“My intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that boundary line between sanity and insanity….”
After my dismal failure with The Sot Weed Factor I threw myself into Lady Audley’s Secret thinking a bit of fluffy Victorian melodrama would be a welcome change of scenery. It was. With just a few short chapters to go this morning I found myself speed reading on the train to work, desperately trying to cram in as much as possible before my stop. Annoyingly I reached the final big reveal, an intense deathbed confession, just as my train pulled into the station. If it hadn’t been such a wet day I might have continued reading while I walked to the office but instead I had to put the book away and spend the next four hours at my desk mulling over this dramatic twist until lunch time. This is one of the worst things about reading on public transport. You are completely at the mercy of the bus route or the train timetable.
Describing Lady Audley’s Secret as a bit of fluffy melodrama is really pretty unfair. It makes it sound kind of trivial when really it’s cleverly written and very entertaining. To begin with it follows two separate plot strands. Firstly there’s rich widower Sir Michael Audley and his unlikely romance with a much younger and much poorer governess. At the same time as this new Lady Audley is being installed in Sir Michael’s grand home, his nephew Robert meets an old friend named George Talboys who has just returned to England from the gold hunts in Australia. George is on his way home to reunite with the wife he hasn’t seen in three years when he reads the devastating news of her sudden death in the newspaper. He abruptly disappears a short while later and Robert becomes convinced that something terrible has happened to his friend and that his uncle’s pretty new wife knows something about it.
I think I’m probably just a bit of a sucker for all that Victorian sensationalism. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of arson/murder/bigamy/insanity/blackmail every now and then? It’s all so gripping that you can look past the fact that the plot really hinges on an improbable coincidence and that actually there isn’t any real mystery. We all know from the beginning what Robert suspects, even though he’s too afraid to give voice to those suspicions.
Some of Braddon’s characters are described with real warmth, detail and humour. This is one of my favourite character portraits:
“He was like his own square-built, northern fronted, shelterless house. There were no shady nooks in his character into which one could creep for shelter from his hard daylight. He was all daylight. He looked at everything in the same broad glare of intellectual sunlight and could see no softening shadows that might alter the sharp outlines of cruel facts, subduing them to beauty.”
Her female characters are particularly compelling and you can tell that she’s taken particular care to make them feel real. There’s no swooning, no delicate weeping into lace handkerchiefs, no infants clutched tenderly to bosoms. What a relief.
Lady Audley is full of fire and passion and I liked her very much, even though I know I probably wasn’t supposed to. I like the idea of all this emotion being hidden behind a ‘doll-like’ and ‘childish’ face. She never feels particularly dangerous (in fact, there were several occasions when I felt quite sorry for her) and I was a little let down by the way she was eventually dealt with, both by Braddon and by Robert Audley. It was all just too convenient, too quick and easy. I’d have been happier if she’d been motivated by simple greed or ambition instead of being some kind of unnatural, unwomanly villainness. Really I’d have found it easier to believe in Robert’s madness.
Towards the end it all unravels pretty quickly but I didn’t really mind that. It’s not great literature perhaps – I preferred The Woman in White which is similar in many ways – but it’s still an entertaining read.