I was hiding in the stacks of the Augustine Library at Canterbury Christ Church University with Dr Kate Mattacks (UWE) last November, and stifling laughter (yes, academics do sometimes have a good time) – and why? Well, smut – that’s why. I have to be honest. We had uncovered, from amongst the huge array of unpublished materials in the Braddon Archive, a little stash of letters. These date from the time of her affair with John Gilby (1860-61). One of them is in the form of a poem, entitled A Quarter of An Hour’s Run – Very Sharp’.
So, I wrote a paper which I delivered at the recent conference: ‘The Victorian Tactile Imagination’ at Birkbeck College, London (19-20 July, 2013).
The Centre for Ninteenth Century Studies at Birkbeck will also publish a report on the conference in their journal ’19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century’. Here then, is the transcript of my paper. I make no apologies for the blushes that it might induce.
‘A Quarter of an Hour’s Run – Very Sharp’: Tactility and Titillation in the ‘Tally Ho Letter’ in the private correspondence of Mary Braddon.
Victorian private worlds can seem especially alluring because the image of the age is sometimes one of protectiveness, coyness, secrecy. Desires are present, but the articulation of those desires varies. The sensation of touch gained or touch denied can often be integral to the expression of those desires. Nowhere is it more private than in the correspondence between couples and what is interesting about this particular letter is how it expresses desire but simultaneously also maintains a controlled and guarded quality. As a poem it follows a set form of imagery and whilst not remarkable as verse (in any way!), it is there to fulfil a function in the relationship between Mary Braddon and her patron John Gilby. So, to Braddon from the pen of Gilby (the first page of the manuscript):
Braddon, from the mid-1850s to 1860, toured the Yorkshire theatre circuit and at some point along the way encountered John Gilby. In 1874, Charles Reade wrote a ‘sketch’ of Braddon’s life in one of his Notebooks, wherein he recorded Gilby as a ‘simple-minded Yorkshire squire’ who patronised Braddon in her career transition, from acting to writing. She knew many journalists, playwrights, and other actors of course, and worked to gain introductions to the publishing world. This proved highly successful, but just before she made the breakthrough with her first novels, she engaged in an affair with Gilby.
They were intimate, I think it is safe to say, although he did not want there to be any appearance of impropriety. He saw her as a project. A woman whom he could tame, draw away from her life as an actress, and thanks to her work ethic and impressive intellect, he knew she could make something of herself. His correspondence is peppered with: ’Nagging, hectoring, demanding instant responses and poems written and revised to order,’ (Robert Lee Wolff, Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Garland 1979), 93. This is an evaluation and impression of Gilby’s letters that Robert Lee Wolff, Braddon’s biographer in the 1970s, uncovered.
Gilby wanted Braddon to develop her social standing and commissioned her to work as a poet. He was wealthy and thought he could direct her career, probably with a view to marrying her at a later date once she had become a respectable published author. He was a church-going man (the son of a clergyman), who fully approved of Fanny, Braddon’s mother, accompanying her daughter as chaperone on the theatrical circuit. He established mother and daughter in a residence in Beverley, Yorkshire, in 1860. Braddon named him her ‘Beverley Maecenas’ after the Roman cultural figurehead and patron of the arts under the Emperor Octavian.
Gilby desired Braddon to write Horatian Odes, Spenserian stanza, and asked her: ‘When will you write a Shakespearean play …?’ (Letter, Oct. 13, 1860). Her main published work from her time under his patronage is her stab at an epic biographical poem ‘Garibaldi’. This episode in her life predates her meeting with John Maxwell, who became her publisher, lover, and finally her husband. 1861 marks the beginning of her career with Maxwell, and her passionate and serious relationship; the start of a triumphant phase of sensation fiction writing. She was happy with Maxwell, where she had been unhappy under the tutelage of Gilby in the year before. She was not happy as a poet, and some of her responses to his passionate scoldings are aloof, or on some occasions she met him with indifference, his letter remaining uncollected from the Post Office.
Gilby’s poem to her is simple enough. It is a rhythmic, pounding, hunting song, written as a private communication. Braddon kept these pages amongst her personal papers for over fifty years, until she died. They have a clear dimension of urgency, suggestiveness, and titillation. This missive certainly meant something to her. He eagerly explores the sensation of hunting and riding down a quarry. This experience, as a means of exercise and mobility for Gilby, was essential. As Wolff discovered from the little evidence that exists of Gilby’s life, ‘both [his] legs were paralyzed’. It is not clear if this was due to accident or illness, but it seems to have affected him since childhood. He remained in Yorkshire, whilst his brother and other relatives left home to attend boarding school and Cambridge. His was a life of restrictions and perhaps some confinement. The sense of touch to his lower limbs could only be imagined for Gilby.
Wolff also discovered that he ‘used a specially constructed saddle with grips in front, which enabled him to ride to hounds and retain his seat while jumping’. Whilst he could not feel the touch of anything on his legs, riding was a full physical experience, an exertion that required different muscle groups and enabled him to enjoy speed and dynamism, as well as risk. It also brought him into close proximity with women for a vigorous social activity. Acting, Braddon’s first profession, and riding were areas in which women could mingle more freely and also come into contact with men of different classes, from grooms to gentry (as Gina Dorré examines in her recent monograph, Victorian Fiction and the Cult of the Horse, Ashgate, 2012). In that work she looks at the the way the sexually charged situations that arose were frequently referred to in coded form. Such an exploration occurs in Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (1863), which she wrote not long after her split with Gilby. In this novel the wayward ‘horsey’ heroine falls for her father’s groom, horsewhips a servant in a disturbing scene, and finally marries a handsome, young Yorkshire squire, gaining respectablility and happiness. This could be read as an apology of sorts to Gilby, as some Braddon scholars have theorized.
Gilby was a countryman and a sportsman, and it is not speculating too far that as a Victorian gentleman with wealth and social influence, the fact of his paralysis meant he felt he had to try that much more to prove himself. In the boisterous and vigorous world of the ‘Tally-HO’ letter he wanted to be in the lead, as a contrast to the imposition of an otherwise sedentary life. He occupied his time with correspondence and literary patronage, and possibly, in Braddon’s case, the sexual conquest of challenging and clever young women. She was an actress first, in order to pursue regular income for her and her mother, the embodiment of what intrigued the male gaze. Gilby wanted to discipline her towards poetry, the embodiment of the touching nature of female creativity. It would also be a way of confining her to the domestic sphere, keeping her away from the temptations of the stage.
However, his preachiness and insistence upon discipline in the letters partially masks a fuller desire for power and control, coded in the ‘Tally-HO’ letter, and finding an outlet in a story he relates to her in further correspondence:
‘Mr Brereton has just been in, & has been describing to me how Miss Blythe got introduced to Mr. Macmillan’s family [the publisher, no doubt], then asked to his house, then got him to sell her works amongst his friends, & so on, till she told him her fairy tales & got a permanent engagement! But then she had such a good dear father! He used to have a cane for her special use in his study (besides those for his school) and when she didn’t please him, of course he applied it effectively.’
The crop and the cane, and the activities that employ them throughout school, domestic, and sporting life, and the allure of their use in other contexts caused the blurring of boundaries. It encouraged a totally normalised view of corporal punishment and the use of whip and crop as urge for someone like Gilby. He can articulate his desire and his intentions in these terms. It also moves the sense of touch and imaginative touch into the location of coercion, cruelty, arousal, and control.
The suggestions of whipping appear in private communications from Gilby to Braddon, as poem or anecdote, so not for general consumption, and they are there for her to be in no doubt of his desires and ambitions for her. She is the quarry, her is the huntsman; she is the wayward schoolgirl, he is the schoolmaster who must correct her behaviour for her own good, as the unfortunate Miss Blythe encountered at the hands of her father. Encouragement and correction, emphasized by the use of whipping, was an echo, as Kraft-Ebbing stated in the Psychopathia Sexualia (1886), ‘of the first excitation of the sexual instinct … caused by a spanking.’
As someone who suffered from paralysis from a young age, it is not certain how much direct corporal punishment he would have experienced, but Gilby would certainly have witnessed it directed towards others. Whipping might have been something he felt he had to resort to as well, receiving as well as administering, as he matured because of the fear that he might not be able to perform sexually. Kraft-Ebbing describes cases around this widely held belief, that whipping enabled the debauched, the old, the paralyzed to achieve arousal. Accounts range from the 18th Century onwards of licentious roués and debauchees who needed ‘a severe preparatory beating’ before sex. There was ‘ … a Venetian, who had to be beaten and driven before he could have intercourse, just as reluctant Cupid was driven by his followers with sprays of hyacinths …’
For Braddon, however, this seems to have been something she veered away from. Perhaps the speedy deterioration of her relationship with Gilby has more to do with her disquiet at the articulation of his desire towards her that it had to do with her reluctance to be a poet. Once Braddon took up with Maxwell in London he became the driving force of her professional and personal life and there was no way Gilby could tempt her back to Yorkshire, as he had been unable to discipline her to his will. There might also be more to the depiction of Aurora Floyd’s whipping of her servant than meets the eye. It could be considered an act of revenge in fiction upon Gilby, or a fulfilment of his fantasy if he enjoyed receiving as well as giving.
In Braddon’s revisiting, and revision, of the horsey heroine with Vixen (1879) Braddon might, again, be seen to express her sense of annoyance and discomfort with male control. In the novel, Vixen (Violet Tempest), ‘is neither cunning nor shrewd. Rather, she is like a fox in that after the death of her father, the narrative tension entails the relentless pursuit of Vixen and her property by the dishonorable and licentious fortune hunter, Captain Winstanley.’ (Dorré, 85)
Braddon was characterized by her lover, Gilby, as the fox, if we read his poem as a titillating epistle of coercion and control, vigour and compulsion. She is the ‘Reynard’ he is hunting. She kept the letter, as a reminder perhaps, of the devices and attempts at control and cruelty in her life. She could be represented as the woman who could evade and escape the disciplinary male touch, and not only that but excel and deliver a riposte to that manner of treatment. She repositioned female power in many of her novels and especially reclaimed the control and will after enduring what seems to have been a power-touch relationship with Gilby.