Lady Audley’s Secret

lady audleys secretA good friend of mine in the English department loaned me her copy of Lady Audley’s Secret, telling me she knew I’d love it. Mary Elizabeth Braddon wasn’t a familiar name to me, which is my own fault (she’s on college syllabi all over the country), though it seems she was extremely well-known to the Victorians: she wrote over eighty sensation novels and was a popular contemporary of Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton and Anthony Trollope. This novel is the one she’s best known for now: a combination of a detective story, a thriller, and an examination of stereotypical women’s roles. My friend was right: I found it both hugely enjoyable and fascinating. (It helped that I thought I knew Lady Audley’s secret up until the final few pages, when the real secret was revealed!)

The novel takes two different strands of plot and winds them together. On the one hand, Sir Michael Audley has recently married the loveliest, most wonderful girl you’d ever want to meet, someone who charms the very waistcoat-buttons off of everyone in her social circle (except her stepdaughter, who is close to her own age.) On the other hand, Robert Audley (Sir Michael’s cousin) has recently been helping his friend George Talboys recover from the terrible news of the death of his beloved wife while he was abroad. The way these two innocuous and even benevolent events entwine eventually involves at least ten serious crimes, at my last count, and I’m guessing a lawyerish type could find more.

Robert Audley is a magnificent character. When we begin the novel, he is “supposed to be a barrister,” but he’s never taken the trouble to get himself a single brief. He is lazy and kind-hearted, and indifferent about taking the smallest amount of trouble about anything. (He is also so un-English as to smoke a German pipe and to read French novels.) He wants to please, so as to avoid an argument. Later, though, when his sense of justice is stirred, this same trait comes into play again: he is too lazy to be anything but single-minded in his pursuit of what he wants. He is patient, and much too conflict-averse to make any trouble, so he makes no rash decisions. It strikes me that a detective series with Robert Audley as the apathetic detective would be highly enjoyable.

Lady Audley, too, is wonderful. She’s presented, over and over, as a “wax doll” with a halo of blonde hair and perfect features, a musical laugh, and almost supernatural charm. Yet (or should I say “and”?) she is also complex, passionate, manipulative, intelligent, and wickedly alert to her own self-interest. There are a number of marvelous passages about the superficiality of traditional femininity. Here’s one about the duties of a lady’s maid:

She knows by the manner in which her victim jerks her head from under the hair-brush, or chafes at the gentlest administration of the comb what hidden tortures are racking her breast — what secret perplexities are bewildering her brain. That well-bred attendant knows how to interpret the most obscure diagnoses of all mental diseases that can afflict her mistress; she knows when the ivory complexion is bought and paid for — when the pearly teeth are foreign substances fashioned by the dentist — when the glossy plaits are relics of the dead, rather than the property of the living; and she knows other, more sacred secrets than these.

I will say that I found the ending (which I will not reveal) to be a bit of a cop-out. (If you’ve read it and you wonder why, we can talk about it in the comments!) But it didn’t spoil the book for me at all. On the contrary. I found the novel enormously entertaining, with a rich cast of characters and plot for days. If you’re looking for a fast-reading Victorian but have exhausted your Wilkie Collins options, here’s a good one.

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9 Responses to Lady Audley’s Secret

  1. rmaitzen says:

    I’ve always felt that Braddon either didn’t quite make up her mind about or didn’t quite think through what her attitude (or, the novel’s attitude) was to Lady Audley: is she a sympathetic victim, a pragmatic manipulator, a savvy schemer using the resources she has to survive in a man’s world — or an evil fiend using the claim of “madness” as an excuse to feed her insatiable vanity? It could go either way, which is one reason it’s so fun to teach the novel (that is, there’s plenty of evidence to argue multiple readings). Robert the Apathetic Detective would indeed be a wonderful series. The cat and mouse game between him and Lady Audley is very entertaining.

    • Jenny says:

      This is, I think, what I meant by “complex” — I think Lady Audley is some of all of these things, except perhaps the sympathetic victim part. Once you’ve read further into the book, she loses her sympathetic gloss (or no? you don’t think so?) But I love that she keeps her strength, her ability to survive and plan for herself against the men around her, as well as her genuine wickedness. I love that the psychiatrist is all “Oh no, no madness there” until he actually meets her. Ha! For a “wax doll,” she has remarkable staying power.

      Which is why I think the ending is a cop-out — Braddon does so much to say that female strength is NOT a form of insanity, only to suggest at the end that yes, yes it is. Ugh.

  2. I think Braddon ran into a problem, too, with – length? My guess is with length. The narrator gets odder as the book goes along, the digressions longer and stranger. The long passage about how women are better at making tea, for example – really weird.

    As usual, I don’t care much about the plot or ending, but if you have any thoughts on Braddon’s use of green baize, I would love to hear them.

    Welcome back to the old internet!

    • Jenny says:

      I have nothing to suggest about green baize, but I do agree about that passage about tea. I remember it well — the “sterner sex” must lead such emotionally stunted lives because they don’t know how to make tea properly. Odd. I agree. I think some of it is discussion on superficial differences between men and women (Clara and George Talboys, for instance!) but would you reckon some of it was the effect of serialization?

    • Yes, the effect of serialization. Braddon botched her episodic planning. Not that anyone cared, apparently.

      • Jenny says:

        It must have been quite an art. Some modern authors have tried it, and I don’t know that they’ve done much better. It’s hard to tell, when most of your public isn’t waiting breathlessly for it, or as a routine matter in magazines and newspapers.

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  4. I just, I don’t know. I wanted to love this book, but I couldn’t. It was so silly, and I guess I went into it wanting it to be the Wilkie Collins brand of silly, or even the Baroness Orczy brand of silly, and the characters weren’t well-drawn enough to be in the Wilkie Collins category, and the suspense wasn’t suspenseful enough for the Baroness Orczy one. :(

    And yeah, I was annoyed about Luke’s confession to Robert at the end. I wanted that confession never to have happened. (Trying to be circumspect here, as I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone reading the comments.)

    • Jenny says:

      That’s not what bothered me! I don’t mind about deathbed confessions; they’re a shortcut, not a cop-out. What bothered me is that I thought the whole book was essentially an assertion that being a strong scheming wicked woman doing whatever the hell you want in a man’s world is not necessarily a symptom of you-know-what, and then it turned out it actually was, and she gets her proper comeuppance for it. That’s what bothered me.

      I really liked this book, particularly the nutty parts. It wasn’t as good as Collins, but it was a good sensation novel anyway. I want to know more about Clara. She seems very… intense.

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