Victorian Family Magazines and the Elasticity of Time in Aurora Floyd

by Kaari Newman

The notion of destiny runs throughout Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd. On the one hand, it provides the all-important element of foreshadowing, a vital ingredient to keep readers in suspense of what will happen and prompt them to buy the next installment of the serial. On the other, it offers Braddon the ability to ruminate on the passage of time, which never seems to pass at an even pace. The passage of time, or even a particular moment, often speeds up or slows down according to the mood or circumstances of a particular lived experience, which can lead to anxiety about what has passed or what’s to come. Braddon makes use of this perpetual stretching and condensing of time – its elasticity – in Aurora Floyd to illuminate the power of what believing in destiny does: it helps characters and readers make sense past actions in light of the uncertainties about the future. That Aurora Floyd was first published serially in Temple Bar magazine (from January, 1862 to January, 1863) only underscores this principle, because the nature of periodical publishing depends on both drawing readers into a narrative and then cutting the narrative short in order to pique their interest for the next installment — what Margaret Beetham calls the “open-ended and end-stopped” nature of periodicals. [1] As we shall see, then, elastic time functions on several levels, from the necessity of periodical narrative structure to the complexity of reader experience.

There are many passages we could choose to examine Braddon’s use of elastic time, but I have selected two in particular, both of which occur in the opening chapters of their respective installments. The first comes from Chapter XIII, “The Spring Meeting,” which was published in May, 1862. Aurora and her new husband, John Mellish, have entered a new filly into this auspicious horserace (the titular “Spring Meeting”), and Archibald Floyd, Aurora’s father, accompanies them to the racetrack. As he watches his daughter make bets with a “natural vivacity,” he is filled with

[A] fond emotion, so intermingled with gratitude to Heaven for the happiness of his daughter’s destiny as to be almost akin to pain. She was happy; she was thoroughly happy at last, this child of his dead Eliza, this sacred charge left to him by the woman he had loved; … he could go to his grave resignedly to-morrow, if it please God,—knowing this. [2]

There is a pause on the action of the present here while the narrative both reaches back to the beginning of the novel, where the bachelor banker marries a common actress, and anticipates the future of the old man (and every man, really). Thus, Mr. Floyd’s reverie captures three different modes of time: the present happiness of his daughter, the past loss of his beloved wife, and the future in which he is no longer around to provide for his daughter’s happiness. In this passage, then, the term “destiny” figures as “a fact or condition,” [3] an outcome of which happiness was not always certain. Mr. Floyd thus finds peace in this moment and can meet his Maker with confidence, knowing that the past wrongs of his daughter’s life have been seemingly overcome.

Such elasticity in time exists not only for characters, but also for readers. The narrator punctuates this passage with the following post-script: “Strange thoughts, perhaps for a crowded racecourse; but our most solemn fancies do not come always in solemn places. Nay, it is often in the midst of crowds and confusion that our souls wing their loftiest flights, and the saddest memories return to us.” [4] In this way, Braddon’s narrator links the reflections of Mr. Floyd to the lived experiences of the readers of Temple Bar. She seems to suggest that believing in the concept of destiny as “fact” is a common way to grapple with how the past connects to the present and in turn to the future. Amidst the “crowds and confusion” of daily life, moments of clarity and personal epiphanies about past actions, present realities or anticipated futures are regular occurrences.

The installment in which this first elastic episode appears concludes with Aurora swooning over the revelation that the prospective new horse trainer for Mellish Park is none other than James Conyers, her former husband whom she thought was dead. Unfortunately, readers must wait until the September issue to discover the true nature of the relationship between Aurora and Conyers. June’s installment of the novel opens on “the first week of July” when Conyers arrives, several months after the Spring Meeting and an abrupt jump from the “early spring” which opened May’s installment. July’s issue offers no relief either, and stretches the time between sensational shock and eventual revelation even further. Indeed, its action only spans a few weeks, as opposed to a few months, keeping readers in suspense of what the dreadful secret of Aurora and Conyers’ connection can possibly be.

July’s issue is the site of our second passage on elastic time. Having ended June’s issue “with terrible doubts and anxieties creeping” [5] into Aurora and John’s happy marriage, July’s installment opens with the couple descending on Archibald Floyd’s estate at Felden Woods, where Talbot Bulstrode (Aurora’s former lover) and his new wife Lucy (Archibald’s niece), are visiting. In an after-dinner walk along a bridge where Aurora and Talbot had once discussed their “bright future,” [6] Talbot reflects on “the influence which this family of Felden Woods had had upon his destiny” in this way:

Barely two years! not two years! And how much had been done and thought and suffered since! How contemptible was the narrow space of time, yet what terrible eternities of anguish, what centuries of heartbreak, had been compressed into that pitiful sum of days and weeks! [7]

Like the previous passage we examined, this reflection both catches the reader up on what has already happened in the story (i.e., the swift engagement and abrupt break-up of Talbot and Aurora) and then contemplates “what might have been,” much as readers themselves might have done when Talbot broke his engagement with Aurora way back in March’s issue (the break-up concludes that issue’s installment to highly dramatic effect). The hyperbolic magnitude of Talbot’s suffering, which lasted for “centuries” and “eternities,” juxtaposed with the repetition of “two years” and the “narrow” span of time condenses the past into the present, reminding readers that despite how Talbot felt about the passage of time, it was in fact only two years. At the same time, a few paragraphs later the narrative expands time again, noting that though “The jagged flesh may reunite … the wound has been, and to the last hour of our lives there are unfavourable winds which can make us wince with the old pain.” [8] Thus the push and pull of time is felt throughout this passage, and crystallizes on the present action of walking on the iron bridge where once Talbot and Aurora stood as lovers.

Again, this elasticity of time speaks to the lived experiences of readers who may have also suffered in disappointed love, even if their lives have since turned out for the better, or at least, more conventionally. Such affirmation that even the most devastating of personal storms can be weathered may have been of particular comfort to the middle-class readers at whom the Temple Bar editors directed their content. As Deborah Wynne notes, the 1860’s were “an ‘anxious’ age. The peace and stability which had popularly been associated with British society at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 had given way to a more insecure outlook” caused by a variety of factors, including “political irritability,” economic depression and moral uncertainty due to a rise in violent crime. [9] In such a time, then, the elasticity of time rendered in Aurora Floyd and elsewhere in Temple Bar [10] offers readers reassurance that their destinies may in fact turn out quite differently than they currently expect. Indeed, the notion of active agency is at work in Talbot’s use of “destiny” in this passage; [11] his destiny has been forever changed by the Floyd family, though not in the ways he expected just two short years ago.

Therefore, as we can see in these two passages, the idea of elastic time offers both the characters of Aurora Floyd and its mid-century Victorian readers a way to grapple with the inevitable passage of time. Elastic time helps make sense of the present in light of the past and the hopes for the future. In both passages examined here, the characters seem to be asking, “How did I get here?” and the answer comes through a simultaneous condensing and stretching of time. While readers must wade through another twenty chapters to find out whether Aurora’s dreadful secret actually proves to be the undoing of everyone’s happiness, these moments of elastic time give the characters — and readers — the hope of a brighter future, and thus the fortitude to carry on.

Notes

[1] Margaret Beetham, “Towards a Theory of the Periodical as a Publishing Genre,” in Investigating Victorian Journalism, ed. Laurel Brake, Aled Jones and Lionel Madden (New York: St. Martin’s, 1990), 28. See also 26-27.

[2] Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Aurora Floyd, ed. P.D. Edwards (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008), 147.

[3] OED Online, definition 1.

[4] Braddon, 147.

[5] Braddon, 213.

[6] Braddon, 77.

[7] Braddon, 223.

[8] Braddon, 224, emphasis in original.

[9] Deborah Wynne, “Tantalizing Portions: Serialized Sensation Novels and Family Magazines,” in The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001), 8.

[10] For example, the poem, “Then—And Now,” written by Temple Bar editor Edward Yates and published in the May, 1862 issue also makes use of elastic time to contemplate how the world has degenerated from the illustrious 1850s.

[11] OED Online, definition 4b, which indicates that with a possessive pronoun, destiny becomes a “power or agency held to predetermine a particular person’s life or lot.”

Bibliography

Beetham, Margaret. “Towards a Theory of the Periodical as a Publishing Genre.” In Investigating Victorian Journalism, edited by Laurel Brake, Aled Jones and Lionel Madden, 19-32. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Aurora Floyd, edited by P.D. Edwards. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Wynne, Deborah. “Tantalizing Portions: Serialized Sensation Novels and Family Magazines.” In The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine, 1-37. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Chelcy Walker says:

    I think what you’ve highlighted here in these passages, the stretching back and reaching forward of time, is really fascinating and speaks to the tensions that the Victorians were experiencing: an emphasis on nostalgia and enduring Romantic aesthetic values, as well as a desire for immediacy and an ephemerality evident in print culture. In your introduction, you state that Braddon uses this elastic time in Aurora Floyd to “illuminate the power of what believing in destiny does: it helps characters and readers make sense of past actions in light of the uncertainties about the future.” I’m intrigued by how the Victorians made sense of their anxieties and uncertainties, and what kind of mechanisms they employed in periodical culture to offset these concerns. I think a really interesting extension of this paper would be to throw into the mix Linda Hughes’s article “What the ‘Wellesley Index’ Left out: Why Poetry Matters to Periodical Studies,” and look at a few different ways that poetry either within Braddon’s serialized fiction or beside it also contributed to or detracted from a sense of “elastic time.” In some cases, poetry as a form helped them feel reconnected to literary tradition, and maybe belie concerns that periodical culture essentially lacked these more timeless attributes. Hughes describes poetry’s effect on Victorians as helping to “adjudicate what also defined the periodical: its modernity” (Hughes 99).

    In a search in Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, I came across a passage describing the idyllic life, which likened this “pure and unsullied life” to a “smooth poem, with no crooked, halting line to mar the verse.” This statement here reinforces the poem as a perfected and desirable form, associated with wholesome, even spiritual, effects. Could there be other examples, either in Aurora Floyd or in passages surrounding it, that reveal poetry as a tool to moderate the effects of expanding and contracting time?

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  2. I like how you tightened up the idea of “destiny.” I really see its connections to periodical time and the almost manipulation of readers and what to expect for each installment but also how it functions for the characters such as the uncertainty or certainty that the future will bring something either positive or negative.

    I see this concept of time and destiny relating to what Amy’s blog post was about, as destiny implies a lack of control over time, yet you mention that seeing destiny as a fact was a way to grapple with and gain some understanding of the past as connecting to the future. Destiny is then a tool to manipulate time in the sense that one can see the elastic sense of time rather than just the sudden stopping or starting of time with temporal markers and being subject to those markers. It’s also as you say a mode of reflection in order to look to the future and see what might become of the future. In this way, destiny is a fact but also is elastic in itself, as it represents a future that is subject to change based on how the past and present are reflected upon and how a character views the future.

    Just as characters have this sort of “control” of destiny, readers have control over their reading experience, as periodical time allows them to speculate on what might happen next. Based on past installments, they can decide for themselves what may or may not happen in future installments or even how the story will end. The only difference here is that in a story’s sense of time and destiny, characters may develop to gain control of their future based on their decisions, but readers only have the illusion of control over the story. They are not the ones writing it and it will play out how the author has decided to write it. The reader is only in control as long as the next issue has not come out yet. This also relates back to Amy’s blog post, as readers can try to gain some control over their sense of periodical time, but just as passive women wait on men, they can only attempt this sense of control and are never actually in control.

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  3. Andrea Stewart says:

    Like Angie I really appreciated the specificity of your concept of “destiny” which figures as “‘a fact or condition,’ an outcome of which happiness was not always certain.” Destiny in each of the passages that you examine in Aurora Floyd is changeable, malleable – it can be the “thorough happiness” that Archibald Floyd imagines and hopes for his daughter in the future, or it can be the agony of past solemn remembrance and the way that destiny has altered from its once seemingly sure course. What I find most interesting about these two passages is that the core of each man’s conception of destiny, whether happy or bittersweet, is inextricably linked with concerns about marriage.

    Marriage, as Deborah Wynne notes in her text The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Magazine, was one of the primary issues of the time, especially when it didn’t work – in both the concerns about “precarious social position of single women” and fear of “failed and illegal marriages” (3).

    Archibald Floyd, in feeling vast relief at the prospect of happy marriage for his daughter, is dually relieved that now she will be protected and shielded from any potential reveal of her scandalous past through her husband and the protection of his good name. If single when the scandal should rear its ugly head, Aurora’s position in society is precarious, and the hope of her securing a happy marriage in the future is thrown into serious jeopardy, becoming nigh impossible to achieve. Talbot Bulstrode on the other hand, in his passage, is ruminating on his “failed” attempt at marriage that he made with Aurora. Though broken off by himself, Talbot still feels the agony and the oppressive suffering at the necessity of admitting his failure in choosing a suitable bride that would uphold his familial pride, and his inability to make his first engagement a success by its end in matrimony. He even compares himself with “losers” at the racetrack, who have placed their bets on the wrong contender – thus revealing to the reader his insecurities about appearing as a failure in his nuptial duties.

    Thus through these specific passages, Braddon makes the gender-equalizing case that these two specific anxieties about marriage, traditionally thought of as a feminine concern, are just as troubling and preoccupying to men of Victorian times.

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    1. Kaari Newman says:

      Andrea, I’m so glad you’re making this connection between the narrative’s use of destiny and the male preoccupation with marriage. I think you’re right in pinpointing this as a deliberate choice by Braddon. She seems to take great pains to point out that marriage (and a successful one) isn’t just a female concern or pastime; the men too take seriously their responsibility to “marry well.” In fact, one of the first things we learn about Talbot Bulstrode is that “At two-and-thrity he was still a bachelor, not because he never loved, but because he had never met with a woman whose stainless purity of soul fitted her in his eyes to become the mother of a noble race, and to rear sons who should do honour to the name of Bulstrode” (31). The passage goes on to talk of the “maneouvering mothers” and “pretty daughters” who shrink under his haughty gaze and careful scrutiny of their purity and fitness to be mistress of Bulstrode Castle. So right from the start, everyone knows – including Talbot himself – that Aurora is not the girl for him.

      Therefore, when he starts falling in love with her, he describes it as “pharisaical” of him to judge Archibald Floyd for his doting fondness for Aurora (46), and eventually just gives himself up to the “witch’s dance” of his “destiny” (64). Here Talbot seems to use destiny as Archibald Floyd later does at the racetrack, in that it is a “fact or condition” that allows him to reconcile his misgivings with the strong sense of responsibility he and his family have placed on his choice of life partner.

      If we contrast this sort of reluctant reconciliation with Fate to John Mellish’s views on marriage, we find an even more interesting view on male thoughts on matrimony. John doesn’t think much of marriage beyond his own present happiness and the comfort it brings him in possessing such a “reward” as Aurora. For example, though he is cruelly hen-pecked, “John Mellish did not even debate the point” of whether husbands ought to be subject to “petticoat government. […] He loved her and he laid himself down to be trampled upon by her gracious feet” (143). Braddon paints John as the true romantic sop within this story, almost womanly in his excessive devotion to Aurora, no matter what she has done.

      And there’s the rub, of course, because Braddon seems to both laugh at this excess but to also quietly uphold its steadfastness as something more potential marriage partners could emulate. I’m talking of course about John’s willingness to blindly trust Aurora, even with the lurking specter of a secret truly ruinous to his marriage. Unlike Talbot, John doesn’t need destiny to reconcile his feelings about Aurora; he simply loves her.

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