Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel follows the story or Robert Audley as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind his friend George Talboy’s death. The novel is set in Audley, named for Lord Audley – Robert’s uncle – in Essex. However, the death at the center of the story is not the only mystery. The character’s themselves hover aorund you with question marks. Are they who they purport to be? And who is the new Lady Audley?
My first (and only) confession for my review of Lady Audley’s Secret is that I found this novel a little bit slow. I struggled to hold on right toward the end. But I did and I’m glad I did. It has a great ending although perhaps a little too neat and tidy for my liking. I also have to acknowledge that I’m not the most patient of people. Many may enjoy the slower pace of the novel. On reflection, the pace suits the novel perfectly. It mirrors the languor of Robert Audley, whose story we follow, as well as the apparently sleepy countryside in Essex where the book is set.
But all is not as it seems. The tempo of the novel picks up as the sheen of Audley in Essex, the novels’ location, is rubbed away to reveal a darker interior. Lucy Graham, Sir Michael Audley’s innocent and young wife, isn’t the ingenue she purports to be. Her maid, Phoebe, compromises herself through blackmail. Her cousin, whom she marries, is a self-serving drunk, who ironically redeems himself partially at the stories end. There is a definite feel to the quickening of the narrative as it draws to a close. My enthusiasm to solve the mystery surrounding George Talboy’s death only grew as the novel progressed. By the end I was as anxious as our protagonist Robert Audley to discover the truth.
Treatment of Women
Whilst I haven’t done research on the background of the novel. I understand that it was based on a real-life scandal that rocked Victorian England. The novel, when released in 1862, caused a stir due to it’s outrageous central female character. What really struck me was the perception of madness in this novel. In deference to his uncle’s dignity, Robert Audley consigns his uncle’s wife to what is essentially an asylum abroad; where she lives until she dies. This follows Lady Audley’s own assertion that she is mad. An inheritance from her mother. Despite her own claim to the term, I wonder about the true motives behind locking up Lady Audley. Is it to preserve Lord Audley’s dignity in a time when family pedigree was of prime importance? Or was it due to proscribed cultural mores and perspectives of women at the time?
With seeming a flourish of a few mens’ wrists Lady Audley is incarcerated in an asylum. She is at the mercy of the patriarchs who she schemed against. Whilst it would be hard to find anyone who would justify Lady Audley’s actions – attempted murder is attempted murder – part of me suspects that Lady Audley’s greater crime was pushing against the system constructed by the men around her. In Victorian England women were expected to be docile and beautiful. Lady Audley is initially a source of acclaim playing the part of the devoted wife perfectly.
Is the ‘sensation’ of the novel Lady Audley’s actual crimes or her audacity on reaching beyond her station and her sex? As Robert Audley notes “‘To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex.’”. And this by no means a compliment.