Sunday, February 09, 2014

Mary Elizabeth Braddon — ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’

Bought alongside a replacement The Complete Yes, Prime Minister from the wonderful Tills Books in Edinburgh, in the first month of a year in which I’d told myself I wouldn’t be buying any more books because of the huge pile (actually a shelf) that has been accumulating faster than I can read it. Oh well, if I can reduce the rate at which the deficit is increasing, that would probably do. It’s a Penguin English Library edition, with a tactile (slightly rubbery) pale green cover, dotted with teapots and tea cups, and the text handily pre-highlighted in yellow. I do quite like the Penguin English Library designs, though the series does seem a little redundant given that Penguin Classics already publishes its entire catalogue (I haven’t checked that, but look at how famous all the books are). They seem to be aiming more at general readers than students, with the design and the absence of explanatory notes; and the movement of the accompanying essay to the end of the volume, where it won’t bother anyone, or spoil the plot.

Lady Audley’s Secret is a sensation novel, published in 1861-2, and it conforms quite well to Wikipedia’s description of that genre:
Typically the sensation novel focused on shocking subject matter including adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder.
It covers at least six of those themes; seven if you stretch the definition of ‘forgery’ a bit, and there’s blackmail and arson too. As such, it’s almost impossible to write about the plot without giving away something crucial. Even the blurb on the back cover goes a bit far, I thought, as one of the themes isn’t introduced until three quarters of the way through.

Chapters one and two set up a story in which a penniless young governess, Lucy Graham, marries Sir Michael Audley, 56, a widower for seventeen years and a rich man with a country pile, Audley Court. Her secret is hinted at, beyond the title of the novel, by ‘a ring wrapped in an oblong piece of paper’ (p. 15) worn around her neck, attached to a black ribbon. Then George Talboys (‘about five-and-twenty’, p.16) comes back to England from Australia, having been away for five years and made a fortune in the gold mines. He’s looking forward to seeing his wife, but gets more and more worried the closer the ship gets to port that all will not be well. If you make the assumption you’re pushed towards, that Lady Audley is the wife he’s coming back to, then there is actually not much subsequent plot at all; certainly not for several hundred pages. Instead, Braddon teases the reader with more and more circumstantial hints that Lady Audley is Helen Talboys, and comes up with a multitude of ways in which she avoids meeting George and, later, tries to keep ahead of Sir Michael’s nephew Robert Audley, who is on the trail of her supposed deception. It holds the interest well, there are some twists, it’s a good mystery story. I’m not sure it’s a great one, it isn’t quite The Moonstone.

One thing that did strike me as odd was the book’s sense of the rightness of patriarchy, which amounts at times to misogyny:
The wife’s worst remorse when she stands without the threshold of the house she may never enter more is not equal to the agony of the husband who closes the portal on that familiar and entreating face. (pp. 307-8)
Lady Audley is castigated for marrying money, which is fair, but Sir Michael Audley is never criticised for taking a trophy wife who is only a few years older than his daughter Alicia. Lust is a better deadly sin than greed, it would seem. At her lowest point, she is careful to keep her stock high:
I do not say that even in her supremest hour of misery she still retained her pride in her beauty. It was not so; she looked upon that beauty as a weapon, and she felt that she now had double need to be well armed. (p. 365)


Anne said...

I knew about the Clothbound Classics but not this collection. Even more redundant, it seems!

Chris said...

I've seen those about, but I don't think I realised they were Penguin too. They're nice objects, but it is the same stuff over and over. The fight against ebooks, I guess.

Blog Archive