Lady Audley’s Secret

14568278 I finished Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret and felt that I had enjoyed every minute of it.  I described it to someone as trashy Victorian fiction, but that description can too easily be misleading — the book is an example of Victorian sensational fiction, dealing with deception, bigamy, madness and a whole bunch of other exciting things, but it’s not a throw-away novel meant merely to titillate.  There are a whole lot of interesting ideas that come out of the book too.

I was surprised at one aspect of the book’s structure — the fact that Lady Audley’s secret isn’t much of a secret and you figure out what it is very early on.  There are some things you don’t find out until the end of the book, but the basics of the plot are no surprise at all.  What makes the book interesting is not what the secret is, but how the characters go about discovering the secret. This sounds like it might be dull, but it’s not at all — the hunt for the truth is exciting in and of itself.

That secret has to do with Lady Audley’s past — before becoming Lady Audley she worked as a governess and before that, nobody knows much at all.  The other part of the plot has to do with George Talboys, a young man without any money who left his wife and child, both of whom he loved dearly, in England to go find his fortune abroad.  This takes him much longer than he expected, but eventually he returns only to find his wife recently dead.  Except the circumstances of this death turn out to be strange.  Putting these stories together, it’s not hard to figure out who is who and what the secret really is.

But the revelation of that secret is so much fun!  It’s George Talboys’ best friend Robert, who just so happens to be Lady Audley’s nephew (by marriage), who becomes the detective.  He’s a fun character — he’s a very lazy man who is a lawyer without ever taking on any cases and who can’t even find the energy within himself to fall in love with the charming, beautiful woman who loves him.  He is so taken with George Talboys, though, that when things go dreadfully wrong and George disappears, he finds himself goaded into action.  Soon enough he is tirelessly searching for clues to George’s fate and desperately fearing the worst.

The characterization is a big part of what made this novel fun for me.  First of all, there is a definite edge of homoeroticism in Robert’s obsession with George.  Nothing else in his life has inspired Robert to exert himself except this friend.  When he does meet the right woman, she turns out to be not so different from George himself, in all kinds of ways.  But Lady Audley is the most fascinating character — I found it interesting the way she was never able to transcend her lower-class roots.  She is captivating and charming, and she has her husband wrapped around her finger, but she betrays herself in her vulgar love of finery and her penchant for spending time talking closely with her maid.  It’s possible to read her as a character who admirably refuses to live up to the Victorian ideal of passive, accepting womanhood — she manages to create a good life for herself out of some very difficult circumstances, after all — or it’s possible to read her as a dangerous, violent, thoroughly-unreliable upstart who needs to be put back in her place.  Of course, she manages to be both of these at once, and by making her both of these Braddon gets to have all kinds of fun — she can create a powerful female character who, as the back cover of my edition puts it, makes “an unabashed bid for freedom from the constraints of Victorian womanhood,” but she can also keep herself out of danger as a writer by making sure the ambitious upstart gets properly punished.

This is the perfect book if you like Victorian novels but are in the mood for something that’s lighter than Eliot or the Brontës.  You can read it for the pleasure of the story and you can also, if you want, read it for the ideas about gender and class.  It’s fun to read a book that allows you to do both.


Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “Lady Audley’s Secret

  1. I really enjoyed this book, and reading your post makes me want to read it again. I thought Robert and George’s relationship was pretty interesting (and wondered what readers of the time made of it), but of course Lady Audley was the star of the show. It’s a pity all the really good femme fatales in Victorian Lit come to bad ends, but as you say that was the only way Braddon could get away with such a character! So glad you liked this!


  2. Eva

    You summed this up so well, and I agree with Danielle-you make me want to read it again! Maybe I’ll look for some more Braddon. 🙂


  3. I would really like to read this one – I’ll earmark it for this year as you know I struggle to read before the twentieth century. On that note, Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica arrived in the post yesterday. I’m really looking forward to that, too!


  4. I’ve had a few friends who didn’t like this book (but then again I tend to like books these friends hate) and so I was hesitate to pick it up – even though I own a copy! I will certainly think about reading it now; it sounds very Wilkie Collins-ish.


  5. What fun! I picked this book up at Half Price Books a few months ago. It seemed delightfully sensational from the back cover description. So glad to know how good it is. Now I am really looking forward to reading it!


  6. Dorothy, I know that you share my childhood fondness for the Betsy-Tacy books. Did you remember that “Lady Audley’s Secret” is the dime novel over which Betsy and Tacy get in such trouble with their fathers at the beginning of “Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown”? (Borrowed from the “hired girl” of course–shades of over-familiarity with the maid there too?) I’ve been meaning to read it ever since noting the title on a recent re-read of the Betsy-Tacy series. Now that I’ve read your post on it, I’m doubly intrigued!


  7. I love Victorian sensational fiction. Wilkie Collins was a master. This one sounds like great fun!


  8. Danielle — I wouldn’t mind reading this one again sometime in the future. I also wonder what people of the time made of the George/Robert relationship, although I suppose that’s something we won’t know, as I doubt anybody would have written about it.

    Eva — well, she has plenty of other novels to choose from! I know her novel The Doctor’s Wife is available, as I have a copy on my shelves — it’s her version of Madam Bovary, which sounds interesting. I’m not sure if any other novels have recently been in print.

    Litlove — I do hope you enjoy the Diski book! And Lady Audley would be a great choice of something earlier to read — it’s so fun and entertaining; I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

    Amanda — oh, I’m sure you’ll like it! It’s very like Wilkie Collins and has some very fun characters. Those friends didn’t know what they were talking about!

    Stefanie — yes, delightfully sensational is exactly it. It’s perfect for when you want something old but fun — it won’t make you work too hard, but it’s not completely frivolous either.

    Kate — I didn’t remember the Betsy-Tacy reference to Braddon, but I do remember your post on the subject from a while back, which made me want both to read Lady Audley’s Secret and to reread the Betsy-Tacy books! I’ve done one; now I’ll have to do the other 🙂 If you do read Audley, I’d love to know what you think.

    Jenclair — isn’t Victorian sensational fiction fun? If you like Collins, you’ll definitely like this one.


  9. LK

    I love these kinds of novels, and haven’t run across this one. Thanks for the recommendation, and happy reading in 2009! I’m glad to be back, among the litbloggers again…


  10. LK — happy reading to you too, and I’m glad you’re back.

    Emily — exactly.


  11. Jillian ♣

    This sounds really good! I love watching the way Victorian writers rebelled against gender bias while still attempting to satisfy the publisher and readership on “a woman’s place.” Should be interesting to watch!

    I’ve never read Victorian sensational fiction. Thanks for sharing! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s