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Selected British Authors Before 1900: Charles Dickens and Mary Elizabeth Braddon

No author defines the Victorian period more than Charles Dickens: ambitious, talented, and prolific in the extreme with his many novels, stories, articles, and plays; tireless in his devotion to editing the periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round; deeply committed to using his work and fame to combat the injustices of Victorian society and promote charity and social reform; exhaustive in his representation of all aspects of Victorian life and all manner of character. Mary Elizabeth Braddon was also highly ambitious and compulsively prolific, penning more than 70 novels as well as short stories, plays, articles, and poems while editing periodicals as well. She enjoyed great popularity and success, and, like Dickens, was devoted to addressing societal problems in her work, particularly those pertinent to women. But while Dickens is famous for (among other things) his social realism, Braddon has been called the “Queen of Sensation,” producing perhaps the most celebrated novel of the genre, Lady Audley’s Secret. The vehicles of realist and sensation fiction differently allowed Dickens and Braddon to mobilize social commentary on issues such as gender, class, morality, and the law. These disparate modes also impacted the stature of each author, with Dickens enjoying celebrity and unparalleled esteem, while Braddon’s unconventional personal life and voluminous output of lesser fiction—albeit for financial reasons—compromised her status as a noble literary personage. Today, it is far easier to appreciate not only her talent, skill, and intellect, but also her dynamic engagement with and profound critiques of Victorian culture, from the neatness of Dickens’s plots to the oppressive “ideals” of femininity to the modernization of English life as the 19th century draws to a close. The vast catalogues of Braddon and Dickens, then, teem with the essential and the elaborate makings of Victorian literature and culture, and they exemplify the powerful exchanges between the two.

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