The Greying of Lady Audley's Secret

Article excerpt

"If the test of genius were success, we should rank Miss Braddon very high in the list of our great novelists," W.F. Rae allowed in the North British Review in 1865, recalling that "Almost as soon as Lady Audley's Secret appeared, it was lauded by distinguished critics, and eagerly purchased and read by an enthusiastic section of the public" (92, 93). Reputedly one of the three most popular books of 1862, with a following sustained until the early twentieth century as well, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret in recent years has regained some prominence. Current interest in noncanonical women writers has redirected readers to the story of the beautiful, impoverished young woman who skillfully creates a new identity for herself after her husband has suddenly abandoned her to seek his fortune in Australia and who intends to do whatever she must to maintain her disguise. Her bigamous marriage to a wealthy elderly baronet prospers until his nephew detects her imposture while searching for his friend (the first husband) who has mysteriously disappeared soon after return to England; the nephew suspects her of her husband's murder. The book has been admired for its sensational and feminist qualities and its contribution to detective fiction. With context figuring more heavily than text, it has been explored with regard to contemporary medical, political, and class issues. Jill L. Matus, in "Disclosure as 'Cover-Up'," for example, discusses Braddon's novel in relation not only to contemporary conceptions of insanity but also to topical issues of incarceration, while Jonathan Loesberg in "The Ideology of Narrative Form" relates the book instead to controversy over expansion of the franchise, anticipating the Second Reform Bill.[1] Possible homoeroticism has also been pursued--in more than one direction. For if Ann Cvetkovich in Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism claims that the central male character has an erotic attraction to his friend, Natalie Schroeder in "Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-Assertion in M.E. Braddon and Ouida" instead insists that Lady Audley has such an attraction to her maid.[2]

Meanwhile, however, regard for the formal qualities of Braddon's novel apart from subgenre concerns has been almost nonexistent, at the expense of Braddon's ideas. It has become unfashionable to undertake formalist criticism of a literary work rather than deconstruct a text or expose its political agenda; formalist rubrics pale before reflections of external power structures. Yet as Frank Lentricchia has observed of his own return to a close formalistic absorption in literature, the only thing that really matters is "the writing in its specific shape and texture and all that the writing incarnates thanks to its specific shape and texture" (67). Braddon's command of technique deserves attention because she was not just a very successful writer of popular fiction; she was also an admirer of Flaubert and even attempted an adaptation of Madame Bovary for middle-class English readers in her 1864 Doctor's Wife (Wolff 162). One might accordingly expect to find careful control of detail in Lady Audley's Secret. The suggestion here is that such shaping is manifest in an unusual color scheme that allows some bursts of color, especially red with a gleam of gold, for Lady Lucy Audley or her immediate setting, but otherwise tones a canvas repeatedly in shades of grey. The carefully muted palette that causes Lucy Audley alone to shine bears out visually the feminist subtext that values the ambitious Lady Audley for her brilliance and resourceful daring; the pervasive greying meanwhile cognitively furnishes her actions a supportive philosophical context to counter the facts of her guilt in deed and intention. To the advantage of Lady Audley, the book that brings her to life incorporates a surprisingly relativistic attitude to truth for a popular novel close to mid-century, insisting, through its imagery as through statement, on the limitations of fact and the futility of absolute standards. …