The Victorian critics were scathing about the sensation novels as they portray “dangerous” women whose sexuality and affects are uncontrolled. Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon includes such factors and was “one of the best-selling novels, not only of the 1860s but of the entire latter half of the nineteenth century.” (Cvetkovich, 45 ) Elaine Showalter discusses that sensation novels gave voice to women whose life is dominated by the role as daughters, wives, and mothers, and expressed “a wide range of suppressed female emotions.” (158-159)
Suppression of various female emotions was caused by the division of labour in the 19th century England as the middle-class home and family developed: “the moral and reproductive labour of the wife and mother within the private domestic sphere, and the competitive, economic, productive labour of the husband in the public sphere of industry, commerce and politics.” (Pykett, 12) This situation produced the definition of the “proper feminine” which is represented by the following qualities: “the domestic ideal, or angel in the house; the Madonna; the keeper of the domestic temple; asexuality; passionless; innocence; self-abnegation; commitment to duty; self-sacrifice; the lack of a legal identity; dependence; slave; victim.”(Pykett, 16) At the same time, the “improper feminine” is thus represented: “a demon or wild animal; a whore; a subversive threat to the family; threateningly sexual; pervaded by feeling; knowing; self-assertive; desiring and actively pleasure-seeking; pursuing self-fulfillment and self-identity; independent; enslaver; and victimizer or predator.” (Pykett, 16 )
Such definitions as “proper feminine” and “improper feminine” may have been useful not only for the division of labour but also in repressing female sexuality. Victorian theorists represent woman as “non-sexual, or asexual – disembodied” (Pykett 15) though they insisted on the primacy of maternity defining woman in terms of a sexual function. We will examine how Lady Audley assumes two roles of “proper feminine” and “improper feminine” for different purposes, and cleverly makes use of the sexist ideology.
(2) Lady Audley in Disguise
Lady Audley skillfully uses masks as “an innocent little girl” and “a beautiful fiend” depending on each situation. Her portrait discloses her two different sides: “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 but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness 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.”(70) The portrait is drawn according to a pre-Raphaelite way which makes the sign of Lady Audley’s “erotic power.”(Montwieler, 50) The painter emphasizes her physical beauty such as “those feathery masses of ringlets” “the blonde complexion” “the deep blue eyes.” It is also noteworthy that the painter gives two opposite images to Lady Audley by adding “the hard and almost wicked look” to “that pretty pouting mouth”: She is portrayed as an innocent angel as well as “a beautiful fiend.” (71)
Alicia, Sir Michael Audley’s daughter, looking at a portrait, remarks: “a painter is….able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it.”(71) Alicia also says “we have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could look so.” (71-72) There is some truth in what Alicia says. However, Robert, Sir Micheal’s nephew, opposes Alicia’s views: “Don’t be German, Alicia, if you love me. The picture is － the picture; and my lady is － my lady. That’s my way of taking things, and I’m not metaphysical; don’t unsettle me.” (72) It is notable that he repeats this remark several times with “an air of terror perfectly sincere.”(72) Robert’s reaction tells that he is fearful that Lady Audley’s hidden part should be exposed, and this fear may lead to Robert’s latent fear of women in general.
Lady Audley’s remarkable acting ability allays Robert’s fear. Here, let us turn to the scene in which Lady Audley is elegantly making tea: “Better the pretty influence of the tea-cups and saucers gracefully wielded in a woman’s hand, than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of the pen from the unwilling sterner sex. Imagine all the women of England elevated to the high level of masculine intellectuality; superior to crinoline; above pearl power and Mrs. Rachel Levison; above taking the pains to be pretty; above making themselves agreeable; above tea-tables, and that cruelly scandalous and rather satirical gossip which even strong men delight in; and what a dreary utilitarian, ugly life the sterner sex must lead.” (223)
Here, “the pretty influence of the tea-cups and saucers wielded in a woman’s hand” is described as more agreeable and better than a man’s competence at writing. This comes from fear that women might “elevate to the high level of masculine intellectuality”: If women lose interest in dressing up, making up to look attractive, men should lead “a dreary utilitarian, ugly life.” It may sound ironic when we consider the fact that Lady Audley has such a great intellect as to change her identity and commit bigamy, while cleverly assuming the role of “Angel in the House.”
Let us turn to the scene which shows Lady Audley has a keen intellect while pretending to be an innocent girl. Knowing Robert suspects she murdered her ex-husband, Lady Audley goes to Sir Michael’s library, where she uses her knowledge and logic to persuade Sir Michael of Robert’s insanity: “ ‘Robert Audley is mad,’ she said, decisively. ‘What is one of the strongest diagnostics of madness － what is the first appalling sign of mental aberration? The mind becomes stationary; the brain stagnates; the even current of the mind is interrupted; the thinking power of the brain resolves itself into a monotone….and perpetual reflection upon one subject resolves itself into monomania. Robert Audley is a monomaniac….’” (287)
This shows Lady Audley’s competent knowledge of a mental illness and she artfully tries to persuade Sir Michael that Robert becomes a monomaniac as a result that he tenaciously thinks about his missing friend, George. Here, Lady Audley transforms herself from “a frivolous childish beauty”(288) to “a strong woman” who vindicates herself. It proves that her usual “childishness” and “innocence” is a convenient tool to hide her intellect and self-assertiveness.
It is notable that Lady Audley also has an “utilitarian” “ugly” side. This side is revealed when Lady Audley’s crime is comes to light and she is sent to a lunatic asylum as Dr. Alwyn Mosgrave diagnoses her as having “latent insanity,” (379) Just before Lady Audley is ejected from the house, she, trying to carry at least one of her possessions, wraps herself in a costly Indian shawl: “Remember how much she had periled for a fine house and gorgeous furniture, for carriages and horses, jewels and laces; and do not wonder if she clung with a desperate tenacity to gauds and gew-gaws in the hour of her despair. If she had been Judas she would have held to her thirty pieces of silver to the last moment of her shameful life.” (374) The narrator thus emphasizes Lady Audley’s “utilitarian” side. In other words, Lady Audley is capable of fighting for a battle for survival. Pretending to be an innocent angel, Lady Audley is knowing, eagerly gratifying her desire. This scene shows the absurdity of the idea that every woman belongs to the category of “proper feminine.” Here, categories such as “proper feminine” and “improper feminine” turn out to be a fantasy. This proves that women are not so simple as to be divided into either the “Madonna” or “fiend.”
(3) Phoebe as Lady Audley’s double
Let us turn to Phoebe, Lady Audley’s maid, who has similar characteristics to Lady Audley’s. Lady Audley says to Phoebe: “Do you know, Phoebe, I have heard some people say you and I are alike?” (57) Phoebe, keeping herself in the background, thus replies: “…your ladyship is a beauty, and I’m a poor plain creature.” (57-58) Lady Audley, saying “it is only colour that you want” gives advice: “…with a bottle of hair dye,…and a pot of rouge, you’d be as good-looking as I any day.” (58) As Montwieler points out that “anyone can become Lady Audley” (54), every woman can be good looking with the help of cosmetics and it is likely that there will appear one woman after another like Lady Audley. Furthermore, Phoebe is familiar with French language so that she can talk with Lady Audley about books she ordered. As Phobe has such a brilliant intellect, she has potential to rise from “Lady’s maid” to “Lady’s companion.”
It is also notable that Phoebe and Lady Audley are both victims of selfish men: “The likeness which the lady’s maid bore to Lucy was, perhaps, a point of sympathy between the two women.”(104) Phoebe is engaged to her cousin, Luke, and she confesses “I don’t think I can love him.” (107) According to Phoebe, she promised that she would marry him when almost 15 years old, and Luke is the type of man who will murder his lover for being false to her word. Lady Audley also had a bitter experience in that she has been deserted by her first husband, George, for three and half years. George left the letter informing Lady Audley that he would go to Australia to make his fortune. Later, Lady Audley changed her name and got married to a baronet, Sir Michael. George, upon returning from Australia, finds the fact and threatens to disclose her identity. Lady Audley tries to murder George pushing him to the bottom of a well.
Though Lady Audley’s crime is unforgivable, she never submits tamely to miserable conditions, struggling to attain her desire at all costs. This energy and greed of “the weaker sex” can be a threat to established institutions. It is noteworthy that Phoebe also has the same characteristics as Lady Audley’s: “There were sympathies between her [ Lady Audley] and this girl [ Phoebe], who was like herself inwardly as well as outwardly － like herself, selfish, cold, and cruel, eager for her own advancement, and greedy of opulence and elegance, angry with the lot that had been cast her, and weary of dull dependence. (299) Here, “selfishness” “coldness” “cruelty” “greed” “independence” all belong to “improper feminine.” Both Phoebe and Lady Audley grow up in miserable circumstances, though blessed with beauty and intellect. It is natural that they are “eager for their own advancement” “angry with the lot” and “weary of dull dependence.”
It is repeatedly emphasized that Phoebe is similar to Lady Audley, by which it is suggested that there are a number of women like Lady Audley. Later, Phoebe’s husband, Luke, is burnt to death and the narrator never relates what kind of lot Phoebe improves after the incident so that readers’ imagination is stimulated.
(4) Robert’s misogyny and Clara’s influence
To apply Freud to Robert’s case is useful to understand his fear of women. According to Freud, misogyny is related to “castration anxiety” which is caused by the discovery that mothers lack their penis. This anxiety is compared to fear aroused by Medusa’s head and two solutions are suggested: “homosexuality” and “fetishism.” Czetkovich points out that there is “the homosocial bond” between George and Robert. (59) Later, Robert is attracted to Clara, George’s sister because of the similarities between Clara and George: “she [ Clara ] was so like the friend [ George ] whom he [ Robert ] had loved and lost, that it was impossible for him to think of her as a stranger.” (202)
Robert, influenced by Clara, is compelled to investigate George’s disappearance. As Lady Audley’s history is exposed and her conspiracy is uncovered, Robert is repulsed as well as fascinated. As Robert traces Lady Audley’s secret, he is subject to “countertransference” like the analyst. (Cvetkovich, 56) Robert visits the seaport town in Yorkshire, and stays at the Victoria Hotel where George had a wedding ceremony. Here is a description of his nightmare he has at the night: “As the hurrying waves rolled nearer and nearer to the stately mansion, the sleeper saw a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam, and knew that it was my lady, transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction.” (246) In his dream, Lady Audley is depicted as “a mermaid” who beckons Sir Michael to destruction. However, “a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam” is bewitching to the extent that her charm surpasses authority of Sir Michael and his stately mansion. This dream implies that Robert is charmed not by real the Lady Audley but his own fantasy in which he creates a beautiful fiend.
It is Clara who saves Robert who suffers from a nervous breakdown after finding Lady Audley had pushed George to the bottom of the well. Here, Clara plays the role of “the proper feminine” who represents a virtue: “…the new strength and purpose of my [ Robert’s] life….grows even stronger as it turns to you [ Clara ], and changes me until I wonder at myself….”(401) In this way, the role as a detective almost drives Robert into a blind alley of madness, while this trial helps him to grow up socially as a man.
In the end, Robert acquires power as a patriarch and Lady Audley dies after being confined in an asylum of Belgium. Robert becomes a successor to Sir Michael, gets married to Clara, and achieves fame as a barrister. Robert at first harbors a homosexual love for George, which is transformed into a heterosexual one through Clara. Robert thus overcomes his fear of women, acquiring social power and status.
(5) Conclusion － A Shadow which Lies behind a Pastoral Scene
It seems that every “dangerous” being is excluded as Audley Court is shut up and a curtain hangs before the pre-Raphaelite portrait. George, who was supposed to be murdered, is found to be alive, escaping from the well and going to New York. Now Robert lives in a cottage with Clara and George. Alicia gets engaged to Sir Harry Towers. A peaceful scene is depicted in which gentlemen sit and smoke in a pretty, rustic smoking-room over the Swiss boat-house. Then we are interrupted by the ironic narration: “I hope no one will take objection to my story because the end of it leaves the good people all happy and at peace.”(446-447) This narration sounds more ironic when juxtaposed with this passage: “We hear every day of murders committed in the country….In the country of which I write, I have been shown a meadow in which, on a quiet summer Sunday evening, a young farmer murdered the girl who had loved and trusted him; and yet even now, with the strain of that foul deed upon it, the aspect of the spot is － peace. No crime has ever been committed in the worst rookeries about Seven Dials that has not been also done in the face of that sweet rustic calm which still, in spite of all, we look on with a tender, half-mournful yearning, and associate with － peace.”(54) Here is a warning that “that sweet rustic calm” could exist together with “murder”and “crime.” The harmonious scene, which seems to bring the story to a peaceful conclusion, is found to be an illusion. The narrator also suggests that the order, which is completed by excluding “a foreign body,” should be fragile.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
Cvetkovich, Ann. “Detective in the House: Subversion and Containment in Lady Audley’s Secret” in Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992)
Montwieler, Katherine. “Marketing Sensation: Lady Audley’s Secret and Consumer Culture” in Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context ed. Marlene Tromp, Pamela K. Gilbert, and Aeron Haynie (New York: State University of New York Press, 2000)
Pykett, Lyn. The Improper Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Bronte to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999)