Lady Audley’s Secret was one of those books that I regularly picked up in shops for the best part of 20 years and generally put down again, partly because the habit of picking it up so often always left me half uncertain as to whether I had already bought it or not. I don’t know why it took me so long, I enjoy sensation novels – have been a fan of Wilkie Collins since my teens and Braddon’s women strike me as particularly sympathetic to a modern audience.
Lady Audley is certainly one of the more complex and troubling villains to come my way. There is a touch of Becky Sharp to her but I think Braddon has, and intends, more sympathy for Lucy then Thackeray ever did for Becky. It surprises me that Lady Audley hasn’t been given the full on costume drama treatment recently (a quick scan of Amazon reveals a version from 2000 which I certainly don't remember seeing). A rather colourless radio 4 adaptation earlier this year hardly did the book justice.
Lucy Audley starts out as Helen, well named Helen, she possesses a fragile and perfect blond beauty which renders her irresistible to most who come her way. A gift that should be her route out of the poverty an improvident father has placed her in. Soon enough she marries a dashing young soldier, who turns out to be equally improvident, when his money runs out so does he, leaving his wife with a child and no means of support. Oh yes he’s off to seek his fortune or die trying, but possibly it would have been more helpful if he had mentioned this to someone. Helen gets on with it; leaving the child with his grandfather she changes her name to Lucy and sets off to become a governess. As the years pass with no news of missing husband number one it’s not entirely unreasonable to suppose that he’s out of the picture forever. Dead or not a resourceful woman with her looks to trade can’t be blamed for wanting husband number two. If a prospective husband who manages to be aged rich and physically presentable offers himself who can blame a woman for accepting?
This is the course Lucy takes and she settles down to being the angel in the house. Her husband loves her, the servants love her, the villagers love her. She is kind with her new fortune, and then husband number one and a nephew turn up. From the moment of an ill advised attempt to off the unwelcome husband by means of tipping him down a well, Lucy’s life falls apart. She is hounded, blackmailed, driven almost to ruin, tries her hand at murder again (unsuccessful again) and is finally denied the chance of a trial, instead incarcerated in a madhouse somewhere in the Low Countries.
Well it’s certainly clear where my sympathies lay, and where I feel Braddon meant them to lie. Lucy may be a thoroughly selfish, amoral woman but I can understand her - feel a certain amount of compassion for her even when she does go too far. In the end she is and will always be the victim of men, and this is why I find this book so intriguing. Lucy’s unwillingness to give in is admirable, even if her murderous instincts are not, but as much as her actions horrify part of me wanted her to slip off the hook at the end and be on her way. She is the literary ancestor of the ice cold femme fatal who would later give Philip Marlowe and his brethren such trouble.