Nov 13, 2009

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

'Foul deeds have been done under the most hospitable roofs; terrible crimes have been committed amid the fairest scenes, and have left no trace upon the spot where they were done. I do not believe in mandrake, or in bloodstains that no time can efface. I believe rather that we may walk unconsciously in an atmosphere of crime, and breathe none the less freely. I believe that we may look into the smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty.'
Originally published in 1863, Lady Audley's Secret was one of the top three bestsellers of the Victorian era, and has remained in print ever since. The story opens with Lucy Graham, a governess in the village of Audley, accepting a marriage proposal from Sir Michael Audley, a wealthy widower. Some time later, a man by the name of George Talboys, who had gone to Australia to seek his fortune in the gold diggings, returns to England. He runs into his friend Robert Audley (nephew of the aforementioned Sir Michael), who is there for him when he receives some very distressing news about the wife he had left behind. I don't want to give too much of the plot away, so I'll wrap up this synopsis by saying that circumstances force the idle Robert Audley to become a detective: he investigates the disappearance of his friend George, as well as the truth about the woman his uncle married.

Let me start by telling you about how much fun Lady Audley's Secret was to read. Why did it take me this long to discover Victorian Sensation novels? I had as much fun with this as I did with The Woman in White. And to those of you who find Collins a bit wordy, well, this is much shorter. It's not even a chunkster! And everything that makes Collins such fun is here too: secrets, mistaken identities, crimes and 'foul deeds', an atmospheric country house, an amateur detective as the hero, a mystery, of course, and a subtle touch of subversion.

But how mysterious is the mystery, you ask? Braddon keeps the twists coming until the very end, but most of what happens is not difficult to guess. However, I still found Lady Audley's Secret very suspenseful and very hard to put down, because it's all about the details, the specifics, the motivations. I thought it was interesting that even thought the truth at the core of the book - Lady Audley's secret, or at least one of them - becomes clear fairly early on, there is so much that is only hinted at. The narrator knows it, the character knows it, the reader knows it, and furthermore the narrator knows that the reader knows it - and still the words aren't said. It's very Victorian, but it made me smile.

I have to wonder, though, if the answer was less obvious for Victorian audiences than it is for us due to expectations, especially regarding gender and class. Which brings me to the second main thing about this novel. As you can tell by now, I loved it and had an absolutely wonderful time with it. Only I expected it to be a little more subversive somehow. Yes, Lady Audley's Secret questions stereotypes about feminine docility. But on the other hand, the other extreme, the beautiful-angel-that-is-a-scheming-demon-in-disguise, isn't really any less of a stereotype. And it was far from unheard of in Victorian times. The novel could also be seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of marrying outside one's class, and I really don't want it to be that.

I'm really on the fence here, as perhaps I was meant to be. On the other hand, the introduction to my edition tells me that critics have been arguing about these very points for years, so at least I'm not alone. I can see both sides, but at the same time I can't help but think that there's more to this story than meets the eye. The ending reinforces a more conservative interpretation of events, with order, so to speak, being restored - but the mere fact that Lady Audley's Secret raises certain possibilities is significant. The world of the novel is more flexible and less fond of absolutes than what one would expect from Victorian ideology. Like The Woman in White, it explores the cracks and the contradictions in what everyone 'knew' to be true. And these 'truths' have to do with appearances; with class, money, gender, and the expectations that surround these; with 'respectability'; and even with madness and sanity, which the novel clearly says are not at all clear-cut. In that sense, it feels very modern indeed.

This, I think, is what I've come to love about sensation novels. Not only are they fun to read, but they blur the lines. And traditional though their endings may be, they imply that if those expected to Be Respectable may be otherwise, then the reverse is also true: class, gender, nationality, all the reasons for which a person could and would be deemed unworthy in Victorian society, tells us nothing at all about someone's character.

Favourite passages:
Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.
It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-coloured fires before my lady's face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of colouring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.

We hear every day of murders committed in the country. Brutal and treacherous murders; slow, protracted agonies from poisons administered by some kindred hand; sudden and violent deaths by cruel blows, inflicted with a stake cut from some spreading oak, whose every shadow promised—peace. In the county of which I write, I have been shown a meadow in which, on a quiet summer Sunday evening, a young farmer murdered the girl who had loved and trusted him; and yet, even now, with the stain of that foul deed upon it, the aspect of the spot is—peace. No species of crime has ever been committed in the worst rookeries about Seven Dials that has not been also done in the face of that rustic calm which still, in spite of all, we look on with a tender, half-mournful yearning, and associate with—peace

Madhouses are large and only too numerous; yet surely it is strange they are not larger, when we think of how many helpless wretches must beat their brains against this hopeless persistency of the orderly outward world, as compared with the storm and tempest, the riot and confusion within—when we remember how many minds must tremble upon the narrow boundary between reason and unreason, mad to-day and sane to-morrow, mad yesterday and sane to-day.
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  1. I really enjoyed this too when I read it! I had it for a class and unfortunately we only spent one meeting on it and didn't get to explore the issues, nor do I remember them. I really like the sensationalist novels for exactly the reasons you mention. They're entertaining and well-written, but also provide food for thought.

  2. I suppose it's not all that surprising that I've never heard of this book before, considering the panic I go into at just the mention of the Victorian age. So many of these ridiculous fears I must rid myself of when it comes to world of books, I know. Gotta admit, this is another one you've tempted me greatly with...sounds like I would absolutely love it, if I could just make myself read it.

  3. Since I'm a big fan of Wilkie Collins, I'm adding this to my list. I've heard of it many times, but never made an attempt to locate a copy. Now, I think it would be worth the effort!

  4. Interesting. I've never even heard of this classic before.

  5. I've not heard of this one before. It's going on my wishlist. Thanks for your review :)

  6. This sounds exactly like the book I need to read right now. I've been in a bit of a reading slump, and this sounds fantastic. I may just have to ignore my book buying ban.

  7. I had to return this to the library unread this month :(. So many books, so litte time. I will seek it out in the future though. I love sensation novels.

  8. Oooh I like the sound of this. I do love the Victorian novels and I have to say it is because of your reviews that I have started to read them. I am not keen on the way females are treated, but that was they way of life then.

    Just to let you know I received your beautiful bookmark and postcards this morning. I hadn't realised anyone had picked up on my surname. I have to admit I was convinced you lived in England. So thank you very much and I will put up a picture on my Monday mailbox.

  9. I've only just recently dabbled in Sensation novels, but I've really had alot of fun with them. I would love to get in a routine of reading at least one a month, just to ensure I could make a stab of getting through some of the best ones. Love the is going on my list.

  10. Oh, Nymeth. You are KILLING me. How am I ever supposed to keep money in my pocket when you keep reviewing all these great-sounding books? Lol. This one is going on my wish-list right... now. =)

  11. This is already on my list for next year's RIP challenge! Hope I can wait that long...

  12. Another one to add to my 'look for in the library' list. Wonderful review.

  13. I've never heard of Victorian sensation but I do love that era so I would be willing to try this book at some point!!

  14. This sounds really good. I absolutely adore how Victorian novels imply things but never outright say them.

  15. Yay for sensation lit! What makes me sad is that Audley has all these other awesome sounding books, but my library has none of them.

  16. And by Audley, I mean Braddon. Am way too tired!

  17. Oh, dear. Just when I thought it was safe to stick with Mr. Collins...Another one for the list. You really are too good at this reviewing business, Nymeth!

  18. It sounds like so much fun! The reasons you say for liking sensation fiction are much like the reasons I've been enjoying it as well. Thanks for this review!

  19. Sounds like I will have to add this to my list. I always enjoy a fun mytery.

  20. I read this about 8 years ago and have completely forgotten the plot. I just remember that I enjoyed it. Your review makes me want to read it again!

  21. Not a chunkster? Not wordy like Collins? Still has the Victorian plots of craziness? YES PLEASE!

  22. Meghan: It's too bad you didn't have more time, but I still think it's so cool this you read it for a class!

    Debi: There's really nothing to fear here! It's such fun to read!

    Jenclair, it would!

    Amanda: It seems to have become a bit obscure, unlike Collins. But I really thought it was almost as good.

    other Amanda, you're welcome! I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Trisha: Aw, sorry to hear about your slump! But that sounds like a very good reason to break your ban... :P

    Claire: So little time indeed :( But hopefully you'll get to it next time you check it out!

    Vivienne, I'm so glad they made it safely :D Sorry again it took me so long to send them! And hm, maybe you thought that because of all my "I love charity shops!!2" comments? :P I studied over there a couple of years ago, which is why I'm familiar with them! Anyway, I know what you mean about gender roles and the Victorians, but that's actually why I keep returning to them...I love making links in my mind between then and now.

    Sandy: Oh, one a month is a great plan! I should do the same....maybe you could host a Sensation challenge? :P

    J.S. Peyton: On the plus side, those Wordsworh Classics editions are cheap :P

    JoAnn: And I wonder if I can wait that long to read more Collins!

    Cath, thank you! I hope you enjoy this.

    Staci: They're scandalous and mysterious and awesome :D

  23. Nymeth - I like the way you think!

  24. This is the first time I'm seeing this book. Not my genre but sounds good nevertheless!

  25. Heidenkind: I love that about them too. I mean, I also like that we're more direct these days, but there's something fun about how they tip-toe around things in fiction.

    Eva: That's too bad it doesn't have them.

    ds: And you are too good at this being extremely kind and encouraging business :P

    Rebecca: It was a ton of fun, yes :D

    Framed: As I've just recently realized, so do I :P

    Naida, I think you'll enjoy it!

    The Literary Stew: I hope it's just as fun the second time around!

    She: Well, I have to say it's still a bit wordy - we're talking Victorian Lit, after all :P But it's also 150 pages shorter than The Woman in White!

    Trisha: hehehe :D

    Alice: It's funny how it went from being a Victorian bestseller to being relatively obscure!

  26. I think I've seen one of the film adaptations of this because it sounds really familiar and I know I haven't read it.

  27. I read this about two years ago and had mixed feelings about it. I liked everything about it except the fact that the twist was easily figured out early in the book. I do think that it was probably a lot more sensationalistic back in the time it was released mainly because I think that society has evolved into accepting almost any situation. Great review! I am glad you liked the book so much!

  28. You have the most entertaining and thought provoking reviews of the classics. Thanks so much! You just added another to my TBR.

  29. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one! I agree with you - I wondered, too, at how our modern experience and expectations shape our experience with this book, as opposed the way a contemporary of author's would have seen it. It's interesting to think about.

  30. I'm so glad I just found your blog! I am a huge Victorians fan too (I did a whole post on them just last week).

    here is a link to my review of Lady Audley's Secret (I loved this book):

    love your blog ☺

  31. Great review! I also had an edition that had an essay about the subversiveness of Lady Audley´s Secret. While I do think it does subvert expectations of women´s role in Victorian society, I didn´t find it to be as obvious and strongly criticised as the scholar wanted me to think.


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