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!