Blogging Braddon 3: ‘Dear Boss’, how many roads must an archival researcher travel?

Shock revelation from the Braddon Family Archive – Mary Braddon wrote the Ripper letters to Scotland Yard in 1888!  (So there, Patricia Cornwell with your Walter Sickert theory!)

Now that I have your attention, it’s, well …  it’s not explicitly obvious from the evidence, but then that’s kind of the point with most of this sort of archival research isn’t it? There is rarely if ever any kind of direct proof of something like that. The whole supposed ‘case’ of the Jack the Ripper letters is more of a cultural arrangement of different elements, most of which do not have a relationship with the murders themselves. It is this cultural (and linguistic) arrangement that corresponds to the evidence in the Braddon Family Archive.

Just as a side note, neither was Braddon Jack (or Jill) the Ripper; I only mention this because one Ripperologist has asserted recently that the killer was a woman. And another aside, I don’t know about you, but that certainly brings to mind the great 1971 Hammer film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (do you see what they did there?) starring the fantastic Ralph Bates.

Anyway, as far as where the Braddon archive might take me, I rule nothing out! That has probably been the major lesson about working on these papers. And I would urge any other potential primary source researchers to bear that status in mind when setting out on the journey. Where the manuscript leads you have to follow.

As I progressed through the collection during the years of my PhD research I felt as though I was working in a very disorganized fashion. I would be making my way through a set of papers and just as I thought I was dealing with one topic I would rapidly have to change tack and pursue a whole new line of investigation. I needed to be ready to take up a brand new area of research with whatever emerged, as I turned over another leaf in one of her notebooks or unwrapped a bundle of drawings. For example, I knew well the published novel A Lost Eden (1904), which holds a great deal of interest for the exploration of Braddon’s theatre career. What it also contains is the underpinning of Samuel Richardson’s plot for Clarissa (1748).

When I recognised the plan for A Lost Eden in one of Braddon’s 1890s notebooks it was clear that there were a series of routes to investigate, including the framework of Richardson’s narrative. So, from the compositional strategy for a late Victorian novel (already strongly coloured by theatrical references) that was published in the Edwardian period but is set across the trajectory of the Crimean War in the 1850s, I was directed to the 18th century epistolary tradition, partly via Jane Eyre, in case I hadn’t already mentioned that! The fabric of invention and composition causes the researcher to have to dog the footsteps of the author’s imagination, taking up the slightest of suggestions that indicate an influence or allusion. Which meant, to cut a long story short (pun very much intended – oh yes!), I had to read Clarissa (sob …)

However, on a lighter note – I mentioned the Ripper letters … have I kept you in suspense long enough? I wasn’t – as I might well have done – setting up a Braddon-style red herring, to draw you in. It is, however, never as cut and dried as it seems.  Here you go: a short manuscript (only 3 pages long) offers the tantalizing title: ‘The Double Event’.

So, the questions arise: foremost – where did she come up with the term? The story outline – very short – does not cover any direct reference to the series of 1888 Whitechapel murders. There is no suggestion as far as the manuscript develops, other than the title, that she was going deal with the case as part of the narrative. Neither is there a date on the manuscript, just a chapter heading ‘He’. However, we are talking an early, slim outline of something that never saw the light of day in that particular form. Speculation, therefore, can run riot – which is part of the fun of writing a blog such as this. Our imaginations, along with that of the author, can be stretched and reach into every dark corner.

To use the phrase ‘The Double Event’ as a title for a story draft seems very telling to me and I am no Ripper expert (I actually really enjoyed From Hell – accents and all!). Does it mean Braddon noticed it from a published version of the Ripper postcards? Was it a widely used term, or did it only emerge in reference to that specific double murder; first appearing in the ‘Saucy Jack’ postcard of October 1st, 1888 and entering into more common usage after that? The ‘double event’ that the writer of the card refers to is thought to be the murders on the night of September 30th of Catherine Eddowes and Elizabeth Stride.

The Saucy Jack postcard (1888) from casebook.org ‘The Ripper Letters’

Now, this highlights various possibilities. Perhaps an already extant term entered into popular slang thanks to the publicity surrounding the crimes? Braddon was certainly in the habit of gathering contemporary reportage. She had cuttings and scrap books in her study so that she could keep material of interest at her fingertips.  We know this from the interview with Joseph Hatton in 1887: ‘Miss Braddon At Home’, during which she described the layout of her study and mentioned her ‘commonplace books’ full of such jottings and clippings. I don’t doubt that her interest would have stretched to the tragic and macabre and undoubtedly sensational coverage of the Whitechapel murders in the popular press.

So, in what or by whom was the phrase ‘The Double Event’ coined? Was it first seen on that 1888 postcard – or (once dated accurately) will it turn out that Braddon pre-empted it on her manuscript? Is this evidence of the influence that the murders exerted over her — or, did Mary Braddon write the ‘Saucy Jack’ postcard, and even some of the other Ripper correspondence to Scotland Yard and the newspapers? If, according to Patricia Cornwell, Walter Sickert had a go – why not a Victorian sensation novelist? She certainly had the imagination and better credentials!

According to Professor David Wilson in A History of British Serial Killing (2011), a sketch of the possible personality type of the murderer is as follows: ‘I would suggest that Jack the Ripper was a white man of limited intelligence and education, under the age of forty-five. From the nature of his offences, it seems highly unlikely that he would have been interested in writing letters to the press.’

This seems a sensible enough evaluation, working on what we know of the killer, whose likely background was that of working-class male in Whitechapel, choosing his victims from the community around him. It follows then that the sinister meanderings and really obvious ‘bad’ spelling of the Ripper correspondence came from other – shall we say, more learned – sources: journalists, artists, novelists. One of which could have been Braddon. I think some hand-writing analysis might be in order?

About gabymalcolm

Visiting Research Fellow (Canterbury Christ Church University); Associate Editor (Books) PopMatters (www.popmatters.com); artist, writer, film-maker, independent scholar
This entry was posted in Mary Braddon, Nineteenth Century Culture, Popular Culture, Vicorian/Edwardian Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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