The Real Secret of Lady Audley’s Secret
by Kim Orsel (March 23rd 2006)
As an innovative and surprising mystery story Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret is not all that impressive; its plot structure in the novel is largely predictable, mainly due to the foreshadowing of the narrator to later events and revelations and the way the major characters are presented; when in the first couple of chapters Sir Michael Audley, Lucy Graham and George Talboys are introduced, it is not very difficult to speculate that they are not random people, and that they are connected in some way. Once George Talboys’s wife is reported to be dead mere days after his arrival after spending three years in Australia, when he has just met his old friend Robert Audley, who just happens to be Sir Michael’s nephew, it is really too much of a coincidence for it to be true, and together with Lucy Graham’s prominent part as the mysterious Lady Audley most readers guess soon enough that she is also Helen Talboys.
In Lady Audley’s Secret the detective is not in fact a proper detective but a non-practising barrister by the name of Robert Audley, who starts off investigating the sudden disappearance of his friend George Talboys, and is primarily driven by his developing suspicion that something dubious is going on and his uncle’s new wife knows more about it.
The problem with the real cleverness of Lady Audley’s Secret is that it is hidden beneath too many narrative layers to be immediate discernable. Its general tone makes a sense of ambiguity pervade it, and this ambiguity is difficult to fathom and interpret. The gist of the mystery plot is easily summed up: George Talboys leaves his wife and child to make a fortune in Australia after he is disinherited, and in the meanwhile his wife goes in search of a new rich husband and plans her own fictitious death when Talboys returns, and ultimately tries to bring about her first husband’s demise when he stumbles upon her unawares and so in her view threatens the life she has built for herself in his absence. When George Talboys disappears suddenly his friend Robert Audley begins to investigate the man’s past and finds there not everything adds up. He goes on to discover the secret identity of his aunt, Lady Audley, and ultimately extracts a confession from her, together with a confession of hereditary madness, after which she is packed away to a Belgian asylum, saving the family from being publicly humiliated by this revelation of Lady Audley’s bigamous actions.
It is partly this theme of moral madness and bigamy that has earned the novel its Sensation Novel tag, but this is merely the top layer. Looking beyond, Jill L. Matus argues that “the final focus on madness serves to displace the economic and class issues already raised in the novel and to deflect their uncomfortable implications.”¹ On the whole as a plot revelation it is rather disappointing, serving merely to bring the novel to an easy uncomplicated end, but the suggestion of those “uncomfortable implications” is what leads the insightful reader to further thought as to what else might be implicated and exist beneath the top layer of the narrative. It unveils the possibility of the novel’s ambiguity existing on more layers than just one. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s biographer Robert Wolff wrote that her writing of hidden satire was done “so skilfully that her readers need not see her doing it.”²
What are Lady Audley’s crimes? Clearly she is guilty of bigamy, and though she is not successful she does attempt to murder George Talboys as well as Robert Audley at different points in the novel, but all the same there is a sense of ambiguity to all this. One can wonder whether she has not been forced by events to do all these things. The hereditary madness that is the secret of the novel’s title is also interesting to consider. Once Robert Audley comes closer and closer to uncover her identity, and Lady Audley accuses him of madness it becomes clear different rulebooks apply for males and females in Victorian society; what in Robert Audley and his late father is called “eccentric”³ in Lady Audley, as it apparently was in her mother, and in her grandmother, it is termed “madness” (348) but never does anyone elaborate on any distinction between eccentricity and madness.
Arguably Helen Maldon married George Talboys for the same reason she marries Sir Michael: in the hope of securing her future financially. If so it is not entirely unsurprising that none of those ambitions are weakened after his departure. In fact, all her actions can be considered a chain reaction to the departure of her first husband. His departure, his leaving her without any assurance of his return or otherwise, his neglect of communicating with her at any point in the more than three years he is gone (for all she knows he is dead) forces her to seek elsewhere to earn a living in order to feed her family and raise them beyond. She seeks again to secure the future of her family and herself, after her husband fails to do so, and when his return endangers that same future.
Cannot every single one of her actions be explained as an attempt to protect her life as it is? Her main motive in that case is not malice, but protection of her social and financial security: whoever threatens to reveal her real identity and with it her past is considered dangerous. As the resilient woman her actions have shown her to be, it is not a surprise that her way to deal with this danger is logically not that of a fragile woman, despite her being described as “pretty and innocent.” (222) She is not mad, but desperate.
It is more likely that Helen Talboys is punished for taking her life in her own hands instead of depending on the uncertain outcome of her husband’s adventure in Australia, for violating social and class boundaries. She is punished for ‘misleading’ the Audley men, making them think they see something else than what she in reality is, and so making them look foolish. But in the guise of Lucy Graham she does warn Sir Michael about her past, even if she leaves out anything that might change his mind too drastically: “Poverty, poverty, trials, vexations, humiliations, deprivations! You cannot tell; you, who are amongst those for whom life is so smooth and easy; you can never guess what is endured by such as we.” (10) She is punished for taking on a masculine approach to matters; she is punished for mirroring her husband’s actions and moving beyond the social borders set for her as an underprivileged female and wife. All the while she is really to be the scapegoat for results that have essentially been caused by men: had her father been a better man he might have been able to give her a better life, so she would not have essentially been forced to marry for money, had Harcourt Talboys accepted the marriage of his son, George Talboys would not have left to make a fortune (or not) in Australia, and Sir Michael Audley would not have insisted on Lucy Graham/Helen Talboys’s marrying him.
If the story does anything, it presents perceptive readers with the position of women in nineteenth century society, and shows the many boundaries that threatened their livelihoods. There were no options for these women like there were options for the men of the same time period, no matter how dire their situation. Women had a certain role to fulfil which was considered to be mostly domestic and in that capacity, be it wife, daughter, or otherwise, ultimately subservient to a male figure. This is stressed by the fact that none of the women in the novel are truly independent: they all rely on a male for either their livelihood or their daily upkeep, or act in some way by a man’s orders. When this is not the case, they are made an example and punished.
The tomboyish Alicia Audley depends on her father, and even takes over the task of the lady of the house at some point after her mother’s death, until her father remarries. Lady Audley’s maid Phoebe Marks consents to marry a husband she knows or at least believes is violent: “I have thought that it is just such men as he who have decoyed their sweethearts into lonely places, and murdered them for being false to their word” (107), against Lady Audley’s council: “I tell you you sha'n't marry him, Phoebe. In the first place I hate the man; and, in the next place I can't afford to part with you. We'll give him a few pounds and send him about his business.” (108) Clara Talboys, remaining true to her brother against their father’s wishes, depends on her father, and is given far less freedom than Alicia is, creating further contrast in the characterisation of the novel’s better-off women.
The personal punishment of Lady Audley is to be treated as her mother was treated, which has been her greatest fear since she was ten years old: “I went away with the knowledge [...] that the only inheritance I had to expect from my mother was—insanity!” (350) But Braddon leaves us with the sense that her real punishment was that as a woman to be treated as a generalisation was sadly the norm, with no deviance of any kind to be permitted. The double standard ruled: men were allowed to be eccentric, where in women such abnormal characteristics were usually termed mad. Similarly, men could be criminals, but women were, again, simply termed mad and put away for the safety of their surroundings, usually for the remainder of their lives, with not even a court to give them a chance to defend themselves.
¹ Jill L. Matus, “Disclosure as 'Cover-up': The Discourse of Madness in Lady Audley's Secret”, University of Toronto Quarterly - Volume 62 Number 3 (Spring 1993)
² Robert Wolff, Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, New York: Garland, 1979, page 8
³ Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, Oxford: University Press, 1998, page 278. All further quotations from the novel will be taken from this edition with page numbers noted in parentheses after said quotation.