It’s widely acknowledged these days that the larger proportion of the readership for crime thrillers is female, but it’s often overlooked that this has long been the case. The Victorian equivalent of the crime thrillers was the Sensation Novel; brooding pot-boilers full of crime, blackmail, murder and bigamy that were frequently targeted specifically at women. Though she is largely forgotten today, the queen of the Sensation Novel (and a best-selling author of her time) was Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Lady Audley’s Secret was her magnum opus.
Robert Audley, the rakish young nephew of Sir Michael Audley, goes to visit his uncle at the grand Audley Court, taking with him his best friend George Talboys. When they are introduced to Sir Michael’s new young bride Lucy, Talboys seems startled and shortly afterwards disappears without trace. Determined to discover the reason for his friend’s disappearance, Robert starts to look into the circumstances surrounding his friend and a terrible suspicion comes upon him.
What follows next may contain spoilers, but Lady Audley’s Secret was written over a century and a half ago, so I think I can probably get away with it. It turns out that the new Lady Audley, Lucy Graham, is not all that she claims to be. She was once Helen Talboys, the wife of George Talboys and when she was deserted by her husband, who went off to Australia to make his fortune, she left their young son in the care of her drunken father and went off to look for a better life for herself. And indeed found one.
Robert, of course, suspects that Lady Audley has done away with her first husband, though it is largely left up to the reader to match his trail of thought, as this is never explicitly stated until very late in the text. He becomes obsessed with revealing the truth about his Aunt and finding justice for his friend, visiting George’s father-in-law and son and his abrupt, stand-offish father. His investigations cover a lot of ground – this isn’t a short novel – and although they slow to a snail’s pace at times, there’s generally enough intrigue there to keep the reader interested.
Robert Audley is a strange character; he’s effete and something of a dilettante, plagued by indecision and self-doubt. At one point in the narrative, he’s all set to pack in his investigation into George’s death, but one doe-eyed encounter with George’s pretty sister determines him to make it his life’s work. There’s a deep unspoken bromance between Robert and George, long before that was even a word, and it’s oft mentioned that George’s attraction to Clara Talboys is partly down to her physical resemblance to her brother. A bit odd? Well maybe, but I’m sure I’m putting a 20th century spin on something that doesn’t require one.
What is certain is that Lady Audley’s Secret explores the gender politics of her time. Of the women in the book, only Lady Audley herself has any real gusto. Alicia Audley, Sir Michael’s daughter, is childlike and whimsical; Phoebe Marks is a knows-her-place lady’s maid completely under the thumb of her brutish husband and Clara Talboys is the attractive but severe spinster, swayed by the hero’s charms. In a different era, Lady Audley might even be the hero – she takes her destiny into her own hands when her husband naffs off to the other side of the world, leaving her with a babe-in-arms, and succeeds in making a better life for herself as the popular wife of an aristocrat.
When she is eventually confronted with her crimes, Lady Audley breaks down and declares herself plagued by the insanity that runs in her family. It might seem out of character for the coldly manipulative woman that we’ve been told about throughout the rest of the novel, but not really because she’s still maintaining control. She knows that she will be better treated as a madwoman than she would as a murderer, so there’s still manipulation in her actions. As she’s shipped off to an upper-class sanatorium in Europe, you might think that she’s getting away lightly – but there’s yet another twist that adds tragedy upon tragedy to her fate.
Lady Audley’s Secret is, as I mentioned earlier, a lengthy book, but its prose is quite modern and accessible. At certain stages, you could be forgiven for thinking that you are reading a Victorian romance and the language is pretty florid when that happens, but these parts are pretty few and far between. There are also a lot of cultural references that you probably wouldn’t get unless you are a cultural historian of that era but, again, they don’t distract from the story. This is an interesting read; it doesn’t follow the beats that you’d expect from a modern crime story and the passage of time has made parts of it a trifle cliché, but if you can stomach its prose and length, it’s well worth a read, for entertainment as well as historical value.
This edition of Lady Audley’s Secret was published in the UK by Atlantic Books Crime Classics (2009).