As we get started with the RIP season, I thought I’d share a review of Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a strangely swirling tale that certainly meets the eery qualities required. In the novel, Lucy, a governess, marries Sir Michael Audley, a much wealthier man. It is their story. Simultaneously, Robert Audley reunites with an old friend, George, recently returned from Australia and looking for a happy homecoming with his wife. It is their story. And it is the marriage of these two stories that really sets off the mystery.
This is one of those books that is difficult to talk about for fear of revealing anything that will be more exciting if revealed by the text. Of course, the mystery itself is actually not much of a mystery in my opinion. I – and I think most readers – knew very early on what Lady Audley’s secret is. Sort of like Victoria’s secret, Lady Audley’s is not exactly well hidden.
What is so intriguing about this tale is not the mystery, it’s watching Robert decide if he wants to actually solve it and it’s contemplating Lady Audley’s actual culpability and motivation. Despite the relative obviousness of the text’s twists, the novel remains suspenseful throughout, and I was flipping the pages as fast as I could without losing the intricacies of the plot.
The novel brings up very powerful points regarding womanhood in the Victorian Age and specifically the role of a wife and mother – the two roles a woman was encouraged (required?) to strive for and succeed at according to a strict set of guidelines and traditions. Still, this is a sensational novel, not a realist one, and any social commentary is secondary to the spectacle which is the focus. A thinking reader can see the difficulty of Lucy’s position and pontificate on what Victorians called “The Woman Question“. The problem of direct social commentary on the role of women is complicated by Braddon’s – and many other author’s – contrary desires: to say something important and to have a bestseller, an issue I may actually tackle in a future post.
Of course any discussion of the novel would be remiss without pointing out the amazingly obvious, in my opinion, homosexual undertones in the relationship between Robert and George. An even more controversial issue than The Woman Question, homosexuality, or at least homosocial desire, abounded in Victorian literature, and yet it was a subtle inclusion, a suggestion, a coded language even. Perhaps a Victorian can read the novel and see a simple friendship, but many a modern reader sees much, much more in the relationship between Robert and George.
Ultimately, this is a riveting tale that is both a landmark novel in Victorian and sensationalist literature and also simply good read, so I recommend giving it a go if you haven’t already.
If you are looking for an RIP book, I highly recommend this one.