Lady Audley’s Secret is a sensation novel written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon published in 1862. The novel bears some resemblance to the real-life case of Constance Kent, who, in June 1860, stabbed (and almost decapitated) her four year old half brother. She was arrested in the same month, but did not go to trial because of public opinion against the accusations of a working class detective against a young lady. Five years later, she confessed her guilt to a clergyman and was prosecuted for the murder.

Plot Summary

Helen Maldon, the daughter to a half-pay naval officer and wife to another officer, George Talboys, is the titular character of the novel, however, because of her desire to climb the social ladder, she goes by many different names and identities within the course of the novel (Helen Maldon, Helen Talboys, Lucy Graham, and Lady Audley). Helen believes that marrying George will improve her financial and social prospects, however, George’s father disapproves of the marriage (because Helen is so low born) and cuts off his son. The couple’s money quickly runs out and George deserts his wife and their child in order to make his fortune in Australia. He hopes to eventually become a rich man and then return with his wealth to England and reclaim his young family. However, Helen, left at home in abject poverty, assumes that George is dead. She leaves her young son with her father and hires herself out as a teacher. She soon tires of her life and abandons her father and son, moves to a different town, assumes the name Lucy Graham, and gets hired as a governess to a physician’s family. In this position, she meets an older, wealthy widower, Sir Michael Audley, who knows nothing of her true past and proposes to marry her. Lucy accepts the proposal, thereby accepting to commit bigamy. For the rest of the novel, Lucy struggles to keep her past hidden, especially when her first husband, George, visits the Audley estate with his friend Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Micheal. After George reappears, she tries to kill him by pushing him down a well and leaving him for dead (but he survives the fall!). She also prevents her former ladies maid, Phoebe, and Phoebe’s husband from sharing her secret by purchasing them an inn and supplying them with an income. Robert Audley is a formerly idle gentleman barrister, however, once his friend disappears he becomes a relentless and self-styled detective. He eventually discover’s Helen Talboys’s secret and she tries to murder him by setting fire to the pub in which she believes he is sleeping. However, she is finally caught and is forced to confess her crime to Sir Micheal, who is absolutely heart-broken by the discovery. Sir Micheal casts her off and asks Robert to take care of the details of her punishment. He incarcerates her in a former convent, turned madhouse, in Belgium. She dies one year later. Robert marries George’s sister, Clara, with the intention of going to Australia on their honeymoon to search for George. However, George returns from New York, where he actually was, finds his son, and settles down in a cottage with Clara and Robert. Audley Court is abandoned and left to decay.

Notes & Quotes

  • According to Rosemary Jackson, for the Victorian middle class, a monster or devil was “no longer even equivocally superhuman: it was a working class revolutionary, a desiring female, a social outsider, or a ‘madman'” (qtd. in Elizabeth Tilley 484). Lady Audley plays all of these roles and more. According to Tilley, in fact, Lady Audley works to manufacture different identities throughout the novel, not only in the narrative itself, but in the very framework of the narrative. She tries to fit herself into the roles of the gothic heroine and the gothic villain at different moments of the novel before finally burning down the framework of the gothic novel itself (the “Castle” Inn). In this way, Tilley argues that Braddon may have designed these multiple selves in an attempt to create “the possibility of multiple fictions lying in wait beneath the ‘true; realistic fiction… In order to function, Helen Maldon manufactures these alternate selves, which take over and act out the romantic archetypes that seemed to be defended of Victorian gothic heroines” (484). At the same time, Robert moves between the roles of gothic hero and gothic villain. By the end of the novel, he places her in a madhouse- a very conventional attack made by gothic villains against the gothic heroine, akin to live burial, especially in female gothic fiction. Lady Audley dies within a year of residing in the madhouse, allowing her threat to be swiftly and completely destroyed. Tilley notes that the female gothic villain, unlike her male counterpart, is a completely unknown quantity, and therefore poses the greatest threat (488). Additionally, it is only her threat against the rich and male gender that Robert and the narrator highlights. The fact that she murdered Pheobe’s working class husband, and her work to take the real Lucy Graham’s place are completely ignored.
  • Throughout the novel, Robert is reminded of female monsters like the mermaid while looking at or contemplating Lady Audley. This could be a great text to examine in conjunction with Barbara Creed’s Monstrous Feminine. 
  • There are moments where the British empire emerges. The most interesting to me are the various references to America. When Robert visits the empty sea-side town of Wildernsea, he thinks to himself:
  • ‘I wonder whether settlers in the back-woods of America feel as solitary and strange as I feel to-night?’ he thought, as he stared hopelessly about him in the darkness. (262)

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.