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Lady Audley's Secret available in Paperback
Murder, mystery, mistaken identity, madness, bigamy, adultery: These were the special ingredients that made the sensation novel so delectable to the Victorian palate. Readers who devoured Lady Audley's Secret were thrilled and frightened by its inversion of the ideal Victorian heroine. Lady Audley looks like the angel-in-the-house ideal of Victorian womanhood-she is blonde, fragile, and childlike-but her behavior is distinctly villainous. At a time when Victorian women were beginning to rebel against their limited roles as wives and mothers, novels such as Lady Audley's Secret spoke to their secret longings and fantasies.
Genteel women readers, slaving away as governesses in other people's families, could share the fantasy of poor Lucy, suddenly made a lady by her marriage to Sir Michael. Part detective story, part domestic drama, Lady Audley's Secret became a runaway bestseller of its era. Nearly a century and a half since it was first published, Lady Audley's Secret has lost none of its ability to disturb and captivate readers.
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Lady Audley's Secret
By Mary Elizabeth Braddon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
IT LAY DOWN IN A hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business there at all.
At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand — and which jumped straight from one hour to the next — and was therefore always in extremes. Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.
A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county. To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss. To the left there was a broad graveled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter.
The house faced the arch, and occupied three sides of a quadrangle. It was very old, and very irregular and rambling. The windows were uneven; some small, some large, some with heavy stone mullions and rich stained glass; others with frail lattices that rattled in every breeze; others so modern that they might have been added only yesterday. Great piles of chimneys rose up here and there behind the pointed gables, and seemed as if they were so broken down by age and long service that they must have fallen but for the straggling ivy which, crawling up the walls and trailing even over the roof, wound itself about them and supported them. The principal door was squeezed into a corner of a turret at one angle of the building, as if it were in hiding from dangerous visitors, and wished to keep itself a secret — a noble door for all that — old oak, and studded with great square-headed iron nails, and so thick that the sharp iron knocker struck upon it with a muffled sound, and the visitor rung a clanging bell that dangled in a corner among the ivy, lest the noise of the knocking should never penetrate the stronghold.
A glorious old place. A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fishponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water. A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenues — ay, even upon the stagnant well, which, cool and sheltered as all else in the old place, hid itself away in a shrubbery behind the gardens, with an idle handle that was never turned and a lazy rope so rotten that the pail had broken away from it, and had fallen into the water.
A noble place; inside as well as out, a noble place — a house in which you incontinently lost yourself if ever you were so rash as to attempt to penetrate its mysteries alone; a house in which no one room had any sympathy with another, every chamber running off at a tangent into an inner chamber, and through that down some narrow staircase leading to a door which, in its turn, led back into that very part of the house from which you thought yourself the furthest; a house that could never have been planned by any mortal architect, but must have been the handiwork of that good old builder, Time, who, adding a room one year, and knocking down a room another year, toppling down a chimney coeval with the Plantagenets, and setting up one in the style of the Tudors; shaking down a bit of Saxon wall, allowing a Norman arch to stand here; throwing in a row of high narrow windows in the reign of Queen Anne, and joining on a dining-room after the fashion of the time of Hanoverian George I, to a refectory that had been standing since the Conquest, had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county of Essex. Of course, in such a house there were secret chambers; the little daughter of the present owner, Sir Michael Audley, had fallen by accident upon the discovery of one. A board had rattled under her feet in the great nursery where she played, and on attention being drawn to it, it was found to be loose, and so removed, revealed a ladder, leading to a hiding-place between the floor of the nursery and the ceiling of the room below — a hiding-place so small that he who had hid there must have crouched on his hands and knees or lain at full length, and yet large enough to contain a quaint old carved oak chest, half filled with priests' vestments, which had been hidden away, no doubt, in those cruel days when the life of a man was in danger if he was discovered to have harbored a Roman Catholic priest, or to have mass said in his house.
The broad outer moat was dry and grass-grown, and the laden trees of the orchard hung over it with gnarled, straggling branches that drew fantastical shadows upon the green slope. Within this moat there was, as I have said, the fish-pond — a sheet of water that extended the whole length of the garden and bordering which there was an avenue called the lime-tree walk; an avenue so shaded from the sun and sky, so screened from observation by the thick shelter of the over-arching trees that it seemed a chosen place for secret meetings or for stolen interviews; a place in which a conspiracy might have been planned, or a lover's vow registered with equal safety; and yet it was scarcely twenty paces from the house.
At the end of this dark arcade there was the shrubbery, where, half buried among the tangled branches and the neglected weeds, stood the rusty wheel of that old well of which I have spoken. It had been of good service in its time, no doubt; and busy nuns have perhaps drawn the cool water with their own fair hands; but it had fallen into disuse now, and scarcely any one at Audley Court knew whether the spring had dried up or not. But sheltered as was the solitude of this lime-tree walk, I doubt very much if it was ever put to any romantic uses. Often in the cool of the evening Sir Michael Audley would stroll up and down smoking his cigar, with his dogs at his heels, and his pretty young wife dawdling by his side; but in about ten minutes the baronet and his companion would grow tired of the rustling limes and the still water, hidden under the spreading leaves of the water-lilies, and the long green vista with the broken well at the end, and would stroll back to the drawing-room, where my lady played dreamy melodies by Beethoven and Mendelssohn till her husband fell asleep in his easy-chair.
Sir Michael Audley was fifty-six years of age, and he had married a second wife three months after his fifty-fifth birthday. He was a big man, tall and stout, with a deep, sonorous voice, handsome black eyes, and a white beard — a white beard which made him look venerable against his will, for he was as active as a boy, and one of the hardest riders in the country. For seventeen years he had been a widower with an only child, a daughter, Alicia Audley, now eighteen, and by no means too well pleased at having a step-mother brought home to the Court; for Miss Alicia had reigned supreme in her father's house since her earliest childhood, and had carried the keys, and jingled them in the pockets of her silk aprons, and lost them in the shrubbery, and dropped them into the pond, and given all manner of trouble about them from the hour in which she entered her teens, and had, on that account, deluded herself into the sincere belief, that for the whole of that period, she had been keeping the house.
But Miss Alicia's day was over; and now, when she asked anything of the housekeeper, the housekeeper would tell her that she would speak to my lady, or she would consult my lady, and if my lady pleased it should be done. So the baronet's daughter, who was an excellent horsewoman and a very clever artist, spent most of her time out of doors, riding about the green lanes, and sketching the cottage children, and the plowboys, and the cattle, and all manner of animal life that came in her way. She set her face with a sulky determination against any intimacy between herself and the baronet's young wife; and amiable as that lady was, she found it quite impossible to overcome Miss Alicia's prejudices and dislike; or to convince the spoilt girl that she had not done her a cruel injury by marrying Sir Michael Audley. The truth was that Lady Audley had, in becoming the wife of Sir Michael, made one of those apparently advantageous matches which are apt to draw upon a woman the envy and hatred of her sex. She had come into the neighborhood as a governess in the family of a surgeon in the village near Audley Court. No one knew anything of her, except that she came in answer to an advertisement which Mr. Dawson, the surgeon, had inserted in the Times. She came from London; and the only reference she gave was to a lady at a school at Brompton, where she had once been a teacher. But this reference was so satisfactory that none other was needed, and Miss Lucy Graham was received by the surgeon as the instructress of his daughters. Her accomplishments were so brilliant and numerous, that it seemed strange that she should have answered an advertisement offering such very moderate terms of remuneration as those named by Mr. Dawson; but Miss Graham seemed perfectly well satisfied with her situation, and she taught the girls to play sonatas by Beethoven, and to paint from nature after Creswick, and walked through a dull, out-of-the-way village to the humble little church, three times every Sunday, as contentedly as if she had no higher aspiration in the world than to do so all the rest of her life.
People who observed this, accounted for it by saying that it was a part of her amiable and gentle nature always to be light-hearted, happy and contented under any circumstances.
Wherever she went she seemed to take joy and brightness with her. In the cottages of the poor her fair face shone like a sunbeam. She would sit for a quarter of an hour talking to some old woman, and apparently as pleased with the admiration of a toothless crone as if she had been listening to the compliments of a marquis; and when she tripped away, leaving nothing behind her (for her poor salary gave no scope to her benevolence), the old woman would burst out into senile raptures with her grace, beauty, and her kindliness, such as she never bestowed upon the vicar's wife, who half fed and clothed her. For you see, Miss Lucy Graham was blessed with that magic power of fascination, by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile. Every one loved, admired, and praised her. The boy who opened the five-barred gate that stood in her pathway, ran home to his mother to tell of her pretty looks, and the sweet voice in which she thanked him for the little service. The verger at the church, who ushered her into the surgeon's pew; the vicar, who saw the soft blue eyes uplifted to his face as he preached his simple sermon; the porter from the railway station, who brought her sometimes a letter or a parcel, and who never looked for reward from her; her employer; his visitors; her pupils; the servants; everybody, high and low, united in declaring that Lucy Graham was the sweetest girl that ever lived.
Perhaps it was the rumor of this which penetrated into the quiet chamber of Audley Court; or, perhaps, it was the sight of her pretty face, looking over the surgeon's high pew every Sunday morning; however it was, it was certain that Sir Michael Audley suddenly experienced a strong desire to be better acquainted with Mr. Dawson's governess.
He had only to hint his wish to the worthy doctor for a little party to be got up, to which the vicar and his wife, and the baronet and his daughter, were invited.
That one quiet evening sealed Sir Michael's fate. He could no more resist the tender fascination of those soft and melting blue eyes; the graceful beauty of that slender throat and drooping head, with its wealth of showering flaxen curls; the low music of that gentle voice; the perfect harmony which pervaded every charm, and made all doubly charming in this woman; than he could resist his destiny! Destiny! Why, she was his destiny! He had never loved before. What had been his marriage with Alicia's mother but a dull, jog-trot bargain made to keep some estate in the family that would have been just as well out of it? What had been his love for his first wife but a poor, pitiful, smoldering spark, too dull to be extinguished, too feeble to burn? But this was love — this fever, this longing, this restless, uncertain, miserable hesitation; these cruel fears that his age was an insurmountable barrier to his happiness; this sick hatred of his white beard; this frenzied wish to be young again, with glistening raven hair, and a slim waist, such as he had twenty years before; these, wakeful nights and melancholy days, so gloriously brightened if he chanced to catch a glimpse of her sweet face behind the window curtains, as he drove past the surgeon's house; all these signs gave token of the truth, and told only too plainly that, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love.
I do not think that, throughout his courtship, the baronet once calculated upon his wealth or his position as reasons for his success. If he ever remembered these things, he dismissed the thought of them with a shudder. It pained him too much to believe for a moment that any one so lovely and innocent could value herself against a splendid house or a good old title. No; his hope was that, as her life had been most likely one of toil and dependence, and as she was very young nobody exactly knew her age, but she looked little more than twenty, she might never have formed any attachment, and that he, being the first to woo her, might, by tender attentions, by generous watchfulness, by a love which should recall to her the father she had lost, and by a protecting care that should make him necessary to her, win her young heart, and obtain from her fresh and earliest love, the promise of her hand. It was a very romantic day-dream, no doubt; but, for all that, it seemed in a very fair way to be realized. Lucy Graham appeared by no means to dislike the baronet's attentions. There was nothing whatever in her manner that betrayed the shallow artifices employed by a woman who wishes to captivate a rich man. She was so accustomed to admiration from every one, high and low, that Sir Michael's conduct made very little impression upon her. Again, he had been so many years a widower that people had given up the idea of his ever marrying again. At last, however, Mrs. Dawson spoke to the governess on the subject. The surgeon's wife was sitting in the school-room busy at work, while Lucy was putting the finishing touches on some water-color sketches done by her pupils.
"Do you know, my dear Miss Graham," said Mrs. Dawson, "I think you ought to consider yourself a remarkably lucky girl?"
The governess lifted her head from its stooping attitude, and stared wonderingly at her employer, shaking back a shower of curls. They were the most wonderful curls in the world — soft and feathery, always floating away from her face, and making a pale halo round her head when the sunlight shone through them.
"What do you mean, my dear Mrs. Dawson?" she asked, dipping her camel's-hair brush into the wet aquamarine upon the palette, and poising it carefully before putting in the delicate streak of purple which was to brighten the horizon in her pupil's sketch.
"Why, I mean, my dear, that it only rests with yourself to become Lady Audley, and the mistress of Audley Court."
Lucy Graham dropped the brush upon the picture, and flushed scarlet to the roots of her fair hair; and then grew pale again, far paler than Mrs. Dawson had ever seen her before.
"My dear, don't agitate yourself," said the surgeon's wife, soothingly; "you know that nobody asks you to marry Sir Michael unless you wish. Of course it would be a magnificent match; he has a splendid income, and is one of the most generous of men. Your position would be very high, and you would be enabled to do a great deal of good; but, as I said before, you must be entirely guided by your own feelings. Only one thing I must say, and that is that if Sir Michael's attentions are not agreeable to you, it is really scarcely honorable to encourage him."
Excerpted from Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Brief Chronology
A Note on the Text
Lady Audley’s Secret
Appendix A: The Serialization of Lady Audley’s Secret
- The Serial Texts of Lady Audley’s Secret
- The Illustrations from The London Journal
Appendix B: Dramatizations
- George Roberts, Lady Audley’s Secret. A Drama in Two Acts (1863)
- William E. Suter, Lady Audley’s Secret. A Drama in Two Acts (1871)
Appendix C: Satires
- “Rhymes for the Very Young,” Punch (11 April 1863)
- Thomas Hood,“Maurora Maudley; or Bigamy and Buttons,” Beeton’s Christmas Annual (1864)
- “Sensation! A Satire,” Dublin University Magazine (January 1864)
Appendix D: Reviews
- [Eneas Sweetland Dallas,] The Times, 18 November 1862
- The Spectator, 1791 (1862)
- “Our Female Sensation Novelists,” Christian Remembrancer 46 (1863)
- “Our Survey of Literature and Science,” Cornhill Magazine 7( January 1863)
- [H.L. Mansel,] “Sensation Novels,” Quarterly Review 113 (April 1863)
Appendix E: The New Criminal Heroine
- Eliza Lynn Linton, “Little Women,” Saturday Review 25 (April 1868)
- E.S. Dallas, The Gay Science (1866)
Appendix F: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Penny Fiction
- Lady Caroline Lascelles (pseud.), The Black Band; or, The Mysteries of Midnight (1861)
- Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Doctor’s Wife (1864)
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) became a bestselling author in 1862 with Lady Audley's Secret. The twenty-seven-year-old's route to fame led from a broken home (her mother left her father when Mary was four), through a clandestine seven years as an actress (a disreputable profession for a woman in her day), to a bigamous relationship with the publisher who first revealed Lady Audley to the world as a serial in one of his magazines. Surviving scandal and critical scorn, Braddon became one of the most celebrated and respected authors of the nineteenth century. With Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, The Moonstone), she minted the genre of literature known as the sensation novel, the precursor of the mystery-thrillers so popular today. Nearly a century and a half since it was first published, Lady Audley's Secret has lost none of its ability to disturb and captivate readers.
The first installment of Lady Audley's Secret debuted on July 6, 1861, in the magazine Robin Goodfellow. Although the magazine folded in September, fans of the story clamored for the author to continue it and it ran again from the beginning in The Sixpenny Journal starting in January 1862. In October 1862, the first three-volume edition appeared, and just as people nowadays buy DVD copies of a season's worth of The Sopranos or Friends, readers who had enjoyed the story in weekly installments bought it as a book. First-time readers who had heard the buzz about it also snapped up copies and seven reprints followed in just three months. The novel's addictive ingredients-murder, madness, mystery, and bigamy-seduced readers from every class. Vilified by critics as immoral, Lady Audley's Secret appealed to readers who felt both titillated and disturbed by its subversion of Victorian ideals about marriage, motherhood, and family life. Curiously, the novel's thrills work on readers today for many of the same reasons they did in the 1860s: Lady Audley's Secret shows that things are not always what they appear to be, that outward beauty may conceal inner evil, that seemingly happy families may harbor dark secrets.
Braddon recognized the power of her culture's stereotypes and she quickly made the most of subverting them. Thus, in Lady Audley's Secret, Lucy Audley first appears as the Victorian ideal of womanhood: she is a blonde, child-like "angel in the house." However, this child-woman, far from being a vessel of moral virtues, is a viper in the breast of the Audley family. Rich old Sir Michael, "at the sober age of fifty-five. . .had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love." His passion is for beautiful Lucy, a much younger governess, in a fantasy that readers of romance novels will recognize. However, Lucy Graham is no Jane Eyre. Her good looks blind Sir Michael who takes her as his second wife without inquiring too deeply into the poor governess's past. Instead, readers and her nephew-in-law, Robert Audley, slowly begin to unravel the truth of Lucy's character and the lengths to which she'll go to maintain her position as wealthy Lady Audley. W. Fraser Rae, a contemporary reviewer, observed that "Lady Audley is at once the heroine and the monstrosity of the novel. In drawing her, the authoress may have intended to portray a female Mephistopheles; but, if so, she should have known that a woman cannot fill such a part." Like many other reviewers, Rae could not bear the thought that the angel in the house might be a demon in disguise.
Yet the heroine's dual nature gave the novel its uncanny strength. Not only was Lady Audley's Secret a best-seller in its own time, lauded by readers from Henry James to Prime Minister Gladstone, it was also one of the first and best of a genre of 1860s literature known as "the sensation novel." Intricate plotting, a pervasive sense of mystery, suspense, and unconventional heroines are common elements of the sensation novel, but Braddon's masterful narrative raises Lady Audley's Secret above genre fiction and into the realm of a first-rate read from any era. E. S. Dallas, the book reviewer for the London Times, recognized that sensation novels, like Lady Audley's Secret, were busy purveying a new model of heroine: "If the heroines have the first place, it will scarcely do to represent them as Passive, and quite angelic, or insipid, as heroines usually are. They have to be pictured as highly-strung women, full of passion and purpose and movement - very liable to error." The sensation novel remained a popular genre of literature for just that one decade, the 1860s, and then it faded from the literary scene. Interestingly, that decade witnessed massive social changes in the role and status of women. During the 1860s, universities admitted women for the first time, career opportunities for females broadened, unmarried women lost much of their stigma, and legislation giving women more rights over their own property, culminating with the Married Women's Property Act of 1870, was enacted.
A prolific and popular Victorian novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon published nearly ninety books in the course of her career, yet her greatest success came with Lady Audley's Secret, one of her earliest novels. The tale made her famous and infamous in her own day and it also paved the way for a genre of literature still avidly read today: detective fiction. Braddon bridged the gap between the sensational murder trials regularly reported in the newspapers and the literary novel. Lady Audley's Secret caused a sensation among its first readers because it was one of the first novels to point out the double nature of Victorian society. Victorian public figures, from Charles Dickens to the Queen herself, endlessly trumpeted the sanctity of marriage and the family even as court trials revealed a dark private world of miserable marriages and broken families. Dickens, whose novels celebrate marriage and family, left his wife and children for an actress. And Braddon herself was the product of a miserable marriage and a broken family. At the time she was publishing Lady Audley's Secret, she was also practicing bigamy, pretending to be the legal wife of the publisher John Maxwell while trying to keep her lover's secret from coming to light: Maxwell's real wife was alive, but insane and confined to an asylum outside of Dublin. If readers didn't know the truth, however, some critics did, and some of the most venomous critiques of the novel allude to Braddon's compromised marital situation.
Another reason Lady Audley's Secret remains valuable today is that it offers an insider's view of a period already tingling with sensations. The early 1860s witnessed the ascendancy of the periodical press in Britain and the powerful influence of the media on culture. In 1861 alone, when the initial installments of Lady Audley's Secret were running in Robin Goodfellow, newspapers reported the first bloody conflicts of the American Civil War, the Warsaw Massacre and consequent emancipation of the Russian serfs, and the triumph of the Italian Unification Movement. Closer to home, the exploits of the famous acrobat Blondin during his first appearances in England awed the public, and the June 1861 fire in London that burned part of the city to the ground shocked them. Of course, what most appealed to readers were murder trials-only recently opened to journalists-reported obsessively in newspapers. In the summer of 1861, as readers avidly read the first episodes of Lady Audley's Secret, they were doubtless also reading newspaper accounts of the trial of the wealthy French nobleman, the Baron de Vidil, whose son had accused him of attempted murder; and the case of a retired Major Murray, whose brawl with a moneylender named William Roberts not only proved fatal for Roberts, but led to the revelation that the married Murray had a mistress (she had borrowed money from Roberts) and an illegitimate child. Richard D. Altick, who links these cases to the rise of sensation fiction in his book Deadly Encounters, believes these attacks "occurred in a gathering atmosphere for which they were providentially suited."
Although it's too simple to cite a direct cause-and-effect relationship between specific current events reported in the papers and the plots of sensation novels, it's certainly true that the energetic accounts of murder and mayhem and the electrifying plots of sensation novels prospered up apace. Braddon herself said of the daily papers, "I undoubtedly believe that they give the best picture of the events of the day. They really are, as they profess to be, mirrors reflecting the life and views of the period" (in the Daily Telegraph, part of an interview published on 4 October 1913). She, like Wilkie Collins, and other sensation novelists, absorbed the popularity of contemporary murder trials and used them to advantage in her fiction. Braddon also drew elements from the popular stage melodramas of the day, for the theatre represented the other primary entertainment for people in the nineteenth century and she knew a great deal about it from experience: Before she turned her hand to writing fiction, Braddon spent seven years as an actress.
Born in 1835, Mary Elizabeth Braddon was the last child of Fanny and Henry Braddon. Henry Braddon was the black sheep of an otherwise respectable Cornish family and Fanny left him when Mary was four. Life as a single mother in an era when respectable women didn't work was difficult, but Fanny did her best to educate her children well and Mary remembered her mother as her "constant companion and confidante." Both sides of the family contributed small sums to their upkeep and Mary learned to speak and read French, to recite long speeches from Shakespeare, and to play the piano proficiently. At the age of sixteen, Mary became an actress to earn money to support herself and her mother. In the 1850s, acting was not considered a respectable occupation for middle-class women (nothing really was, except for positions as teachers or governesses), but talented actresses could earn large incomes. Braddon hoped to make her fortune acting, but she recognized the stigma of the profession-pressure from family members prompted her to take the stage name "Mary Seyton."
Respectable citizens in the mid-nineteenth century looked down on actresses for two main reasons. The first was that actresses publicly "exposed" themselves when they played male roles or so-called "breeches parts." For women to reveal parts of themselves that would normally be hidden from the eyes of all but a husband linked actresses to prostitutes. The other reason, and the one that percolates beneath the plot of Lady Audley's Secret, concerns the very nature of acting: its insincerity. As Claire Tomalin explains in Invisible Woman, her biography of the actress Ellen Ternan, Dickens' mistress, "To pretend to be what you were not and to make a good job of it made you morally suspect." In a culture whose middle and upper classes placed enormous value on the sincerity and innocence of women, actresses were morally compromised. Braddon tried to appease at least her relatives' objections to her profession by changing her name and having her mother as a respectable chaperone. Nevertheless, despite the stigma, Braddon believed acting was preferable to poverty. Unfortunately, Braddon's competence on stage never rose to brilliance. She spent seven years on provincial stages and then her sought-after debut in London didn't awaken anyone to her genius. Realizing that she would never become a great actress, Braddon shifted her focus to writing fiction. She drew on her own skills and experiences and hit upon the novel formula most likely to appeal to a wide audience.
As anyone living in the period knew, the only really respectable way out of poverty for a middle-class Victorian woman was to marry well. Men held the keys to power, as Lucy Graham realizes when she marries Sir Michael Audley. As readers and that burgeoning detective, her nephew Robert, discover, Lucy is willing to abandon her child, kill her first husband, and commit bigamy to enjoy the style of life a wealthy man can offer her. Mary Elizabeth Braddon also recognized the influence that men wielded over women's careers and when she failed as an actress, she turned to male mentors for advice. Her first literary mentor was the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873), a baron and Member of Parliament who was also a popular novelist. Bulwer Lytton wrote in several genres, including fiction based on the actual lives of murderers. Such books, popular in the 1830s, were known as "Newgate novels," after the calendar at London's Newgate Prison that listed prisoners, their crimes, and their assigned punishment. Newgate novels are ancestors of the sensation novel, but they differ in that the Newgate novel's antiheroes are men and they generally repent their crimes or at least are severely punished for them. In sensation novels, the villains are frequently women and frequently unrepentant.
Braddon met Bulwer Lytton in 1854, probably through her cousin, John Delane, the editor of the London Times, and the novelist encouraged her literary ambitions. Braddon noted that he "was the first author of note to give me any real encouragement," and their correspondence lasted for decades (she dedicated Lady Audley's Secret to him). Her other mentor was John Maxwell, an Irish orphan who had come to London as a teenager and made a success of publishing. Braddon published her first stories in one of his magazines, The Welcome Guest, and in April 1860 she met him. At the time, Braddon was twenty-five, but poised and intelligent. Maxwell was thirty-five, tall, handsome, loud, and confident. He was also the father of seven children, though separated from their mother, Mary Anne, who had grown increasingly insane after the birth of their last child. While Mary Anne remained confined in an asylum outside of Dublin, Mary Elizabeth fell in love with John Maxwell. Within a few months of their meeting, she had moved in with him and was pregnant with his child. She raised the children of his first marriage and ultimately bore him five of their own. When Mary Anne died in 1874, the scandal of the couple's bigamous relationship became the gossip of the day. The news prompted all but one of the Maxwells' servants to give their notices and Maxwell, Braddon, and their children moved to a different house for a year to live down the shame. Still, John and Mary Elizabeth married within a month of his first wife's death and eventually they weathered the scandal.
Rumors of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's irregular relationship with Maxwell and her previous career as an actress did not hurt her reputation as a writer; in fact, such rumors probably added to readers' appetite for her sensation novels. As Henry James noted in a famous review of Braddon's novels, Lady Audley's Secret particularly thrills readers because it takes place in the present time, in locales they recognize. Unlike the popular Gothic novel of the 1790s (another antecedent to the sensation novel), which dealt with murder in foreign climes (usually Italy or Germany) and exotic settings (usually ruins or castles), the sensation novel dealt with murder in contemporary English settings, such as London lodgings or country manors-just the places where the real murders, reported so avidly in the daily papers, took place. As James recognized, Braddon's novels explored "the most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries at our own doors."
Success as a fiction writer saved Mary Elizabeth Braddon from genteel poverty; unfortunately, Lady Audley lacks the imagination of her creator. When she finally confesses to her crimes against the home and family of Sir Michael, she admits that "the dull slavery of a governess" had worn her down and that poverty had blunted her "sense of honour and principle." She also acknowledges going insane after the birth of her child (precisely the kind of post-partum madness that caused John Maxwell's wife to be committed to an asylum). When her nephew goads her to confess to the killing of her first husband, Lady Audley screams, "I killed him because I AM MAD. . .my mind, never properly balanced, utterly lost its balance; and I was mad!"
As long as poverty and madness remain threats to both society and the family, Lady Audley's Secret will continue to attract readers. Lady Audley's secret is the secret of her era, and ours: She has a public self and a private self and the two are not identical.
Susan Balée received her Ph.D. from Columbia University and wrote her dissertation on the sensation novel. Her essays on literature have appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, The Hudson Review, The Weekly Standard, The Women's Review of Books, and many other journals. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and children and makes her living as a freelance writer and an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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