Mary Elizabeth Braddon: Lady Audley's Secret


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RITTEN some eight years prior to Dick­ens's work­ing on The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood , Mary Eliz­a­beth Brad­don's Lady Au­d­ley's Se­cret, a sen­sa­tion novel de­lib­er­ate­ly de­signed to pump up the week­ly sales of her com­mon-law hus­band John Maxwell's short-live­d Robin Good­fel­low, was one of a num­ber of 1860s Sen­sa­tion Nov­els in­spired by the suc­cess of Collins's high­ly in­no­va­tive The Woman in White (26 Novem­ber 1859 through 25 Au­gust 1860 in All the Year Round). The early chap­ters ap­peared in print be­tween 6 July and 28 Septem­ber 1861, over­lap­ping with Dick­ens's se­ri­al­i­sa­tion of Great Ex­pec­ta­tions in All the Year Round. In re­sponse to de­mands by read­ers who wished her to con­tin­ue pub­li­ca­tion, she reini­ti­at­ed se­ri­al­i­sa­tion in Maxwell's Six­pen­ny Mag­a­zi­ne on a month­ly basis in Jan­uary 1862.

Mary Eliz­a­beth Brad­don was just 27 when her break­out novel brought her lit­er­ary celebri­ty and for­tune; she sub­se­quent­ly be­came Ed­i­tor of the week­ly lit­er­ary jour­nal Bel­gravia, from which po­si­tion she pub­lished the sen­sa­tion fic­tion of Collins, and even Thomas Hardy's The Re­turn of the Na­tive (1878). Dick­ens, on the other hand, at 48 was the pe­ri­od's best-es­tab­lished pro­fes­sion­al writ­er, the au­thor of ten nov­els and hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles, as well as of a con­sid­er­able body of short fic­tion. And yet, as Brad­don ob­served from how the older nov­el­ist ab­sorbed the style and man­ner of Wilkie Collins, Dick­ens was al­ways ready to learn from his younger con­tem­po­raries, as is clear in the high­ly in­no­va­tive The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. De­spite the pop­u­lar­i­ty of her nov­els in the 1860s, ref­er­ences to Brad­don in the au­thor­i­ta­tive Pil­grim Edi­tion of the Let­ters of Charles Dick­ens are few, and are fur­ther con­fined to a dra­mat­ic adap­ta­tion of Brad­don's Au­ro­ra Floyd (also pub­lished in 1862, and drama­tised im­me­di­ate­ly after its ap­pear­ance in vol­ume form). Since she and Bul­w­er-Lyt­ton cor­re­spond­ed with one an­oth­er, it is hard to imag­ine that Dick­ens could have known noth­ing of her work at a time when he and Bul­w­er were par­tic­u­lar­ly close, name­ly when Dick­ens was com­plet­ing Great Ex­pec­ta­tions in June 1861, the final in­stal­ment (3 Au­gust 1861) re­flect­ing Bul­w­er's ad­vice that, in ac­cor­dance with pop­u­lar taste, Dick­ens pro­vide a hap­pi­er end­ing that al­lows for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Pip and Es­tel­la's mar­ry­ing after all.

As Ed­i­tor-in-Chief of All the Year Round, Dick­ens close­ly fol­lowed the se­ri­al fic­tion mar­ket, and un­doubt­ed­ly would have been aware that Brad­don was pub­lish­ing Lady Au­d­ley's Se­cret in The Six­pen­ny Mag­a­zine on a month­ly basis from Jan­uary through De­cem­ber 1862. After Tins­ley Broth­ers pub­lished it in vol­ume form as a triple-deck­er in Oc­to­ber 1862 (there­by scoop­ing the end­ing in the se­ri­al), Brad­don's novel was se­ri­alised again, from 21 March 1863 through 15 Au­gust 1863, with twen­ty-two il­lus­tra­tions (one per week­ly in­stal­ment), cul­mi­nat­ing with "The Wan­der­er Re­turned at Last," the re­union of the pro­tag­o­nist, the at­tor­ney Robert Au­d­ley, and the sup­pos­ed­ly mur­dered first hus­band of Lady Au­d­ley, George Tal­boys (Vol. 38, no. 966, part 22). The novel, also adapt­ed for the stage in 1863, must have come to Dick­ens's at­ten­tion by the time he began writ­ing The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood.

Al­though The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood does not offer its read­ers the for­bid­den de­lights of the bigamy plot orig­i­nat­ed by Brad­don, it does in­volve the dis­ap­pear­ance and pre­sumed mur­der of one of its cen­tral char­ac­ters; fur­ther, the read­er is rea­son­ably as­sured of the mur­der­er's iden­ti­ty and, of course, is con­sis­tent­ly led to be­lieve that a mur­der has taken place, and the body clev­er­ly dis­posed of by the per­pe­tra­tor, who, though pos­si­bly in­sane, is cer­tain­ly a crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind when its comes to mur­der and de­cep­tion. Brad­don's so­lu­tion in Lady Au­d­ley's Se­cret, may well be one that Dick­ens had in mind when he and Collins col­lab­o­rat­ed on the ini­tial wrap­per. In essence, Lady Au­d­ley er­ro­neous­ly be­lieves that she has fa­tal­ly shot her first hus­band, George Tal­boys, and that his body is safe­ly dis­posed of in a well on the Au­d­ley es­tate. In fact, how­ev­er, George had been res­cued from the well by the brutish but de­vi­ous pub­li­can, Luke Marks (who is mar­ried to Lady Au­d­ley's maid, Phoebe), and is out of the coun­try. The novel (and its dra­mat­ic adap­ta­tion of 1863) con­cludes with the re­turn of George Tal­boys from New York. Many be­lieve that the fig­ure at the bot­tom of the­Drood wrap­per in the Ty­ro­lian hat is Edwin him­self rather than Helen in dis­guise. If so, then Dick­ens was, at least ini­tial­ly, think­ing of re­solv­ing Drood's dis­ap­pear­ance in a sim­i­lar man­ner, bring­ing him back from abroad to con­front his would-be mur­der­er in the crypt of the cathe­dral.

Syn­op­sis of Brad­don's Novel

When the novel opens, the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy rep­re­sent­ed by the world of Au­d­ley Court seems, at best, pre­car­i­ous. The title char­ac­ter, after all, seems to have risen from utter ob­scu­ri­ty to head a pres­ti­gious and wealthy house­hold. Next to noth­ing is known of her ori­gins. Sir Michael Au­d­ley is past mid­dle-age when the novel be­gins and he has no son to take over his es­tate. Robert Au­d­ley, who we might ex­pect to be an am­bi­tious and suc­cess­ful lawyer, given his ad­van­tages of for­tune and fam­i­ly name, is in­stead a dilet­tante more in­ter­est­ed in French nov­els and cigars than in con­tin­u­ing the Au­d­ley fam­i­ly line. Al­though Ali­cia Au­d­ley has, ap­par­ent­ly, nu­mer­ous mar­i­tal prospects, she seems ut­ter­ly dis­in­ter­est­ed in head­ing a house of her own: she far prefers the mas­cu­line plea­sures of out­door life, like hunt­ing. The mys­tery of Lady Au­d­ley's Se­cret is, in part, whether or not a courtship plot ca­pa­ble of re­solv­ing the class ten­sions of the novel can even come into ex­is­tence. (Karen Droisen)

The chief irony of the book is that the read­er si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly feels sym­pa­thet­ic to­wards the pro­tag­o­nist (at­tor­ney Robert Au­d­ley) and his an­tag­o­nist, the epony­mous char­ac­ter, de­spite the fact that Lucy Gra­ham has ob­vi­ous­ly mar­ried the much older Sir Michael Au­d­ley for his prop­er­ty and the com­fort­able life-style that his wealth will per­mit her. Even, how­ev­er, when we sus­pect that she has mur­dered her first hus­band, George Tal­boys, and has at­tempt­ed to mur­der the at­tor­ney by set­ting fire to the inn where he is stay­ing, the read­er still has the sense that she is mere­ly try­ing to de­fend her­self. Beau­ti­ful, charm­ing but some­what neu­rot­ic, Lady Au­d­ley is a woman with a past and more than one se­cret--but we would ex­pect no less in one of the ear­li­est and most pop­u­lar Sen­sa­tion Nov­els. We sym­pa­thize, too, with her step­daugh­ter, Ali­cia Au­d­ley, whose ro­man­tic de­signs her cousin Robert con­sis­tent­ly re­buffs. How­ev­er, Brad­don sat­is­fies the de­mands of the con­ven­tion­al courtship novel by hav­ing Robert Au­d­ley fall in love with and even­tu­al­ly marry his best friend's sis­ter, Clara Tal­boys. His progress in his re­la­tion­ship with her par­al­lels his progress in un­mask­ing Lady Au­d­ley and free­ing his fam­i­ly of the taint of bigamy, to say noth­ing of homi­cide and in­san­i­ty.