An introduction to a classic sensation novel
Lady Audley’s Secret was the most successful sensation novel published in the 1860s, the decade that saw the high point of sensation fiction. The book’s author, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, became famous – and notorious – as a result of the novel’s runaway success, and she would go on to have a very lucrative publishing career as a prolific novelist. Despite the novel’s popularity, it is only in recent decades that it has received the analysis and attention it deserves, as one of the founding texts of the sensation fiction genre.
As John Sutherland records in The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, Lady Audley’s Secret was partly serialised in Robin Goodfellow in July-September 1861, then serialised in full in the Sixpenny Magazine throughout the whole of 1862, published as a three-volume novel by Tinsley the same year, and then rerun as a serial in the London Journal in March-August a year later. This publishing history alone gives a sense of just how riotously popular the novel quickly became. It was, to coin a phrase, a sensation. Why did it grab readers’ attention so, and how should we analyse the novel’s themes?
First, a brief recap or summary of the novel’s plot (this is where it’s advisable to say ‘spoiler alert’). Lucy Graham (her name suggests such Brontëan heroines as Lucy Snowe and Helen Graham, though Braddon’s heroine will be very different from those), a governess, marries the rich older man, Sir Michael Audley, owner of Audley Court. But ‘Lady Audley’, as we know from the novel’s title, has a secret. Her secret is that her real name is Helen, not Lucy, and she is in fact already married to another man, a dragoon named George Talboys, who left her (and their baby) to seek his fortune in Australia. George returns to track down Helen and baby, only to discover that she is now living as Lady Audley and has remarried. In order to get rid of him and to keep her secret safe, Lady Audley shoves her first husband down a well. Unbeknownst to her, he survives largely unscathed, and manages to escape from the well, and flees to America.
Robert Audley, Sir Michael Audley’s nephew and a friend of George Talboys, decides to investigate his friend’s mysterious disappearance. This is the point at which the action of the novel begins; everything else is back-story that will gradually emerge, largely in the course of Robert’s ‘detective’ work. He notices, through careful analysis, that the handwriting of his step-aunt, Lucy Graham, and the handwriting of the woman ‘Helen’ who was married to his friend George, are eerily similar. Fearing that she’s about to be exposed, Lady Audley burns down the inn at which Robert is lodging, in the hope of destroying him – but, as with her attempted murder of George, she fails and Robert reveals her secret. Lady Audley goes mad and is incarcerated in an asylum in Belgium.
Lady Audley’s Secret, as this brief plot summary makes plain, contains many of the features that would turn up again in later sensation novels: fraud, bigamy (more acceptable to Victorian moral tastes than adultery, which was the sin of choice in French novels of the time, such as Madame Bovary – and made even more acceptable, or at least less illegal, by the fact that ‘Lucy’ believes her first husband is dead when she remarries Sir Michael Audley), and the secret which threatens to destroy the home and marriage of the principal characters. (In this respect, it is indebted to the melodramas and ‘well-made plays’ popular in the mid-nineteenth century, which also had fast-moving plots focusing on the threatened revelation of a secret that will destroy the domestic lives of the characters.) And, of course, plenty of page-turning action, such as Lady Audley chucking her first husband down a well and committing arson to try to rid herself of the unofficial ‘detective’, Robert Audley, who is on the trail.
And this is partly what made Lady Audley’s Secret such a hit with Victorian readers, and why it remains – along with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, another founding text of the sensation fiction genre – one of the most popular and familiar examples of the sensation novel. There are few dull spells in the plot. Mary Elizabeth Braddon was not aiming to write a realist novel with Lady Audley’s Secret – she had little time for many of her realist contemporaries, with the notable exception of George Eliot – though she would later try to do so with such novels as The Doctor’s Wife (1864) among others. Partly, she disliked the realist novelist’s denunciation of ‘sensation’ in fiction on the grounds that it was ‘inauthentic’ or not true to life. Okay, so our lives don’t usually contain arson, fraud, bigamy, and attempted murder every week, or at all (if we’re lucky), but this isn’t the same as claiming these things don’t occur and are merely the stuff of novelists’ imaginations. On the contrary, they did happen in Victorian society – and women could often be the (brutal) criminals rather than the victims. Indeed, one real-life murder, the Constance Kent Case of 1860, appears to have helped to inspire Lady Audley’s Secret. The deeper Lady Audley digs herself, the more crime she has to commit to try to cover her trail.
Similarly, the incarceration of Lady Audley in an insane asylum at the end of the novel, and her eventual death, looks back to such forerunners of the sensation novel such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and the imprisoned ‘madwoman in the attic’ (technically, if we’re pedantic, the madwoman in the third-storey room below the attic), Bertha Mason/Rochester, as does the multiple-spouse plot. But wives really were locked away in insane asylums in Victorian Britain – sometimes they were genuinely mad, but in some cases it was questionable. And Lady Audley does genuinely go mad from having to go to such extreme and dangerous lengths to cover up her secret. In the last analysis, Lady Audley’s Secret is high on drama and suspense (and ‘sensation’), but none of the events depicted in the novel is offered as far-fetched because many of them did happen in one way or another, somewhere in Victorian Britain. Braddon would probably agree.