Aurora Floyd: A Woman’s Stand Against Society
The mid-Victorian period was a time of rapid change that saw the growth of cities and explosion of industry that revolutionized life in Britain. This transformation, with the associated excitement and confusion, was as also apparent in literature of the time. Aurora Floyd, a novel written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in 1863, falls into a genre of exciting popular fiction known in the 1860’s as ‘sensation’ or ‘bigamy’ novels. This new breed of novels differed from the “moral, prudish tone that characterized popular fiction of 1850’s” by introducing themes of violence, crime, sexuality, and bigamy – social aspects that went against the norm of Victorian morals (Kent, 58). The introduction to Aurora Floyd describes sensation/bigamy novels as a “nerve-tingling brew of mystery, violent crime, and tortuous intrigue acted out in seemingly ‘ordinary’ and secure middle and upper-class settings” (Braddon, vi). And what the sensation/bigamy literature indeed attempted was to turn the popular conventions of the time against themselves. As researcher Ellen Miller Casey states in her essay on M.E. Braddon’s novels, “She provided a stimulus to Victorian imaginations with a wink for the knowing and a carefully proper surface for the censors” (p.73). The sensation/bigamy novels were so popular because they allowed people to repudiate (but at the same time indulge) in the rebellious attitudes of heroines that were at odds with the order of the accepted behavior of society (Miller, 75). This is the main appeal of Aurora Floyd; the heroine defies the established Victorian roles for women but in the end is still viewed positively. This paper aims to show how Braddon challenged the conventions of women, marriage, and sexuality of the Victorian age through Aurora Floyd by looking first at the way that she confronts the ‘ideal woman,’ then examining the three mistakes that Aurora makes and what they signify, and finally resolving how Aurora remains the hero at the end of the novel, despite her rebellion and misjudgments.
Amidst the rapid changes of the 1860’s, Victorians tried to maintain the stability of morals and the values of society by insisting that women be pure. Purity was not only a metaphor for dealing with apparent social disorder but also a means to secure the role women played in society. Susan Kent described Victorian women as “inhabit[ing] a separate, private sphere, one suitable for the so-called inherent qualities of femininity: emotion, passivity, submission, dependence, and selflessness…” (p.30). These were the idealized qualities of women -- and everything that Aurora is not. Braddon quickly eradicates any perception of Aurora as pure and passive by underlining Aurora’s qualities that are associated with manliness. Aurora is greatly intrigued with horses as she has been accustomed to riding them since childhood. Now, as an adult, she is a regular at races and even takes part in betting. Such pleasures were not feminine pursuits, and we are shown how bewildering and uncommon this was for a woman of the Victorian period through the voice of Talbot Bulstrode – a wealthy bachelor who takes an interest in Aurora. Upon finding out her pastime, Bulstrode’s reaction is clear: “He ridiculed, he abused, he sneered at and condemned her questionable tastes…He lashed himself into a savage humor about the young lady’s delinquencies, and talked of her as if she had done him an unpardonable injury by entertaining a taste for the Turf” (Braddon, 36l). Thus, from the very beginning it is clear to see that her unladylike fondness for horseback riding and racing, her masculine and unrefined passion for sport and the turf are Aurora’s form of rebellion against the restricted Victorian image of femininity which sought to equate passivity with purity.
Aurora’s remoteness from the ‘ideal woman’ can further be seen in Bulstrode’s comparison of Aurora to Lucy – her cousin and the model of the gentle, passive, and submissive Victorian woman. While Bulstrode is fascinated by Aurora’s beauty and her strong character, he notes how pure and simple Lucy is, how she would make the perfect wife: “There are so many Lucys but so few Auroras…Talbot Bulstrode was attracted to Lucy by a vague notion that she was just the good and timid creature who was destined to make him happy…she was exactly the sort of woman to make a good wife…purity and goodness had watched over her” (Braddon, 48). Aurora, on the other hand, is described as full of passion and aggressiveness, and her sexuality (which Lucy apparently lacks) is further developed when she whips one of the stableman for mistreating her dog: “Aggressive violence makes Aurora appear more sensual” (Schroeder, 88). Aurora is encompassed with “beautiful fury” as Braddon describes the heroine’s act of violence, which displays her passion and aggression (p.134). Thus Braddon paints a picture of a woman full of life, and beauty and sexuality -- a woman who is clearly different from the Victorian ideal.
However, perhaps the clearest indication of Aurora’s defiance against the set role of women is best exemplified through her refusal to be submissive. According to Victorian standards, female excellence consisted largely of women’s submissiveness to men. As “the man naturally governs: the woman as naturally obeys,” writes Kent (p.34). This idea of submissiveness is supported by the relationship we see in the novel between Talbot and Lucy, whom he later marries after leaving Aurora: “Talbot Bulstrode was happier with Lucy than he ever could have ever been with Aurora. His fair young wife’s undemonstrative worship of him soothed and flattered him. Her gentle obedience, her entire concurrence in his every thought and whim, set his pride at rest” (Braddon, 218). When such a relationship is contrasted with the relationship Talbot has had with Aurora, a striking difference is clear. As the idea of Aurora’s ‘secret’ emerges, her haste and unjustified first marriage, Talbot knowing little of her past demands an explanation to which she simply replies, “‘This cross-questioning is scarcely pleasant, Captain Bulstrode…I will not submit to be called to account for my actions – even by you’” (Braddon, 88). Aurora’s independence and determination not to obey are hard to miss in a society that is almost built upon women’s subordination. Her relationship with her next husband, John Mellish, displays a similarly unconstrained attitude and lack of concern for convention. When Mellish asks Aurora about a certain money issue, she responds, “‘Perhaps I may prefer to spend my own money…and pay out of my own purse, without being under an obligation to anyone.’ Mr. Mellish returned to his salmon in silence” (Braddon, 222). Because it was considered that when a woman married, her husband became the owner of her body, property, and money, Aurora’s refusal even to answer further shows her indifference for women’s traditional roles. Aurora’s strong sense of freedom, her passion and sexuality set against a background of the purity and submissiveness of other Victorian women make her clearly stand out as the heroine in an oppressive society. She is a woman of strength when most women are weak. This powerful and positive representation of women is one of the goals Braddon achieved through her sensation novels.
However, Aurora’s strength and independence violate the Victorian social code, and she cannot flourish as a heroine without having flaws and making mistakes. Aurora cannot simply take a stand against society, as it would point to the idea that transgression against society is acceptable. It was necessary to point out that such rebellion must be caused by some weakness, some flaw. Braddon makes these flaws apparent as Aurora commits three grave mistakes. First, Aurora has an unconcerned attitude towards marriage. For an upper-class woman in this venue, it was important to marry a man not that she found physically appealing but one that would play a central role in mobilizing wealth and power (Perkin, 52). Because this idea of marriage had a very defined role in Victorian society, marriage was taken with great seriousness. Thus it is a shock to readers to find out that Aurora, while away at school in Paris marries a man of lower status from the simple impulse of physical attraction and desire: “I married him because he had dark-blue eyes, and long eyelashes, and white teeth and brown hair. He has insinuated himself into a kind of intimacy with me…”(138). Such confession is not meant to cause sympathy for Aurora’s mistake, but rather for readers to laugh at what the author herself describes as “the foolish girl” (p. 142). Aurora quickly realizes her mistake when she sees that the man has only married her for money. Divorce, however, is out of the question: “In general, the aristocracy disapproved of divorces because the marital repercussions were very inconvenient. Their concern to secure their property overrode all other considerations” (Perkin, 123). Through her own inclination, Aurora has trapped herself into a life of deception, guilt, and bribery (to keep her unwanted husband silent). Her inexcusable marriage is a fall from the ladder of acceptable behavior.
Secondly, Aurora treats her father with a lack of discretion in a society that considered children’s obedience as a natural duty. Aurora is the very life and happiness of her father who unconditionally supports her and gives in to her every wish and desire. He is more than heartbroken to learn of her first marriage, but as the unquestioning father, he conceals the truth from everyone to protect his only daughter. Although Aurora loves her father, she does not offer him any more of an explanation then she does when others question her, and he is thus in endless state of concern for her well-being. Braddon paints a loving picture of Aurora’s father, who certainly does not deserve all the distress he is forced to put up with. It is with this second mistake that we begin to see Aurora’s flaws and their effects: the agitation and alienation she brings upon her father as the result of her imprudence. Crime, violence, and bigamy are almost expected from Aurora, shown as a young girl who is disrespectful of the laws of society.
However, it is perhaps Aurora’s third mistake that disturbed Victorians the most. Instead of admitting her guilt and repenting for the wrongs she has committed, Aurora pretends that nothing has happened and still believes herself to be a proud and just person. Professor Edwards, writing the introduction to the novel, argues that Aurora feels no guilt at all. However, I believe deep down she does feel responsibility, and perhaps even sees the wrongs of her actions in her father’s misery. Braddon writes, “Aurora bore her silent burden…and none knew whether the serpent had been rooted from her breast, or had made for himself a permanent home in her heart” (p.121). Thus Aurora, behind the facade of strength and power, is fully aware of her guiltiness – of the serpent in her heart. Aurora makes no public gesture to atone for her sins: “She appeared not only to retain full faith in herself and full trust in her own judgment, but also demanded that others, and especially the men in her life, share this faith and trust unquestioningly” (Braddon, xiv). Aurora displays no submissiveness to any men, despite her flaws, and instead continues to exercise dominion over them, exemplifying the presence of female authority in a patriarchal society. Aurora is even compared to other powerful women of history, namely Cleopatra of Egypt and Hecate of Greek mythology. However, Aurora’s authority almost tells the readers it is acceptable to rise against society and defy rules that they have lived by for centuries. This was not the idea Braddon meant to convey. Thus Aurora’s failure to admit her wrongdoing is her third mistake, one that emphasizes her unconcern for the respected values of society.
We are then presented with a conflicting image: Aurora commits offenses but simultaneously continues to display dominance. Are readers supposed to like Aurora because she has the will to rise against the biases of the society? Or are they supposed to hate her because she stands against everything that they believe? In essence sensation/bigamy novels are supposed to do both – hint at a justified rebellion but not enough to cause controversy. Braddon, however, brings a complete resolution to the end of the novel by punishing Aurora. As the news of her first marriage surfaces and her lies are exposed, Aurora’s powerful tone and presence are changed to those of a weak and helpless woman – to those of a Victorian woman. She writes to her husband, Mellish, “I am a miserable coward…I have no hope that you can have any other felling for me than contempt and loathing. Think of me mercifully, if you can…”(Braddon, 300). At the same time the happy and stable marriage of Talbot and Lucy, the perfect traditional Victorian couple, is highlighted by Aurora’s instability. The ‘heroine’ is forced to deal with her self created problems and only sees a way out by conforming to the ideals of society, admitting her guilt, and hoping to live the rest of her life purely. Aurora must, in the end, give up her passion and aggression in order to be accepted. And eventually she is, as her husband Mellish accepts and forgives Aurora. They have a child together representing the beginning of a family and of Aurora’s new life. Perhaps, the best example of her forced transformation is the concluding paragraph of the novel:
So we leave Aurora, a little changed, a shade less defiantly bright, perhaps, but unspeakably beautiful and tender, bending over the cradle of her first-born;…I doubt if my heroine will ever again care so much for horseflesh…as she has done in days that are gone (p.459).
Thus the lesson Braddon ultimately teaches is that Aurora must accept the conventions of society she has rejected as a young girl and as a young married woman. She replaces the horse with the cradle – or her independence with Victorian submissiveness – her vital energy and uniqueness with acceptance within paternalistic Victorian society (Bedell, 30).
Despite the fact that Aurora ‘loses the fight’ and in the end has to give in to the pressure of society – the effect that such novels had on actual women was very much the opposite. In fact Victorian women began to rebel against convention through reading sensation novels that indirectly voiced women’s ambitions for individuality and power (Kane, 48). The heroines of novels voiced the necessity of transformation in regard to women’s property rights, the need for better education and jobs, and change in marital relations. The New Woman began to emerge (Perkin, 241). And it was this very emergence of the New Woman that was partly responsible for the uprising of feminism that fought to question women’s traditional roles. Thus revolutionary ideas that are stated brilliantly in anti-revolutionary form of the 1860’s sensation novels can be credited with placing in the foreground the issue of female subordination, and laying the foundation for the partial female acceptance and equality that we enjoy in our society today.