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Lady Audley's Secret

By: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

The novel belongs to a genre that became very popular during that era. Known as “sensation novels” they can probably be equated to today's pulp fiction. It was received with huge enthusiasm by readers and most critics of the day and the central theme of “accidental bigamy” was a popular one. But the author Mary Elizabeth Braddon took it to new heights, introducing several intriguing twists and turns to the plot. In fact the novel was so successful that it allowed the author to become financially independent for the rest of her life and its publisher to purchase a villa, which he christened Audley Lodge, with the profits gained from sales of this Victorian bestseller! In the story, the young, enchanting, doll like Lucy Graham marries a wealthy old widower, Sir Michael Audley. Not much is known about Lucy by people in the village, except that she was till recently employed as a governess. The couple enjoys a pleasant life together, with every comfort and luxury. Things take a turn when Sir Michael's nephew and heir Robert Audley arrives with news of dear friend of his George Talboys. Talboys who had left England to seek his fortune gold prospecting in Australia is now suffering from a mental breakdown following the apparent death/disappearance of his wife whom he left behind. When Robert and George arrive at Audley Court, they're warmly welcomed by the host, but of the hostess there is no sign. She completely avoids coming into Talboys' presence. Her behavior begins to intrigue Robert and raise his suspicions and he sets out to uncover the mystery. But the truth is far more devastating and disturbing than anybody could imagine. Said to be based on events concerning the real life serial killer Constance Kent which had stunned the nation a few years ago, the book in fact explores many themes of Victorian morality, gender biases, stereotypes about the perfect mother and domestic goddesses who enriched the home and hearth with their innocence and purity. The author Mary Braddon's own controversial personal life and her nonchalant attitude to prevailing morals also piqued readers' imaginations. For modern day readers, Lady Audley's Secret remains a gripping tale of the lust for power and wealth and of a woman's descent into the misery of her own creation.

The novel opens with the marriage in June 1857, of Lucy Graham, a beautiful, childlike blonde who enchants almost all who meet her, to Sir Michael Audley, a middle-aged, rich, and kind widower. Lucy was a governess for the local doctor, Mr. Dawson, until her marriage. Previous to that Lucy was in service with Mrs. Vincent, but very little is known about her past before this. Around the time of the marriage, Sir Michael's nephew, the barrister Robert Audley, welcomes his old friend George Talboys back to England, after three years of gold prospecting in Australia.


George is anxious to get news of his wife, Helen, whom he left three years ago when their financial situation became desperate, to seek gold in Australia. He reads in the newspaper that she has died, and, after visiting her home to confirm this, he becomes despondent. Robert Audley cares for his friend, and, hoping to distract him, offers to take him to his wealthy uncle's country manor. George had a child, Georgey, who was left under the care of Lieutenant Maldon, George's father-in-law. Robert and George set off to visit Georgey, and George decides to make Robert little Georgey's guardian and trustee of £20,000 put into the boy's name. After settling the matter of the boy's guardianship, the two set off to visit Sir Michael.


While at the country manor Audley Court, Lady Audley avoids meeting George. When the two seek an audience with the new Lady Audley, she makes many excuses to avoid their visit, but he and Robert are shown a portrait of her by Alicia Audley, Robert's cousin. George appears greatly struck by the portrait, unbeknownst to Robert (who credits the unfavourable reaction to that evening's storm). Shortly thereafter, George disappears during a visit to Audley Court, much to Robert's consternation. Unwilling to believe that George has simply left suddenly and without notice, Robert begins to look into the circumstances around the strange disappearance.


While searching for his friend, Robert begins to take notes of the events as they unfold. His notes indicate the involvement of Lady Audley, much to his chagrin, and he slowly begins to collect evidence against her. One night, he reveals the evidence and notes that George was in possession of many letters that his former wife wrote. Lady Audley immediately sets off to London, where the letters were kept, and Robert follows after her. However, by the time he arrives, he discovers that George's possessions have been broken into with the help of a local locksmith and that the letters have vanished. One possession, however, remains – a book with a note written by George's wife that matches Lady Audley's handwriting. This confirms Robert's suspicion that Lady Audley is implicated in George's disappearance; it also leads Robert to conclude that Lady Audley is actually George's supposedly dead wife.


Suspecting the worst of Lady Audley and being afraid for little Georgey's life, Robert travels to Lieutenant Maldon's house and demands possession of the boy. Once Robert has Georgey under his control, he places the boy in a school run by Mr. Marchmont. Afterwards, Robert visits George's father, Mr. Harcourt Talboys, and confronts the Squire with his son's death. Mr. Harcourt listens dispassionately to the story. In the course of his visit to the Talboys' manor, Robert is entranced by George's sister Clara, who looks startlingly like George. Clara's passion for finding her brother spurs Robert on.

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Mary Elizabeth Braddon (4 October 1835 – 4 February 1915) was an English popular novelist of the Victorian era. She is best known for her 1862 sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret, which has als...

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