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.