Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

April 10, 2022 at 8:12 pm (Art, books)

To begin with, the word ‘Secret’ should have been plural: Lady Audley had several, any one of which, if revealed, could have torpedoed her status as ‘My Lady’ within the staid rigors of Victorian society.

I first encountered information on this novel in the pages of Kate Summerscale’s riveting book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. One of the things that made that book so fascinating was the telling of the various ways in which the contemporary culture reacted to news of the grotesque murder at the center of Summerscale’s narrative. During the heat of the high profile investigation, both Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins caught ‘detective fever’ and found themselves speculating on possible solutions. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Braddon‘s response to the hubbub was to write Lady Audley’s Secret.

From the viewpoint of plot, the two books have very little in common. But from the standpoint of character, they have one commonality: both feature a woman at the center of a maelstrom, a woman whose moral compass has malfunctioned, with predictably disastrous results. Braddon’s novel falls into the category of literature called ‘novels of sensation.’ Allow me to quote myself, from the post I linked to above:

‘According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the busy London lodgings.’” Summerscale elaborates: “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”‘

In other words, if your feelings are somewhat numb – try one!

This was actually my second reading of Lady Audley’s Secret. Why did I decide to reread this novel at the present moment? I was having trouble finding reading matter that adequately matched my mood. In particular, I was experiencing one disappointment after another with new so-called ‘literary fiction.’ I’m sure some of it is very good; it just did not seem to be written for me.

When I descend into doldrums of this sort, I tend to reach back to the classics for consolation – and inspiration. My first attempt was a novel I’ve always meant to read but have never gotten all the way through: Crime and Punishment. I’ve always found Dostoevsky tougher going than Tolstoy. I recently read, for the first time, the latter’s short story “Master and Man” and found it powerfully moving. So, how did I do with Dostoevsky this time around? Better…but not completely. These days, due to the magic of Kindle, I could tell precisely how much of the novel I got through: eighty-one percent. I was reading the Constance Garnett translation; possibly a more recent one would have worked better for me. At any rate, I may go back to it, at some future time….

In contrast, reading Lady Audley’s Secret was a breeze. I was engrossed from the outset and stayed that way until the end. In addition, at the time of this reading, I was taking a most pleasurable Lifelong Learning class on the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Just before the final session of this course, I happened upon a passage in which the author describes a portrait of Lady Audley:

Yes, the painter must have been a pre-Raphaelite. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. 

It was so like, and yet so unlike. It was as if you had burned strange-colored fires before my lady’s face, and by their influence brought out new lines and new expressions never seen in it before. The perfection of feature, the brilliancy of coloring, were there; but I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. 

Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of color as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colors of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one.’

I immediately copied this text and sent it to our instructor. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. Lady Audley’s Secret came out in 1862. The edition at the top of this post features a painting by Dante Gabriel Rosetti entitled Monna Vanna.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Monna Vanna, 1866.

Meanwhile, I had recently read of a new book by Christine Emba, one of my favorite Washington Post columnists. Here it is:

The cover image is by yet another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Frederick Sandys. It is called Love’s Shadow.

Love’s shadow *oil on panel *40.6 x 32.5 cm *1867

There really is something witchy about the way in which the Pre-Raphaelite painters depict certain women…

1 Comment

  1. Jack Thompson said,

    Victoriana, the English mindset and it’s suppressed Celtic nature. A world of the unexplored.

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