Love, which is a madness, and a scourge, and a fever, and a delusion, and a snare, is also a mystery, and very imperfectly understood by every one except the individual sufferer who writhes under its tortures.
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day – love, deception, conspiracy, blackmail, attempted murder, broken hearts and mad houses, melodrama and sensationalism – what more could you want! Widower Sir Michael Audley is captivated by the pretty, sweet and amiable governess, but beneath her big blue eyes and golden curls, the future Lady Audley guards more than just one secret that could shatter the idyllic peace of Audley Court.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) was quite a prolific writer of the nineteenth century, publishing 85 books over her lifetime. She lived a somewhat unconventional life, turning to writing after a brief stage career and living with publisher John Maxwell until they were able to marry in 1874. Braddon had a very early introduction to the limits imposed on women by a male-dominated society. Her parents separated when she was only five due to her father’s adultery and financial irresponsibility. This had a deep influence on her life and Lady Audley’s Secret certainly demonstrates Braddon’s frustration and cynicism about a society that keeps women socially, financially and legally powerless.
Lady Audley’s Secret exposes the bind in which women found themselves. Lady Audley didn’t have the best start in life. Unlike the Audleys, she knows the reality of poverty. As a girl, she learned that her “ultimate fate in life depended upon (her) marriage.” The only asset she has is her beauty, and as we all know, that doesn’t last forever. She also has to contend with the gender stereotypes of the time, that says a woman must be gentle, passive and weak. Therefore, she needs to be skilful if she wishes to avoid poverty and improve her social and economic position. While men like Sir Michael may be easily captivated by a sweet voice and fluttering eyelashes, his daughter Alicia sees through the mask.
You think her sensitive because she has soft little white hands and big blue eyes with long lashes and all manner of affected, fantastical ways, which you stupid men call fascinating.
In some ways we can have some sympathy for Lady Audley. Her options were limited. She took advantage of a chance for a better life. But it is one thing to be a silly, vain, frivolous little coquette in order to secure an advantageous marriage, it is quite another to resort to deliberate deception to maintain that position. How far is Lady Audley prepared to go to protect her hard won wealth and social position?
Enter Robert Audley, barrister, nephew to Sir Michael, and the subject of a rather lazy and carefree lifestyle. Like most men, Robert is captivated by Lady Audley, until the mysterious disappearance of his friend George. Slowly he starts to put the scraps of information together, entering into a game of cat and mouse with Lady Audley. Who will be the ultimate winner?
The circumstances behind the marriage of the Audleys is not the only relationship explored in the novel. Sir Michael’s daughter, Alicia, is in love with her cousin, Robert Audley, and while he recognises she is a great girl, pretty and smart, she has a little too much “bounce.” Sir Harry Towers, on the other hand, is desperately in love with Alicia. Although Sir Harry admits he is a little short in the brains department, he is so used to the “adulation of mothers who had daughters to marry” that he “never supposed for a moment he would be refused.” Talk about entitlement.
A more sobering situation is that of Phoebe, Lady Audley’s maid. Engaged to her cousin, Luke, since the age of 15, Phoebe is well aware of Luke’s true nature – violent and revengeful, however she dare not break off the engagement, for “it is just such men as he who have decoyed their sweethearts into lonely places, and murdered them for being false to their word.” Women from all stations in life can find their choices limited and marriage a dangerous state.
Madness is another theme that emerges in Lady Audley’s Secret. Feeling the net closing in, Lady Audley accuses Robert of being mad and madness was definitely something to be feared. Madness got you locked away in the mad house for the rest of your life. The reason why Braddon and John Maxwell could not marry, was because his first wife was incarcerated in a mental institution. Lady Audley never really knew her mother, for she too was incarcerated in a mad house. But was she really mad? As Lady Audley recounts, “my mother, had been, or had appeared, sane up to the hour of my birth; but from that hour her intellect decayed.” One wonders how many women died needlessly, incarcerated in mental institutions for the rest of their lives.
I am not going to tell you Lady Audley’s fate. You have to read the book to discover that, but my one and only disappointment is that Alicia apparently ends up with Sir Harry, he of the small brains and all that. Oh, she deserved so much better and that is the sad reality of women’s lives.
Happy Valentines Day!