Sunday, August 1, 2010

“The Infamy of Her Sex”: Reviewing “Lady Audley’s Secret”

Title: Lady Audley’s Secret
Author: Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Reader: Elizabeth Klett
Location: Recording hosted by Librivox. It is in the public domain.

Final Verdict: 3 out of 5. The novel is engaging, and at times its suspense is mouth-watering, but it has a tendency to be a bit obvious, and the author has a tendency to obsesses and digress at great and oftentimes irrelevant length.

Beware—spoilers ahead. It was rather difficult to decide what constituted a spoiler and what did not, as the novel itself wears its veil of mystery so lightly, and indulges so gleefully in its own inopportune revelations, that it sometimes did not seem to fit the mystery genre at all.

Lord Audley has remarried, and his wife, Lucy Graham, is the epitome of grace and beauty. Lord Audely’s nephew, Robert, is charmed by “my Lady”, and hopes that his recently widowed friend, George Talboys, might take some comfort in her presence. But the lady refuses to meet them, and George, too grief-stricken to appreciate his friend’s idea of comfort, plans to sail for Australia, and leave the memory of his dead wife behind. Robert convinces George to wile away the time before his departure on the pleasant grounds of Lord Audley’s country manor. George agrees—and hours later, vanishes.

Robert at first believes that his friend has simply boarded an earlier ship—but his inquiries leave him baffled. George’s things remain in his room, and no man matching George’s description boarded any Australia-bound vessel. Indeed, no one can even say that Robert’s friend left the grounds. He was last seen at the house—inquiring after Lady Audley.

As Robert continues his investigation, clues, in the shape of subtle words and Lady Audley’s more subtle smiles, begins to form a picture of a mystery far deeper than any Robert could have fathomed. George Talboys did not leave the country the day he disappeared. And Lady Audley knows more about it than she pretends. If Robert means to find his friend, he must first discover the truth about the woman lurking behind the name of Lady Audley.


Despite appearances, Lady Audley’s Secret is less concerned with the “who” of the “whodunit” as much as with the “why”. I never felt wholly “in” on the mystery of George Talboy’s disappearance for two reasons.

[SPOILERS] Firstly, the novel had a tendency to be obvious and reveal its own mysteries before those mysteries were even introduced. The novel’s title and first chapter bluntly indicate Lady Audley’s guilt. Indeed, she confesses to her motivations before she even commits her crimes. After George vanishes and Robert launches his investigation, Braddon seems to give up on hiding the identity of her criminal—she switches to Lady Audley’s point of view and implicates her with the revelation of her true nature in a single scene. [/END SPOILERS]

Secondly, Robert Audley, amateur detective, learns more about the mystery than he ever reveals. I had the feeling, while listening to Secret, that Robert and I were conducting our own private investigations—Robert with painstaking delicacy, careful to make no accusations or upset the Victorian fragility of his society until forced; and I with ham-handed bluntness. (From chapter one, I assumed Secret would end with a twist, and so pointed to the most innocent-looking character, cried, “Guilty!”, and then spent the remainder of the novel thumbing my nose at red herrings and waiting to be validated.)

But mystery may not be the point of Lady Audley’s Secret. Wikipedia calls the book a “sensation novel”, and Secret is indeed sensational. There is blackmail and attempted murders, locked drawers and stolen letters. Sensation is wound up to a pitch worthy of a Gothic novel, and the suspense is ever-mounting, making the novel engrossingly suspenseful without being much of a mystery. [SPOILERS] At the heart of the novel lies one woman’s motivation for murder, but her motive is larger than the entire plot, because it embraces ideas of women’s disenfranchisement and dependence during the Victorian period. Crime, Braddon suggests, may have been a woman’s sole source of power. [/END SPOILERS]

Secret revolves around this idea: that society renders women so powerless that it is only by underhanded scheming that they can take control of their lives. Robert Audley muses at length upon the underhanded wiles of women as he conducts his investigations, for he is met at every turn by their secrets and lies, and for most of the novel, he distrusts and condemns them. But it as if Braddon is determined to argue with him. The story veers into long digressions that reproach Robert’s misgivings just as often as Robert himself makes his criticisms. It is as if Braddon is debating the subject of women with him—Robert holds that women are needlessly troublesome, and she argues that they act from “awful necessity”. The affect is a little bewildering.

Also bewildering is Braddon’s tendency to switch points of view at random. In the first few chapters, she switches from Lucy Graham to George Talboys to Robert Audley. She remains with Robert for most of Secret except when she writes from the POV of Lucy Graham/Lady Audley and Lucy’s maid, Phoebe. The amount of time spent in each POV is uneven, and it was this fact, I suspect, that I found jarring.

[SPOILERS] But I loved that Braddon allowed me to view the story from Lady Audley’s point of view. For one, the lady was simply more interesting than the often self-righteous Robert. And once Robert makes it clear to her that he is onto her crime, their ensuing battle unfolds deliciously.

Robert and Lucy are both powerful opponents, and seeing their battle from both sides blurs the distinction between right and wrong. Who is to say that Robert is right to ruin Lady Audley? And who is to say that the lady’s actions were not justified?

There was one aspect of the novel that irritated me enough to rate it lower than I might have otherwise done. The author exhibits a rather unfortunate tendency to obsess over Lady Audley’s beauty, and the effect was painful by chapter four. Lady Audley’s “fascination” is well established in the first chapter; the repetition is needless. It is as if Braddon was trying too hard to misdirect the reader, or was utterly dazzled by the irony of a charming woman committing murder. Lady Audley is, true, narcissistic in the extreme, but that seems little excuse for the author to fixate upon her “little jeweled hand” and butter-bright burls at the rate that she does. [/END SPOILERS]

Elizabeth Klett is fast becoming one of my favourite narrators on Librivox. Her voice, and her recordings, are always clear and crisp. I rarely had to bother with the volume—Elizabeth’s Klett’s narration remains even throughout. While there is not a wide variety among her repertoire of character voices, characters are always distinguished from one another and the narration. My favourite voice was Alicia’s. Her personality comes through clearly; she almost sounds as though she is smirking or on the verge of laughing with all the delightful sarcasm of her character. Robert Audley’s voice holds a wellspring of irony in it as well, and his narration also numbers among my favourites.

I highly recommend this audiobook. It’s an enjoyable listen, and at times so engrossing that I found it hard to put down when I was no longer washing dishes/cooking dinner/commuting, and probably should have been studying math and German. Indeed, I began to fabricate reasons to engage in some household spring (summer?) cleaning just so I could keep listening!

• Find the audiobook, again, here at Librivox!
• The Gutenberg Project hosts the text of the novel.
• Wikipedia offers an interesting article, analysis, and an even more fascinating bibliography for your perusal.


  1. Oooh, sounds good! I love mysteries. A rating of 3/5 is not bad!

    p.s. - the html spoilers made me laugh out loud.

  2. [spoilers] and [/end spoilers] need be added to the HTML vocabulary list, :3 This is my vote toward its inclusion! ... Though it probably already exists and I just don't know it, xD

  3. Very interesting and thorough review- thanks for the heads up about LibriVox as a source for audiobooks!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Emily! :) I love the idea behind LibriVox, and it's become a goal of mine to listen to every recording they have to offer.