‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
My co-blogger Kate recommended Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon to me many, many years ago and, while I did buy a nice copy back in 2012, it mostly sat on my shelf looking pretty and collecting dust. It was on the list to be read during my last spring reading spree in 2014 and, for my second, I was determined to actually read it.
Lady Audley’s Secret has a lot to recommend it, in my view: it’s a Victorian suspense novel along the lines of Wilkie Collins, but written by a woman and featuring numerous, and distinct, female characters. And author Braddon herself is an interesting historical figure. Like George Eliot, Braddon had an unconventional personal life, although hers would, appropriately enough, not be out of place in one of her own novels: the wife of her publisher (and future husband) was locked away in an insane asylum, so, when Braddon and the publisher fell in love, the pair ignored the insane wife, moved in together, and proceeded to act as though they were married. (All their servants quit in protest at such flagrant moral depravity.) Meanwhile, Braddon continued to write and her would-be-husband (they did later marry, after his wife died) happily published her popular novels.
You have to figure with a biography like that, Mary Elizabeth Braddon probably knows her way around a gothic suspense novel.
And she doesn’t disappoint! Lady Audley’s Secret is a wild ride of a narrative with all the frequent twists, betrayals, secret histories, and love affairs that you’d hope for in the genre. Braddon does her precursor Ann Radcliffe proud in this one , although there is not a single nefarious “foreign” person. Instead, Braddon invents something new for her time: a conniving villainess. Most novels at the time featured male antagonists and Braddon’s was one of the first to turn that stereotype on its head to suggest that women might be capable of villainy, too. Further, Braddon uses the opportunity to comment on the limited choices then-available to women, providing a surprisingly faceted origin story for the secretive Lady Audley and justification for the villainess’ actions.
Braddon’s interest in the contemporary plight of women is further illustrated by the rest of the female cast, all of whom are in some way constrained or limited in their choices and must make sacrifices to gain some measure of independence.
There’s the tomboyish daughter of Lord Audley who is kept at their rural home and given the choice between seducing her ambivalent cousin into marriage or accepting the proposal of an idiotic local lord.
There’s Lady Audley’s maid who must marry her brutish cousin to move up in the world.
And there’s one of the characters’ sister who is practically imprisoned by her unfeeling father. (She, at least, says that she intends to leave when she gains her majority and inherits some money that will allow her to live independently. Of course, she also ends up married by the end of the book, so…)
On the whole, it was an enjoyable read with some really interesting history and social commentary lurking just below the surface. If you like Wilkie Collins, you will love Lady Audley’s Secret. And, if you couldn’t care less about Wilkie Collins, you might probably enjoy the Eliotesque social commentary/proto-feminism. Either way, I’d recommend this for a windy, spooky night in.
Next up on my spring reading spree is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. It’s quite hefty, so you might not hear from me for a few weeks!