Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

To the Mad-House Born: The Ethics of Exteriority in Lady Audley's Secret

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

To the Mad-House Born: The Ethics of Exteriority in Lady Audley's Secret

Article excerpt

In typical sensation fashion, Mary Braddon's 1862 novel Lady Audley's Secret figures the crossing of revered Victorian borders - those separating upper and lower classes, sanity and madness, and respectable and fallen femininity.1 But the boundary that most cogently defines anti-heroine Lucy Audley's transgressivness is the gilded threshold of the Victorian country house. Lucy Audley ultimately suffers for seeking the beautiful facade that others prize in her, and while Braddon dismantles the false fronts of her two most decorative subjects, Lucy Audley and manor house Audley Court, she also reinforces the notion that femininity and the Victorian house are intricately devised and co-dependent products of commodity culture. Using Lucy Audley as a model of conflicted femininity, and relying upon a literal connection between exteriority and femininity that Braddon's novel invites, we can examine the ways in which the country house defined Victorian womanhood.

Lucy Audley's rise to mistress of Audley Court follows a scandalous series of events whereby her acquisition of wealth and position is sought through her various alliances with men - and typified, at each stage, by the material value of the house to which those men admit her. The former Helen Maiden, Lucy first marries George Talboys to escape the drudgery of her childhood. But the match disconnects George from his inheritance, and he leaves for Australia to seek their fortune. Helen abandons their child to start a new life under the name of Lucy Graham, finding first a position as governess, and then winning the heart of Sir Michael Audley. When she learns of George's return to England, she feigns her own death, and soon must avoid the heartbroken George, who is a friend of Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew. When George suddenly disappears, last seen at Audley Court, Robert Audley determines to piece together the mysterious past of his new step-aunt. As Robert rightly suspects, Lucy's angelic aspect obscures her criminal past - including her attempt to kill George Talboys and bury, with him, her true identity.

Lucy's social experience is impossible to dissociate from her psychological experience, which her relationships to her houses makes literal. If we treat Lucy's alleged psychosis as a reaction to the cultural pressures of the day rather than accept the novel's glib and unconvincing gesture towards inherited madness, we see that the similarities between the domestic home and the domesticated asylum illuminate the identity construction of Lucy Audley as one bound and reflected by the symbol of the Victorian country-house.

By uncovering Lucy's material self-interest, Lady Audley 's Secret troubles Victorian norms about women by revealing this materialism at its crudest. Lucy's equation between her social value and the value of her home - punished by the events of the novel but never adequately denied - is mirrored by a more deeply entrenched Victorian equivalence between a woman's beauty and her character. And, while the material is theorized to be only an outward expression of inner, immaterial traits, the events of the novel suggests that exteriors are deterministic, and do shape character - at great cost to the moral status and psychological autonomy of women.

House-bound women in Victorian England

The country-house in Victorian England provides a living symbol of an earlier England, a nation unpolluted by the commotion and greed of industrial society, and one organized by the ancient code of the aristocratic order. As country-houses typically are passed from generation to generation, they mark the endurance and supremacy of old families. The longevity of the country house signifies the stability of a past world. For instance, in Ruskin's attempt to preserve the past, he explicitly connects morality with long-lasting architecture, asserting in "The Nature of Gothic" that "It is an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last to one generation only . …

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