Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

on February 26, 2014

If you’re a big Sensation fiction fan like myself, chances are you’ve already come across Lady Audley. In fact, even if you’re just a Victorian enthusiast, I’m sure you’ll have read or simply heard of the novel. As I stated earlier in my review of Braddon’s subsequent novel, Aurora Floyd, I found Aurora to be a much more interesting heroine, but that doesn’t take anything away from Braddon’s classic novel 🙂 If you’re new to the whole genre of Sensation (don’t worry, I’ll be doing a blog post at some point on the genre itself) and wondering what the average plot involves, this is a fantastic piece of literature to start with.

To me, the best thing about the novel is that it opens with a lovely chapter entitled ‘Lucy’ which basically gives the reader the story of how Lucy Graham became Lucy Audley and teases us with the concept of Lucy’s innocent looks. We read that she:

‘was blessed with that magic power of fascination by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile. Everyone loved, admired, and praised her.’

She seems absolutely perfect, but of course, we as the reader already suspect that nobody can truly be so angelic (and obviously the title of the novel kind of gives it away that all is not what it seems!) Old Sir Michael Audley’s proposal allows Lucy to escape her surroundings and gain a standing within society. However, the reader also hears her comment that this marriage will mean:

‘No more dependence, no more drudgery, no more humiliation… every trace of the old life melted away – every clue to identity buried and forgotten,’

implying that there is something more to her character, something she wishes to keep secret and forget. The unravelling of this secret is the main plot of the novel.

*[SPOILERS]* Lucy is a character with an extremely strong sense of agency. She alters her identity in order to maintain the façade that she is the stereotypical sweet, fair-haired, angelic wife. She is ruthless in the protection of her secret past which is… that she has already been married!! The novel has alternating chapters at the beginning to show her first husband, George Talboys, attempting to track her down with the assistance of the male protagonist of the story, Robert Audley. One day, George goes missing and Robert will not rest until he discovers what has happened to his friend. Eventually we find out that George had confronted Lucy over her identity, after which she shoves him down a well and leaves him there – what a nice lady! Like I said, she will do anything to cling onto the life she has now created for herself and when Robert Audley unveils the truth, she even attempts to burn him alive in his bed to stop him telling anyone! It must be mentioned that at the end of the novel, Lucy is diagnosed with hereditary madness which in some ways (but not totally!) explains why she acts the way she does throughout the course of the book.

The reader will also note that she is an extremely good actress as we see at many points where she manipulates those around her, not caring who she hurts in the process. It emerges that the past life she is trying to conceal is that of her life as Helen Talboys, wife to George. When George leaves to try and make his wealth in Australia, Helen (or Lucy – it starts to get a bit confusing :P) doesn’t think he will ever return, so takes matters into her own hands to try and move on and marry better and higher (and richer!) She reinvents herself, entices Sir Michael Audley with her apparent sweetness and beauty, and becomes lady of the manor. The narrator describes her as:

‘pleased with her high position and her handsome house; with… every whim indulged; admired and caressed wherever she went… it would have been hard to find… a more fortunate creature.’

She has indeed been fortunate, but only by telling lies and this is what makes her a very distant character. Like most of the villainesses or perhaps I should say transgressive female characters of Sensation fiction, she evokes no sympathy from the reader (well, I definitely didn’t warm to her, that’s for sure!) Perhaps you felt differently upon your reading of the novel, and I’d love to hear if you did 🙂

I found her to be a very strange character. She adapts to the role of loving wife beautifully, and maintains the angelic front whilst working to keep her secret from being revealed. Here we see the opposing and conflicting sides of Victorian woman’s character (and there are a lot of secondary sources you can read on this): the angel and the demon. Lucy conforms to the expected Victorian domesticated ideal, the angel in the house, but still has this venomous ruthless streak. This in turn sums up some of the anxiety that surrounded the genre of Sensation fiction. Part of the excitement and nervousness came from the fact that you could never be 100% sure the people around you were who they claimed to be, and here we have the angelic sweet Lucy who turns out underneath it all to be a bigamist, mad, and willing to murder. Appearances can most definitely be deceiving in this case! By being initially set up in the novel as ‘the sweetest girl that ever lived,’ it is a shock to see her behave so terribly.

At the close of the novel, the reader sees Lucy Audley left to perish in a foreign mental asylum under a false name, but her influence remains at Audley Court thanks to the portrait she leaves in her chambers. There’s always a sinister portrait in these stories! 🙂 It is, in fact, of great importance and is one of the first glimpses we get of Lucy’s true identity. The picture is described as having ‘something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend,’ the side of Lucy that is yet to come forward and show itself. It is remarked by Lucy’s step-daughter:

‘I think that sometimes a painter… is able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes. We have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could look so.’

Of course, the reader and the rest of the characters in the novel do eventually see the true persona of Lucy Audley and it’s not that different to the fiend described on the wall. On being ejected from her home after her deeds have been unveiled, we see the coarse side of Lucy, only caring of the possessions she is being forced to leave behind, not caring a jot for the man who gave them to her. She is regarded by Robert Audley as ‘the most detestable and despicable of her sex – the most pitiless and calculating of human creatures,’ and I don’t think it could be summed up better than that.

Ultimately, despite her best efforts including threatening to kill Robert and actually trying to in the fire, her secret past is revealed and she is ousted from her position in society. She pays the price for her actions, and she is one of those characters where there really could have been no other ending fitting for her. Such baseness cannot live within respectable society, so she had to be removed from it.

So, to conclude, I would recommend this book to everyone 🙂 I may have rambled on here a bit, but trust me, I still have plenty more to say on this book! It really is a great read and the plot is gripping. It definitely deserves its classic status and I would urge anybody who hasn’t yet had time to read it to give it a go – you won’t be disappointed! 🙂


7 responses to “Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

  1. heavenali says:

    I loved Lady Audley’ s secret. It is a real page turner.

  2. turningpagesandtea says:

    I really like how in-depth your posts are! There are always so many things that I never even thought of and I can’t wait to read the post on Sensation. Have you read C. H. Hazlewood’s adaptation of the novel, by any chance? *Victorian literature nerd alarm goes off*.

    • emma says:

      Aww thank you! Try to talk about as much as possible but then I think they’re getting really long haha 🙂 No I haven’t even heard of an adaptation of it – do you know if it’s good? Hey, some of us have to be VicLit nerds in this world 😛

  3. Ahhh, I need to read this! My first exposure to it was from one of the Betsy-Tacy books — Betsy borrows it from her housekeeper or something, and her father gets really upset with her for reading TRASH. So I’ve known about Lady Audley’s Secret since I was probably nine or ten, and somehow I’ve still never read it! But you make it sound really interesting. 🙂

    • emma says:

      Oh well the perception that the genre was trash would definitely have fitted with what some critics thought of Sensation fiction. Thank you, I hope I’ve made it sound intriguing enough for you to finally get your teeth into it! 🙂

  4. […] Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon Mar […]

  5. […] neighbours concealed some awful secret.’ (See Lydia Gwilt from Armadale, and Lucy Audley from Lady Audley’s Secret for excellent examples of this […]

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