Lady Audley’s Secret - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Published in 1862, this early mystery was labeled a “novel of sensation” because the action involves desertion, bigamy, blackmail, arson, murder, insanity, not to mention love betrayed and love unrequited. The secret mentioned in the title comes out gradually until the amazing reveal of “the mysteries which are at our own doors (Henry James).”
The mystery convention is also followed with an amateur detective, a barrister in his day job, picking up the trail to the origins of the perp. True, both the author and the detective unfairly sit on information, but readers will be so taken with Braddon’s never-a-dull-moment narrative as to be forgiving.
Indeed, the appeal that made this a best-seller is the often melodramatic, sometimes predictable, but continuously readable action. Written as a magazine serial, the ends of chapters often feature tantalizing cliffhangers.
Also engaging are the vivid female characters. The beautiful blonde Lady Audley is “so irretrievably childish and silly” but irresistibly charming. The intrepid and athletic Alicia is the adult and brunette daughter shoved aside by her father’s second marriage to the blonde. The hard, cold, greedy Phoebe plays the too faithful handmaiden to evil. The noble, contained Clara attracts the barrister’s passionate attention. Even the maids, chars, and landladies are clearly delineated characters
Since the early 1990s, college profs have assigned this in Vic Lit courses not only because students gratefully read it as a welcome break between Middlemarch and The Return of the Native but also because it gives budding critics practice in interpretation from feminist and social science points of view. Given her poor unhappy origins, the perp was ready to do what she had to do in order to make it in a man’s world. As James Carr sang in Life Turned Her That Way “Don’t be quick to condemn her,” not that I want to justify arson and murder, mind. One wonders if it was indeed the writer’s intention for us readers to contemplate the stern reality that the most dreadful things can happen in the nicest families for understandable if not exonerating reasons
Readers that enjoyed Charles Dickens’ Bleak House or Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White will enjoy this one. Besides university students compelled to read it, this book must have its voluntary hardcore fans too, given at Goodreads it has no less than 2,678 ratings and 272 reviews. I’ll join the crowd that declares the novel a winner.
PS: Try to find this book in a modern edition. I read it in a Dover facsimile of an 1887 edition which crammed about 500 pages into 287 pages. Eyes smarting, I marveled that the Victorians weren’t all half-blind from reading tiny-sized font in narrow leading by poor light.