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.