Essay, Research Paper: Lady Audley's Secret By Braddon

Literature: Charles Dickens

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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.

Bernstein, Susan David. (1997). Confessional Subjects: revelations of gender
and power in Victorian literature and culture. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press. Horsman, Alan. (1990). The Victorian Novel. Oxford: Clarendon
Press. Kalikoff, Beth. (1986). Murder and Moral Decay in Victorian Literature.
Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. Manse, HL. “Sensation Novels.” Quarterly
Review, April 1863, Volume 113, Number 226, 482-514. Microsoft Encarta
Encyclopedia 98 (1998). [Computer program]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation.
Peterson, Audrey. (1984). Victorian Masters of Mystery. New York: Frederick
Ungar Publishing Co. Reed, John R. (1975). Victorian Conventions. Athens, Ohio:
Ohio University Press.
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