When I joined The Classics Club, the first thing I did was go through the list on Kindle, to see which of the books were available for free or reduced fees. This is one of the great things about reading classics—many of those in the public domain are available at no cost for e-readers through the volunteers at Project Gutenberg. I figured I would load a couple of Kindle titles immediately so I didn’t waste any late night reading time, which is when I really enjoy using my Kindle. And one of the first items I loaded was M.E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Lucky for me, a night of insomnia led me to yet another unexpectedly enjoyable classic!
Lady Audley’s Secret is often described as the quintessential Victorian “sensation” novel, providing a glimpse into that tightly ordered world by examining what happens when its conventions are completely abandoned. The novel begins with the poor but beautiful Lucy Graham winning the heart of widower Lord Michael Audley. Formerly employed by the local doctor as a governess, Lucy’s life before coming to Essex is veiled in some sad mystery. Lord Audley adores spoiling his young and charming wife, hoping to make up for her past unhappiness, to the disgust of his own daughter Alicia (who happens to be about the same age as her new stepmother).
Meanwhile, back in London, presumptive heir to Lord Audley’s title barrister Robert Audley runs into a dear old friend, George Talboys, just richly returned from a gold-panning expedition to Australia, who is searching for the young and beautiful wife he abandoned in an attempt to change their dwindling fortunes. The fortunes were dwindling, I might add, because George’s father disinherited his son when he rashly chose to marry the beautiful but penniless Helen. Alas, just as George triumphantly returns to England, her death is announced in the papers, breaking his heart. But fate brings the many threads of the story together at Audley Court – until, of course, George Talboys mysteriously vanishes, and Robert is compelled to find out the meaning of his friend’s disappearance – no matter the cost to his beloved family.
I like to think of it as the Grandmother of every radio serial and soap opera ever produced –many of the motifs that pack this 300 page novel are still playing out on the airwaves and Internet today: revenge, doppelgangers, orphaned children, unscrupulous parents. I read that it was originally printed in installments, which explains why each chapter adds some information about Lucy’s past – and ends in some kind of cliffhanger. Reading it all together makes for quite a rollercoaster. The seven deadly sins get quite a workout in Lady Audley’s Secret, but as you’d expect from a Victorian novel, the heavenly virtues are also in evidence, drawing a very clear delineation of those who live within society’s boundaries, and those who live without. There’s also a healthy dose of the occult. For example, Alicia’s dog seems to have a preternatural fear of the new Lady Audley:
The Newfoundland rolled his eyes slowly round in the direction of the speaker, as if he understood every word that had been said. Lady Audley happened to enter the room at this very moment, and the animal cowered down by the side of his mistress with a suppressed grow. There was something in the manner of the dog which was, if anything, more indicative of terror than of fury; incredible as it appears that Caesar should be frightened by so fragile a creature as Lucy Audley.p. 72
I thoroughly enjoyed every frothy, overwrought minute of this novel. It was so true to its time period, yet edgy in its confrontation of social taboos. I had never even heard of Lady Audley’s Secret until, trying to expand beyond Elizabeth Gaskill, I looked up a list of female Victorian authors and found Mary Elizabeth (M.E.) Braddon. The book also appeared on the Manchester Guardian’s 1000 Books Everyone Must Read: The Definitive List. That’s a pretty bold claim for any list, and I certainly found some striking omissions (not surprisingly, the list is very English-centric), but I think it’s a fabulous resource, conveniently broken up into genre: comedy, crime, family and self, love, science fiction and fantasy, state of the nation, and war and travel. I will definitely be culling this list for more ideas for future challenges, as the recommendations so far have been outstanding.
This book counts as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much, and is my second book for The Classics Club. It was free for my Kindle, which keeps my total for that Challenge so far at $2.51. Since this is considered a crime genre classic, I am also linking it to the R.I.P. VIII Challenge, hosted by Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings, which started just a little bit early this year.