I added Lady Audlley’s Secret to my TBR back in 2015 after hearing that it contained echoes of the real crime committed by Constance Kent, a case picked up and written about in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale along with the knowledge that the author set the book at Ingatestone Hall in Essex following a visit there. Back in 1860s my ancestors lived in Ingatestone, not at the Hall I hasten to add, although one or two of them may well have scrubbed the scullery in their time, but this of course meant it was a sure fire in to be added to as part of my Classics Club challenge.
Although I wasn’t at all disappointed that it won The Classics Club Spin #17 I was a tad concerned that a Victorian sensation novel might feel a bit dated given my contemporary tastes of recent years. I needn’t have worried, reading this book confirmed that a story told well, makes for great entertainment no matter when it was written. The language was straightforward and easy to read although it did feel longer than many contemporary novels that is probably because it was originally written in instalments for her lover’s magazine in 1861 and even when it was published in 1862, it was split into three parts.
The book starts by taking us to the courtship of the beautiful and childlike blonde Lucy Graham by the somewhat older widower Sir Michael Audley who falls deeply in love with her and hopes she feels the same. She wisely promises nothing but agrees to become his wife which is a major step-up in society since she is currently the governess for a local doctor.
She had been the chief attraction of the race-course, and was wearied out by the exertion of fascinating half the county.
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.
Soon afterwards we meet up with Sir Audley’s nephew Richard who is meeting his friend George Talboys, who has returned from Australia having made his fortune in the gold rush. Despite his absence of three years he is keen to see his young wife who he left with a mere note following a bit of a row. George and Heleen Talboys had a baby but he doesn’t seem to have the same pull on dear old George’s vision of a happy homecoming. Anyway Richard and George meet up but a notice in the newspaper puts a spanner in the works and they soon have to make a trip to the Isle of Wight on the trail of the missing Helen.
This story is above everything else, fun. I could spend an age explaining that it became popular, if not revered in the way the ‘serious’ novelists of the time were, because it played on the Victorian’s fear that the home wasn’t always the safe haven that they liked to pretend it was. It is here that the parallels with Constance Kent were drawn. A respectable family, a step-mother and murder all play their own part in Mary Elizabeth Bradon’s dramatic tale. But I won’t do that, nor will I add more than a sentence about the breakdown of the old order by pretty young women seducing foolish old men thereby usurping the old order of things.
The characters are all seen through our omnipresent narrator’s eyes and ears, and yes, there is a certain amount of stereotyping some of them. Fortunately, I’m not a snob about such things, after all stereotypes are created for a reason and there is enough drama and subversion of the ‘old order’ to quibble that the rough husband of Lady Audley’s maid, Phoebe Marks is a bit of brute with no redeeming characteristics when at the heart of the novel is a woman whose beauty doesn’t translate to the ideals of the day.
The omnipresent narrator is there from beginning to end but once Richard Audley’s story begins we are also treated to less remote view of the scenes that unfold.
“You seem to have quite a taste for discussing these horrible subjects,” she said, rather scornfully; “you ought to have been a detective police officer.”
“I sometimes think I should have been a good one.”
“Because I am patient.”
But if you are expecting the fair Lady Audley to give you some insight into her secret, you will be disappointed, that is a matter of deduction for the reader and even if you reach the truth before our amateur detective Richard Audley, you will need to continue to find out how it all ends, surely the purpose of a good book. However if you’d like you might like to reflect on the pronouncement made in this sensationalist novel, take note that this was written over one hundred and fifty years ago – what would Mary Elizabeth Braddon make of the modern woman’s opportunities?
To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators — anything they like — but let them be quiet — if they can.
Once again I’m delighted with my Classic Club read, I meanly knocked a star off because it was a bit long-winded in places and so far I’ve given all my classic reads the full five stars, but in all honesty this has ignited an intent to read more books by this author and more books in this genre.
Lady Audley’s Secret is number 2 on The Classics Club list and the fourth of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed.