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A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

Title: The Trail of the Serpent

Author and Title: Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The Trail of the Serpent: or, Three Times Dead

First Edition: London: Ward and Lock, 1861. 1 volume.

Serialization: Halfpenny Journal, 1 August 1864 to 28 November 1864 (weekly)

Summary: Later serialized under the title Three Times Dead: or, The Trail of the Serpent. The novel begins by introducing the English town of Slopperton and Jabez North, the local schoolmaster. Jabez was found on the banks of the river as a child, raised in the Slopperton orphanage system, and is ambitious to a fault. Mr. Harding, another local, returns from India with a fortune. Jabez sneaks into his house and murders him. Mr. Harding’s nephew, Richard Marwood, returns home the night of the murder with the intention of starting fresh after several years of disreputable living. Richard is blamed for the murder and arrested. Jabez disowns a poor local woman, mother of his infant son. Driven by anger and poverty, she throws the child and herself in the river. The child is discovered and saved by a fisherman. Joe Peters, one of the officers who arrests Richard, believes Richard is innocent. Peters is deaf and communicates through sign language. He adopts Jabez’s child, “Sloshy,” an apparent orphan. At Richard’s trial, Peters uses sign language to communicate to Richard that he should feign madness to escape the death penalty. He is found by the jury to be insane and is placed in an asylum. Jabez is mistaken for someone else by an old woman, whom Jabez follows home. There he discovers Jim, his twin-brother. The old woman is Jabez’s grandmother, and she tells him that she has a “golden secret” that involves him, but she will only tell for the right price. Jim is sick and Jabez lets him die by withholding his medicine. Jabez switches clothes with Jim and leaves the body to be found on the heath. Slopperton believes Jabez is dead. Jabez then moves to Paris and pretends to be a rich adventurer named Raymond Marolles. He becomes interested in a wealthy woman named Valerie de Cevennes, daughter of the Marquis de Cevennes. Jabez learns that Valerie is secretly married to the famous Opera singer Gaston de Lancy. Jabez fabricates a story about de Lancy being unfaithful to Valerie, and then hires an actor to impersonate de Lancy in order to trick Valerie into believing his infidelity. Jabez then convinces Valerie to get her revenge by poisoning de Lancy. Poison is obtained from a local chemist. Valerie spikes de Lancy’s wine before a performance, and he dies on stage while acting out a scene in which his character dies of poisoning. Jabez then uses his knowledge of Valerie’s murder to blackmail her into marrying him. Eight years pass. Richard is in an asylum. Peters quits the police force to work privately for Richard’s mother. With the help of the “Cheerful Cherokees,” the men’s club with which Richard was once associated, Peters helps Richard escape. They dedicate themselves to clearing Richard’s name. Meanwhile, Jabez and Valerie live in London with a son, though the son is de Lancy’s. Peters encounters and recognizes Jabez. The Cherokees begin plotting to catch Jabez and prove his guilt. Jabez runs into Jim’s old lover, who takes him to his dying grandmother. She reveals her golden secret: the Marquis de Cevennes is Jabez’s father, had secretly married his mother, and then abandoned her when he came into his inheritance; due to poverty and alcoholism, Jabez’s mother had thrown him into the river. The chemist who had supplied Valerie with the poison reveals to her that it was not real poison and that de Lancy is still living. Jabez confronts the Marquis, who denounces him. Jabez escapes the police and goes into hiding. Peters revisits Slopperton and uncovers damning evidence against Jabez. The Cherokees and Peters catch Jabez attempting to escape for America hidden in a coffin onboard a ship. Jabez is tried and convicted but commits suicide before his sentence is carried out. Richard marries the younger sister of one of the Cherokees, and Valerie and de Lancy are reunited. (SCT)

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References: Wolff


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