Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Lady Audley's Secret by M.E. Braddon

This book was read for the Brontë Reading Group. We met yesterday to discuss this classic tale of bigamy, deceit and murder. And what a discussion! Ms Braddon might have been devastated of all the things the group read into the characters and the events, or proud that she has managed to write a story which is so captivating, with its many tricks and turns.

Lucy Graham is a governess with the local doctor when Sir Michael Audley, a middle aged local gentry, falls head over heels in love with her. She is the prettiest thing of earth, good tempered and too good to be true. She is loved by everyone, except Alicia, the daughter of Sir Michael from his first marriage. They marry and all is well until Sir Michael's nephew, Robert Audley, comes to visit with his friend George Talboys. George has been in Australia for several years to seek his luck in the gold industry. He comes back a rich man. On his return he finds that his wife is dead and has left their son with her father. George is devastated, and Robert takes care of him and tries to nurse him back to life. They decide to vist his uncle and his new wife and enjoy the refreshing country life. The situation becomes somewhat tight when Lady Audley, hear the name of Robert's friend and try by all means to avoid meeting him.  Now starts a cat and mouse game with avoidance, disappearance, mystery, deceit and murder. It is very well done and it is not until the very end that you know how the story will end. We deal with a cunning lady, maybe with a streak of madness, but definitely one who manages to manipulate her surroundings.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, born 1835,  was one of the most popular novelists of the Victorian era. Her parents were separated and her brother left for India and later Australia.  To support herself and her mother, she worked as an actress for some years under the name of Mary Seyton. She never really made it big so she went into writing instead, which we should be grateful for. In 1860 she met John Maxwell, a publisher of periodicals. In 1861 she started living with him. He was married, had five children, and wife in an asylum in Ireland. Quite forward for the time! She got six children with him and they finally married in 1874, when Maxwell's wife died.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Braddon produced more than 80 novels, but Lady Audley's Secret won her recognition and a fortune. She was self sufficient on the profit of this novel alone. She also founded Belgravia magazine in 1866, which contained novels, poems, travels narratives and biographies, essays on fashion, history and science. It came with lavish illustrations and it made literature available at an affordable cost. She died in 1915 in Richmond and is buried in its cemetery. A number of streets in this area are named after characters in her novels.

In a non-fiction book I read recently, Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyly (my review here), she and Lady Audley's Secret are mentioned.

"Just two months after Lizzie delivered her dead baby, on 6 July 1861, the sensational tale of Lady Audley's Secret began its first serialisation in the weekly Robin Goodfellow magazine. Lizzie had a very specific connection with the story's heroine: they had both been painted by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 


Mary Seyton's real name was Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Her experience in the theatre taught her about narrative and storytelling, but more than anything it must have taught her about the popular appetite for a good story. She could read what it was that an audience craved and what chimed with the times.

It is testimony to the fame the Brotherhood had achieved a decade after its incarnation that Braddon chose to define her heroine's beauty within the terms of their work. It is also testimony to Lizzie and the others, such as Annie and Fanny, who so influenced the PRB aesthetic. In this regard Lady Audley's very existence - in terms of her bewitching physical beauty - and the space she quickly occupied in the public imagination owed much to these girls.

Quote from Lady Audley's Secret

'Yes, the painter must have been a pre Raphaelite. No one but a pre Raphaelite would have painted hair by hair those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one put a pre Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. ' (If you are acquainted with the paintings of the pre Raphaelites, you can imagine the beauty of Lady Audley.)

Braddon chose to make her mesmerising heroine a Pre-Raphaelite subject not least because the real Pre-Raphaelite models had cast a spell on those who painted them. The tales of tangled love affairs and men swept off their feet by their ravishing muses were common currency. Braddon instinctively tapped into this and was rewarded when her fictional siren, with her masses of golden ringlets and crimson robe, captivated the Victorian public."

It is said that through her experience in the theatre, she knew what people wanted to have. That makes sense when one reads her book, it could very well be adapted to the stage, as it also was. There are so many different turns in this book, and even today, 150 years later, it is a pleasure to read. From our discussions yesterday, I gather that most people liked the book. I certainly did. It is, in spite of its age, an easy read, a lot of dialogue, maybe a little bit repetitive from time to time, but a great story that keeps you captivated to the very end. It gives you a taste to read something more of her.

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