- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2004

THE TRAIL OF THE SERPENT

By Mary Elizabeth Braddon

REVIEWED BY CYNTHIA GRENIER

Across the top of the jacket of my new Modern Library edition of “The Trail of the Serpent”

runs an intriguing phrase: “Back in Print after Nearly a Century.” Indeed, it was in 1860 that Mary Elizabeth Braddon saw the publication of her first novel in serial form, under the title “Three Times Dead.”

No one, it seems, wanted to read it. But not long afterwards she met John Maxwell, a London publisher, soon to become her lover and eventually her husband. He saw the potential in the story, and under his guiding hand she diligently rewrote it as “The Trail of the Serpent.” Within the first week of its re-publication it had sold 1,000 copies, provoking George Eliot to complain that it was populist trash and was outselling her own novels (which were anything but trash).

Two years later Braddon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret” was gobbled up by readers, running to nine editions within three months of its publication. It established her as one of the most popular novelists of the period. Possessed of the prodigious energy that seemed to drive so many women writers of the day, Braddon, while writing “Lady Audley’s Secret,” also produced another serial, “The Black Band,” under the pen name of Lady Caroline Lascelles; gave birth to her first son; and started “Aurora Floyd,” which became an immediate bestseller.

Indeed, from the early 1860s until her death in 1915, Braddon wrote almost non-stop. Her lifetime literary output, covering a span of 55 years, included more than 80 novels, five plays, and numerous poems and short stories. All this in addition to rearing her six children (one dying in infancy) and caring for her six stepchildren from Maxwell’s first marriage.

“The Trail of the Serpent” has all the ingredients of a book of the “sensation” school, the kind that leaps off the lending-library shelves. Its exceedingly wicked scoundrel, Jabez North, does away with the evidence of his misdeeds by calmly pouring the blood into a wineglass and drinking it down. His victim, just to add another frisson of horror, is his own twin brother. And within the first 10 pages Jabez has poisoned a little boy.

Jabez sets off for France with money from yet another murder he commits, that of a kindly old man. This leaves the man’s quite innocent nephew, Daredevil Dick, to be imprisoned in a madhouse for the next eight years. Braddon’s plot is not without overtones, the reader may note, of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in which a man who has been unjustly jailed escapes by taking on the guise of the eponymous count.

“The Count of Monte Cristo” was a huge international bestseller published not too long before Braddon’s own story. And with another little courtesy to Dumas, Braddon refers in her text to “The Vicomte de Bragelonne,” the second of his sequels to “The Three Musketeers.”

Actually Braddon owes, I think, more of a debt to Dumas than just a couple of little twists in her story. In the manner of Dumas, Braddon brings to her tale a dash of clever wit. Consider this passage from the opening chapter of her novel:

“I don’t suppose it rained harder in the good town of Slopperton-on-the-Sloshy than it rained anywhere else. But it did rain. There was scarcely an umbrella in Slopperton that could hold its own against the rain that came pouring down that November afternoon, between the hours of four and five.

“Every gutter in High Street, Slopperton; every gutter in Bond Street (which was of course the narrowest street); in New Street (which by the same rule was the oldest street); in East Street, West Street, Blue Dragon Street, and Windmill Street; every gutter in every one of these thoroughfares was a little Niagara, with a maelstrom at the corner, down which such small craft as bits of orange peel, old boots and shoes, scraps of paper, and fragments of rag were absorbed — as better ships have been in the great northern whirlpool.”

Jabez North is of course a villain incarnate, and in France he completely remakes himself to the extent of dying his fair curly hair black, and sleeking it down with oil. He passes himself off as French and blackmails the country’s wealthiest young woman into marrying him — but this is only to give a reader a faint notion of what this story involves.

There is also a wonderfully intelligent detective, who cannot speak, but has excellent hearing. He works in tandem with a clever young boy whom he rescued from the river as a newborn on the dark November night that opens the novel. And there is the gang of Daredevil Dick’s buddies: the Cherokees, turning up at odd moments in odder disguises.

The reader gets acquainted, too, with the down-and-dirty residents of London: John Boggins, weaver, “who beat out the brains of Sarah his wife, first with the heel of his clog and ultimately with a poker”; a girl who poisoned her father with “the crust of beef-steak pudding”; the 14-year-old boy who committed suicide “by hanging himself behind a door”; and the man who “cut his wife’s throat … because she hadn’t put no salt in the saucepan when she boiled the greens.”

“The Trail of the Serpent” is a wild, strange, singularly intriguing look at a place and time that were dark, but no darker than our own.

Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer.

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