I have been looking at how masculinity, male desire and sexuality are portrayed in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature for some time now. A fairly unknown novella that tackles these topics is Mary Braddon’s Dead Love Has Chains (1906). This was re-published by Jennifer Carnell at the Sensation Press a few years ago. It deals with Conrad Harling, a young gentleman who has a suffocating, snobbish mother, and for whom the question of relationships and romantic attachments are fraught with problems.
His life changes when he is at Oxford and he meets a young woman, the daughter of a publican. He decides to play Pygmalion to her Galatea and shape her to be a society beauty and a worthy wife. However, she is seduced by a prizefighter, a ‘cheap Alcides’, who resembles the Belvedere Apollo. It is at this point that there is evidence of a conflict between Conrad’s sense of social propriety and personal justice at being rejected, and his true desires. He is affronted and outraged by her betrayal of him. He had done so much for her; to educate her and introduce her to society. But he finds he is actually more deeply affected by the fascination he feels for the boxer who has run off with his fiancée.
There are encoded motifs throughout this short text which reiterate the possibilities of Conrad’s identity and sexual desires. At a time when homosexuality was marginalised and criminalised and male desire had to shield itself with coded and emblematic language, it is rare for an elderly female author (as Braddon was by the turn of the century) to be tackling such a subject. However rare as this was for a woman writer, it was not unusual for Braddon as a personality of the age, to be using this as a motivating force for character and narrative. She had a background in sensation fiction and performance. As far back as the 1860s, and now widely documented and commented upon in literary criticism, her work handled deviant female desire and ambition; deviant because it was unconventional and socially unacceptable for the time.
One of the common features of Braddon’s work throughout her career is the non-judgmental approach she took. This is true for Dead Love Has Chains in which Conrad’s second fiancée, Irene, a society beauty, has a secret affair and illegitimate child in her past which she is terrified will be revealed and for which she will be judged. The atmosphere of moralistic social convention is clearly and convincingly depicted in the form of Conrad’s mother Lady Mary. But Braddon’s authorial voice is one of striving for authenticity in her characters. She presents a very interesting dichotomy in this story. Conrad is conflicted, and has a mental breakdown, because his understanding of his desires leaves him with confusion and guilt. And Irene, afraid for her reputation, is trying to forge a new, acceptable life with Conrad as her husband. Throughout, Braddon encourages the reader to decipher meaning and formulate opinions for themselves around these issues of male and female desire and social propriety. She leaves things very open for us to define our own understanding of the characters’ driving forces, and is never short of ambiguity and disconcerting or discordant events.
Braddon’s friendship and support of Oscar Wilde, and his family, might account for this influence in her writing at this time. This is certainly an intriguing and interesting novella and deserves to have greater critical recognition in that it offers insight into features of encoded writing that offer a different manifestation of male sexuality, identity and desire from an unusual source.