Saturday 21 January 2012

Mad Wife With a Hidden Past

The cover  of  an edition
 published in 1900.

Murder, madness, bigamy, false identity, a fake death and a missing man... the events in Victorian shocker Lady Audley’s Secret, could just as easily be found on the front page of a modern tabloid paper. Throw in love, money, arson, blackmail, ambition, greed and hidden secrets and you’ve got a read that’s as riveting today as when it was first published.

Written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in1862, this ‘sensation’ novel tells how widower Sir Michael Audley falls head over heels in love with beautiful governess Lucy Graham, marries her, and takes her back to Audley Court, where she wins the affection of everyone – except Sir Michael’s daughter Alicia, and Alicia’s dog. Meanwhile George Talboys, who made a fortune when he struck gold in Australia, returns home after three years  to discover his wife has died days before his arrival in England.  He visits his young son and his feckless father-in-law, then moves in with old friend Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Michael…

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
You begin to see where this might be leading, and suspicions are confirmed when the two men plan a trip to Audley Court, but find Lady Audley strangely reluctant to meet George. During her absence they break into her suite of rooms, where George is disturbed by her portrait. Then  he disappears without trace and Robert, an indolent barrister who spends his time smoking and reading novels, rouses himself to find out what has happened, and discover the truth about Lady Audley.

Running alongside that is another plot line, for the secret has already been uncovered by Lady Audley’s maid and her boyfriend, and the couple, as anxious to improve their lot as Lady Audley herself, resort to blackmail in an effort to finance a better lifestyle.

The plot may be predictable, but it really is gripping and there’s a psychological battle of wills between Robert and Lady Audley, so you keep reading to see who wins, and even when you think she has confessed all there’s a final, untold secret that must be revealed. There are similarities with Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, but I can also see parallels with Lady Dedlock in Dickens’ Bleak House – she’s another woman with a past who has used her beauty to snare a man, gaining wealth and social standing in the process.

Lady Audley is one of those curiously amoral anti-heroines who bid to control their own destiny in age when women were expected to be submissive and passive. She may not be very likeable but, like Becky Sharp, or Lizzie Eustace, she seizes the chances that come her way, and uses her intellect and looks to try and better herself. Personally, I think she’s had a rough deal. She’s had a terrible childhood, and when she marries George he takes off to make his fortune, never giving a thought to how she will manage without him. He doesn’t even have the courage to tell her: instead, he writes a letter and disappears, expecting her to still be waiting when he finally returns.  With no income, and no obvious means of earning a living, she’s left to care for their baby son and her alcoholic father at a time when she’s obviously unstable (presumably suffering from post natal depression).

Holloway Sanatorium, at Virginia Water, near Egham where I grew up, looks more cheerful than the grim institution where Lady Audley was locked away. This 'insane asylum' was built by Thomas Holloway with cash from his patent pills empire. Talks on the project were held in 1864, but work didn't start until 1873 and was completed in 1885. Today it's a luxury homes complex.
I know that doesn’t excuse her behaviour, but it does raise all kinds of questions about gender, class, mental illness, culpability, and the issue of ‘nature or nurture’. How far are we responsible for our own actions – and how do these actions affect others? Lady Audley may be the perpetrator of unspeakable crimes, but is she to blame, or she is she a victim? Does her ‘tainted’ blood determine who she is? Or is the person she becomes shaped by the things that happen to her? 

And where is George in all this? Why does no-one blame him for running off to seek his fortune rather than staying at home to face his responsibilities? He’s treated as the innocent dupe of a false, treacherous woman, but it’s his heartless, thoughtless behaviour which precipitates disaster.
A patient at Holloway Sanatorium. Would Lady Audley's room
have been  similar? (
The story races along at a nice pace, but seems to stumble at the end, which I thought was rushed and weak. When the truth is told, Lady Audley, whose unfeminine behavior has threatened the stability of home and society, is diagnosed as mad, shipped off to Belgium and entombed in a secure institution, where she promptly fades away and dies. Everyone else, of course, lives happily ever after. I’m all for happy endings, but this one seemed a little anodyne. Having said that, I really enjoyed the novel, so many thanks to Karen at for choosing as this as one of her book group reads.


  1. I completely agree with you about the ending of this novel, I found it very weak indeed; I'd rather it had just said "and they all lived happlily ever after" but I'd much rather they hadn't!

    1. That was exactly how I felt! Usually I like happy endings, but not at the expense of the integrity of the story.

  2. I think the book might stand a forensic re-read, just to examine the evidence against Lady A., and as you so rightly say, the mitigating factors. It's certainly rich material.

    1. I know she was a gold-digger, and only married George because she thought he had enough money to give her a comfortable life, but a man who acted as she did would have been viewed differently. What about Edward Rochester, regarded as a hero, but he married for money, locked his'mad'wife in the 'attic', abandoned a string of mistresses, fought a love rival, and was quite prepared to marry Jane while his first wife was still alive!

  3. This is one of my favourite sensation novels. Lady A certainly had a lot to put up with but the original readers would have found few mitigating factors in her favour. I think that's one of the joys of reading 19th century fiction today - trying to imagine the reactions of the original readers as well as being able to look at the book with modern eyes.

  4. Lyn, I agree with you - but their reaction still makes me cross!

  5. I agree 100%. Also, Helen's father drinks up all the money she makes in piano lessons and she becomes so overwhelmed that she deserts her son and father. In her confession she said that she never loved the baby--then why did she keep a lock of his hair, why did she visit him and watch him sleep. Why isn't Robert furious that Luke Marks hid the truth so he could blackmail Lady Audley and drive Robert crazy? No nothing is made of this either because Luke is dying of a broken heart(?) ha he has none. Robert is disgusted with the women especially Lucy's former co-workers who inform on her and gleeful in about her incoming troubles. So Lucy is disgusting because she married for money ? Women and men married for money please!
    Lady Audley was the most interesting person in the novel. I would happily push all the others down the well except for little George.

  6. Jane, thank you,I'm glad someone agrees with me!

    1. Lots of us do! I certainly was not on George's side and I didn't like that besotted fool Sir Michael Audley very much either (look at the way he treats Alicia).