‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ is arguably more Sensation Literature than Gothic, but I want them all so I’m going to claim it anyway.
We’re now comfortably into the mid-Victorian era with Braddon, and things are getting worse for women before they get better. The invention of metal eyelets in 1828 meant that corsets could be laced tighter than ever before, while legal matters were still in the middle ages and women still wouldn’t be the legal owners of money they earned until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870.
Not to worry though. Authors like Collins and Braddon are showing that women with power are probably evil and/or ugly and society is ready, willing and able to punish them. This message is sad for many reasons, but is especially upsetting if, like me, you sympathise with Lady Audley.
Lady Audley is accomplished and intelligent, everyone loves her but she has no apparent legal protection and no great love for her devoted husband. Indeed when he proposed to her, explaining his hatred of mercenary matches at the same time, she cried out:
“Poverty—poverty, trials, vexations, humiliations, deprivations. You cannot tell; you, who are among those for whom life is so smooth and easy, you can never guess what is endured by such as we. Do not ask too much of me, then. I cannot be disinterested; I cannot be blind to the advantages of such an alliance. I cannot, I cannot!”
Beyond her agitation and her passionate vehemence, there is an undefined something in her manner which fills the baronet with a vague alarm. She is still on the ground at his feet, crouching rather than kneeling, her thin white dress clinging about her, her pale hair streaming over her shoulders, her great blue eyes glittering in the dusk, and her hands clutching at the black ribbon about her throat, as if it had been strangling her. “Don’t ask too much of me,” she kept repeating; “I have been selfish from my babyhood.”
Unlike modern readers, Lady Audley is fully aware of how many taboos she is breaking in agreeing to this marriage. Unfortunate coincidences follow (as is their wont in such novels) and she becomes inextricably tied up in lies and guilt. Her loss is our gain though, as she is a great literary creation, rising to challenges and fighting to the end. She uses all of her skill to combat her (in my opinion) complacent and patronising antagonists; there’s something wonderful about a vanquished villain whose parting lines are: “I do not thank you for your mercy … for I know exactly what it is worth.” Especially when you know she’s right.
I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this blog (unless it’s a spoiler to learn that a female character in a Victorian novel who breaks social taboos comes to a bad end), do read the book to find out what the secret is. Then let me know if you’re as outraged at the denouement as I am.