When Mary Elizabeth Braddon was writing Lady Audley’s Secret, over the course of 1861 to 1862, she was one busy lady. Lady Audley was coming out in monthly installments in magazines, as was Aurora Floyd, and not content with having two serializations on her hands, she had also just given birth to Gerald, her first child. Her partner, the publisher John Maxwell, had a wife in a mental asylum and five children already, and so Braddon consented to live with him nevertheless, bringing up those children, and eventually another six of her own, and somehow managing to produce over 80 novels by the end of her life. How on earth did she do it? No, really, that’s not a rhetorical question – however did she do it? I think I must find a good social history guide to the nineteenth century to understand what a woman’s average domestic day entailed, to see how such productivity could possibly have been achieved.
Amidst all this manic activity, it’s intriguing then that that Lady Audley’s Secret is a novel with its knickers in a twist about taking action. The novel begins with elderly but charming old Baronet, Sir Michael Audley, falling head over heels for the local governess, a certain Lucy Graham, whose beguiling blonde curls and big blue eyes indicate the most delicate and fragile kind of womanhood. Much to the chagrin of Sir Michaels’ grown-up daughter, Alicia, he marries her, and a very uneasy peace settles over the crooked towers of Audley Court.
Now Sir Michael has a nephew, Robert Audley, who is a decent but bone-idle sort of fellow. Educated and rich, he nominally practices law in London, but in reality smokes and dreams his days away in gentle torpor. All this comes to an abrupt end when an old schoolfriend, George Talboys, arrives back in the country after several years of exile in Australia. George is desperate to relocate his wife, Helen, whom he abandoned with their baby son after a quarrel over money. Doing the alpha male thing, George stormed off out of the house and onto a steamer to the other side of the world where he was determined to earn a fortune gold-digging. Having made said fortune he has now returned, the prodigal husband, to pick up where he left off. Only it seems that disaster has struck; Helen Talboys has died, and George falls into melancholy despair.
Determined to do the best by his old friend, for whom he has conceived a striking depth of affection, Robert Audley takes him off traveling and then back to Audley Court. But a series of strange events seem to hint at suspicious circumstances surrounding Lady Audley, who is at great pains to avoid Robert’s friend. When the two men sneak into her apartments while she is out to gaze on her portrait, George behaves as if he’s seen a ghost. And then the next day, having last been seen in the vicinity of Audley Court, he disappears and Robert is left to hunt feverishly for him, convinced that something terrible has occurred.
In no time at all, Robert starts to put the pieces of the mystery together and arrives at a troubling hypothesis. He becomes convinced that the deceptively innocent-looking Lady Audley is in fact Helen Talboys who, believing her husband to be dead, took the chance of money and title when it was offered her. If this is true then the horrific suspicion must be faced that, having been caught doing a little gold-digging of her own, she has bumped George off. Very quickly the novel becomes a game of cat and mouse. Will Robert assemble the necessary evidence to prove his case? Will Lady Audley manage nevertheless to outwit him? Can Robert bear to bring Lady Audley to justice, when knowledge of her crime will cause intolerable unhappiness for his beloved uncle, Sir Michael?
I don’t know whether my reaction to this novel was at all representative, but I rooted for Lady Audley even though I felt sure it was a lost cause. Her real secret seemed to me to be the outrageous fact that she was prepared to act to look after her own interests. This is clearly not appropriate for Victorian women, constrained by the culture of the age to be utterly helpless and pointless. However, the enforced futility of the lady brought about its own difficulties. Women and children were viewed with suspicion across this era because, empty vessels as they were, pure ornamentation with no obvious purpose in life, it seemed highly likely that their emptiness could easily offer a home to evil. Or at least, the demonic, that uprising of fierce life force that was originally understood to be capable of both good and bad, but which quickly settled down into pure, unmotivated wrongdoing. One dimension of the text presents Lady Audley in this light, as unnatural, possessed by the devil, a danger to herself and others because she dares to take swift and decisive action. But when we’re looking at things through Lady Audley’s eyes, there’s another perspective quietly offered to us, in which she is valiantly fighting her corner with the intelligence and ruses she has at her disposal, simply in order to safeguard her survival.
But no, this is the Victorian period, and so women acting is WRONG, and must be stopped. And yet, if you look a little more closely at the narrative, it’s possible to see that anxiety surrounds all forms of action. Robert Audley’s story, for instance, is no better in this respect. He begins the novel as a man in love with sloth, and once he has got over the surprise of finding himself compelled to avenge his friend, he still can’t quite get his head around the potential consequences. He frets and worries himself to the point of exhaustion over what will happen to his family if he presents proof of Lady Audley’s falseness, and considers time and again that he might give the hunt up and return to the safe haven of inactivity. Acting, taking power into one’s hands, making waves and making changes, is presented as congenitally dangerous, as being indistinguishable from caprice and recklessness. Look at George Talboys, the ultimate doer, whose abrupt and thoughtless fugue to Australia provided the sorry start to this tale, or Sir Michael and his impulsive marriage to Lucy (not that they, being male, ever have to take any responsibility for what they do in the narrative). By the end of the story, Robert has reconciled himself to a degree of action, and looks back at his original lethargy with distaste. But Lady Audley… ah I will not tell you what happens to her, but those who know the story already will recall how her relationship to action unfolds.
The emotional conflict that surrounds action is by no means purely a Victorian problem. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that the move to action is a fraught one because it involves leaving the comfort of our fantasies behind. After all, what do we do before we act, but think and dream and plan? When confined to our heads, we keep control over both our behaviour and its outcome, but stepping away from that reassuring fantasy and into the unpredictability of the real world often looks just too dangerous to attempt. But Žižek’s latest work (and controversial work at that), has focused on our inability to act in modern times and the, well, the ethical shoddiness of apathy. Žižek believes that in a world of global interconnection there is no excuse for allowing atrocities to be committed without taking up a stance and doing something. He argues that all too often, we chose indirect action at best, or else substitutes for action that allow everything to stay the same. For instance, emphasis on recycling and Green consumerism is powerless, he suggests, to really affect the underlying problem of the environment (global climate change, ecocide). Žižek’s point here is that the level of action required – serious intervention in other countries, strict enforcement of policy, a total rethink of current ideology, and above all else, faith in people to understand and comply – involves all sorts of things we have become tender about. Given the choice, we’d rather let the polar icecaps melt and the sea level rise, killing millions of people, because at least then we wouldn’t have to feel personally responsible. And in the meantime we can stay safely in our fantasies, hoping for a miracle. Žižek’s theories are not perfect, you can argue against them, but they do give pause for thought, and they do raise the question of why we feel so anxious about acting.
Perhaps we can trace our fear of action back to its manifestation here in Lady Audley’s Secret, where it is not secret at all but brought into the bright light of the narrative. Fear pervades the narrative because the ‘wise’ protagonists can only imagine negative consequences to any act – Robert is particularly prone to catastrophising about the future, and indeed there is a latent narrative hysteria around Lady Audley’s that works to annihilate any possible positive motivation she might have, along with any admirable qualities of strength, purpose, determination. What’s good about Lady Audley’s behaviour is strictly repressed because the thought of what would happen if women were let loose in the field of action is just too terrifying – as a fantasy – to contemplate. (Whilst of course, ironically, her creator was busy working away, living in sin, producing children, writing sensational books) As Žižek suggests, fantasies are politically dangerous because by their very nature they long to preserve the status quo, and will go to any lengths to do so.
To give Lady Audley’s Secret its due, the message it ultimately espouses is that no matter how afraid we may be to act, justice must be done, and with this we can surely all agree