A small ink sketch by Mary Braddon (Mary Braddon Archive)
It is a good feeling when something is finally achieved and the metaphorical boil is lanced, so to speak! For many years a huge and weighty cultural responsibility has been bourn by me and my good friend Susanna Avery and the members of her family. Relief has come at last in the form of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW), based at Canterbury Christ Church University.
I must admit I had some sleepless, fretful nights over this. I knew, and Susanna knew, and a handful of like-minded academics and scholars knew of the significance of the archive of Mary Braddon’s unpublished material. But it has been a long and difficult process to have it universally acknowledged as an important find, partly because Braddon’s reputation is still being steadily revived but mostly because academia moves at the speed of glacial time – inching along at an agonising and frustrating pace.
The day that Susanna told me about her great-great-grandmother who was a ‘Victorian novelist, but no one has ever heard of her’ is now ingrained in my memory. It was a turning point for both of us for many reasons. I discovered the work of Braddon off the back of that comment. I determined that I would investigate her, initially as a rarity in order to create an original slant for my MA dissertation, and afterwards because of the pure enjoyment her novels offer. Into this equation came the added curiosity of the small cache of original Braddon papers that Susanna’s father kept in his desk.
These were handed on to me for my MA research in the mid-1990s, rapidly followed by the substantial legacy Susanna received which has sat in her attic and spare room for the past decade and a half. This archive was the foundation of my PhD research with the University of Kent, under the supervision of Professor Louis James. The finished result is a monograph about and transcripts of a large portion of the papers, focussed on Braddon herself, entitled ‘Papers Found in a Trunk: A Critical Assessment of the Mary Braddon Archive’, completed in 2005.
At this point I must give thanks to the many friends and well-wishers who, on hearing the topic of my thesis and the circumstances of the find, gave me a copy of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. It is undoubtedly a great book – but I didn’t read all SEVEN copies! (I know, I know – it was exactly like my situation, sort of…)
So finally, after much preparation and negotiation the archive has been transferred. Life has imitated art, and so on, but at long last the colleagues and the facilities are in place in Susanna’s favoured location in order for the full scale of research to be uncovered. The archive extends to the papers and publications of W.B. Maxwell (Braddon’s son) and Barbara Maxwell. The work of both these family members is a total mystery to me and additional to the main body of papers that belonged to Braddon in her lifetime.
At this point in time, I won’t yet go into a huge amount of detail about the content of Braddon’s papers in the archive. My thesis has a detailed bibliography pertaining to a large proportion of this; items that might figure as landmark finds relating to the broad context of her career. I have discussed some of them in published papers and at different conferences over the years; but now a short moratorium will follow in reference to the public access to the material and further publications.
The principal members of the research team have been gathered and these are: myself as Visiting Research Fellow to the university; Professor Adrienne Gavin and Dr Carolyn Oulton (members of the Christ Church faculty and founders of the ICVWW); and Dr Kate Mattacks of UWE. Between us we will look at the different means by which the archive can be fully investigated. There will be displays and an exhibition, readings at the Canterbury branch of Waterstone’s, a conference, publications and special journal editions, with opportunities for post-graduates in different fields to gain research posts to be involved in the work.
Radio silence will be intermittently broken with regular blog postings here, which will keep the information and progression of research in the public domain. But in the meantime watch the short film for a tantalising glimpse of the treasures waiting to be uncovered.