Academic journal article British and American Studies

"The Devil in the House": The Character of Lucy in Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Academic journal article British and American Studies

"The Devil in the House": The Character of Lucy in Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Article excerpt

1. Introduction. The Angel in the House and the female offender

In his 1864 lecture entitled Lilies. Of Queen's Garden, John Ruskin (1865:90) provided his audience with a lucid and persuasive definition of the "separate [albeit complementary] characters" of gentlemen and ladies in Victorian society. In his view, male power was "active, progressive, defensive"; the mind of a man was designed "for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest". Conversely, a true woman had to be "enduringly, incorruptively good; instinctively, infallibly wise - wise not for self-development, but for self renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but she may never fail from his side" (Ruskin 1865:92). While the outer world was his indisputable domain, her province was the domestic environment, "the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division" (Ruskin 1865:91). Positively excluded from the public sphere, the consecrated Vestal of the "temple of the hearth" envisioned by Ruskin closely resembled the ethereal heroine of Coventry Patmore's highly commended narrative poem, significantly entitled The Angel in the House (2006, first published in 1854). Inspired by the spotless virtues of his wife Emily, Patmore's literary creation, who was "all mildness" (Patmore 2006:18), "pure dignity, composure, ease" (20), epitomised the ideal of innocent, selfless, and submissive womanhood of the second half of the nineteenth century. In the poet's words, "Man must be pleased, but him to please/ Is woman's pleasure" (41). Apparently content in her gilded cage filled with costly commodities, the Victorian lady turned into the most precious ornament of her house: her rosy complexion, her refined garments as well as her slender, delicate body, unfit for any physical exertion, were privately exhibited in the household setting. As Thorstein Veblen (1994:90) elucidated in his essay on the leisure class, the Victorian lady was "supported in idleness by her owner. She [was] useless and expensive, and she [was] consequently valuable as evidence of pecuniary strength".

The female offender, on the other hand, forcefully diverted from the aboveoutlined paradigm of womanly perfection: she usurped the male prerogatives of action, ambition and domination; furthermore, often acting as a life-taker, she rejected her natural, instinctive functions of life-giver, homemaker and nurturer, thus transgressing the socially sanctioned boundaries of her sex. Hence, following in the steps of Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory, Victorian criminologists, psychologists and physicians devoted their efforts to establishing that the distorted femininity of these abnormal women actually stemmed from "racial degeneration" (Pal-Lapinsky 2003:111). Cesare Lombroso, professor of hygiene and forensic medicine at the university of Turin, was convinced that women were less prone than men to violence and murderous acts, due to their inborn inertia and passive disposition. Nonetheless, as he argued in his 1893 seminal treatise entitled La donna delinquente (The female offender), an unlawful and immoral inclination was a hereditary taint, which could be reassuringly detected by observing anomalous bodily and facial traits (such as a cranial asymmetry, strabismus or a deformed nose), which varied according to the different misdeeds (Lombroso and Ferrero 1895:86). Moreover, the essentially unfeminine nature of delinquent women was betrayed by their stereotypically masculine attributes (above all, physical strength and mental agility, despite the evident folly of their deviant behaviour) or by their likeness to wild animals or primitive creatures (the monstrous and grotesque figure of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre is a stringent example).

This clear-cut distinction between sanity and perversion, between the angel protectively sheltered in the household sphere and the diabolic female criminal undermining social stability and customary gender roles, is strikingly blurred and problematised by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in her 1862 novel entitled Lady Audley's Secret. …

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