Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Edition: Lady Audley's Secret (Oxford World's Classics)
Lady Audley's Secret started as a monthly serial in the Robin Goodfellow magazine in July 1861, but the magazine itself ceased in September of that year. The serial was picked up again in Sixpenny Magazine from January to December 1862. There was also a great demand for the book publication afterwards.

Braddon completed this novel alongside another one, Aurora Floyd, which she began during Audley's hiatus. This was generally a very prolific yet strained time for Braddon, but these two novels would establish her alongside Wilkie Collins as one of the leading figures of sensation fiction, a popular genre of the 1860s and 1870s which often drew its subject matter from everyday crime headlines (bigamy, adultery, and illegitimacy were particularly popular subjects of sensation fiction). Contemporaries characterized sensation fiction as being much more plot-driven rather than character driven, and potentially indicative of declining reader tastes as a mass market for literature continued to grow. Recent scholarship has begun to draw closer ties between sensation fiction and the dominant genre of realism.

The novel opens with a lengthy description of Audley Court, the residence of fifty-six year old baronet Sir Michael Audley and his daughter Alicia. Audley Court is described as a "glorious old place," nestled within a hollow and surrounded by overgrown gardens and broken ruins. Sir Michael has just married the young Lucy Graham, a beautiful governess of mysterious origins, having come to town to teach the surgeon's (Dr. Dawson's) children. Lady Audley wears a black ribbon around her neck in which she has enwrapped a ring. The next chapter skips to on board the Argus, a ship returning from Sydney to Liverpool. One George Talboys, a former dragoon member tells a fellow passenger that he is returning home after three and a half years: not being able to support his young wife and child, he had left to dig for gold in Australia. As they reach the shore, he begins to fear that his wife may be no longer around. Meanwhile, back at Audley's Court, further clues that Lady Audley has a secret are revealed to the reader: Phoebe, Lady Audley's handmaid, finds a baby's shoe with hair in it.

In London, George Talboys seeks out his Eton buddy, Robert Audley, nephew to Sir Michael Audley. Robert Audley is a lazy but good-natured barrister. With the help of Robert, George receives the news that his wife is dead. Crushed, he goes on a trip with Robert to St. Petersburg. A year later, the two men go to visit Audley Court together. Due to some reason or another, Lady Audley seems never present when George is around so he doesn't meet her. George, however, does get to view a portrait of Lady Audley and he seems transfixed. Alicia and Robert also discuss some kind of sinister power in the portrait: "We have never seen her look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could," Alicia remarks. Sir Michael and Lady Audley return, ostensibly having been called away to visit her old principal, Mrs. Vincent, who has been sick. A storm hits Audley Court, and George once again does not meet Lady Audley. The next day, when the storm has cleared, Robert and George go out fishing, and after waking from a nap, Robert realizes that George has disappeared. Back at the house, George notices a strange mark on Lady Audley's wrist which resembles finger marks. She makes up an excuse that these marks were caused by her tying a ribbon too closely. Seeking George, Robert goes to Southampton to visit George's father-in-law and his little son. The father-in-law tells him that George has gone back to Australia, but Robert finds a partially burned mysterious telegraph which reads: "alboys came to ----- last night, and left by the mail for London, on his way for Liverpool, whence he was to sail for Sydney." Robert begins to be afraid that something sinister has happened to George, and starts to write down his observations, becoming a sort of detective-character.

A scene between Lady Audley, Phoebe, and her lover Luke reveal that Phoebe has apparently revealed her lady's "secret" to Luke. Luke tries to extort more money from her in order that he and Phoebe may marry and he may set up a public house. A couple of months after George's disappearance, Robert speaks to Lady Audley about George and becomes more and more suspicious of her connection to his disappearance. Under her influence, Sir Michael turns Robert out of Audley Court, and from there, he goes to visit Phoebe and Luke at their new property, Castle Inn. Lady Audley follows him to Castle Inn, and after hearing him talk about how he has George's letters from his wife, Lady Audley hurries to London, ostensibly because she has distinctive handwriting--by now, the reader is to share in Robert's suspicions that Lady Audley might have been formerly Helen Talboys. Meanwhile, Alicia rejects a marriage proposal from the fox-hunting baronet Sir Harry, being in love with Robert. Back in London, Robert discovers Helen's writing in an annual possessed by George, Robert's shock suggests that he has connected Helen and Lady Audley. The letters are gone, however; it seems that Lady Audley has sent a blacksmith to steal them before Robert arrived. Robert goes again to visit little Georgey and George's father-in-law, offering to take Georgey to school. He presents the evidence before Helen's father and suggests that George might be dead; Helen's father seems genuinely shocked to hear that George might be dead. Robert's next step is to visit Harcourt Talboys, George's stone-hearted and estranged father--Harcourt refuses to offer any help, having written off George for marrying the poor Helen. Clara, George's sister, runs after Robert and pleads with him to investigate George's disappearance and to avenge his death if he were in fact death. Robert falls in love with Clara.

After a time, Alicia writes to Robert to inform him that Sir Michael is ill. Robert goes back to Audley Court, where he has a chance to ask the surgeon, Dawson, for more information concerning Lucy's past. Through information given by Dawson, Robert tracks down Mrs. Vincent, and a box which has some labels on it (later it is revealed that the box had both the labels "Lucy Graham" and "Helen Talboys"). Following Mrs. Vincent's directives, Robert goes to Wildernsea, the place where George and Helen supposedly met. There, he learns that after George's desertion to Australia, Mr. Talboys ran many debts and Helen became quite depressed. Robert also comes across some letters which indicate when Helen departed from Wildernsea--these dates correspond with Lucy Graham's arrival at Mrs. Vincent's. Specifically, Helen had written a distraught letter to her father, telling him that she needed to run away, and to forgive her because he knew her "secret." Back at Audley Court, Robert encounters Lady Audley and pressures her to confess but she instead ups the challenge by telling Sir Michael that she believes Robert to be mad and monomaniacal after his friend's disappearance. Phoebe asks Lady Audley for help regarding hers and Luke's rental payments. It seems that their marriage is not going so well; Luke drinks, and has not been good to Phoebe.

Lady Audley decides to accompany Phoebe back to her home and pay the money in person. Lady Audley, knowing Robert to be there too, sets fire to the house and leaves Robert and Luke sleeping there, taking Phoebe with her. Back at Audley Court, she is surprised to encounter Robert Audley the next evening--he has escaped from the house. He leads her into the library and again tells her to confess, laying before her the evidence. Lady Audley has been cornered and she says that she will confess. She tells Sir Michael about how her mother had been a madwoman, whom she was not acquainted with until the age of ten. She was surprised to find that her mother wasn't "mad" in any sort of lunatic way, and that she was rather beautiful, like herself, though did not recognize her husband and child. As Lady Audley grew older, she received much attention because of her beauty, and she thought that she could perhaps escape the fate of her mother. When George asked her to marry him, she believed that all would be well but it turned out that he too was poor. His desertion, though well-intentioned, was the last straw and it was then that she feared losing her mind, having a few violent episodes even. She left her father's home then to become Lucy Graham. At last, when she thought she had regained her stability through her marriage to Sir Michael, she discovered from the papers that George was coming back. Desperate, she and her father-in-law concocted a plan to advertise that she was dead, bribing a poor old woman whose daughter just died to enter her daughter's name as "Helen Talboys." This woman's daughter was who lay under the grave visited by George upon his return to England.

Sir Audley, in shock, leaves everything in Robert's care and departs from Audley Court with Alicia. Robert arranges for Lady Audley to go live at a French mental institution in Belgium. At first, the doctor which Robert calls does not think Lady Audley to be mad, but merely a poor woman driven to commit bigamy. The doctor comes around, however, when Robert reveals some of her more violent tendencies. Before Robert drops her off, she tells him that in a moment of desperation, because George had threatened to expose her lies, she had caused him to fall down a well. She waited by the well for a short period of time, but didn't hear anything. Robert assumes then, that George is in fact dead.

Back in town, Robert receives a letter from Clara letting him know that Luke, having been pulled out of the fire by Robert, wished to speak with him before he perished from his injuries. Robert has an interview with Luke, who reveals that George is alive: Luke had taken George in the night he had climbed out of the well. Luke has in his possession two letters: one to Helen, which forgave her and promised to leave her alone, and one to Robert, telling him that he was leaving England. Back at Dorsetshire, the home of Harcourt Talboys, Robert proposes to Clara and the two of them decide to go to Australia on their honeymoon to bring back George. It turns out that George was actually at Robert's place. He explains that he had gone for a while to New York, but had then decided on coming home. They all rejoice, and the narrator remarks on how he hopes that "no one will take objection to my story because the end of it leaves the good people all happy and at peace"--Robert marries Clara, and Alicia ends up accepting Sir Harry. Of course, such a statement only seems to make more unsatisfying the conclusion of the title character's life: Lady Audley dies within a year at the mental institution.
As Braddon's own contemporary audiences have noted, Lady Audley's Secret embodies sensation fiction's plot-driven structure: the delayed revelation of her "secret," her madness, drives both Robert's investigation and the plot. This is particularly suited to serial fiction in that each serial part might end with a new aspect of the mystery, hence holding reader interest until the next installment. Thus, other lesser "delayed revelations" occur throughout: who lies under the grave labeled "Helen Talboys," George actually being alive, for example.  

The plot driven on by revelations in sensation fiction, as with the related genre of detective fiction, ends with all of the links connected and circumstances fully explained. The "neatness" of this kind of ending which ties together all of these loose ends is undermined by the much less convincing "neatness" which the narrator tries to forge out what happens to each of the characters. The characters are, as it turns out, much too complicated to fit into the tidy moral universe which the narrator wishes to consign everyone to. The narrator's hope that the reader won't object to the "good people" being "happy and at peace" seems to come out of an anxiety that the reader would object; indeed, because of Braddon developing her characters as much more complicated than just good versus bad, the narrator's hope sounds pretty naive. 

Lady Audley herself is the most obviously complicated character. Though the narrative works hard to convince readers that she gets what she deserves, there are many moments that tend to work against this. When she tells Robert the story of loosening the iron piece so that George would fall down the well, it sounds hardly like cold-blooded murder or an insane move--George grabbed her wrist and threatened to expose her, and it could easily be imagined that he was rather harsh with her. Robert's account of Lady Audley as mad is questioned too, at first, by the Doctor with whom Robert speaks near the end of the novel: he points out that it sounds like she was just a poor woman rationally committing bigamy in order to win a better place in life. Despite the doctor's eventual agreement with Robert, in the moment where he disagrees with him, the reader accesses another perspective. 

Other characters who don't end up quite as well at the end of the novel are Luke, and to a lesser extent Alicia. The narrator (and Robert too) desires them to fit into a tidy scheme in which Luke, an unsavory, lower-class character exits after committing a final, repentant act, and in which Alicia, the good, respectable cousin, ends up realizing that she loves Sir Harry after all. The scene where Luke tells Robert of his taking George in, of course, is no such act of repentance: Luke makes a point to tell Robert that he doesn't like him, and Braddon even gives Luke the space to critique the way that the upper classes treat the lower classes: in brief, as scum easily dispatched with a coin thrown their way. Luke is one such "loose end" which glaringly remains untied at the end of the novel. Alicia is another, because she has loved Robert practically for her whole life; her many snarky remarks undermining Robert signal no small degree of psychological distress. Because the narrator follows Robert's thoughts most closely, the reader is forced, however, to hardly pay much attention to understanding Alicia's internal distress. Other characters notice, however--Sir Michael calls her his "poor girl." In the end, her sudden acceptance of Sir Harry can hardly be satisfying. Lady Audley's, Luke's, and Alicia's respective fates rather disturbingly suggest that individuals must either be banished from the neat moral universe constructed by upper class patriarchal Victorian society, or be subject to forced incorporation. 

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