This has been my first foray into ‘sensation’ fiction since reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White several years ago so I was very excited to get back into the genre, which I thoroughly enjoy, as well as discover a new author in Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
As with a lot of the blockbuster novels of the Victorian era, this was produced originally for magazine publication, printed serially to keep addicted readers buying the magazine week after week (or month after month, as the case might be). This means that each chapter ends with a tantalising cliffhanger to keep the reader in suspense, and leave them desperate for the next keenly awaited installment. I enjoy this style of writing immensely, as there is nothing better than a book you can’t put down. I discovered after reading The Children’s Book that a good plot is something I can’t do without in a novel, and sensation fiction puts the plot above all other considerations. This does mean that the writing is decidedly ropey in places, and the characterisation could certainly be a lot better, but I am not complaining; Braddon wasn’t attempting to win any prizes with her writing; she wrote furiously, often with more than one serial on the go at the time, in order to put food on the table for her ten children (she was quite the woman!), and so she focused on writing a jolly good story more than anything else, and she certainly succeeded in doing so with Lady Audley’s Secret. I don’t know how the original readers coped with having to wait for their next installments; I was hooked from page one!
Now the plot itself is interesting in that, by about half way through, the solution to the central mystery is pretty obvious; it’s no mindbending Jonathan Creek episode, that’s for sure. This surprised me as I thought there would be a lot more build up and confusion and subterfuge than there was. However, there are several more secrets tied up in the mystery that keep the reader guessing until the very end, and there is a very nice, and very unexpected, final twist that I really didn’t see coming. So, there is plenty in this for the amateur detective to unpick, even though the clues are not the most well hidden.
The basic premise is this; a young man named George Talboys returns from Australia to England with a small fortune he has earned over the past three years. He abandoned his wife and child in England to go to Australia and swore he wouldn’t come back to them until he has earned enough to keep them in comfort. In high spirits he comes back to London, anxious to meet his much beloved wife again and share their newly found wealth. He bumps into his old schoolfriend, a young, goodnatured and idle barrister named Robert Audley, to whom he relates his good fortune. They go off to the pub to celebrate, and in this pub George has asked his wife to leave a letter for him to tell him where she is, so that he can go to her upon his return. George is surprised to find no letter waiting for him; then, deathly pale, he shows Robert the page of The Times with the death notices in; his wife’s name, Helen Talboys, is listed as a recent death, on the Isle of Wight. Shocked and disbelieving, George and Robert go to the Isle of Wight to see Helen’s grave; her father is there, and confirms her death. George is broken and devastated, and Robert takes him back to London to care for him in his grief.
Robert has a wealthy uncle, Sir Michael Audley, who owns a stunningly perfect house, Audley Court, in Essex. Sir Michael has recently married a beautiful woman, Lady Lucy, who was of humble origin; a governess in the local doctor’s house. Everyone who meets her falls in love with her; she is sweet and good and gentle and docile; everything the perfect Victorian ‘Angel in the House’ should be. Robert decides a visit to Audley would be the perfect rest for George, and so they set off for a trip to the country. However, one afternoon George disappears, never to be seen again, and the last person he was seen with was Lady Audley. Robert, devastated at the disappearance of his friend, sets out to discover what may have been his fate.
Dum dum dum. And so the mystery begins, and while, as I say, it becomes perfectly obvious what has gone on fairly quickly, there are also several other characters who have things to hide, and there is also the mystery of Lady Audley’s ‘secret’, which may, or may not, hold the key to it all…
It’s hard to properly review a book that depends so much on its plot, as I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say it is a wonderful slice of Victorian reading history, a terrifically good mystery story, and very difficult to put down; I highly recommend it. Also, it is very interesting from the point of view of portrayals of womanhood in Victorian Britain; Lady Lucy is on the surface a ‘wax doll’ – all innocently wide eyed and helpless, but underneath the surface she is something else entirely. Braddon makes frequent comments about the artifice of female beauty, and the daringness of making a woman who appears to so embody the Victorian feminine ideal into a villainess, hiding much darker depths under that tranquil surface, is perhaps not as obvious or shocking to us now as it would have been at the time. Also, the idea of madness as a female disease, as something that explained away ‘deviant’ behaviour in a woman, is raised, and I found it fascinating how anxious male characters were to find a medical excuse for villainy in a woman, rather than accepting that women, just like men, can have base and evil characters.
I really did thoroughly enjoy this; thanks so much to Simon for launching his Sensation Season; I know I’d never have picked this up if I hadn’t have been nudged to by his challenge. Next up on my Sensation pile is Collins’ The Moonstone…I can’t wait!
I love Lady Audley's Secret. I read it a number of years ago but I think it's up for a re-read because everyone's been talking about it. Yes, sensation fiction is fun. You should also try Wilkie Collins' Armadale and No Name.
I was surprised by how much I really loved this one, despite the really obvious devices! lol My copy had a diffrerent cover, but used the same painting, and I think it's PERFECT for Lady Audley!
That sounds good; I've still to read much sensation fiction but I love the idea of a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter – normally a chapter is a convenient breaking point – how would you ever put the book down?!
I'm looking forward to immersing myself in this over the weekend. I need something completely gripping with cliffhangers aplenty.
Sensation fiction is fun, and you've just given me another title to add to my list. I think you'll love The Moonstone!
I rescued this title from the discard bin at the library last year. It was quite spooky as the very next day, while reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Lady Audley's Secret was mentioned in the book! Love the idea of a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter so I'm off upstairs now to retrieve my copy for a browse. The cover art on your copy is gorgeous!
I just have to read this! I have been slightly meaning to read it ever since I was a little girl, and now it's on book blogs everywhere. I do love a good sensation novel…
Oh, I listened to this when it was on Radio 4 a few months (?) ago, and absolutely loved it! I'd like to read the book itself at some point though.
Phew… I am so, so pleased that you loved this and thank you for saying such nice things about the Sensation Season on the blog. I am delightfully indulging in No Name at the moment, I honestly don't think I have a sensational favourite though Lady Audley's Secret, Armadale and The Woman in White are the top three, so far, if I was pushed.
I've not heard of this author but when I read 'The Woman in White' many years ago thought it one of the best books I have ever read and found it difficult to put down.
I've never read this one, and I had no real idea what it was about, though I had heard of it, at least. I wasn't a huge fan of Armadale, which is the only Wilkie Collins I've ever read. I have The Moonstone on my shelf, though, so I'm looking forward to your reivew!
Mrs B – Glad you loved it too! No Name is going to be one of my next reads, along with The Moonstone…I can't get enough of Sensation novels at the moment!Eva – I know, the obviousness didn't affect my enjoyment at all! Isn't the cover stunning? I thought it was very fitting too!Verity – Well that's the only negative part – you can't put them down! I am finding myself staying up later and later recently as most of my reading has been sensation based! You should definitely read some in this genre, they are such great reads, and really interesting from a social/cultural history point of view too.Claire – Gripping and cliffhangers will be what you will get from this aplenty!JoAnn – Yes, do read this! The Moonstone is something I am very much looking forward to, I've heard such good things!Darlene- Discard bin indeed! Well done for rescuing such a treasure! Isn't the cover beautiful?! OUP have done a great job with their re design. I have just started Suspicions of Mr Whicher and I'm loving it!Jenny – This won't disappoint, I promise!Sophie – This is so worth a read! And this copy is so beautiful too…Simon – it's my pleasure! I am genuinely loving getting immersed in sensation fiction, it's perfect for this time of year. I have never read so many of the same type of novels in a concentrated period before, but I'm really enjoying it actually, and finding that one novel leads seamlessly into another. Your review of Armadale was so enticing that I think I'm going to have to buy it!OhSoVintage – If you loved The Woman in White you wil love this!!Aarti – This is really good, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon was considered a rival to Wilkie Collins in her day so she's well worth a look. Hopefully I will love The Moonstone too and that might give you the incentive to pick it up perhaps?!
I really enjoyed this one as well. I really love Victorian sensation literature and read a couple of books every year if I can–especially anything by Wilkie Collins. Simon's sensation reading sounds like fun and I would have loved to join in, but I am already feeling swamped, so I'll just enjoy everyone's posts!
Wow, I’ve never read any sensation fiction before, and now I need to, starting with this. Great review!