A 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.