Lady Audley’s Secret

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

20 thoughts on “Lady Audley’s Secret

  1. This is great — definitely going over to Amazon immediately; this is a book I can’t believe I haven’t read. I am currently about halfway through They Were Sisters , and what strikes me about this review is how exactly that central dilemma applies to both books, especially in the narrative arc of Charlotte and her children. The risk of taking action is enormous — or seems so — and it is amazing how difficult it is for people to realize that inaction is also a form of action.

  2. Great post! This is such a strange, uneven, bad but good novel. I have been quite persuaded by critics who focus on the threat Lady Audley poses to patriarchal bonds and institutions. I particularly like that Robert Audley falls in love with his best friend’s sister, pretty explicitly because she reminds him so much of George! Clara, at least, will not threaten their homosocial network. The description of Lady Audley’s portrait is great, drawing on all the moral and aesthetic controversies around the Pre-Raphaelites to help us realize the dangers that lurk below Lucy’s beautiful surface. I have always felt Braddon herself wavers on whether Lady Audley should be understood as a woman making her way in a man’s world (investing the ‘capital’ of her beauty as best she can, etc.) or as a horrid monster taking advantage of others (and worse!) for her own selfish gain. There’s a lot of evidence both ways.

  3. I never cease to be amazed by your conflations. Surely only here can I find Braddon and Žižek (and how do you get those little symbols above the letters – I had to cut and paste?), in such intimate binding! I’d love to read this now – a book that has always been somewhere on the periphery, but where to find the time. No way of keeping up with you, I know that. The difficulty is that unknowable set of outcomes. Realizing what it may stiffle or excuse doesn’t remove the danger. Sometimes the wrong word in a conversation can be the road to disaster. This kind of insecurity has probably influenced my life on occasion if I think about it and no doubt lots of other people’s lives too. Now if I were as dexterous as you I could morph into Existentialism at this point as I think this choice agenda is right in their territory, but I can’t, so perhaps I can leave it to you!

  4. Thank you for yet another wonderful and very thoughtful post. I love this: “Her real secret seemed to me to be the outrageous fact that she was prepared to act to look after her own interests.” It reminds me of Elaine Showalter, who said that Lady Audley’s real secret was that she was in fact perfectly sane, and was only reacting to a world that put women like her in a position where they had to take desperate measures or die in poverty and misery. The reason why I love this novel, and Braddon’s work in general, is in a way she acknowledges this possibility. There’s the Wayward Women Must Be Punished surface and the disappointingly conventional ending, but to me there are also so many undercurrents beneath it all.

  5. Mercy, Braddon sounds positively Barbara-Cartland-esque in her literary output (with all apologies to the world for using the word “literary” in reference to Barbara Cartland). If I had that many children — yeah, I would never have that many children.

  6. Many prolific writers have a very logical answer to the question how they manage it all… They don’t read as much. I remember that this struck me when I read one of George Sands biographies. She stated that she didn’t read a lot. If she had to choose between writing and reading she would always choose writing.
    Thanks for your post…It triggered this line of thought. I do need to reconsider my reading habits… And I am actually more in the mood to read Žižek now than Braddon, although she is on my TBR pile as well…

  7. Great post! I had no clue about Zizek theories, obviously, but I understood the repression and anxiety in Victorian novels as the expression of the inner conflicts of a society that likes to think of itself as structured, ordered and permanent, while of course everything was rather impermanent and evolving, like today. To chose action means acknowledging that everything is not perfect in the first place, something quite dangerous especially for women, but without action, there would be no novel! Which makes a big part of the appeal of the Victorian novels to me.

  8. Litlove, what interesting connections you make between a Victorian novel and the most challenging aspects of our age. But I’m most curious about the author. She had to handwrite those 80 books. I’m wondering how it was even physically possible.

  9. This is wonderful, I often find it difficult to know how to act because I spend so much time thinking, journaling, reading, oh that comfortable fantasy life… You can also tie in Hamlet here too and his fear of action also.

  10. Isn’t this such a fun novel? I really enjoyed it, and it offers so much to think about. I love Lady Audley in particular, and everything she makes us think about — what women are and aren’t allowed to do, the consequences of action, as you write about here. I’m hoping to read more Braddon at some point!

  11. David – you’re so right about the Whipple! It hadn’t occurred to me before you pointed that out. And, going out on a limb here, I do think you would enjoy Lady Audley. It has a Wilkie Collins feel whilst being stylistically unique. Definitely worth trying.

    Rohan – absolutely, Braddon does a very good job of maintaining ambiguity. From a purely 21st century perspective, it seems to me that Lady Audley is doomed before she has ever done anything properly wrong. She fails through the curse of Penelope, who set that ten-year limit on waiting. It seems fair enough that a husband who’s been gone for three years without writing a word may be considered dead. All her problems stem from there, and there is no possibility of forgiveness for the lapse in her faith. After all, this is all Sir Michael hears of her story before condemning her. From then on in, her actions spiral out of control because there is no way she can resolve her situation honestly. But it’s true she isn’t presented as a victim, and that muddies the waters and makes in the end for a better story.

    Bookboxed – funnily enough, I did think of the Existentialists! And it’s okay – I’m good with theory but as crippled as the next person when it comes to actually doing anything. This is reassuring only in so far as it proves the theory works…. Zizek’s name is a pain in the neck, and you will see here I have not bothered with it. It requires hunting the symbols table in my word programme, and then I cut and paste from there. I would have put good money on you having read this one – for you have to admit, you are WAY ahead of me with it comes to the 19th century!🙂

    Nymeth – oooh that’s it – what Elaine Showalter said! That’s exactly what I wanted to say. I do agree with you about those other undercurrents, and they are precisely what made this such an intriguing novel. Thank you for your lovely comment.

    Jenny – I am in awe of those prolific novelists – we could include Agatha Christie, Catherine Cookson, Georgette Heyer. And doing all that with children!!?? Amazing.

    Caroline – I am a big Zizek fan, although I have rarely seen the movies he discusses! I’d love to know what you think of him. He can be very obscure at times and then wondrously enlightening at others. And as for reading less… yes, I can see it might help. But I don’t think I could do it.🙂

    Smithereens – how interesting! I know so very little about Victorian fiction. I know much more about French lit at this time, and the arrival of the fantastic to represent similar fears about male authority, in terms of Church, State and father as head of household, crumbling away. Isn’t it intriguing to see how slight differences in similar problems lead to such different literary representations!

    Colleen – oh thank you! I feel honored!

    Lilian – I am going to have to look into this. How on EARTH was it possible for her to do what she did? I’ll get back to you on it!

    Carolyn – give me dreaming and journalling over the difficulties of living any day! Hamlet is a wonderful analogy to pick.

    Dorothy – I must say I’m quite tempted to see if I can get hold of Aurora Floyd now. I was very favourably impressed by Braddon and agree with you completely that this was fun. It’s not often I read 450 closely-typed pages and enjoy every one!

  12. A really fabulous review, litlove. I’ve not read this one yet, but somehow I acquired a copy of The Doctor’s Wife and it has been calling my name for a while. Supposedly it is a rewriting of Madame Bovary. Braddon seems like a fascinating writer.

  13. My goodness, I’m with Lilian, how on earth did she ever find the time to write (by hand!) 80 novels with all those children? I’m assuming there was a lot of domestic help? But more importantly, I’ve never heard of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and this sounds like a fascinating novel, I’ve added her to the list! Thank you for such a great review.

  14. Pingback: Blogging the Victorians » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  15. I remember when Dorothy read this I thought it sounded fun then and promptly forgot about it, so thanks for reminding me! Slavoj Žižek sounds like an interesting fellow. My library has several of his books. Is the one you are referring to called Living in the End Times?

  16. What a fascinating post! I’m so behind on everyone’s blogs, but you bring up such interesting dilemmas re: action and inaction here, and how gender plays into that. I’ll certainly keep your insights in mind when I get around to Braddon, which I keep meaning to do!

  17. Your review brought back a few memories, but I still can’t remember the ending.
    I read it at a time when I was going through a lot of Victorian literature and this book was my least favourite. I think I found it slightly boring and too slow. It didn’t keep me interested. At least, your post did!

  18. Unless she had servants, she must have been a very busy lady, indeed! Where was this post when I was reading the book a few years ago? When I tried to write about it someone corrected me and I had to set aside my pen in shame, so I try and avoid writing about classics these days. I think I will print this out and slip it inside my copy of the book for when I am ready for a reread, and this is one that I could easily reread!🙂

  19. I have just finished listening to this book read by Elizabeth Klett. I was completely engrossed. Can you imagine waiting for the next edition in the serial? Talking with your cronies about what Robert or Lucy would do next! I was taken with Ms. Braddon’s descriptions of the emotionality of Robert. I cannot picture a contemporary writer that gives a male character this kind of reflectiveness and tears. The relationship between Alan Shore and Denny Crane on Boston Legal comes to mind!

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