In it’s resistance to the aesthetic culture that dominated the late Victorian period, ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ achieves a fabulously intricate and fully accountable plot-line that enables the author to guide the readers along, allowing their own knowledge to unravel the secrets and mysteries.
Braddon uses Lucy Audley, nee Graham, who is actually Helen Talboys nee Maldon, to rubbish the notion that the female form is for aesthetic pleasure, by humanising her psychology as Michael Field did in their picture sonnets. Lucy Audley begins as the bewitching creature who could win hearts with a glance, and ends as the unveiled wickedness she truly is. The conflict between inner and outer appearances is uncovered by Robert Audley, Lucy Audley’s nephew by marriage, whose homosocial love of his friend leads to Lady Audley’s unravelling, and Robert’s detective work enables the resolution of aestheticism and consciousness, which is particularly witnessed in Lord Audley’s reaction to his wife’s deception.
The plot runs as such: Lucy Graham has been elevated beyond her rank, moving from a governess to Lady Audley after accepting Lord Audley’s marriage proposition. Elsewhere, George Talboys returns from Australia, having made his fortune, and bumps into his old friend, Robert Audley. The men discover that George’s wife, whom he left in the dead of night to provide for, has passed away, leading them to Southampton to see her father, Lieutenant Maldon, and George’s son, little Georgey. However, all is not as it seems, as when the men travel to visit Robert’s uncle, Lord Michael Audley, George discovers Lady Audley’s true identity, for which she attempts to rid herself of him, leading Robert to attempt to uncover what has happened to his friend.
The secret and its particulars are fairly obvious from the beginning, particularly when the storyline’s converge in Audley to link George Talboys’ disappearance to his visit to Lady Audley. However, the uncovering of Lady Audley is what makes this novel particularly fascinating and a compelling read, as the duality in her nature is revealed slowly but surely, as well as the journey to Robert’s discovery providing an insight into his own relationship turmoil regarding George Talboys. Braddon uses Clara Talboys, George’s sister, to resolve the homosocial love between the two men, and as such acts as an anti-decadent device to complete the novel in a manner which resists the fashions of the period, by placing each character in a conventional concluding position.
Lady Audley herself is a fascinating creature, whom we uncover alongside Robert, particularly through her free indirect discourse, which enables her to move from being akin to the pre-Raphaelite painting of her that George and Robert see, to a physical and conscious human being with motivations and urges that she has to fulfil. This movement highlights the shallow nature of the aestheticism of the 1890s, as well as constantly refreshing the novel by revealing layer after layer of her personality until the climax in Volume Three. Her hidden duality is also complemented by Alicia Audley, Lady Audley’s stepdaughter, who highlights the alternative side to aestheticism in giving free reign to her emotions, which she calms in order to fulfil her societal role, moving from the bouncy girl that Robert Audley cannot imagine marrying, to the future Lady Towers, highlighting her change from impetuous to refined.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon succeeds in moving her plot from an aesthetic to a fully-rounded viewpoint, in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of an aesthetic lifestyle in the face of personality, social events and consciousness. As such, she is able to represent the aspects of desire and duality that add variant dimensions to each character, as opposed to leaving them as lifeless as Lady Audley’s painting.