When Sir Michael Audley married former governess Lucy Graham, it caused quite a stir in his family. His new wife was closer in age to his adult daughter Alicia, and his nephew Robert was captivated by Lady Audley’s beauty. Robert is a London barrister (although he doesn’t appear to actually do any work), and one day he runs into an old friend, George Talboys, recently returned from three years in Australia. George is shocked to learn that his wife passed away just a few days before his arrival in England, and turns to Robert for support. Robert takes George to Audley Court, his uncle’s estate, in the hopes that spending time in the countryside will lift his spirits. A few days later, George disappears without a trace. Robert embarks upon an investigation that takes him from Essex to Southampton, and then to Yorkshire, as he collects and assembles the puzzle pieces of George’s life.
This book can be enjoyed on two different levels. First, as a mystery and period piece, it is delightful. There’s a huge old mansion with elaborate gardens and secret passageways (modeled, I suspect, on Audley End House in Essex), characters with similar features who can easily be mistaken for one another, and servants who are able to gain the upper hand over the gentry. Braddon employs considerable wit in her writing. She uses a talkative child to show key plot details, just as children often let family secrets slip. She describes even the most ancillary characters and situations with great detail and a touch of humor, such as this description of a landlady living in “dreary” Yorkshire:
Mrs. Barkamb, a comfortable matron of about sixty years of age, was sitting in an arm-chair before a bright fire burning in a grate that was resplendent with newly-polished black lead. An elderly terrier, whose black-and-tan coat was thickly sprinkled with grey, reposed in Mrs. Barkamb’s lap. Every object in the quiet sitting-room had an elderly aspect; that aspect of simple comfort and precision which is the outward evidence of inward repose.
“I should like to live here,” Robert thought, “and watch the grey sea slowly rolling over the grey sand under the still grey sky. I should like to live here, and tell the beads upon my rosary, and repent and rest.”
He seated himself in the arm-chair opposite Mrs. Barkamb, at that lady’s invitation, and placed his hat upon the ground. The elderly terrier descended from his mistress’s lap to bark at and otherwise take objection to this hat. (p. 212)
Then, after I finished the book, I read Jennifer Uglow’s introduction to my Virago Modern Classics edition, published in 1985. The introduction highlights themes and deeper meanings, including the changing role of women in 1850s society. Uglow wrote, “Beneath the zestful, witty melodrama Lady Audley’s Secret is a novel about men’s fear of women’s power, and about their efforts to destroy that power by denying female sexuality, by caging women in theories of reason and madness, by depriving them of education and careers, by burying them in stifling marriages and choking them with the ideology of the happy home.” Armed with this insight, I retraced the events in Lady Audley’s Secret and derived even more meaning and enjoyment from this book.