Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

1880s edition of Lady Audley's Secret.
This is the book I've been putting off for quite a while - it's on my Penguin English Library Challenge which I started just over two years ago (7th April '13), and it was one of the last ones left to read (now have only four left!). I never felt drawn to it, and when I did try to read it in December I didn't get past the second chapter. So I've been dreading it all year, in short, and I decided to read it for the readathon to get it out the way. Imagine my joy when I found, after the first few chapters, I loved it! 

There's really not a great deal to say in this post - it's all very simple. It was published in 1862 and was one of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's first novels, in which she tells the tale of Lady Audley, née Lucy Graham. Lucy was a governess and not much else is known about her past, but her beauty seduces Sir Michael Audley and they marry. The novel begins after their marriage when Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew, welcomes home is old friend George Tallboys. 

Tallboys has returned from Australia having effectively deserted his wife and child in search of gold in Australia where he hoped to make his fortune and return to his wife a rich man. However, on returning, he discovers his wife Helen has died quite recently, which he reads in The Times (which was once, probably still is by some, regarded as the paper of record). He is devastated, and Robert cares for him in during this time, taking him to Audley Court, the home of Sir Michael and Lady Audley. During this time a portrait of Lady Audley is shown to George, which Braddon describes:
No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.
Lady Lilith by D. G. Rossetti (1866-68).
Being a fan of the pre-Raphaelites I was eager to discover which painting may have inspired Braddon, and there are a few contenders (discussed on the Pre-Raphaelite Rumminations blog and on the Wilkie Collins Society page). I liked Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Lady Lilith as a possibility, however the date is wrong - that was painted four years later, however, still, this is how I imagined Lady Audley. But I digress. On seeing the painting, George has a strong reaction, which Robert attributes to a violent storm. The next morning, George has gone. Unwilling to believe that he would leave without so much as a goodbye and disappear as he appears to have done, Robert seeks his friend and discover the reasons for his vanishing. As he does so, he discovers Lady Audley's secret.

It is, at its heart, a sensationalist novel like those of Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, The Moonstone, and Basil to name a few examples). Lady Audley's Secret is fast-paced and gripping, highly exciting, and rather draining as a result! It's probably one of the best books I've read this year. The plot itself, as I've said, is quite simple but that doesn't deter at all from the enjoyment. No matter what one may guess, the excitement of reading it remains. What is revealed is a nightmarish world of the private, domestic sphere, where nothing is as it seems, and appearances are deceptive. It's full of madness, doubt, violence... a very intense and dramatic novel. I absolutely adored it.

It is, quite probably, at least partly inspired by a real court case of the time (which you can read about here, but it will give some of the plot away, even if you think you've already guessed what's going to happen, it will still spoil it), and Audley Court is based on Ingatestone Hall in Essex, so there are some 'real' roots in this mad little drama. It's a wonderful book, and for those who have felt they ought to read it but have been putting it off - I'd get to it straight away! It's one I'll no doubt return to again and again.

Ingatestone Hall, Essex.

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Further reading

Comments

  1. In which I am tempted, but as ever, I commit to nothing. :)

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    1. Ha! I hope you do, it's great fun! I was actually tempted to re-read it last night believe it or not but I realised how ridiculous that would be :)

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  2. The pre-Raphaelite theme is very interesting. I was tempted to pursue it when I wrote about the book, but I did not feel I understood it well enough. If I ever reread the novel, this is the secret I will try to discover.

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    1. I'll be interested to see what you come up with. When I read it I had the Rossetti there in mind, obviously I was wrong but I've been trying to seek something close to it. I'm sure it's possible to come up with an answer. I might have a look in a bit - I love the pre-Raphs so I think I'll no doubt keep looking for it.

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  3. I read this a few years ago and really liked it. My cousin recommended it to me after we both enjoyed reading Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and The Woman in White. You're definitely right in saying they're similar. :)

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    1. They are rather! It was sort of coincidental that I read Basil after this, but doing so highlighted the similarities. I really must read more Wilkie Collins. And I have The Doctor's Wife by Braddon to read as well :)

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  4. I really enjoyed this book in spite of the sensationalist bent to it. The PBS Mystery movie of it was good too, although it startled me because Alicia Audley looks identical to my cousin-in-law! I was planning on reading another Braddon in May but I think I'll move that plan to June due to my busy reading schedule.

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    1. I do like a bit of sensationalism - such good fun! As I said above I need to read more of it, I do enjoy it even if it is mocked a little!

      I want to read The Doctor's Wife by Braddon as well, but like you I've got a million books I want to read. I'll read Beowulf with you in May, but I do think I may have to start Gone With the Wind later than everyone else. As ever, so many books not enough time! :)

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    2. I was thinking of Henry Dunbar. It looks like it received more stars than Lady Audley's Secret on Amazon and Goodreads, although the Doctor's Wife sounds like it might have more depth. However, after reading LAS, I'm not expecting much depth from her next book. Lack of depth in good writing can be a nice break though, sometimes ...... :-)

      I will probably be late starting Gone With the Wind too. The books I'm trying to finish for this month are making me whoozy. I will need a miracle and am hoping for one!

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    3. I'd actually only heard of Lady Audley and Doctor's Wife (just happened to see it in a bookshop). I'll have to check out Henry Dunbar as well! :)

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  5. I was initially drawn to this because of the comparisons with Wilkie. I remember it took a chapter or two to grip me, but after that I was hooked and ended up loving it, like you.

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    1. I actually went for it because it was on that Penguin list - very fortuitous! :)

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