Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, is a novel of many elements. It has been placed in many different style or genre categories since its publication. I feel that it best fits under the melodrama or sensational genre, and under the subgenre of mystery. It contains significant elements of both types of writing, so I feel it is best to recognize both, keeping in mind that melodrama is its main device and mystery is a type of Victorian melodrama. In order to understand how the story fits into these categories, it is necessary to explore the Victorian characteristics of each, and apply them to the text.
In addition to establishing the genres, it is important to explain why and how these genres fit into Victorian culture. The term melodrama has come to be applied to any play with romantic plot in which an author manipulates events to act on the emotions of the audience without regard for character development or logic (Microsoft Encarta). In order to classify as a Victorian melodrama, several key techniques must be used, including proximity and familiarity to the audience, deceit rather than vindictive malice, lack of character development and especially the role of social status.
The sensational novel is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is indeed one great element of sensation. A tale which aims to electrify the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid out in our own days and among the people we are in the habit of meeting. In keeping with mid-Victorian themes, Lady Audley’s Secret is closely connected to the street literature and newspaper accounts of real crimes. The crimes in Braddon’s novel are concealed and secret.
Like the crimes committed by respected doctors and trusted ladies, the crimes in Lady Audley’s Secret shock because of their unexpectedness. Crime in the melodrama of the fifties and sixties is chilling, because of the implication that dishonesty and violence surround innocent people. A veneer of virtue coats ambitious conniving at respectability. Lady Audley’s Secret concludes with a triumph of good over evil, but at the same time suggests unsettlingly that this victory occurs so satisfyingly only in melodramas (Kalikoff, 96). Everything that Lady Audley does seems calculated.
Unlike violent stories of the past in which a criminal kills for the sake of killing, Lady Audley is brilliant in her bigamy, her arson, and her “murder”. The nature of her crimes reflect a general fear of intimate and buried violence, suggesting a growing anxiety about being threatened from within. Her moves are calculated and planned. Murders and robberies spring from a specific social context, not from psychosis or vindictive malice (Kalikoff, 81). Murders in Victorian melodramas are often the result of elaborate plans to conceal identity, right a wrong or improve social status.
A reader of Lady Audley’s Secret might notice upon concluding the novel that he/she knows very little about the characters at hand. Instead of being fully developed into people who are easy to relate to, the characters in this novel are used more as symbols or pawns that are moved in order to bring attention to social or moral problems. This can best be seen in the character of Lady Audley. Lady Audley is not much of a person, rather she is nothing more than a representation of the threatening woman figure trying to make changes in a patriarchal world. Lady Audley evokes a fear of women’s independence and sexuality.
As a popular Victorian genre that trades on the power of the secret and frequently sexualized sins of its heroines, sensation fiction provides a resourceful perspective on the contradiction that frame these villainous victims who are simultaneously diseased, depraved, and socially and economically oppressed (Bernstein, 73). Lady Audley’s ability to control the men in her life makes her a devilish figure. When she attempts to convince Sir Michael that Robert is insane with no proof and just her innocent looks, she is portraying the fears of many people in Victorian society: a woman with power is dangerous.
In Lady Audley’s Secret, crimes logically emerge from an environment in which social status is valued above everything. Crimes committed to improving social status usually focus around a man or woman with a past. Married to a man three times her age, Lady Audley would raise anyone’s eyebrows, yet she successfully ensnares Sir Michael and very nearly achieves her ambitions. Who is safe when the most ruthless conniver insinuates herself into the aristocracy? (Kalikoff, 84). In Lady Audley’s Secret, aristocrats are not dangerous, those who intrude into higher social classes are.
Because she committed a social crime by marrying Sir Michael, Lady Audley is suspect from the start. Of particular offences in Victorian melodramas, the most popular tends to be bigamy. Many novels of the Victorian time hung their narrative on bigamy in act, bigamy in intention, or on the supposed existence of two wives to the same husband, or two husbands to the same wife. Indeed, so popular has this crime become, as to give rise to an entire sub-class of this branch of literature, which may be distinguished as that of Bigamy Novels (Manse, 6).
Lady Audley’s cunning bigamy and eventual murder represent the mid-Victorian fear of a wicked woman whose manipulative sexuality allows her to pursue dreams of wealth, social status, and power (Kalikoff, 84). With the aspects of melodrama in mind, it is now possible to explore the book’s role as a mystery. Like their predecessors in the thirties and forties, mid-Victorian melodramas on crime found large and devoted followers. It has been remarked that the Victorian style of murder mystery originated in a book called The Woman In White, by Wilkie Collins.
Collin’s tale is about a daughter who is bound to marry a man her father has chosen for her on his death bed, and the investigation by her half sister and a man named Walter Hartright into her mysterious death (Peterson, 41). Braddon’s novel mimics several of the key devices and themes used in Collins’ tale, like making the hero the sleuth who solves the underlying mystery, rather than using a professional detective and including the idea of madness and/or its connection to insane asylums. Another more famous author that preceded Braddon in writing mysteries was Charles Dickens.
In his novel Bleak House, Dickens uses a mansion, a baronet doing on a wife of unknown antecedents, the wife’s exhaustion when anything reminded her of that earlier history, and the grave warning she received from the lawyer who had investigated it to contrive a suspenseful plot (Horsman, 217). These concepts are mirrored in Braddon’s tale as Audley Court, Sir Michael’s uncertainty when he first proposed to Lucy about her past, Lady Audley’s attempts to avoid any talk of her past, and of course, Robert’s grave warning to Lady Audley that he was on to her scheme.
In Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Braddon took to the new form like a duck to water. Using these two works as example, Braddon evolved the mystery and created what is her best selling work ever, Lady Audley’s Secret. Mary Braddon first produced Lady Audley’s Secret with the sole intention of helping John Maxwell launch a new magazine. Since this failed after only twelve issues, she sent it to another journal to be published a few months later (Peterson, 159). Noticing the recognition that Collins was getting for her work, Braddon aimed her novel for the market Collins had created.
Although many people read and enjoyed the sensational style of writing, not everyone felt that way. As a sensation novelist, Braddon was often criticized by people who felt stories of crime were immoral and tainted. Critics also attacked her because they felt that “an authoress of originality and merit ought to aspire to higher things” (Peterson, 160). Murder mysteries, like melodramas, have specific characteristics that are necessary to keep them true to form. These characteristics include coincidence, return, disguise, madness and buried information.
Popular in most Victorian mysteries, Lady Audley’s Secret, especially uses these techniques in unfolding its plot. One element that is used in Victorian mysteries is coincidence. Nineteenth century writers commonly introduced the most improbable coincidences into their narratives. This was especially popular in Victorian sensational novels. In Lady Audley’s Secret, it is coincidental that George Talboys knew Robert Audley, and meets him immediately upon his return from a long overseas absence, and that it is to Audley’s own uncle that Talboy’s missing wife is married (Reed, 130).
Then, Robert brings George to his uncle’s estate which creates the opportunity for George to meet his wife, Helen. The whole story, in short, is based on coincidence. It is also quite a coincidence that Luke, the innkeeper, happened to find George after he managed to climb out of the well. It was convenient that one of the main characters of the story had had the answers to the mystery all along. These coincidences begin the entire mystery that unfolds. Another technique found in mysteries that Braddon uses is the Return.
The device of the return was an excellent method for evoking reader sentiment, but equally important, it had sufficient energy to convey a moral. Invented as early back as the Odyssey, the return changed over time. During the Romantic period, the hero would retreat to nature in order to make sense of his life before returning to challenge civilized society once more (Reed, 216). Victorian writers often used the return as a traditional plot convenience. Something more is concerned in Braddon’s novel though.
The novel begins with George Talboys returning from a long journey in search of fortune. He is impatient to reunite with the wife he left many years ago. The expectation is clear: the husband returns, reunites with his wife, his joy should be great. Not so. Instead, he learns that his wife has recently died. Hence, the reader’s emotions are wrung. This is an element that is important to both the mystery and the melodramatic aspects of Lady Audley’s Secret. Another device used by Braddon is the disguise. Disguise involves the question of identity, a main theme in much of literature.
One example of disguise used in Braddon’s novel is the change Helen Talboys made when she took on the identities of Lucy Graham and subsequently, Lady Audley. This disguise leads Robert on to unravel the mystery of his missing friend (Reed, 294). What do people generally do when they wish to begin a new existence – to start for a second time in the race of life, free from the encumbrances that had fettered their first journey. They change their names, Lady Audley. (ch. 29) When Robert and George come upon Sir Michael and Lady Audley in their carriage, Lady Audley turns away, never to face the two men.
She fears recognition by George. While reflecting on her means of avoiding detection, Lady Audley is interrupted by the approach of another person. She quickly seizes a book to appear occupied (Reed, 294). The narrator then observes what an actress Lady Audley has become due to her fatal necessities for concealment. In much of mid-Victorian literature, the subject of madness is used quite frequently, with little attention paid to its serious nature. A passage from Lady Audley’s Secret indicates how glibly the subject of confinement for insanity could be tossed about.
When Robert Audley openly challenges Lady Audley with deceiving her husband about her past, she responds by threatening to charge him with madness. The fact that such a threat could be seriously entertained shows how far fiction had gone to accept the contemporary social concern about the mismanagement of the laws dealing with the insane (Reed, 205). Another part of the book that deals with madness occurs towards the end. Before Robert Audley sends Helen Talboys to a mental hospital as a “punishment”, he has a psychiatrist take a look at her to determine her level of sanity.
The doctor replies that she is not insane, but he will put her away for convenience sake and in case she becomes mad in the near future. The fact that the concept of madness was tossed around with no consequence made for a good mystery novel, in that people feared that things like that could happen to them, since the laws governing mental hospitals were so weak at the time. A very vital part of the plot of Lady Audley’s Secret is developed through a technique called “buried information”. The term “buried information” may be used to describe a device which has become standard in the classic detective story.
A vital clue is “buried” in what appears to be the idle talk of an non-essential character (Peterson, 45). This device was used through the character Luke. He was the person holding the missing piece of the puzzle. Although he was not a “main” character, per say, he was definitely an important one. Luke is the only person in the novel with the real truth to the mystery of George Talboys disappearance. A character with seemingly no real purpose in the novel turns out to be the key to unlocking the whole plot.
This technique was very popular in Victorian mystery. By using the elements of both melodrama and mystery fiction, Mary Elizabeth Braddon was able to create her most famous work of her long lasted career, Lady Audley’s Secret. Her ability to construe a mystery and keep the reader involved in her work shows the talent she had for writing. Mary Braddon would not have been a popular Victorian novelist if she had not engaged in a certain amount of sentimentality (melodrama) in her fiction (Peterson, 165-166).
Her choice of the mystery made her famous and revered by many of her colleagues. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to her once that he wished his “days to be bound each to each by Miss Braddon’s novels”, and Tennyson declared that he was “simply steeped in Miss Braddon” (Peterson, 161). By exploring the elements of both melodrama and mystery, it becomes clear that Lady Audley’s Secret fits into both. Using these genres, Braddon was able to create a successful novel of her time that incorporated both reader emotion and Victorian culture.