I was too late to read this for the Cornflower Book Club but seeing that it was available as a free download for the Kindle I decided to give it a go. I’m so glad I did! I’d been disenchanted with my recent reading and this book by Mary Elizabeth Braddon really gripped me; I can seldom have read such a long book so quickly.
Lady Audley is married to the much older Sir Michael Audley of Audley Court. Enchanted by her beauty and gaiety, he has rescued her from life as a governess with a local doctor’s family, showered her with expensive luxuries and, poor fool, worships the ground she walks on. Alicia, his daughter from his first marriage, is less impressed by this childish wax doll, as she thinks of her, and relations between the two women are strained. The hero of the novel is Sir Michael’s nephew Robert, who loves and admires his uncle. Robert is very similar in character to Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend. He’s a barrister who doesn’t bother to practise, a clever man who lounges around reading French novels, one of life’s idle onlookers. All this changes when his friend George Talboys disappears mysteriously from Audley Court and Robert believes him not only dead, but murdered. Suddenly he exerts himself to an extraordinary degree, dashing about the country following up clues until he believes he has enough circumstantial evidence to solve the mystery. The speed of travel by rail and coach in Victorian times (1862) is very impressive.
Lady Audley’s secret is obvious very early in the novel. The question is, will she get away with it and commit an even worse crime or be unmasked? This is what gives the story its impetus and has the reader turning or clicking the pages faster and faster as the book approaches its end. Robert Audley’s methods qualify him to be an early detective; if he were a professional this would surely be counted a detective story. His moral dilemma is that he knows that the truth will break his uncle’s heart and possibly involve the family in a major scandal. There are surprises, a couple of love stories and a happy ending depicting domestic bliss.
There’s an important role in the book for a portrait of Lady Audley which is said to be influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and to show the true character of the sitter. Mrs Braddon frequently invokes the Pre-Raphaelites in her descriptions of Lady Audley, with her ’nimbus’ of wonderful golden hair. I wonder if she looked a little like Rossetti’s idea of Helen of Troy?
Now I’ll pop over to visit Cornflower and see what other people had to say about Lady Audley’s Secret.