Lady Audley's Secret

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Lady Audley's Secret
Lady Audleys Secret Cover.jpg
Cover of Lady Audley's Secret
AuthorMary Elizabeth Braddon
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreSensation novel
Published1862 (William Tinsley)
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pages3 vols., 355
Preceded byThe Black Band 
Followed byJohn Marchmont's Legacy 

Lady Audley's Secret is a sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon published in 1862.[1] It was Braddon's most successful and well-known novel. Critic John Sutherland (1989) described the work as "the most sensationally successful of all the sensation novels".[1] The plot centres on "accidental bigamy" which was in literary fashion in the early 1860s.[1] The plot was summarised by literary critic Elaine Showalter (1982): "Braddon's bigamous heroine deserts her child, pushes husband number one down a well, thinks about poisoning husband number two and sets fire to a hotel in which her other male acquaintances are residing".[2][3] Elements of the novel mirror themes of the real-life Constance Kent case of June 1860 which gripped the nation for years.[4] A follow-up novel, Aurora Floyd, appeared in 1863. Braddon set the story in Ingatestone Hall, Essex, inspired by a visit there.[5] There have been three silent film adaptations, one UK television version in 2000, and three minor stage adaptations.


Lady Audley's Secret was partly serialised in Robin Goodfellow magazine July–September 1861, then entirely serialised in Sixpenny Magazine January–December 1862 and once again serialised in London Journal March–August 1863. It was published in 1862 in three volumes by William Tinsley.[2]

Braddon initially sold the rights to the Irish publisher John Maxwell, with whom Braddon also lived and had children. Maxwell published it in his ailing magazine Robin Goodfellow, but Braddon did not labour much, writing the final third in less than two weeks. Not until it was published as a three-volume novel by William Tinsley did it become a success and allow Braddon to be financially independent for the remainder of her life. It also enriched her publisher William Tinsley, who went on to build a villa at Barnes, "Audley Lodge", with the profits.[2]

Notably – given the theme of bigamy in the novel's plot – Maxwell himself was married to another woman, and so Braddon was unable to marry him until his wife died in 1874. When it became public that Maxwell and Braddon had been living in an "irregular" arrangement all those years, it caused a minor scandal during which all their servants gave notice.[2]

In 1997 a Wordsworth Limited edition was released with an Introduction by Keith Carabine from the University of Kent in which he states ‘In the latter half of the nineteenth century, everyone knew Lady Audley’s Secret.’[6]


The novel opens with the marriage in June 1857, of Lucy Graham, a beautiful, childlike blonde who enchants almost all who meet her, to Sir Michael Audley, a middle-aged, rich, and kind widower. Lucy was a governess for the local doctor, Mr. Dawson, until her marriage. Previous to that Lucy was in service with Mrs. Vincent, but very little is known about her past before this. Around the time of the marriage, Sir Michael's nephew, the barrister Robert Audley, welcomes his old friend George Talboys back to England, after three years of gold prospecting in Australia.

George is anxious to get news of his wife, Helen, whom he left three years ago when their financial situation became desperate, to seek gold in Australia. He reads in the newspaper that she has died, and, after visiting her home to confirm this, he becomes despondent. Robert Audley cares for his friend, and, hoping to distract him, offers to take him to his wealthy uncle's country manor. George had a child, Georgey, who was left under the care of Lieutenant Maldon, George's father-in-law. Robert and George set off to visit Georgey, and George decides to make Robert little Georgey's guardian and trustee of £20,000 put into the boy's name. After settling the matter of the boy's guardianship, the two set off to visit Sir Michael.

While at the country manor Audley Court, Lady Audley avoids meeting George. When the two seek an audience with the new Lady Audley, she makes many excuses to avoid their visit, but he and Robert are shown a portrait of her by Alicia Audley, Robert's cousin. George appears greatly struck by the portrait, unbeknownst to Robert (who credits the unfavourable reaction to that evening's storm). Shortly thereafter, George disappears during a visit to Audley Court, much to Robert's consternation. Unwilling to believe that George has simply left suddenly and without notice, Robert begins to look into the circumstances around the strange disappearance.

While searching for his friend, Robert begins to take notes of the events as they unfold. His notes indicate the involvement of Lady Audley, much to his chagrin, and he slowly begins to collect evidence against her. One night, he reveals the evidence and notes that George was in possession of many letters that his former wife wrote. Lady Audley immediately sets off to London, where the letters were kept, and Robert follows after her. However, by the time he arrives, he discovers that George's possessions have been broken into with the help of a local locksmith and that the letters have vanished. One possession, however, remains – a book with a note written by George's wife that matches Lady Audley's handwriting. This confirms Robert's suspicion that Lady Audley is implicated in George's disappearance; it also leads Robert to conclude that Lady Audley is actually George's supposedly dead wife.

Suspecting the worst of Lady Audley and being afraid for little Georgey's life, Robert travels to Lieutenant Maldon's house and demands possession of the boy. Once Robert has Georgey under his control, he places the boy in a school run by Mr. Marchmont. Afterwards, Robert visits George's father, Mr. Harcourt Talboys, and confronts the Squire with his son's death. Mr. Harcourt listens dispassionately to the story. In the course of his visit to the Talboys' manor, Robert is entranced by George's sister Clara, who looks startlingly like George. Clara's passion for finding her brother spurs Robert on.

Confession scene from a serialised magazine version

In February 1859, Robert continues searching for evidence. He receives a notice that his uncle is ill, and he quickly returns to Audley Court. While there, Robert speaks with Mr. Dawson and receives a brief description of all that is known about Lucy's background. He hears that Lucy was employed by Mrs. Vincent at her school since 1852, and, to verify this claim, Robert tracks down Mrs. Vincent, who is in hiding because of debts. According to Miss Tonks, a teacher at Mrs. Vincent's school, Lucy actually arrived at the school in August 1854 and was secretive about her past. Miss Tonks gives Robert a travel box that used to belong to Lucy, and upon examining stickers on the box, Robert discovers both the name Lucy Graham and the name Helen Talboys.

Robert realises that Helen Talboys faked her death before creating her new identity. When Robert confronts Lucy, she tells him that he has no proof, and he leaves to find more evidence, heading to Castle Inn, which is run by Luke Marks. During the night, Lucy forces Luke's wife Phoebe to let her into the inn and Lucy sets the place on fire, with the intention of killing Robert. However, Robert survives and returns to Audley Court and again confronts Lucy. This time, she says she is insane and confesses her life's story to Robert and Sir Michael, claiming that George abandoned her originally and she had no choice but to abandon her old life and child to find another, wealthier husband.

Sir Michael is unhappy and leaves with Alicia to travel through Europe. Robert invites a Dr. Mosgrave to make a more astute judgment regarding Lucy's sanity, and he proclaims that she is indeed victim to latent insanity, which overpowers her in times of stress and makes her very dangerous to any and all. Lucy, under the name of Madame Taylor, enters a mental institution located somewhere in Belgium along the route between Brussels and Paris. While being committed, Lucy confesses to Robert that she killed George by pushing him down a deserted well in the garden of Audley Court.

Robert grieves for his friend George until Luke Marks, who was fatally injured in the fire, manages, before dying, to tell Robert that George survived Lady Audley's attempted murder and that George, with Luke's help, left intending to return to Australia. Robert is overjoyed, and he asks Clara to marry him and go with him to Australia to find George. Clara accepts, but before they set out, George returns and reveals that he actually visited New York instead. The narrative ends with the death of Lucy abroad, and Clara and Robert happily married and living in a country cottage with George and his son. Robert's formerly infatuated cousin Alicia marries her once-spurned suitor, Sir Harry Towers, and Audley Court is left abandoned along with all of its unhappy memories.

Analysis and themes[edit]

Lady Audley's Secret plays on Victorian anxieties about the domestic sphere. The home was supposed to be a refuge from the dangers of the outside world, but in the novel, the seemingly perfect domestic lady turns out to be a violent criminal who has not only tried to commit murder but who has also committed bigamy and abandoned her child. This unsettled Victorian readers because it indicated that the concepts of "the perfect lady/mother" and "domestic bliss" were more idealistic than realistic. In addition, anxieties about the increasing urbanisation of Britain abound; the city gives Lady Audley the power to change her identity because it renders its citizens effectively anonymous. The small town of Audley is no longer a refuge where everyone knows the life story of every neighbour; the residents of Audley must accept Lucy Graham's account of herself since they have no other information about her past. Other anxieties about unstable identity appear throughout the novel: Lady Audley's maid, Phoebe, resembles Lady Audley, thus banishing the idea of physical distinction between the upper and lower classes and therefore of any inherent superiority of the former.

Lady Audley's Secret is, furthermore, a story about gender and class, and Lady Audley's objectionable upward mobility suggests a threat to the paradigm of social class. Madness is also a key issue. Lady Audley and others often converse about the meaning of this word, but many readers believe that Lady Audley is not mad. In fact, many critics view Lady Audley's deception as a feminist act in which a woman takes control of the direction of her own life.[7]

The novel mirrors many of the same themes from the real-life Constance Kent case of June 1860 that gripped the nation with headline news for years.[4] The first instalment of Lady Audley's Secret came out almost exactly one year after the Kent murder.[4] The novel, like the real-life case, featured a wicked stepmother (and former governess who married a gentleman), a mysterious and brutal murder in a country manor house, a body thrown down a well, and characters fascinated by madness.[4] Constance Kent can be seen in many of the female characters in the novel: the murderess Lady Audley, the tomboyish Alicia Audley, the restrained Phoebe Marks and the lonely Clara Talboys.[4] Jack Whicher, the detective and case investigator, can be seen in the character of Robert Audley.[4]


  • Lady Audley's Secret, 1912 (USA, black and white, silent)
  • Lady Audley's Secret (aka Secrets of Society), 1915 (USA, black and white, silent, directed by Marshall Farnum)
  • Lady Audley's Secret, 1920 (UK, black and white, silent, directed by Jack Denton)
  • Lady Audley's Secret, 1949 (UK, TV, black and white)
  • Lady Audleys Geheimnis, 1978 (West Germany, TV, directed by Wilhelm Semmelroth)
  • Lady Audley's Secret, 2000 (UK, TV, directed by Betsan Morris Evans) - (In the USA part of the Mystery! series.)
  • Lady Audley's Secret, 2009 (UK, BBC Radio 4)

In popular culture[edit]

Lady Audley's Secret is involved in a subplot of Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the fourth book in the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Betsy has read it and other books in the same genre, and aspires to write similar works.


  1. ^ a b c John Sutherland. "Lady Audley's Secret" in The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, 1989.
  2. ^ a b c d John Sutherland. "Braddon" in The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, 1989.
  3. ^ Elaine Showalter (1977). Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontė to Lessing, p. 163
  4. ^ a b c d e f Summerscale, Kate (2008). The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Or the murder at Road Hill House. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-8215-1.. Ppg. 217-18
  5. ^ "History of Ingatestone, Essex". Archived from the original on 15 November 2013. Retrieved 30 September 2013.
  6. ^ Carabine, Keith (1997). Lady Audley's Secret : introduction. Wordsworth Classes.
  7. ^ See Jennifer M. Woolston's "Lady Audley as the Cunning 'Other': An Economic, Sexual, and Criminal Attack on the Victorian Patriarchal Mindset", English Association of Pennsylvania State Universities (EAPSU) Online, Vol. 5 (Fall 2008). [1][permanent dead link]
  8. ^ G. C. Boase, Megan A. Stephan, "Hazlewood, Colin Henry (1823–1875)", rev. Megan A. Stephan, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (accessed 3 December 2011)
  9. ^ Festival Theatre programmes of 25 January and 3 February 1930
  10. ^ Introduction to the Dover Edition by Norman Donaldson: Lady Audley's Secret (1974)
  11. ^ Barnes, Clive (4 October 1972). The Stage: 'Lady Audley'; Victorian Musical Is at Eastside Playhouse, The New York Times. Retrieved 1 December 2010 (debuted at Eastdale Playhouse in New York City on 3 October 1972)
  12. ^ "Lady Audley's Secret". 16 September 2015.
Further reading
  • Beller, Anne-Marie (2012). Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-3667-5.
  • Cvetkovich, Ann (1992). Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0813518572.
  • Diamond, Michael (2003). Victorian Sensation. London: Anthem. pp. 197–208. ISBN 1-84331-150-X.
  • King, Andrew (2002). "Sympathy as Subversion? Reading Lady Audley's Secret in the Kitchen". Journal of Victorian Culture. 7 (1): 60–85. doi:10.3366/jvc.2002.7.1.60.
  • Nemesvari, Richard (1995). "Robert Audley's secret: male homosocial desire in Lady Audley's Secret". Studies in the Novel. XXVII (4): 515–528. JSTOR 29533089.
  • Tilley, Elizabeth (1995). "Gender and role-playing in Lady Audley's Secret". In Valeria Tinkler-Villani & Peter Davidson, with Jane Stevenson (ed.). Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Developments in the Gothic Tradition. Amsterdam: Rodopi. pp. 197–204. ISBN 9789051838329.
  • Wolff, Robert Lee (1979). Nineteenth-Century Fiction: a Bibliographical Catalogue. New York: Garland.
  • Woolston, Jennifer M. (2008). "Lady Audley as the cunning 'other': an economic, sexual, and criminal attack on the Victorian patriarchal mindset". English Association of Pennsylvania State Universities (EAPSU) Online. 5.

External links[edit]