Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon – Book Review

The second instalment of my Sex, Scandal and Sensation in Victorian Literature module is complete! I was delighted to see how similar Lady Audley’s Secret was to The Woman in White, as I could instantly create links between the two novels, argued by some to be the two precursors of sensation literature. Yet, unlike The Woman in White, this novel was more explicit from the start as we instantly know that the mystery will be surrounding the recently married Lady Audley. In this plot, we meet Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Michael Audley who has recently married the strikingly beautiful Lucy Graham. Robert has become reacquainted with his old friend George Talboys, who has returned from Australia to find that his wife Helen has passed. Upon their first visit to Audley Court, George mysteriously goes missing. Robert presumes him dead and his suspicions all point to the family’s newest addition, Lady Audley.

Although the plot was intriguing, it by no means had the depth of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I had the secret worked out pretty early on, as Braddon’s descriptions and clues held no subtlety whatsoever for me. There seemed a distinct lack of suspense as what I presumed of the big secret was proved pretty quickly and easily for my liking. There was attempts at building suspense, but they all fell pretty flat for me. But something about the book makes me question whether the secret itself is the point of the novel. The protagonist Robert Audley constantly muses about the female position in the novel, and how it surprises him that a woman character can be so deceptive. In an arguably misogynistic way, the shock for Robert is not the detail of the secret, but the fact that a dainty and unsuspecting woman manages to pull it off. How dare a mere female deceive a great man such as Sir Michael whilst disgracing the name of Audley! It wasn’t as much as a shock for me as we constantly have female antagonists in novels nowadays but I guess the typical Victorian woman would not be expected to act in a way such as this, which is what classes the novel as a sensationalist piece. However, it dwells so much on the gender issue in the novel that another part of me thinks that Braddon is emphasising this in the extreme, perhaps as a form of mockery of the male thought process. The only way she could top Wilkie Collins’ Count Fosco and Sir Percival persona was by making them female. It seemed the only way to make the scandal more scandalous, which may have worked on the Victorian readership, but didn’t really do it for me.

I felt that quickly working out the secret made the book feel longer than it was, the ample descriptions did seem to draw on slightly, which I forgave in The Woman in White as I knew that something big was about to happen. The aspect I did enjoy was the buildings and houses. Their descriptions were both well written and interesting. It made me question why Braddon would focus so much on making the setting so clear to the reader. I loved that Audley Court and The Castle Inn were given so much attention. They each reflected the events to come in their own way. Braddon really brought the settings to life and credited herself with descriptions and passages on what was going on as well as the events and interactions of the characters. So, despite the maybe slightly disappointing plot for me, the quality and elegance of the writing was a joy to read.

Overall, another very enjoyable book from this promising-looking module. I’m worried that maybe I’ve set the stakes too high after reading The Woman in White first, but in some ways that makes me more determined to find ones better than it. I’m glad to have got ahead of some of the novels due after Christmas, but now I need to focus on the upcoming modules: Witchcraft, Gender and Magic in Literature and Revenge. I will be working my way through my Witchcraft books first so expected many weird and wonderful books being reviewed over the next few weeks!

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