In a way it’s absurd to write a review on a book that’s a 150 years old — it’s been around all that time, there must be something to it, no? Lady Audley’s Secret is one of the best examples of what’s called Victorian Sensation Fiction, meaning it’s a potboiler, or considered one. But I think this term is a bit condescending. Look at any list of best sellers or the shelf of books in the grocery or at the airport – chock full of sensation fiction, some better, some worse, but all of it designed to keep us interested turning pages, gasping in horror, or in lust, or purely curious, help us forget our boring surroundings or our problems for a bit.
Lady Audley is, in my view (and not just mine), not as good as Dickens or Wilkie Collins, but is significant for being a good, page-turning read from a woman in Victorian times. True, her characters haven’t got the depth or humor of those in Bleak House or The Moonstone, but she does something that I think few people did, she made the beautiful woman with blue eyes and golden ringlets a villain. This is revealed pretty early on, so I don’t think knowing this will spoil it for anyone. How great a villain she is remains a question until far into the book, but nonetheless, beauty not equalling virtue is fairly revolutionary.
Also unusual is Braddon’s hero, Robert Audley, who until the beginning of this book has done as little in his life as possible, and since he’s well off, it’s possible to do very little. Bob is blessed with the ability to lounge, read novels, and apparently never get antsy or feel called upon to accomplish a darned thing.
Bob runs into his old pal George, just back from Australia, having made his fortune. Shortly after returning home George learns his wife has recently died. He is utterly crushed. Bob looks after him because there is no one else and they become the best of friends. Bob’s easy friendship with George is rather surprising because it becomes clear Bob doesn’t have any other friends. He’s on good terms with his Uncle and his cousin Alicia, he’s a cheerful, if indolent fellow, and yet he’s got no friends. Alicia, too, though having no alarming flaws also has no friends. I don’t think it’s significant, just odd.
Lady Audley herself would be completely irritating if she weren’t evil. She’s annoyingly childlike, spoiled by her husband, condescending, generally uncaring about anybody except herself. Her only interests appear to be clothes, jewels, charming everyone in the county and alienating her stepdaughter from her father. Her feathery curls are mentioned rather too often though occasionally in amusing ways:
My lady, safely sheltered behind her step-daughter, shook her yellow curls at the angry animal, and defied him maliciously.
She alternates between being an impressively cool under pressure person to a typically hysterical Victorian character inclined to fainting and needing to lie on chaises longues with a bottle of smelling salts.
This is quite an enjoyable read. It’s not terribly long, keeps moving and has fewer paid-by-the-word digressions than a lot of fiction of the time. Though some of those are pretty absurd. Braddon waxing poetic about how lovely women are as they pour tea is hard to figure out. This is our highest calling? Is she serious? Hard to tell. Her women characters are generally strong and smart. She herself worked as an actress and wrote. Should she have stuck to pouring tea? Overall, though an entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking novel and while maybe not as good as Bleak House, it’s miles and miles better than The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Searching for images of Lady Audley I stumbled across this one of Theda Bara in the movie in 1915. Oh, how I wish I could see that!