The Queen of Victorian psychological thrillers

the benefactress, Victorian romance, Helena fairfaxProject Gutenberg has hundreds of old Victorian and Edwardian novels available for free download, and some of them make a cracking read. I went through this list of Edwardian novels on Flavorwire recently and read The Benefactress, by Elizabeth von Arnim (available here). It’s just the sort of romance I love – the author is funny, there is a strong heroine and a charming hero, an unusual setting, and a great cast of supporting characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

The Victorian psychological thriller

The Victorians were all about Christmas, and while looking for a Christmas read I came across a book called The Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. This is a book for children, but I discovered that ME Braddon was one of the most popular and prolific authors of the late nineteenth century, writing what we’d call psychological thrillers today.Helena fairfax Lady Audley's Secret ME Braddon

Psychological thrillers seem like a modern invention, but Mary Elizabeth Braddon was writing the same gripping and twisted plots a hundred and fifty years ago, only then they were known as “sensation novels”. Her books are Gothic novels “set in a modern bourgeois home, where nothing is quite what it seems”, according to this description by Henry James. I love this description. They are exactly the sort of book that, if they were popular today, would have the subtitle on Amazon: “A gripping psychological thriller with a twist you won’t see coming!”

Murder most foul

ME Braddon’s most famous book is Lady Audley’s Secret, which she published when she was only 27. This book is based on the story of real life murderess Constance Kent. It shocked Victorians at the time with its ambitious and ruthless female lead (at a time when women were supposed to lead a life of quiet refinement) and with its plot featuring bigamy. This Guardian review says it contains that essential of a psychological thriller, a “wonderfully obscured plot twist”. Lady Audley’s Secret became a bestseller, and Braddon wrote an astonishing ninety or so further novels.

If you’re interested in reading these old Victorian novels, besides Project Gutenberg, The British Library also offers free downloads of some of these books, plus a wonderful collection of images which you are able to use freely.

This is a dramatic image from ME Braddon’s Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales, and you can download the book free from The British Library here.

Helena fairfax, ME Braddon, Ralph the Bailiff
Illustration from Ralph the Bailiff and Other Tales. Image courtesy of The British Library

ME Braddon’s children’s book The Christmas Hirelings is a short, charming read and is also available for free download at The British Library.

Helena fairfax, The Christmas Hirelings, Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Illustration from The Christmas Hirelings, courtesy of The British Library

* * *

I’m looking forward to reading some gruesome Victorian psychological thrillers over Christmas! Since this is my last post before the holidays, here is another lovely Victorian Christmas illustration from The British Library collection:

Helena Fairfax, Victorian Christmas

Wishing you a happy and peaceful Christmas – and happy reading!


10 thoughts on “The Queen of Victorian psychological thrillers

  1. Fascinating article, Helena! I love the idea of these ‘sensation novels’ and it just shows what original and interesting books were being written. What a fantastic young age to be published and how accomplished. Inspiring work indeed! Project Gutenberg is terrific and I worked with them for a few years…some very interesting some not so much! A brilliant project that is being fulfilled. Wishing you a lovely Christmas!! 🎄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, 27 was really young to write such a sensational book. I read that ME Brannon had quite a sensational life herself. I’d like to find out more about her.
      How brilliant to work for Project Gutenberg! I’ve had some wonderful books from them – books I would never have come across otherwise. You’re right, they are terrific!
      Thanks so much for dropping in, Annika. Have a lovely Christmas! xx

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m interested in the subject of women’s suffrage, too, Tina. I haven’t come across the cook book. How interesting! I love stuff like that. I’ll go and have a look for it!
      Thanks for dropping in. Wishing you and family a happy Christmas!


  2. Love this post as I’m very interested in the Victorian period – thanks, Helena. Funnily enough, I just bought a special little Collector’s edition of Lady Audley’s Secret and looking forward to reading it! Have a lovely Christmas.


    1. What a coincidence that you just bought her book, Rosemary. I only discovered ME Brannon very recently. I’m really looking forward to reading her books. She certainly has a lot to choose from!
      Thanks for dropping in, and I hope you have a lovely Christmas in Edinburgh!


  3. Thank you for broadening my reading possibilities horizon. So much interesting information. I haven’t visited Project Gutenberg in a long time. Looks like you found gold there. It seems everything old is new again. You have a wonderful Christmas filled with love, peace, joy, and lots of reading good stories.
    JQ Rose

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Helena Fairfax Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.