I began 2013 in 1862 with Les Misérables. Let’s just say Hugo’s characters and plot drove me crackers and into the arms of the mad and very bad Lady Audley, who also came to the page in 1862. Was it a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire?
I never got to grips with Hugo’s scope, deciding that existence, the world, French history, politics and culture might just cover it and it’s a sensational achievement – it certainly caused a sensation. They were queuing in the streets for it on publication. Braddon’s novel, taking its cue from the same murder case as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher has been tagged the most sensationally sensational of the sensation novels (John Sutherland). Surprisingly the two novels share a significant theme – the class struggle. In both instances the downtrodden working classes are seeking upward mobility and in both cases, the heroine achieves it by marrying a rich man. What does that say for all that bloodshed and revolution? It’s not the way to attain riches in Hugo nor is it the way to retain them in Braddon.
However, the scope of Braddon’s novel is significantly smaller than Hugo’s but at no point did my eyes glaze over due to lack of interest.
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Can Les Misérables be pigeon-holed? Literary fiction tick. Historical and philosophical treatise tick. Romantic fiction tick. Comedy (yes, think Gavroche). Tragedy (Fantine, for sure, but it was Gavroche who made me cry). Fantasy (I don’t think I ever believed in Jean Valjean.) Work of genius tick.
Lady Audley can be easily classified. Sensation novel tick. Crime fiction tick. Feminist call to arms? Let me get back to you on that one.
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All 19th century novels are wordy compared to the 21st century norm. But why tell a story in 300,000 words when you can take 530,982? Yes, I reckon a good 200,000 words could be lopped off Les Misérables without affecting the plot or even its briliance too much. That’s probably why most translations are abridged.
The male narrator of Lady Audley’s Secret is a garrulous pompous so-and-so at times but he never induced in me a wish to throttle him. Sometimes less is more.
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To answer the question I posed earlier. I’m not one for reading 20th or 21st century values into 19th century novels, so I remain unconvinced about the feminist reading of Lady Audley’s Secret, in which Lucy Graham’s amorality is seen as the decisive action of a self-empowered female. Nah, I much prefer her as a selfish, murdering psychopath. I’m pretty sure that if Braddon’s pen had had the license of the 21st century, Lucy Graham’s wickedness would have been much more overt.
That said I wish that Hugo could have given Cosette a personality. Biggest disappointment of the book for me. That the girl, who finally made a stand for her relationship with Marius, so quickly reverted to a simpering conventional spineless beauty and effectively deserted the man who had saved her from her dreadful childhood.
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Quality of writing
There were passages of Les Misérables that simply soared; passages that I will quite happily return to when I’m looking for something to marvel at; the Battle of Waterloo; Gavroche and the kidlingtons; the battle at the barricade.
Braddon’s pen never reaches the same heights.
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A strange one this, given that both are acknowledged classics from 1862. By longevity I mean the one that’s going to live longest and most clearly in my mind. Hugo takes this point too. Perhaps all that wordiness and repetition played in his favour after all. I won’t forget the brilliant bits nor will I forget the irritating bits. None of it has faded. It’s four months since I finished and there’s not a week goes by without something bringing Les Misérables back to mind. People tell me that’s the sign of a good book.
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So it is I declare a respectable draw. This is a big surprise to me because I will happily tell you that I hated Les Misérables and loved Lady Audley’s Secret. Which just goes to show – sometimes I shouldn’t believe a word I say!