returns to her childhood home where she was raised by her uncle, the local physician, and with her two younger sisters.  Sibyl arrives, concealing her marriage (and the fact she has just given birth) to try to ingratiate herself to her uncle, Stephen Trenchard, who has recently returned from India, now elderly and in poor health, from India. He he presumed to have converted himself into a nabob of sorts, and is presumed to be a wealthy magnate of a shipping company, and Sibyl schemes to position herself to be the legatee and to be the one who inherits his riches. By all appearances, he is truly a spectacularly wealthy tycoon, albeit a skin-flint.

It is probably useful to note here that Anglo-Indians (Britons who emigrated to India and settled there) do not fare well in Braddon's novels. They tend to be morally reprehensible and to bring shame of not complete and total disaster upon their extended families. The novels that feature truly evil Anglo-Indians include John Marchmont's Legacy, Henry Dunbar, A Phantom Fortune, and Dead Men's Shoes. In contrast, those who work in Australia usually come back with experience and honor. Examples of Australian success include Fenton's Quest, Lady Audley's Secret, and Dead Men's Shoes.

An Anglo-Indian Nabob
Sibyl's husband, abandoned, but still in desperately (albeit improbably) in love, tries to find her, but eventually gives up and goes to Australia where he is a successful agent for a trading company. Eventually he returns to find that he has inherited a title and an estate. Sibyl, of course, does not know this. She is trying to ingratiate herself and inherit her uncle's millions, hovering and hoping for a quick decline of health. In the meantime, she pays someone to take care of her little baby, who is quickly growing into toddlerhood.

Sibyl believes her enterprise is worthwhile because if she achieves her end -- the dead man's shoes -- she and her husband will be reunited, she will reveal that they had a little boy, and all will be nirvana, particularly with the balm of the peculiar and unpleasant old uncle's money.

If the avarice in this scenario seems preposterous, it seemed so to others who found out about her plans. And, it did not help that the rich uncle dies of cyanide poisoning, and Sibyl has, coincidentally taken a vial of the stuff from her uncle's pharmacy.

And, the dead man's shoes turn out to be worn out at the end of the day. He died almost penniless; and was banking on the bit of money he wrested from his illegitimate son back in India, and his reputation and fame for credit from the local shopkeepers. 

I won't go into details, but there is a very happy ending for all, or at least the promise of one. And, before you dismiss Braddon as a sensation novelist of over-the-top hyperbole, I'd like to mention that her ability to portray psychological depths and to show the complexity of heart, mind, and conflicting views of society is quite stunning. She also creates a role for the pure of heart and the individuals who cling to a vision of relationships and reality that rewards the stalwart and good of heart.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, during her career as a successful writer of sensation novels.
In addition to the psychological realism, the description of the social milieu gives incredible insight into the details of life in Victorian England at basically every level of society. In addition, one sees just how times of rapid technological change impact all levels, and while the disruptions create opportunities for others, the close doors and engender desperation in others.

Blog Archive