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Henry Dunbar: the story of an outcast by…
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Henry Dunbar: the story of an outcast

by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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Madame Braddon was so prolific in her time, but so forgotten now that it's hard to find all of her books. Many though are available through Project Gutenberg and Google Books and I'm very happy to have them. In terms of writing, themes and structure they're not much different from Dickens or Collins. Dickens has more quirky and hard-hitting characterizations, Collins more complex plots, but for sheer atmosphere and page-turningness, I think Braddon beats them both. And that's why I enjoy her books. Even separated by 150 years and an ocean, I find them very easy to read and a lot of fun.

As with Lady Audley's Secret, the "secret" isn't one to the reader and the joy of the story is to watch the other characters figure it out and bring the miscreant to justice. Henry Dunbar is a bit more satisfying in the sense that the villain is more villainous than Lady Audley was. As a modern reader though, I wish he had more direct "screen time". That is that I wish I had more of his internal thoughts and motivations directly from him. As it is, the writer shields his crime continuously throughout the book; hoping, I guess, that the reader didn't figure out the twist. It's pretty obvious though and so not acknowledging that she might have smart readers is a bit annoying and I think including more of Henry's internal struggles would have added a new dimension to the tale.

For the most part, Braddon does a great job inserting little hooks and predictors into the story to compel you to keep reading. Things people do, say and remarks the storyteller makes directly are all part of how she keeps the plot on the boil.

"Mr. Dunbar took a bunch of keys from his pocket, and unlocked his despatch-box. He was some little time doing this, as he had a difficulty in finding the right key."

"Mr. Dunbar did one thing more before he left the room. Amongst the papers which he had arranged upon the writing-table, there was a small square morocco case, containing a photograph done upon glass. He took this picture out of the case, dropped it upon the polished oaken floor beyond the margin of the carpet, and ground the glass into atoms with the heavy heel of his boot."

"So now there were three people who believed Mr. Dunbar to be the murderer of his old servant."

This one is a gem in terms of how it creates a perfect cover for the trap Detective Carter falls into -

"She went back to her master, and Mr. Carter heard a whispered conversation, very brief, of which the last sentence only was audible. The last sentence ran thus. "And if you don't hold your tongue, I'll make you pay for it."

Only in hindsight did I realize how powerful this is. It's clever from the POV of the villains and of the writer in maintaining her ruse (which if you're still the same smart reader, won't fool you).

Braddon doesn't stick up for her gender very much. Even when she creates a spunky heroine for us to root for, she still puts self-deprecating statements in her mouth that she is weak, or shameful, or whatever to diminish her accomplishments or potential. There's a part where Carter is talking to Clement and describes Margaret as a young woman, Clement finds this offensive. Later, when Carter describes her as a young lady, Clement is satisfied that Margaret has risen in his esteem. Funny the distinctions the Victorians made and how they valued individual characters, especially the feminine. Doing that though, especially in the feminine, limits almost totally what is acceptable and what it scandalous. Once again a limp and fainting female is held up to be the pinnacle of womanhood although Laura seems to have a bit more spine than say, the Laura in Collins's The Woman in White. Although canny and resilient, Margaret is no Marian either, and I was glad that she and Clement got together in the end. Reading these kinds of books from this era (Victorian England) one always has the comfort of a happy ending, no matter what has come before. I think that's what made Poe's writing so shocking. Not too many happy endings there. But here, in the Victorian sensation novel, they abound and I enjoy that gentle satisfaction of a world set to rights. ( )
  Bookmarque | Aug 25, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mary Elizabeth Braddonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Beller, Anne-MarieEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Henry Dunbar returns to England after a thirty-five year banishment for the crime of forgery against his family's prestigious banking firm.  Because working in the Calcutta office was his only punishment he will still inherit a great fortune.  On his way, he meets his old friend and co-conspirator whose life was ruined as a result of their misdeed.   There is murder, betrayal, a train crash, a terrific chase, intrigue and romance.
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