The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Tales of unease…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new collection from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series contains fourteen short horror stories from the pen of a woman probably best-known for her sensation novels, Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It comes with a brief but informative introduction from Greg Buzwell, who tells a little about Braddon’s unconventional personal life and discusses the writers who may have influenced her.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of her writing. In my ignorance and literary snobbishness, I was expecting these to be at the pulpy end of horror, probably full of high melodrama and swooning maidens, but they’re not at all. There’s a wide variety of styles, from the standard hauntings to tales of revenge, but also some with a more reflective edge, about wasted lives and possible afterlives. Most of them involve the supernatural in one way or another, but human evil is also there in many of them. Some have a touch of romance and there’s some gentle humour in the observations of the society in which the stories are set.

However, the stories often contain a great deal of sadness and unfairness and somehow this stopped me from being able to love them all wholeheartedly. I often say that the joy of vintage crime is that authors knew to kill people that everyone disliked, so the reader doesn’t have to be grief-stricken. The same tends to apply to vintage horror – the people to whom bad things happen usually either deserve it or aren’t developed well enough for the reader to care, while the hero or heroine, or the narrator/observer, usually survives. In these stories, I found Braddon was very talented at creating characters that I grew to care about quickly, and then at the end they would often die, leaving me feeling sad rather than pleasantly chilled. And her women in particular seem to suffer unfairly at the hands of both human and supernatural evil. This is simply a matter of preference, however – it doesn’t make the stories any less good but for me it did make them a little less enjoyable.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Despite this, I rated ten of the fourteen stories as either four or five stars, and none of them got less than three, so it’s fair to say I was very impressed by her storytelling skill. Several of the ones that got four would have been fives too, had it not been for the fact that I was upset by the unhappiness of the endings. Braddon is expert at creating an air of unease, or of taking things off in an unexpected direction. These aren’t stories to make you jump at sudden horror, but they tend to linger in the mind after the last page is turned. There are strong women in them, but they are operating in social conventions that restrict them and leave them vulnerable to all kinds of dangers and cruelties. Very few of them swoon, though, and some of them have their revenge…

Here is a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:-

Eveline’s Visitant – I reviewed this previously in a Tuesday Terror! Post.

My Wife’s Promise – a man was a polar explorer until he married, after which he intended to stay home. However, when their first and only child dies, he finds himself tempted to join an expedition, and his selfless wife agrees that he should go. This is a rather tragic story, but it’s very well told with lots of excellent stuff about polar voyages.

Three Times – a strange story about a lion tamer who becomes fixated on a man who begins to turn up in his audience from time to time. Each time he appears, the lion tamer loses control of his beasts and becomes increasingly convinced that somehow the man in the audience is a kind of portent of doom. It’s never fully explained, but that is what gives it its wonderful air of unease – is something supernatural happening or not? Or is it all in the lion tamer’s mind? Nicely creepy.

The Ghost’s Name – this seems as if it’s a traditional haunted house story, but there’s more to it than that. Lady Halverdene’s husband is a drunken brute, and she and her sister choose to stay away from the gaze of society in his country home. There’s a room there which used to be a nursery, and tales are told of children who have slept there dying young. This isn’t scary in a supernatural way, but there’s plenty of drama in it, and some great observations of characters and society. And a rather fun little twist at the end!

Good Lady Ducayne – young Bella takes a job as paid companion to the extremely old Lady Ducayne. Bella knows that Lady Ducayne’s previous companions have sickened and died, but she is young, healthy and in need of money to keep her mother and herself out of dire poverty. Lady Ducayne takes her off to Italy and it’s not long before her health begins to decline. Fortunately for her, she has already won the admiration and love of a young gentleman who happens also to be a doctor. I loved this one – it’s a great mix of vague spookiness and human evil, and Bella is a delightful heroine whom we get to know through her letters home to her beloved mother. And for once, I came out of this one smiling.

So a very good collection overall with plenty of variety, and if you can put up with some rather sad endings then I highly recommend it. I’m now keen to read Lady Audley’s Secret to see how her style translates to novel length.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

27 thoughts on “The Face in the Glass: The Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon

  1. This sounds good! I prefer the uneasy end of horror rather than outright spookiness so these are definitely appealing. I’m sure I’ve got Braddon buried in the TBR somewhere, I must dig her out…

    • I think you might enjoy these or her novels – she’s actually a very good writer and quite insightful about the position of women in society without getting all feminist and preachy about it. I’ll be looking to read more of her stuff… 😀

  2. These stories do seem good, FictionFan. And I’m glad they aren’t standard fare (for the times) with swooning maidens and clunky language. The stories sound a bit more ‘in-depth’ too, at least in some cases. You make a good point about caring for the characters, too. I think stories are a lot sadder if we already care about the person who’s been killed, or if something terrible happens to a protagonist that we like…

    • Yes, I was ashamed at my own dismissal of her because of her label as “sensation” novelist. Apart from the fact that she’s a good writer and story-teller, I felt she was quite insightful about women’s place in society, without being all preachy about it. I just wish she had let more of her characters have a happy ending – a couple of them especially I was left feeling that life was too cruel… I like my horror to be a bit less horrible than that… 😉

  3. Lady Audley’s Secret is a real book??? I remember a character in a book mentioning it. I thought it was made up! Yay for Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Glad you liked her collection.

    • Yes, apparently it was a huge bestseller at the time so it gets referenced quite often, but I’ve always thought it would be pulpy and too melodramatic for me. But these stories have made me think there might be more to it than that – I shall seek it out! 😀

  4. The only thing worse than killing off characters I’ve grown to care about in a story is to do the same with animals! (particularly dogs and cats!) 😨😢 That said, this does sound appealing.

    • Oh yes! I avoid stories with animals in them for that very reason! No dead animals in this one, I’m glad to say, just humans. She’s a very good storyteller though – that’s probably why I cared… 😪

    • I don’t know – I suspect she was doing it deliberately to elicit emotion, plus people did die more often back then of course. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have found the death of a young women less tragic, exactly, but maybe less unfair? She is good, though…

  5. These sound so promising, FF, and you have made me want to try them though I am a little afraid of those tragic endings! I had definitely heard this book referenced before and it’s great to know it’s a good one. Lovely reviews!

    • Thank you! I’ve been familiar with her name for ever, but this is the first time I’ve tried her – well worth the time, even with those sad endings. And there are a couple that are lighter so that broke it up a bit…

  6. I’m glad you liked your introduction to Braddon over all. You should definitely give Lady Audley’s Secret a go at some point, as I think you will find some things to enjoy.

    • I’ve read very little sensation fiction which is odd given how much I enjoy the Victorian style. I’ve added Lady Audley to my next Classics Club list – haha, yes, I’m already planning to do it all again. Masochism! 😉

  7. It certainly sounds like there is a whole mix of topics and events that Mary Elizabeth Braddon tried to incorporate in her short stories. A few of these sound good although perhaps a little too far-fetched.

    • One of the things I enjoy about classic horror is that it actually usually has a lot to say about the society of the time, and the concerns people had. I did enjoy these, despite the sad endings of some of them… 🙂

    • I rarely read modern horror but vintage horror is pretty gentle, often well written, and usually quite interesting about the things that concerned people back then. I’ve become addicted over the last few years – before I started Tuesday Terror I almost never read horror…

        • Originally it was simply because I don’t read enough books to fill all five days Mon-Fri with reviews, so I decided to make Tuesdays a short story slot. I used to do Transwarp Tuesday (sci-fi) and Tuesday ‘Tec (detectives) too, and occasionally still do. I also didn’t think I liked horror back then, and wanted to see if I could see why so many people do. Now I’m completely addicted, especially to Victorian horror, and know considerably more about it. And although most of my visitors aren’t horror fans, the posts always seem to be quite popular and generate a lot of comments (which is the prize for blogging as far as I’m concerned), so gradually the Porpy developed into a regular feature over autumn and winter each year!

          And because I kind of “specialise” in vintage horror now, my favourite publishers feed me with any new horror anthologies they bring out, or histories of horror, etc. Just one way blogging has completely changed my reading habits! 😀 😱

        • I love Transwarp Tuesday! I used to work in a charity bookshop and was amazed at the amount of horror/thriller writing, but I didn’t think to find out why so hats off to you. . . One of the best things about blogging is finding not just new books but whole genres that I would have ignored as ‘not being my thing’, so thank you, there’s obviously a lot of fun horror out there – and thank you for a lovely full answer!

          • I might find a Transwarp Tuesday one in the Monsters anthology I’ll be reading soon. 😀 Yes, I had a terrible tendency to stick to the same kinds of books and the same authors till I started blogging – it’s been great for encouraging me to go out of my comfort zone. Thank you! I hope I can temot you to an occasional horror story – I promise I never go for anything too graphic! 😀

  8. Hmm it sounds like these stories made you a bit sad because they were too realistic perhaps? Women not being able to break free of their social restraints? Bad things happening to good people? I like to ESCAPE reality when I read horror hahah

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