|The cover of an edition
published in 1900.
Murder, madness, bigamy, false identity, a fake death and a missing man… the events in Victorian shocker Lady Audley’s Secret, could just as easily be found on the front page of a modern tabloid paper. Throw in love, money, arson, blackmail, ambition, greed and hidden secrets and you’ve got a read that’s as riveting today as when it was first published.
Written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in1862, this ‘sensation’ novel tells how widower Sir Michael Audley falls head over heels in love with beautiful governess Lucy Graham, marries her, and takes her back to Audley Court, where she wins the affection of everyone – except Sir Michael’s daughter Alicia, and Alicia’s dog. Meanwhile George Talboys, who made a fortune when he struck gold in Australia, returns home after three years to discover his wife has died days before his arrival in England. He visits his young son and his feckless father-in-law, then moves in with old friend Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Michael…
|Mary Elizabeth Braddon|
You begin to see where this might be leading, and suspicions are confirmed when the two men plan a trip to Audley Court, but find Lady Audley strangely reluctant to meet George. During her absence they break into her suite of rooms, where George is disturbed by her portrait. Then he disappears without trace and Robert, an indolent barrister who spends his time smoking and reading novels, rouses himself to find out what has happened, and discover the truth about Lady Audley.
Running alongside that is another plot line, for the secret has already been uncovered by Lady Audley’s maid and her boyfriend, and the couple, as anxious to improve their lot as Lady Audley herself, resort to blackmail in an effort to finance a better lifestyle.
The plot may be predictable, but it really is gripping and there’s a psychological battle of wills between Robert and Lady Audley, so you keep reading to see who wins, and even when you think she has confessed all there’s a final, untold secret that must be revealed. There are similarities with Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, but I can also see parallels with Lady Dedlock in Dickens’ Bleak House – she’s another woman with a past who has used her beauty to snare a man, gaining wealth and social standing in the process.
Lady Audley is one of those curiously amoral anti-heroines who bid to control their own destiny in age when women were expected to be submissive and passive. She may not be very likeable but, like Becky Sharp, or Lizzie Eustace, she seizes the chances that come her way, and uses her intellect and looks to try and better herself. Personally, I think she’s had a rough deal. She’s had a terrible childhood, and when she marries George he takes off to make his fortune, never giving a thought to how she will manage without him. He doesn’t even have the courage to tell her: instead, he writes a letter and disappears, expecting her to still be waiting when he finally returns. With no income, and no obvious means of earning a living, she’s left to care for their baby son and her alcoholic father at a time when she’s obviously unstable (presumably suffering from post natal depression).
I know that doesn’t excuse her behaviour, but it does raise all kinds of questions about gender, class, mental illness, culpability, and the issue of ‘nature or nurture’. How far are we responsible for our own actions – and how do these actions affect others? Lady Audley may be the perpetrator of unspeakable crimes, but is she to blame, or she is she a victim? Does her ‘tainted’ blood determine who she is? Or is the person she becomes shaped by the things that happen to her?
And where is George in all this? Why does no-one blame him for running off to seek his fortune rather than staying at home to face his responsibilities? He’s treated as the innocent dupe of a false, treacherous woman, but it’s his heartless, thoughtless behaviour which precipitates disaster.
|A patient at Holloway Sanatorium. Would Lady Audley’s room
have been similar? (http://www.rhul.ac.uk)
The story races along at a nice pace, but seems to stumble at the end, which I thought was rushed and weak. When the truth is told, Lady Audley, whose unfeminine behavior has threatened the stability of home and society, is diagnosed as mad, shipped off to Belgium and entombed in a secure institution, where she promptly fades away and dies. Everyone else, of course, lives happily ever after. I’m all for happy endings, but this one seemed a little anodyne. Having said that, I really enjoyed the novel, so many thanks to Karen at http://www.cornflowerbooks.co.uk/book-group-books/ for choosing as this as one of her book group reads.