Hazel McHaffie

An overlooked classic

My brain is throbbing with the intensity of creating characters and connecting plot lines for my current novel, so it’s doubly important to build in relaxation to maintain sanity and have the space to engage with real life. A lady called Mary Elizabeth Braddon has helped me wind down this week. Heard of her? Nor me till now – to my great shame. And that in spite of numerous TV, radio and stage adaptations of her work apparently!

Because Ms Braddon (1835-1915) published over ninety books and became a household name in the Victorian era, hugely admired and respected by other famous authors like Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray.

And this particular book, Lady Audley’s Secret, written when she was just 27 and a struggling actress, was the one that made her famous. It was serialised in the early 1860s at the same time as Dickens’ Great Expectations. Braddon quickly became the ‘Queen of the Sensational novel’, and to this day this book remains a classic Victorian spine-tingler. And there it was, amongst my own collection of not-yet-read classics! A hidden gem, but so good that I instantly want to buy all her other writings!

The back cover blurb says:
Miss Lucy Grantham is a newcomer to the parish of Audley. She may be an impoverished governess, but she is also kind and ineffably beautiful. When Sir Michael Audley sets eyes upon her he finds himself in the grip of ‘the terrible fever called love’. Their courtship raises eyebrows, but Sir Audley has set his heart on the sweet-natured girl, and before long they are married.

So, a light-hearted Georgette Heyer romance, huh?

No such thing. This is something much deeper and darker – shades of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, maybe? It’s a cleverly constructed mystery set in a grand country house and involving strange disappearances and duplicity on a grand scale. It’s Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert, who begins to suspect his new aunt is not all she seems to be, and his investigations lead him into a past full of inconsistencies, and very troubling secrets indeed, bigamy, blackmail, arson and murder among them.

Furthermore, below the surface, the tale is also an attack on the suppression of women in the Victorian era and the double standards set for the different classes as well as the different genders, with all their grave injustices and anomalies – hence perfectly timed. Lady Audley’s Secret called into question not only the role of women and the legal, economic and societal dominance of men, but also the insulting (to us) assumption at the time that women were inherently mentally unstable because of their hormonal fluctuations and therefore uniquely liable to insanity; a belief cleverly captured in the ruthless and manipulative Lady Audley’s own defence of insanity when exposed for the criminal she is: ‘the hidden taint I had sucked in with my mother’s milk.’

But the appeal of Lady Audley’s Secret has far outlasted the Victorian craze for melodramas, and goes beyond feminist politics. Why? Well, Professor Robert Giddings believes ‘the continuing fascination might be in the character of Lady Audley herself. Such a crafty, villainous woman is not portrayed in the traditions of the villainess, but as an irresistibly attractive, innocent-seeming Pre-Raphaelite beauty.‘  Her charm, her feathery mass of golden ringlets, her delicate features and her strange deep blue eyes, predispose us to like her; but the portrait Robert and his friend George Talboys see of her reveals the ‘beautiful fiend’ within.

The language is a little OTT and repetitious at times, the speeches run into several pages in places (including one by a dying man!), and I do dislike the frequent references in direct speech to what the characters thought, but for all that it’s a riveting read. I galloped through the almost 500 pages effortlessly and will definitely seek out more of this amazing writer’s work. And it’s all there – the richly interesting characters; the careful backstories; the perfectly calibrated shocks; the interwoven connections – all the things I’ve been working at with my own writing. Seemingly effortlessly woven together. What a find!

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