Lady Audley’s Secret (Mary Elizabeth Braddon)

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Another Try Books! book, and one chosen by Judy’s daughter Jessica, who turned out to be doing a Ph. D. on Victorian novels (though not this one).

To start with, I was very despondent.

At the beginning of the book, Braddon describes a large house in the country in such a way that I couldn’t visualise it at all.  There was one room going off on a tangent from another–how?–a tangent touches  a curve in one point.  I think she meant the walls weren’t at right-angles.  Then there were the dreamy melodies of Beethoven and Mendelssohn–with the single exception of the Moonlight Sonata that’s hard to fit to Beethoven–presumably she was thinking if anything of that and Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Then we had the plop of the trout in the fish-pond.  Trout live in running waterCarp live in fish-ponds.

I had also gathered from the rather good introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition that this was going to be a book where the action flowed from the demands of an elaborate and artificial plot, not from the characters themselves.

But I thought it would be impolite not to make an effort for our visitor, so I adjusted my expectations and soldiered on.

Once I’d done that, the experience was enjoyable.

Wikipedia has a plot summary and some other interesting information about the book here and an article about ME  Braddon here.

I think the thing that makes the book interesting is that Lady Audley undergoes very much the same experiences as her creator–broken family, people going off abroad, being left to fend for oneself from an early age, de facto bigamy, a wife put in madhouse, dreadful secrets that must be hidden from the world–but they appear in a different pattern, the way that things do in a dream.  The interest comes from the tension between what MEB probably wanted to write and what the strictly moralistic book market of her time would allow.  Or to put the same point another way:  ME Braddon’s attitude to Lady  A is conflicted–she can’t find a way of making her safe–which means the book is more than a collection of stereotypes.

The book did have the vigour and breadth we associate with Victorian novels–Robert Audley gets on the train and goes somewhere and questions  different people from different social classes and you felt this was the kind of thing the author had lived, not just sat in a study with a neurasthenic imagination for company.  As Stephanie pointed out, the corollary was that sex was unfortunately absent–strangely so in the story of an adventuress making her way by her feminine wiles.

Maybe that was why Lady Audley–a 20 year old woman–is represented as being unable to walk the three miles there and back to arsonise Castle Inn. She cannot have a real  body at all,  so as not to imperil the morals of a mass audience.

We were scandalised by the author’s description of her as stupid when she’d brought to fruition a number of ingenious plots and managed to deceive all around her.  (The only stupid thing she did was not to go armed when Robert Audley was preaching at her and get rid of the useless bastard.)  Of course, she did GO MAD IN CAPITAL LETTERS towards the end, but that was just Braddon looking for the way  to put her back in the box.

There were issues of continuity throughout the book, caused by it having been written in a tearing hurry for serial publication.  She couldn’t make up her mind whether Lady Audley’s father was a Lieutenant or a Captain, and I’m sure he changed from being an army officer to a naval one in the course of the book.  Then there were the words she used like lymphatic that she didn’t know the meaning of.  Phoebe Marks was Phoebe Marks before and after marriage, but that could just have been your normal rural inbreeding.  I thought that Robert Audley and George Talboys had been together at Eton because it was the only school ME Braddon had heard of, but Jessica said it was more likely the only school the  readers had heard of .

I hope you can take the happy ending for the good and punishment for the wicked–‘I have to say this but you don’t have to believe it’.

Robert Audley ends up marrying George’s sister Clara, seemingly on the grounds that she looks like George, as well as having internalised patriarchal values in obeying her father and devoting herself to finding her brother.  At least that lends a pleasingly homoerotic tinge to the Teddington menage-a-trois at the end.

I was disappointed nobody complained about  the heroine being condemned for abandoning her son when she makes complicated arrangements for having him looked after while good guy Robert Audley merely has to give him dinner, take him down the road and put him in a school!

We were entirely supportive of Lady A and her decision to sell her fanny in the best market she could find–what was she supposed to do, starve?  Any guilt lay with George Talboys (who abandoned her) and Sir Michael Audley (who married a woman more than thirty years his junior–put him on the Sex Offenders’ Register is what I say).  If only she’d carried a concealed weapon and made away with Robert Audley during one of his interminable preachy addresses to her…

Jessica  helpfully explained that this book started off the Novel of Sensation, so called because the genre was so exciting it caused uncontrollable physical reaction in the readers; and that it was thought alarming because mistresses and their maids ended up reading and enjoying the same books.

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