When I decided to take part in the recent Classics Club Spin I was delighted when the book chosen for me was Aurora Floyd. I have read two of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s other books – Lady Audley’s Secret and The Doctor’s Wife – and loved them both, so I had high hopes for this one.
Aurora Floyd, like Lady Audley’s Secret, is a Victorian sensation novel which means you can expect a story filled with mystery, murder and family secrets. Aurora Floyd is a young woman who lost her mother at an early age and was raised by her father, a rich banker. We are told that the lack of a feminine influence has led to Aurora having some unsuitable and unconventional hobbies, including an obsession with dogs and horse racing. It’s this interest in horses that causes Aurora to become involved in a scandal that her father does his best to cover up.
Time passes and Aurora attracts the attentions of two very different men: the handsome, proud Cornishman Talbot Bulstrode and the loyal, loving Yorkshire squire John Mellish (one of my favourite characters). She marries one of them but it’s not long before the secrets of Aurora’s troubled past come back to haunt her. Of course I’m not going to tell you what Aurora’s secret is, and if you really don’t want to know I would also advise not reading the blurb on the back of the Oxford World’s Classics edition. It’s not all that hard to guess, admittedly, but it’s completely unnecessary for the publisher to spoil the story for people in my opinion! Even after the truth about Aurora’s past starts to become obvious, though, there are still more mysteries to be solved and plenty of suspense right until the end of the book.
I’ve mentioned that I liked John Mellish; I also loved Aurora’s uncle, Samuel Prodder, and there are some great villains too, including the governess, Mrs Powell, who is jealous of Aurora, and Steven Hargraves, who is looking for revenge after losing his position as groom for kicking Aurora’s dog. As I’ve already said, Aurora is not a typical Victorian heroine, especially in contrast to the novel’s other main female character, her cousin Lucy, who is portrayed as gentle, feminine and obedient. But while Lucy is presented as the 19th century ideal and Aurora as ‘unwomanly’, the author never sounds disapproving or judgmental of Aurora and she is by far the more interesting and engaging of the two. At first, to maintain the aura of mystery and secrecy surrounding her, we are not allowed into Aurora’s head; everything we learn about her is through either the authorial voice (Braddon, like many Victorian authors, has a habit of talking directly to the reader) or through the eyes of Talbot Bulstrode, John Mellish and various other characters. Later, after her secrets start to be revealed, we get to know her better.
In some ways Aurora Floyd is definitely a product of its time – attitudes towards class, for example, and the offensive terms used to describe Hargraves, who has what we would probably call learning disabilities today – but in other ways, Braddon’s views feel refreshingly modern. I also liked the fact that while many authors would have ended the novel with the heroine’s marriage, in Aurora Floyd the marriage takes place less than a third of the way through the book, when the story is only just beginning rather than ending:
Yet, after all, does the business of the real life drama always end upon the altar-steps? Must the play needs be over when the hero and heroine have signed their names in the register? Does man cease to be, to do, and to suffer when he gets married? And is it necessary that the novelist, after devoting three volumes to the description of a courtship of six weeks duration, should reserve for himself only half a page in which to tell us the events of two-thirds of a lifetime?
It has been a few years since I last read anything by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and I had forgotten how much I like her writing. I still prefer Wilkie Collins’ sensation novels, but Braddon’s are not far behind. I didn’t find Aurora Floyd as exciting and gripping as Lady Audley’s Secret but I think I liked the characters better in this one and am grateful to the Classics Spin for selecting such an enjoyable book for me!