Lucinda Elliot

‘Lady Audley’s Secret’: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Mid Victorian Sensationalist Novel

How embarrasing: I typed and published a whole post – a review of this notorious Victorian novel – and only the image came out! I blame the new editing system on WordPress….Well, that and my own muddle headedness…

Lady Audley’s Secret’ , the 1862  best selling Victorian sensationalist novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, is based on a plot revolving round ‘accidental bigamy’ which was seemingly popular in the 1860’s. 

I felt like reading something light and dramatic, and as I am  interested in Victorian novels generally, I thought it was high time I got round to reading this mid nineteenth century best seller, so well known and so often derided.

It didn’t disappoint: I really enjoyed it as an exciting, light read. It is both lurid and entertaining, as sensationalist as you could want (interestingly, ‘Cousin Bette’, which I also read lately, is mentioned in it as catering to the sensationalist tastes of the hero: ‘Cousin Bette’ is certainly packed with melodrama and uncontrolled passions; for all that, I preferred ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ myself).

 It is also better written than I had expected, given that the author wrote seemingly purely for the market, publishing 80 novels. The humour is often dry: the author is astute about human nature.  The characters are well drawn, if they tend towards stereotypes.

The hero, Robert Audley the indolent non-practising barrister, is intriguing in that he is anything but a typical macho, action driven male lead; he only turns detective to solve the mystery of his lost friend George Talboy’s disappearance because he feels that he can’t do anything else, and because he has finally been jerked out of his good natured indifference to human passions by falling in love with George’s sister. 

The pre-Freudian Victorian reader was presumably blind to the  homoerotic elements in the steadfast love of Robert Audley for his lost friend George Talboys, and his marrying George’s sister, who bears a strong resemblance to him. 

Perhaps, though, the author was sophisticated for her time, and understood these implications fully. She had after all, outraged convention by living with a married man outside marriage. His wife, like Thackeray’s, was in a lunatic asylum, and it was many years before she died and he could marry the author.   

The plot revolves round the sudden disappearance of George Talboys. His friend, the indolent barrister Robert Audley, a man of ‘independent means’ who cares for nothing, though he has a passionless liking for his Uncle, Sir Michael Audley, and his daughter, the outspoken and hoydenish Alicia, who cherishes a teenage infatuation for her calmly friendly cousin.

The widowed Sir Michael has recently re-married – to a woman less than half his age, blonde, charming and doll like. She is the former governess Lucy Graham, whom he hoped would marry him for love, but who indicates on his proposal that money and position are of great importance to her. Nevertheless, infatuated, he marries her anyway.

At about the same time, Robert Audley runs into his old friend George Talloys outside his chambers. He learns that George is married and has a son, but he and his young wife found themselves in such financial troubles that he has spent the last three years prospecting for gold in Australia, leaving his wife living with her ‘half pay’ ex-officer father, and their small boy, on the Isle of Wight. Having made his fortune, George is on his way to be re-united with her.

Robert Audley invites him to stay with him. The next morning, over breakfast, his unlucky friend reads in a newspaper the report of the death of his wife, Helen. He is distraught; during the following months, Robert does everything that he can to distract him from his misery. He takes him on a long trip to Russia, and then he takes him on a visit to his uncle’s manor, Audley Court (based on the sixteenth century Ingatestone Hall in Essex).

His new aunt by marriage, the former Lucy Graham, seems to have done everything that she can to avoid a meeting with George. George has still only seen a portrait of her – which left him oddly moved – when he suddenly and unaccountably disappears.

Gradually, Robert Audley begins to suspect that the new Lady Audley was involved in his disappearance, and just who she might be…

 This novel particularly interested me, as while it explicitly condemns the behaviour of its villainess, it obliquely challenges the stereotypical ‘angel in the house’ image of young married women, and the idea that the ideal woman was to some extent passive and helpless, as can be found in the writings of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Thackeray. 

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