Monday, June 24, 2013
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
And now for the review. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 1862 novel Lady Audley's Secret is described on Wikipedia as a "sensation novel"; and after stumbling across the title a number of times, I had no difficulty in finding a modern reprint of it in a second-hand bookshop. It was not difficult to see why this specific Victorian novel remains in print. Phrases like "Victorian anxiety", "female motives", and "moral alarm" attend every 2010s reference to the novel.
The plot is as follows: Robert Audley welcomes his long-absent friend George Talboys back from Australia, where he fled three years ago to make his fortune. The meeting turns tragic when George goes to find his young wife--and finds only a poor grave.
To console his grieving friend, Robert proposes a trip to the ancestral home, where his uncle Sir Michael Audley dwells in newfound domestic bliss with a young and beautiful wife, Lucy Audley, who seems determined to avoid them. Shortly after the friends obtain a view of Lady Audley's portrait, George disappears, and Robert Audley becomes obsessed with the idea that she had something to do with his friend's murder...
Although a perfectly competent sensational melodrama, I didn't find Lady Audley's Secret a particularly engaging book. It was slow-moving in places; the titular secret was obvious from the beginning apart from a not-that-shocking last-minute revelation which had not been foreshadowed previously; the characters were difficult to like, and the hero seemed rather dense.
If anything, the most interesting aspect of the story is the discussion of what it means. Lady Audley's Secret, like many sensational nineteenth-centry novels (The Count of Monte Cristo springs to mind) comes with a thick veneer of technical respectability. Robert Audley starts life as a lazy good-for-nothing who finds a life purpose in bringing justice to his departed friend and even undergoes a mild conversion experience. Lady Audley, as the villainess, descends further into vice in her attempts to keep the titular secret, but suffers the consequences of her actions at last.
But in this case, I'm with the feminist literary critics. Not with their perverse insistence on admiring the villainess of this piece because of her unscrupulous self-interest, but with the fact that Lady Audley's Secret is subversive under all that surface respectability. Perhaps most telling is the fact that Lady Audley's Secret was written by a woman concealing a similar secret. Be that as it may, with her flaxen hair and blue eyes, her doll-like beauty and fragility, her appearance of goodness, and her ultimate status as a victim of fates beyond herself, Lady Audley only just misses out on being a Victorian heroine as sweet and melting as Dickens's Esther Summerson. Her portrayal strikes a chord of bitter irony, a parody of the ideal of the Victorian woman as "angel in the house"; it subverts the very idea and expectation of domestic bliss.