'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 certain...social 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.
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.Other Opinions:
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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