- Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Ralph the Bailiff ”: Speaking Truth to Madness
Mary elizabeth braddon’s 1861 short story “Ralph the Bailiff ”1 offers an early example of how accusations about women’s mental health might be weaponized as a way of protecting and preserving power and status at a time when social hierarchies were becoming increasingly unstable. Like Braddon’s most popular novel, Lady Audley’s Secret, “Ralph the Bailiff ” presents marriage as a social convention that can easily be manipulated by the female servant class to climb the social ladder in a way not otherwise permitted by nineteenth-century British custom. Unlike the novel, however, the perpetrator of the “crime” in this story ends up with money, freedom, and a blemish-free name while her affluent husband ends up in the grave. Dudley Carleon, the gentleman farmer who marries his housekeeper, Martha, is not a sympathetic victim, as the marriage is motivated by his need to cover up his role in his older brother’s murder by buying her and her brother Ralph’s silence. Free from debt with his newfound fortune, Dudley solicits the hand of young, beautiful Jenny Trevor, an orphan with six thousand pounds, who has no idea that her marriage proposal is coming from a murderer and would-be bigamist and will put her fortune—and ultimately her life—in jeopardy. The only person who can save Jenny from a lifetime of unforeseen misery is her best friend, Agnes, who, Dudley warns, “is a madwoman; whatever she says to you” (25). Preventing the ill-fated marriage between Dudley and Jenny thus seems to hinge on one very important question: can women be believed? Jenny, unfortunately, believes Dudley, and, in turn, will later learn first-hand how easy it is to discredit a woman [End Page 166] by questioning her mental stability. In this sensational short story, believing women has much to do with what they are believed to be and little to do with what they say. Appearance and truth are frequently at odds in sensation fiction, and here, the “shocking reveal” is not that the women are mad, but that they are perfectly sane.
“Ralph the Bailiff ” highlights the tendency to label as “madness” any criticism of the status quo that women might make, while also cautioning that such labels are destructive to justice and truth. Braddon’s “fair-haired demon of modern fiction,” Lucy Audley, will raise similar concerns when Lady Audley’s Secret is published the following year (Oliphant 263). Indeed, Lady Audley’s confession that she has killed her husband simply because she is a “madwoman” has persisted as a source of both suspicion and frustration for feminist recovery scholars, as it pathologizes women’s defiance and under-cuts what seems like a perfectly “sane” desire to rise in a society where few opportunities to do so were available to women. For example, Jill Matus has famously argued that this final revelation in a story punctuated with thrilling “reveals” actually functions as a “cover-up,” serving instead “to displace the economic and class issues already raised in the novel and to deflect their uncomfortable implications” (334).2 Braddon evidently recognized how madness could be used as a cover-up because “Ralph the Bailiff,” published just one year before the novel, operates on precisely that premise: the only character with the power to implicate a “good man” in a plot of unfathomable wickedness is one whom he has, conveniently, labelled a “madwoman.”
Dennis Denisoff has remarked on short fiction’s relative “invisibility” as a literary form despite its widespread availability in nineteenth-century Britain, arguing that it was “consumed by millions from all classes, age groups, and literacy levels,” which ultimately made it “so common as to be invisible” (17). While the subversive potential afforded by such invisibility is a relatively new source of inquiry for scholars of Victorian short stories, it is something Victorian writers, especially women, may have understood all too well. In this case, Braddon’s short story exposes how women are often silenced through pathologization, a tendency to which she herself will later conform in her highly “visible” sensation novel. As supposed “filler material...