Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Lady Audley's SecretLady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

I discovered this much overlooked page-turner while reading Elaine Showalter's brilliant study, "A Literature of Their Own." In Showalter's words: "Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 'Lady Audley's Secret' (1862) presents us with a carefully controlled female fantasy, which Braddon understands and manipulates with minute exactitude. Braddon's bigamous heroine deserts her child, pushes husband number one down a well, thinks about poisoning husband number two, and sets fire to a hotel in which her other male acquaintances are residing." SOLD!

The novel happens to be one of the greatest successes in publishing history: there were eight editions the first year alone. It also happens to be a brilliant example of female sensationalism, as well as, a sometimes hysterical inversion of Victorian sentimental and domestic conventions. Braddon does NOT explain Lady Audley's actions by means of excessive passion or love or tragic romance. Braddon wrote in a letter to Wilkie Collins "It is this feeling, or rather this incapacity for any strong feeling, that, I believe, causes the flippancy of tone which jars upon your sense of the dignity of art. I can't help looking down upon my heroes when they suffer, because I always have in my mind the memory of wasted suffering of my own." (How can you not love this woman.)

Aficionados of madness will appreciate this book, big time. Phyllis Chesler has documented the way madness was used as a way of labeling deviance from the feminine role. The Victorians (like us!) were particularly obsessed with the threat of insanity descending without clear warning, either from some "taint of blood" or misfire in the brain or following a moment of extreme stress. Showalter writes "Lady Audley's unfeminine assertiveness, so different from the plastic passivity of a Laura Fairlie, must ultimately be described as madness [...]" It's been posited that Lady Audley's secret isn't that she's the victim of insanity hereditary in the female lane. "Lady Audley's real secret is that she is sane and, moreover, representative." (Showalter, 167)

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