Book Review: Lady Audley’s Secret

Lady Audley’s Secret is a Victorian sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It is about Lady Audley, a beautiful lady residing with her wealthy husband at Audley Court. In addition to her material wealth, Lady Audley also has a wealth of secrets. She challenges the notion of stereotypical femininity, and her brother-in-law, Robert Audley, gradually begins to suspect all is not right at Audley Court.

Reader, I liked it.

As a late Victorian novel, the language is not too dissimilar to modern language and so was fairly easy to read.

There were plenty of plot twists that prompted me to work out various marriage connections and secret identities. However, some of the bigger secrets became apparent rather early on – perhaps this was intentional – but it made me dually satisfied to see Robert Audley discover clues and exasperated he didn’t realise sooner what was obviously going on.

Lady Audley’s Secret foregrounds the Victorian pragmatism of marriage. Throughout the novel, male characters encouraged women to choose a marriage partner they deeply loved – as if it were that simple. Given the Victorian restrictions on a woman’s independence and finance, they relied on good husband for security, which is exactly what Lady Audley did.

However, though I really liked Lady Audley’s cunning and atrocious schemes, by marrying well, she becomes protected by her position and the manipulative hold she has over her older, richer (and oblivious) husband.

This reflects how the upper-classes could avoid punishment – or even any ‘disgrace’ – if they had sufficient status and wealth, whereas the lower-classes would be imprisoned immediately. In turn, this suggests money and status make you above or outside the law, – something still wholly relevant today.

Spoiler Warning: I try to keep my reviews mostly spoiler-free. From here on in, this is an exception. Sorry.

Despite my enjoyment of the villainous actions and maliciousness of Lady Audley, she is  eventually robbed of her agency.

 ‘George Talboys had been cruelly and treacherously murdered’

As it happens, Lady Audley hadn’t actually murdered George Talboys, contradicting her characterisation as a scheming, dangerous woman. Plus, the involvement of lower class characters within this plotting then reinforces the stereotype that the lower-classes are the true criminals after all.*

* I made a similar point discussing this with Sherlock Holmes last year.

To me, the ending was also wrong. Most characters received a conventional “happy ending”. Fair enough, though it seems contrite within the context of all the shocking sensationalism prior. Lady Audley however, dies naturally in a ‘madhouse’ in Belgium. There’s no trial, no exposure, and no punishment – except arguably the loss of her position. Everything is kept secret or attributed to Lady Audley’s supposed ‘madness’.

I don’t believe Lady Audley was in any way mad; I think she was a rational, cold-hearted woman who used despicable crimes to better her status. Yet of course, these facts are ignored because of that key word: woman.

‘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.’

Given the rigidity of Victorian stereotypes, no one thought a woman could be capable of anything more dangerous than cross-stitching.  This is partly what takes Robert Audley so long in his investigation; he can’t (or doesn’t want to) face the prospect that is sister-in-law could be capable of such deeds. But then again, given she doesn’t actually murder George Talboys, perhaps Lady Audley isn’t capable after all, and thus the Victorian stereotypes are reinforced.

Some others may die at her hands. But enough spoilers.

If I haven’t completely ruined the book for you, then you should read Lady Audley’s Secret.

– Judith


Book Review: Something Fresh

Image via BBC.

“Old man absentmindedly steals scarab beetle. Misunderstandings ensue.”

Something Fresh is the first in the Blandings series by PG Wodehouse. It is a well-crafted story that places a comical spin on the family affairs and romantic entanglements of the English upper class.

The characters all slot neatly together, which in turn creates great comedy, as there are many kept secrets and mistaken identities – it was like reading a modern Shakespeare comedy.

I asked my friend Sam, who lives and breathes PG Wodehouse (and also lent me his copy, nice) and created the witty synopsis above, to tell me why he likes him so much.

“It’s partly because of the innocence of the world which he’s created – it appeals to the romantic escapist in me – but also his masterful way with language is second to none. Light comedy has never had so much depth.” he explained.

I agree – Wodehouse’s narration is wonderfully witty; he makes reoccurring jokes, satirical commentary addressed directly to the reader or skilfully plays with the language. Subsequently, there are so many creative, quirky, and quotable sentences that I simply couldn’t write them all down.

I particularly liked the characters Joan Valentine and Ashe Marson. To see the pair’s growing friendship, growing rivalry, and growing affection was charming.

Also, I liked how strong and sassy Joan was – she directly criticises the notion of the damsel in distress used so often in novels and refuses to be given advantages simply because of her gender, insisting on being treated as Ashe’s equal. I especially liked the ending scenes between Joan and Ashe; I couldn’t stop smiling.

The ending to Something Fresh was neatly tied up which made such a nice change from modern books which, more often than not, request you read part two to find out what happens next. Sometimes, stories linked by the same characters and same settings, rather than the same narrative, can work just as well – if not better. Who knew.

I thoroughly enjoyed, and definitely recommend, Something Fresh. When can I read the sequel?

– Judith

Book Review: Brave New World

In the not-too-distant future, genetic science and applied psychology have bred an ideal society. There’s no disease, no-one ages and everyone is perfectly content, conditioned to serve the greater World State. Everyone, that is, but Bernard Marx.

‘”How can I?” he repeated.

“No, the real problem is: How is it that I can’t?”‘

Similarly to Orwell’s 1984, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is about an all-powerful state, that controls the behaviour and actions of the population to preserve its own stability and power. It is set in a futuristic London, where citizens are engineered through artificial wombs and indoctrinated into predetermined castes.

There are three main characters: Lenina Crowne, popular and sexually desirable, Bernard, a lower-caste man who is not popular nor desirable, and John the Savage, a man in exile because he was conceived and born naturally.

Each perspective reveals an aspect of this new world to the reader.

‘”You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it.”‘

Bernard is initially heroic, inwardly critiquing the regime and encouraging individuality of the self. Lenina is treated like a piece of meat, and doesn’t seem to notice or care because ‘every one belongs to every one else, after all’. That is, until she becomes confused by feelings of desire and attraction. John is horrified by the thoughts and actions of the citizens, whose sexually promiscuous, drug-induced, shallow and self-centred behaviour clashes with his own views.

Brave New World was really quite weird to read.

The first chapter opens on a tour around a Willy Wonka-esque factory, except it is not chocolate that is being manufactured, but humans. The unusual scientific jargon continues throughout the book, so it was difficult to follow everything that was happening.

The themes of control and consumerism are portrayed in a striking and unsettling way. Instead of faith systems, there is instead a high reverence for technology, sex, and drugs – known as Soma – which clouds citizens’ thoughts and memories to reinforce the belief that life is good.

‘”What you need, is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.”‘

This is abundantly clear in the replacement of the name of God with the Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company. As characters utters exclamations such as ‘My Ford’ and the ‘Year of our Ford’ – and it is no coincidence that ‘Lord’ and ‘Ford’ rhyme – this underlines the real issue of this new world; not that religion doesn’t exist, but that any free-thinking and all forms of belief have been eradicated and controlled by the state.

Brave New World has startlingly violent moments designed to shock, rather than satirise – particularly in the ending. I think it is one of the most horrific dystopian novels I’ve read.

I still don’t fully understand this book, but if you want to be horrified and intrigued by dystopian literature, I suggest you try Brave New World.

– Judith