Lady Audley’s Secret was Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s first novel, published when she was twenty-seven years of age. What primarily recommends it as a good read is its well handled plot. Braddon is a dab hand at keeping you turning the pages, throwing out tantalising clues and odd happenings.
Critics at the time lambasted her for a lack of depth when it came to her characters. In this I totally agree. Yes, her novel keeps you reading, but once you get to the end you think, what have I been impressed with, only a well contrived plot? If you were to stop reading half way, you’d think more of Mary Elizabeth Braddon than if you’d gotten to the end. The novel starts out by titilating you with the bizarre, shady character of Lady Audley. By novel’s end, we’re given a stock standard Victorian Christian wrap up.
Maybe I’m being a little mean. Braddon, when she’s good, as in her mesmerising descriptions of Lady Audley’s decadent boudoir, reminds me somewhat of Oscar Wilde and film director Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, the strange section in the book where a group of the novel’s character’s enter Lady Audley’s room to gaze at a portrait of her reminded me very much of Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, written some 30 years after Lady Audley’s Secret. Did Wilde pinch his idea from Braddon, a former actress who was such a natural at describing the masks we put on for society (Lady Audley goes through some four identities in the novel.)
While you will find this novel a compelling page turner, this comes at the expense of any kind of psychological character analysis – the plot is all. Exemplifying Braddon’s laziness here is the fact that she employs good old fashioned misogynigy to drive the story along – all of Lady Audley’s foibles come down to the natural weakness of her sex. This view of womanhood, an ancient archetype, obviously had a lot to do with making this novel a huge success.
Braddon’s The Trail of the Serpent is perhaps a better, more fleshed out novel, and shows her natural penchant for decadent excess. From what I’ve read so far, I feel Braddon’s novels would improve by purging them of all Christian morality entirely.
Yet for a posing decadent like Oscar Wilde, this proved absolutely impossible. Didn’t he convert to Catholicism once he was busted for the decadence he actually preached?