Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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[nb this has spoilers, including THE SECRET]

Rich middle-aged widower Sir Michael Audley, of Audley Court in Essex, remarries, to a much younger wife, a penniless governess employed by a local doctor.  He is wildly happy, but Sir Michael’s adult daughter Alicia is not so enamoured of her new mama.  Alicia’s cousin Robert Audley, while finding the new Lady Audley a fascinating creature, is drawn into a mystery when his old school friend George Talboys returns from Australia having made his fortune, learns that his wife whom he had left behind has died just before his arrival back in England, and then disappears when the two young men are on a visit in the vicinity of Audley Court.

Generally indolent Robert, technically a barrister but one who has never practised and whose two main activities are smoking and reading racy French novels, is galvanised into action.  Driven by his affection for his friend and a sense that he is compelled to put right injustice, he determines to get to the bottom of what is going on.  Putting aside the French novels, he uses the forensic skills that he disdains to practise as a lawyer, and as he digs deeper into the history of the enigmatic Lady Audley he comes to suspect his uncle’s wife of a dreadful crime.  A visit to Mr Talboys Snr to alert him to Robert’s fear that George is dead brings Robert into contact with Clara, George’s sister, and he suddenly finds he has an extra motivation for solving the mystery.

Fully justifying its tag as a sensation novel, Lady Audley’s Secret is crisply written, which makes it more accessible to the modern reader than some novels of the period.  Yet while the novel rattles along, it is ultimately an unsatisfying read because it has a cast of mostly thin characters and is structurally flawed.  Robert sets out to solve the mystery but all too often he is told information rather than having to uncover it for himself, much of it by Lady Audley herself in an extended confession.  Thus as the reader is wondering how Robert will ascertain who is buried in Helen Talboys’ place, a potentially knotty problem which he needs to clinch his case against Lady Audley (will it involve exhumation?), she helpfully tells him, thus saving him the bother (but then Robert for no good reason had previously laid out for her the evidence he had accumulated, an inept strategy when dealing with a suspected murderer).

Then the exposure of Lady Audley occurs far too early, leaving a sense of anti-climax in the rest of the book as the plot works itself out to its resolution.  The ending is rushed, whereas through the course of the novel there are patches which feel padded to make a chapter up to the required length for serial publication.  Plot threads are raised then dropped; in particular it would have been subversive to have Robert detained on account of his obsessive quest to prove a link between Lady Audley and George Talboys, for there is no body and only circumstantial evidence that he is the victim of foul play, as Lady Audley coolly points out to Robert.  Lady Audley had been preparing the ground for an accusation against him, but this thread is dropped in favour of her confession.  It feels like a failure of nerve by Braddon.

What is a strength is the decision to give Lady Audley a doll-like fragile beauty, making her actions all the more terrible because she is the antithesis of the helpless woman reliant on men her appearance suggests.  If the face is the mirror of the soul, she should be as good as she is beautiful, but her child-like demeanour evokes a paternalistic trust in Sir Michael that is woefully misplaced.  It is ironic that her son, abandoned by her to her drunken father as she has been abandoned by George, under his grandfather’s influence behaves like an adult because he is treated like one, particularly in terms of his diet.  This is a world which is topsy-turvy, and roles fluid.

In her defence, while Lady Audley isn’t exactly the angel in the house that we expect from a woman of her social position at that time, her downward path is begun by George’s desertion of her and their baby, and while George made good is portrayed as a beacon of rectitude to be pitied for the acts of his heartless wife, those acts, and the label of madness attached to them, would not have occurred had he not gone to Australia.  Admittedly their dire financial position was occasioned by her extravagance, and she makes it clear that she was disappointed to discover that George was not the wealthy man she had assumed him to be, thanks to his father’s rejection of the match, but it is hard to justify George’s desertion when his primary responsibility was to ensure his family’s wellbeing.  That was something he could hardly undertake by travelling to Australia, an impulsive act exacerbated by his refusal to let his wife know how he was doing there.

Lady Audley’s determination to overcome adversity is counterposed by the weakness of the men.  Her father is a useless sot, her husband runs away when his situation becomes intolerable.  Sir Michael’s naivety about Lady Audley brings about the situation in which she can flourish, then he is feebly unwilling to confront the consequences, leaving it to Robert to deal with the situation while he departs for an extended tour of the Continent with the previously neglected Alicia.  Luke shows himself less intelligent than Phoebe and a bully.  Mr Talboys Senior is a pretentious phoney.  Even Robert is passive until roused to solve George’s disappearance.

Just as Lady Audley is willing to overturn prevailing notions about women’s powerlessness, so her blackmail by Luke and Pheobe for the sum required to obtain the tenancy of the Castle Inn is an indication that the lower classes would not always be content to be subservient to their masters, and would flex their muscles in any way they could in order to better their position (even if in Luke’s case it merely allows him scope to exercise his boorishness).  The pair are little different to Lady Audley herself, merely less successful. She has used her wiles to marry well and improve her position from that of the daughter of a self-pitying drunkard in a remote seaside town, whereas the move from lady’s maid at Audley Court to landlady at a ramshackle inn with a drunken husband is in fact downward mobility for Phoebe.

Social mobility is matched by physical mobility: Lady Audley and Robert both make extensive use of the railway network, travelling the country in a way that would have been impossible three decades before.  The growth of the railways facilitated the breakdown of community, allowing individuals to reinvent themselves in a new place where they were unknown.  It is this mobility that allows Lady Audley to put on and discard identities, as Braddon suggests to her readers that we cannot always take newcomers at face value and at their own estimation.  However, these identities cannot always be kept isolated from each other – it is peeling off the labels on an abandoned hatbox, digging back through time, which allows Robert to put together two of Lady Audley’s previous names to show that she was George’s wife.

A more appropriate title for the book would be Lady Audley’s Secrets, because she has no less than three of them: that she is a bigamist; that she is (as she thinks) a murderess – the shared secret that allows the Marks to blackmail her; and her conviction that she is MAD (the fact that she is an arsonist does not remain secret long).  She is not alone in harbouring secrets, though.  There is a lot of withholding of information, not least by Robert, and much of it is on a voluntary basis with the hearer loath to hear more.  Ironically while Lady Audley’s secrets are signposted early on, a further secret, unknown to her, is revealed much later when the dying Luke tells his story.  It undercuts what we have previously assumed about George’s fate, and for the reader is the real secret of the book; its revelation comes as a genuine, if somewhat clumsy, surprise.

George’s reappearance just in time to wrap things up and rescue Robert from the bind he is in between justice for his friend and scandal for his family (though there is no justice for Luke’s death and the loss of Phoebe’s home and livelihood) highlights the melodrama of the plot.  Lady Audley’s convenient death a mere year after she has been committed is disposed of in a few lines, firmly shunting her and her transgressions to the margin of the story.  She had expired from the rather vague maladie de langueur, which Jenny Bourne Taylor’s note in the Penguin edition defines as ‘anaemia, but also, more generally, listlessness’, hinting at a lack of appropriate care in the Belgian asylum where she has been hidden out of sight and out of mind.  Her demise leaves George, for the moment happily sharing quarters with Robert and Clara – no doubt to Robert’s joy – free for the future, in tune with the novel’s sunny conclusion which allows the extended Audley family to put the murky business of Sir Michael’s unwise marriage, with its attendant secrets and lies, firmly behind it.

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