From Norman Donaldson’s introduction to my copy of Lady Audley’s Secret:
Thackeray once walked to the local railroad station three times in a single day to enquire whether his copy of [her] Braddon’s novel had arrived. Tennyson declared himself “steeped in Miss Braddon” and engaged in reading every word she had ever written. R.L. Stevenson wrote to her from Samoa that “it is something to be greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and that you have attained.”
High praise indeed.
In my last post, I wrote a little about M.E. Braddon. After finishing Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), which I loved, if you can’t already tell, I wondered how much the author’s background as an actress contributed to her novel. Yes it’s a Victorian Sensation novel and occasionally melodramatic, but it also has a stage-quality to it; in other words it’s ripe for adaptation. This is an incredibly well-plotted book, and at its heart, its very dark heart, is a mystery connected by two seemingly separate story threads.
Sir Michael Audley, a 55-year-old widower and the father of an only child, 18-year-old Alicia, meets and unexpectedly falls deeply in love with Lucy Graham, an orphan with no family, a governess for the children of the local surgeon. With her angelic looks, blonde curls and soft “melting” blue eyes, there’s something fey about Lucy Graham; she’s a veritable enchantress:
Wherever she went she seemed to take joy and brightness with her. In the cottages of the poor her fair face shone like a sunbeam. She would sit for a quarter of an hour talking to some old woman, and apparently as pleased with the admiration of a toothless crone as if she had been listening to the compliments of a marquis; and when she tripped away, leaving nothing behind her (for her poor salary gave no scope to her benevolence), this old woman would burst into senile raptures with her grace, beauty, and her kindliness, such as she never bestowed upon the vicar’s wife, who half fed and clothed her.
That passage gives an indication of the charm that Lucy Graham possesses and the spell she weaves on some people. Sir Michael Audley considers his first marriage to his long-dead wife a “dull jog-trot bargain made to keep some estate in the family.” This time, he wants to marry for love, but he goes ahead with the marriage knowing that Lucy does not love him and accepts his proposal due to his wealth and position. Not all people, however, are won over by Lucy. Alicia Audley can’t stand Lucy Graham, but then perhaps she’s prejudiced and disgruntled by being displaced in her father’s affections and in the household. Then again, Alicia’s Newfoundland dog, Caesar, growls at Lucy in spite of her efforts to befriend him. As for Lucy Graham, or Lady Audley as she becomes, she’s very child-like, given to pouts, giddiness, headaches but more than anything else, she is indulged by her new husband who gives her everything she wants. Overall, to outsiders, the marriage seems successful.
The other story thread concerns 25-year-old George Talboys who abandoned his wife and child in England and sailed to Australia to make his fortune. Gone 31/2 years, he returns to England a rich man only to discover that his wife is dead. Talboys reconnects with a school friend, Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Audley, the cousin, then, of Alicia. Robert Audley, who is the moral centre of this wonderful story, is my favourite character in the book. When the novel begins, he’s a wastrel. He’s “supposed to be a barrister,” but “he had never either had a brief, or tried to get a brief, or even wished to have a brief in all those five years, during which his name had been painted upon one of the doors in Figtree Court.” He lives on 400 pounds a year, maintains a small household with one faithful servant and is a thoroughly “lazy, care-for-nothing fellow.” Almost against his will, and certainly against his nature, Robert Audley assumes the role of an amateur detective of sorts as he becomes involved in the mystery surrounding George Talboys and his wife. He’d rather just ignore the mystery and return to his lazy ways but it becomes a matter of conscience and morality, and even Robert cannot ignore that. He’s a marvelous character, and we see his growth as a human being as the novel continues. Initially it almost takes a crowbar to gouge him out of his comfortable, undemanding little life and take action, but take action he does. Once faced with the moral dilemma of whether he should seek the truth or turn away, he’s persistent and not to be swayed from his mission to discover the truth even though he’s all too aware that he may seriously wreck the lives of other people he cares about.
Lady Audley’s Secret is partly about compulsions–the things that drive us. Robert Audley, for example, gets to the point that he feels he cannot control the compulsion to discover the truth. When the book begins, he’s a very happy man, but he loses that peace of mind. He asks himself if he’s “tied to a wheel” turning “with its every revolution.” But he’s not the only character to be driven by a compulsion. Sir Michael Audley, who can’t help himself, marries Lucy against his better judgement, and then there’s George Talboys, driven by compulsion to abandon his wife and child and set sail to Australia. That brings me to Lady Lucy Audley, driven by compulsion in all her acts. Why? Well read the story to find out.
The title Lady Audley’s Secret seems to give a hint to the reader, and I thought I more or less knew the plot before opening the first page. While it’s easy to guess some of the plot before it rolls out, this does not alter the book’s intense, page-turning readability. Yes there’s a secret and but there are also multiple crimes to be revealed before the end of the novel. In other words, it’s the journey not the destination that grips the reader.
Here’s the beginning of the novel, heavy with description of Audley Court–a screen-play style opening, so cleverly constructed, that places the reader at the scene with its intense descriptions of a house in which all is not as it should be….
It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thoroughfare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business there at all.
At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand–and which jumped straight from one hour to the next–and was therefore always in extremes. Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.
A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county. To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss. To the left, there was a broad graveled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by godly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter.
While this tale of bigamy, madness, murder, blackmail scandalized and thrilled its Victorian readers, scratch the surface and there’s a poignancy to this tale regarding the fate of women whose careers are limited to the ignominy of becoming a governess or hoping for marriage–for better or worse, love or no love. For those out there who’ve read the novel, did anyone else feel sympathy for Lady Audley?