Lady Audley’s Secret By Braddon

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Lady Audleys Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, is a novel of many elements.

It has been placed in many different style or genre categories since its

publication. I feel that it best fits under the melodrama or sensational genre,

and under the subgenre of mystery. It contains significant elements of both

types of writing, so I feel it is best to recognize both, keeping in mind that

melodrama is its main device and mystery is a type of Victorian melodrama. In

order to understand how the story fits into these categories, it is necessary to

explore the Victorian characteristics of each, and apply them to the text. In

addition to establishing the genres, it is important to explain why and how

these genres fit into Victorian culture. The term melodrama has come to be

applied to any play with romantic plot in which an author manipulates events to

act on the emotions of the audience without regard for character development or

logic (Microsoft Encarta). In order to classify as a Victorian melodrama,

several key techniques must be used, including proximity and familiarity to the

audience, deceit rather than vindictive malice, lack of character development

and especially the role of social status. The sensational novel is usually a

tale of our own times. Proximity is indeed one great element of sensation. A

tale which aims to electrify the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly

effective unless the scene be laid out in our own days and among the people we

are in the habit of meeting. In keeping with mid-Victorian themes, Lady

Audleys Secret is closely connected to the street literature and newspaper

accounts of real crimes. The crimes in Braddons novel are concealed and

secret. Like the crimes committed by respected doctors and trusted ladies, the

crimes in Lady Audleys Secret shock because of their unexpectedness. Crime in

the melodrama of the fifties and sixties is chilling, because of the implication

that dishonesty and violence surround innocent people. A veneer of virtue coats

ambitious conniving at respectability. Lady Audleys Secret concludes with a

triumph of good over evil, but at the same time suggests unsettlingly that this

victory occurs so satisfyingly only in melodramas (Kalikoff, 96). Everything

that Lady Audley does seems calculated. Unlike violent stories of the past in

which a criminal kills for the sake of killing, Lady Audley is brilliant in her

bigamy, her arson, and her murder. The nature of her crimes reflect a

general fear of intimate and buried violence, suggesting a growing anxiety about

being threatened from within. Her moves are calculated and planned. Murders and

robberies spring from a specific social context, not from psychosis or

vindictive malice (Kalikoff, 81). Murders in Victorian melodramas are often the

result of elaborate plans to conceal identity, right a wrong or improve social

status. A reader of Lady Audleys Secret might notice upon concluding the

novel that he/she knows very little about the characters at hand. Instead of

being fully developed into people who are easy to relate to, the characters in

this novel are used more as symbols or pawns that are moved in order to bring

attention to social or moral problems. This can best be seen in the character of

Lady Audley. Lady Audley is not much of a person, rather she is nothing more

than a representation of the threatening woman figure trying to make changes in

a patriarchal world. Lady Audley evokes a fear of womens independence and

sexuality. As a popular Victorian genre that trades on the power of the secret

and frequently sexualized sins of its heroines, sensation fiction provides a

resourceful perspective on the contradiction that frame these villainous victims

who are simultaneously diseased, depraved, and socially and economically

oppressed (Bernstein, 73). Lady Audleys ability to control the men in her

life makes her a devilish figure. When she attempts to convince Sir Michael that

Robert is insane with no proof and just her innocent looks, she is portraying

the fears of many people in Victorian society: a woman with power is dangerous.

In Lady Audleys Secret, crimes logically emerge from an environment in which

social status is valued above everything. Crimes committed to improving social

status usually focus around a man or woman with a past. Married to a man three

times her age, Lady Audley would raise anyones eyebrows, yet she successfully

ensnares Sir Michael and very nearly achieves her ambitions. Who is safe when

the most ruthless conniver insinuates herself into the aristocracy? (Kalikoff,

84). In Lady Audleys Secret, aristocrats are not dangerous, those who intrude

into higher social classes are. Because she committed a social crime by marrying

Sir Michael, Lady Audley is suspect from the start. Of particular offences in

Victorian melodramas, the most popular tends to be bigamy. Many novels of the

Victorian time hung their narrative on bigamy in act, bigamy in intention, or on

the supposed existence of two wives to the same husband, or two husbands to the

same wife. Indeed, so popular has this crime become, as to give rise to an

entire sub-class of this branch of literature, which may be distinguished as

that of Bigamy Novels (Manse, 6). Lady Audleys cunning bigamy and eventual

murder represent the mid-Victorian fear of a wicked woman whose manipulative

sexuality allows her to pursue dreams of wealth, social status, and power (Kalikoff,

84). With the aspects of melodrama in mind, it is now possible to explore the

books role as a mystery. Like their predecessors in the thirties and forties,

mid-Victorian melodramas on crime found large and devoted followers. It has been

remarked that the Victorian style of murder mystery originated in a book called

The Woman In White, by Wilkie Collins. Collins tale is about a daughter who

is bound to marry a man her father has chosen for her on his death bed, and the

investigation by her half sister and a man named Walter Hartright into her

mysterious death (Peterson, 41). Braddons novel mimics several of the key

devices and themes used in Collins tale, like making the hero the sleuth who

solves the underlying mystery, rather than using a professional detective and

including the idea of madness and/or its connection to insane asylums. Another

more famous author that preceded Braddon in writing mysteries was Charles

Dickens. In his novel Bleak House, Dickens uses a mansion, a baronet doing on a

wife of unknown antecedents, the wifes exhaustion when anything reminded her

of that earlier history, and the grave warning she received from the lawyer who

had investigated it to contrive a suspenseful plot (Horsman, 217). These

concepts are mirrored in Braddons tale as Audley Court, Sir Michaels

uncertainty when he first proposed to Lucy about her past, Lady Audleys

attempts to avoid any talk of her past, and of course, Roberts grave warning

to Lady Audley that he was on to her scheme. In Lady Audleys Secret, Mary

Braddon took to the new form like a duck to water. Using these two works as

example, Braddon evolved the mystery and created what is her best selling work

ever, Lady Audleys Secret. Mary Braddon first produced Lady Audleys Secret

with the sole intention of helping John Maxwell launch a new magazine. Since

this failed after only twelve issues, she sent it to another journal to be

published a few months later (Peterson, 159). Noticing the recognition that

Collins was getting for her work, Braddon aimed her novel for the market Collins

had created. Although many people read and enjoyed the sensational style of

writing, not everyone felt that way. As a sensation novelist, Braddon was often

criticized by people who felt stories of crime were immoral and tainted. Critics

also attacked her because they felt that an authoress of originality and

merit ought to aspire to higher things (Peterson, 160). Murder mysteries,

like melodramas, have specific characteristics that are necessary to keep them

true to form. These characteristics include coincidence, return, disguise,

madness and buried information. Popular in most Victorian mysteries, Lady

Audleys Secret, especially uses these techniques in unfolding its plot. One

element that is used in Victorian mysteries is coincidence. Nineteenth century

writers commonly introduced the most improbable coincidences into their

narratives. This was especially popular in Victorian sensational novels. In Lady

Audleys Secret, it is coincidental that George Talboys knew Robert Audley,

and meets him immediately upon his return from a long overseas absence, and that

it is to Audleys own uncle that Talboys missing wife is married (Reed,

130). Then, Robert brings George to his uncles estate which creates the

opportunity for George to meet his wife, Helen. The whole story, in short, is

based on coincidence. It is also quite a coincidence that Luke, the innkeeper,

happened to find George after he managed to climb out of the well. It was

convenient that one of the main characters of the story had had the answers to

the mystery all along. These coincidences begin the entire mystery that unfolds.

Another technique found in mysteries that Braddon uses is the Return. The device

of the return was an excellent method for evoking reader sentiment, but equally

important, it had sufficient energy to convey a moral. Invented as early back as

the Odyssey, the return changed over time. During the Romantic period, the hero

would retreat to nature in order to make sense of his life before returning to

challenge civilized society once more (Reed, 216). Victorian writers often used

the return as a traditional plot convenience. Something more is concerned in

Braddons novel though. The novel begins with George Talboys returning from a

long journey in search of fortune. He is impatient to reunite with the wife he

left many years ago. The expectation is clear: the husband returns, reunites

with his wife, his joy should be great. Not so. Instead, he learns that his wife

has recently died. Hence, the readers emotions are wrung. This is an element

that is important to both the mystery and the melodramatic aspects of Lady

Audleys Secret. Another device used by Braddon is the disguise. Disguise

involves the question of identity, a main theme in much of literature. One

example of disguise used in Braddons novel is the change Helen Talboys made

when she took on the identities of Lucy Graham and subsequently, Lady Audley.

This disguise leads Robert on to unravel the mystery of his missing friend

(Reed, 294). What do people generally do when they wish to begin a new existence

– to start for a second time in the race of life, free from the encumbrances

that had fettered their first journey. They change their names, Lady Audley.

(ch.29) When Robert and George come upon Sir Michael and Lady Audley in their

carriage, Lady Audley turns away, never to face the two men. She fears

recognition by George. While reflecting on her means of avoiding detection, Lady

Audley is interrupted by the approach of another person. She quickly seizes a

book to appear occupied (Reed, 294). The narrator then observes what an actress

Lady Audley has become due to her fatal necessities for concealment. In much of

mid-Victorian literature, the subject of madness is used quite frequently, with

little attention paid to its serious nature. A passage from Lady Audleys

Secret indicates how glibly the subject of confinement for insanity could be

tossed about. When Robert Audley openly challenges Lady Audley with deceiving

her husband about her past, she responds by threatening to charge him with

madness. The fact that such a threat could be seriously entertained shows how

far fiction had gone to accept the contemporary social concern about the

mismanagement of the laws dealing with the insane (Reed, 205). Another part of

the book that deals with madness occurs towards the end. Before Robert Audley

sends Helen Talboys to a mental hospital as a punishment, he has a

psychiatrist take a look at her to determine her level of sanity. The doctor

replies that she is not insane, but he will put her away for convenience sake

and in case she becomes mad in the near future. The fact that the concept of

madness was tossed around with no consequence made for a good mystery novel, in

that people feared that things like that could happen to them, since the laws

governing mental hospitals were so weak at the time. A very vital part of the

plot of Lady Audleys Secret is developed through a technique called buried

information. The term buried information may be used to describe a

device which has become standard in the classic detective story. A vital clue is

buried in what appears to be the idle talk of an non-essential character

(Peterson, 45). This device was used through the character Luke. He was the

person holding the missing piece of the puzzle. Although he was not a main

character, per say, he was definitely an important one. Luke is the only person

in the novel with the real truth to the mystery of George Talboys disappearance.

A character with seemingly no real purpose in the novel turns out to be the key

to unlocking the whole plot. This technique was very popular in Victorian

mystery. By using the elements of both melodrama and mystery fiction, Mary

Elizabeth Braddon was able to create her most famous work of her long lasted

career, Lady Audleys Secret. Her ability to construe a mystery and keep the

reader involved in her work shows the talent she had for writing. Mary Braddon

would not have been a popular Victorian novelist if she had not engaged in a

certain amount of sentimentality (melodrama) in her fiction (Peterson, 165-166).

Her choice of the mystery made her famous and revered by many of her colleagues.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to her once that he wished his days to be bound

each to each by Miss Braddons novels, and Tennyson declared that he was

simply steeped in Miss Braddon (Peterson, 161). By exploring the elements

of both melodrama and mystery, it becomes clear that Lady Audleys Secret fits

into both. Using these genres, Braddon was able to create a successful novel of

her time that incorporated both reader emotion and Victorian culture.


Bernstein, Susan David. (1997). Confessional Subjects: revelations of gender

and power in Victorian literature and culture. Chapel Hill: University of North

Carolina Press. Horsman, Alan. (1990). The Victorian Novel. Oxford: Clarendon

Press. Kalikoff, Beth. (1986). Murder and Moral Decay in Victorian Literature.

Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. Manse, HL. Sensation Novels. Quarterly

Review, April 1863, Volume 113, Number 226, 482-514. Microsoft Encarta

Encyclopedia 98 (1998). [Computer program]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation.

Peterson, Audrey. (1984). Victorian Masters of Mystery. New York: Frederick

Ungar Publishing Co. Reed, John R. (1975). Victorian Conventions. Athens, Ohio:

Ohio University Press.

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