Thackeray once walked to the local railroad station three times in a single day to enquire weather his copy of her latest novel had arrived. Tennyson declared himself "steeped in Miss Braddon" and engaged in reading every word she had ever written. R.L. Stevenson wrote to her from Samoa that "it is something to be greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and to that you have attained."It is odd to think that such a hugely popular novel should fall into relative obscurity years later, but happily it is still available, if not as well-known as the book that inspired it, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. I read Lady Audley's Secret in high school, back in the mesozoic, and it was one of my favorite obligatory reads ever. I have kept that same copy over the years, moving it from place to place, and with the R.I.P. challenge in full swing, I thought now would be the perfect opportunity for a reread.
[And let me take a moment to say that the Dover edition of this book is so well made that, aside from some very slight foxing on the top pages, it looks brand new - and it's a paperback! This warms the cockles of the heart of this librarian, who is saddened to see hardbound bestsellers snapping at the spine after being on the library shelves less than a year, and now many publishers use this hard plasticky glue that doesn't allow mending glue to bond to it, so we have to throw the poor, wounded books into the trash. Grrr.]
While the book is a sensational rather than a true Gothic novel, it contains the elements of the perfect R.I.P. challenge book: dark old house with an ominous shady walkway in the gardens, a portrait that shows the lady of the house in a rather sinister light, missing persons, blackmail, mysterious graves, cryptic telegrams and an overall dark, suspenseful atmosphere. The descriptions fairly drip with foreboding:
The lowing of a cow in the quiet meadows, the splash of a trout in the fish-pond, the last notes of a tired bird, the creaking of wagon-wheels upon the distant road, every now and then breaking the evening silence, only made the stillness of the place seem more intense. It was almost oppressive, this twilight stillness. The very repose of the place grew painful from its intensity, and you felt as if a corpse must be lying somewhere within that gray and ivy-covered pile of building - so deathlike was the tranquility of all around.The story, while told in an omniscient third person point of view, most closely follows the character of young Robert Audley, a well-off young man who has completed his studies to be a lawyer, but is so content to drift through life, enjoying its pleasures and the company of his friends and family, that he has never actually bothered to practice law. A chance meeting with George Talboys, an old school friend returned from several years in Australia, completely alters the course of his life. George suffers a tragic loss that makes Robert, for the first time, take interest in something beyond himself. He brings George with him to visit his uncle at Audley Court, thinking a change of scene might be of help. Sir Michael Audley has recently remarried a beautiful young woman, and the more Robert learns of her, the more he feels a suspicion about her, a suspicion that grows to a dreadful certainty with time. Robert fears to learn the truth, yet he feels compelled to discover all he can, if only to prove that his is, thankfully, mistaken. His search takes him to some squalid and atmospheric locales, such as the following neighborhood:
Brigsome's Terrace was, perhaps, one of the most dismal blocks of building that was ever composed of brick and mortar since the first mason plied his trowel and the first architect drew his plan. The builder who had speculated in the ten dreary eight-roomed prison-houses had hung himself behind the parlor door of an adjacent tavern while the carcases were yet unfinished. The man who had bought the brick and mortar skeletons had gone through the bankruptcy court while the paper hangers were still busy in Brigsome's Terrace, and had whitewashed his ceilings and himself simultaneously....Solvent tenants were disturbed at unhallowed hours by the noise of ghostly furniture vans creeping stealthily away in the moonless night.I have done my best to introduce the book without giving anything away. Still, it is not difficult to guess what is happening in the novel - it's almost an open mystery, but for a few intriguing details - yet that hardly matters. The characters quickly move from the expected stereotype to become believable individuals, and they definitely carry the story. The novel, even though it was written so long ago, has a surprisingly modern feel to it and could easily be an historical novel set in Victorian times. As I read I kept marveling at Braddon's use of language, as well as her characterizations of women in the story. It seems that it might have been rather subversive, as one particular character does some despicable deeds, yet she still manages to gain sympathy and understanding from the reader (at least this reader). I leave you with one more passage, just because I love her evocative descriptions:
He was a man of about fifty years of age, tall, straight, bony and angular, with a square, pale face, light gray eyes, and scanty dark hair, brushed from either ear across a bald crown, and thus imparting to his physiognomy some faint resemblance to that of a terrier - a sharp, uncompromising, hard-headed terrier - a terrier not to be taken in by the cleverest dog-stealer who ever distinguished himself in his profession.I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this dark, atmospheric novel. Fans of Wilkie Collins should not hesitate to try this one, as well as Braddon's many other wonderful novels.
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; introduction by Norman Donaldson (Dover Publications, 1974, 1887, 1862)
Also reviewed at:
Eve's Alexandria: "If her story proves somewhat predictable for modern tastes, there is a strange pleasure in watching your suspicions proved correct, and the novel has other points of interest."
A Striped Armchair: "The plot isn’t really the point; instead, the heart of the novel is in the characters, all of whom are very finely drawn. From the kind-hearted but lazy friend, to his fox-hunting, ‘gypsy faced’ cousin, the characters manage to be both stereotypical and immensely human."