The Publication History of the Novel
Jennifer Carnell

The first instalment in Belgravia, Vol. I, November 1866.

The first edition of Birds of Prey in three volumes, published by Ward, Lock, and Tyler in 1867.

Small format one volume edition of Birds of Prey, published by Ward, Lock, and Tyler, circa 1870.

'Birds of Prey,' Athenaeum, 12 October 1867.

'Of making many books there is no end' was the weary reflection of the Preacher nearly 3,000 years ago, and put into words to warn his son against trying to read them all. The still wearier novel-reader of these days will soon need no warning reminder even as to the 'many books' which come from Miss Braddon's productive hand alone, if that lady employs her ingenuity to play such tricks upon the public as the one she plays in these three volumes. Avowedly concocted for the pièce de résistance of a serial, and characterized by all the faults and little of the interest which the author's strongest admirers and bitterest detractors respectively allow that her books possess, this ('Birds of Prey') excites unsatisfied curiosity at the commencement, weariness in the middle, and indignation at the end. These are strong words; but let the reader judge if they are not just ones. The first volume opens with a tableau suggesting a penniless surgeon busily engaged, after a night spent over 'a volume of the Lancet,' in poisoning an old love's husband. A couple of hundred pages suffice to establish this bird of prey number one in the dead man's place […] The rest of the book is built almost entirely upon a tedious, and of course an ostentatiously sensational search by birds of prey numbers two and three […] Apart from this artistic climax, the 'novel' tells nothing, suggests nothing, and contains next to nothing worth the toil of reading. Its author may, with equal probability, have decided upon her plot, or been unable to arrange one. It clears up no mystery, discovers no secret, disposes of none of its characters, and revolves around no visible centre. Its 900 pages just succeed in achieving what a living Welsh bishop once described, after an hour and a half's discursive preaching, as 'a clearance of the way for the consideration of the subject.'

Now, are we not entitled to ask Miss Braddon, in all seriousness, whether this is not plying the trade of novel-making a little too sharply. She writes, as we know, with ease and fluency. Regard to probability or real life nobody has ever has ever had a right to expect from her, and therefore nobody asks for. Audacity is her forte, and her temptations to audacity must be remembered alongside her transgressions. But even for her own sake is it wise to draw the boundary-line of unscrupulous nowhere? An old-established tradesman may go on and prosper for years after his wares have fallen in quality, or he himself has grown to be a little lazy; but what about false weights and measures and spurious imitations? Continued success ought surely to be a matter of indifference before he takes to supplying stones when he is asked for bread, or an ounce when he is paid for a pound - or before the Author of Lady Audley's Secret palms off upon society this mass of crude and incomplete penny a lining, and calls it 'a novel in 3 vols.' Its correct description would, in fact, be - A fortuitous collection of impossible characters and improbable coincidences, without aim, connexion, story or result; and whatever 'Charlotte's Inheritance' may prove, it cannot be a continuation of 'Birds of Prey,' for the very simple reason that there is nothing whatever to continue. The writer has, indeed, collected ample materials for a good romance; but the reader may justly grumble if he is allured into the trouble and expenses of reading her rough note-book.' (Please note that transcripts were originally made as rough notes for personal research use by Jennifer Carnell, and that anyone wanting to quote them in their own work is advised to consult the original for complete accuracy.)

The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon by Jennifer Carnell (Biography)



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