This book has been on my TBR list for years, and it feels good to finally cross it off my classics book club list.
Lady Audley’s Secret is one of those gothic “sensation” novels in the style of Wilkie Collins’ books. Indeed, it has been often compared along with The Woman in White by Collins.
A middle-aged rich Sir Audley marries a young and charming governess from his village. Soon it becomes obvious that his new wife is hiding some secret from her past.
When his nephew Robert Audley’s friend goes suddenly missing from their house in Audley Court, his suspicions fall on Lady Audley and soon he’s doing an in-depth investigation of her background.
I always tell people hesitant to embark on a classic to start with some of the easier ones – Pride and Prejudice, The Woman in White, and now, I will recommend Lady Audley’s Secret.
For one, it’s completely plot-driven. If you are a suspense or thrills junkie such as I am, this is a perfect pick because of the fast-moving and exciting story.
Second, the language, characters, and plot are fairly accessible. You won’t find too many long-winded monologues (there are some, but not tedious), the settings are historical, but for all intents and purposes, this is a tightly plotted thriller that really doesn’t waste any time getting to the heart of the mystery.
The secret as such in the title is not really a secret to us. The author has used that omniscient style of story-telling giving all the information to us readers making it easy for us to guess the secret. The thrill lies in the cat and mouse game that is played between Lady Audley and her nephew who wants to expose her. Each time Robert comes close to exposing her, it seems she dances lightly away, and that game between the two is the heart and soul of the book.
So I enjoyed these sections of the book. But there are also some troubling parts.
Spoilers abound – Beware
There is a lot of hysterical criticism about Lady Audley’s actions in the book. When her husband abandons her, she takes on a new name and marries a rich man.
Ohh! The criticism that is leveled at her! Nobody remembers that it was her husband who left her, who ran away to Australia, and stayed incommunicado for almost three years, and left her and her child with only her alcoholic father for support.
What is an unskilled woman without any kind of training but with exceptional good looks going to do? For some time she works as a governess, but when a rich man is attracted to her, of course, she is going to accept his proposal of marriage. Who wouldn’t? And how can the world judge her without first judging the actions of her husband who left her first?
These aspects of the book annoyed me to the core. I am also not very sure about the tone that the author has used, and whether she condones that criticism leveled at Lady Audley by various characters in the book, or whether she agrees with it.
Robert Audley’s misogyny is obvious:
They’re bold, brazen, abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors.
Look at this business of poor George’s! It’s all woman’s work from one end to the other.
He marries a woman, and his father casts him off.
He hears of the woman’s death, and he breaks his heart — his good, honest, manly heart, worth a million of the treacherous lumps of self-interest and mercenary calculation which beat in women’s breasts.
He goes to a woman’s house and he is never seen alive again.
But since the author deigns to comment on his mouthing off, and because he is the hero of the story, I ended up with a rather uncomfortable feeling about the book.
There’s also a section on insanity, which is written in very tongue in cheek style, which also served to remind me just how easy it seems to have been in Victorian times for men to declare their female relatives insane and have them clapped up in an asylum (see The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins for a similar theme).
I was a bit disappointed with the insanity plot construct, which is used to justify Lady Audley’s actions. What that means for the book is that no one needs to look deeply into the circumstances that made Lady Audley into what she is, and that nobody (thinking of her first husband here) feels the need to take accountability for their actions that made her what she is.
Even the doctor who agrees to place her in an asylum says:
She ran away from her home, because her home was not a pleasant one, and she left it in the hope of finding a better. There is no madness in that. She committed the crime of bigamy, because by that crime she obtained fortune and position. There is no madness in that.
In spite of his misgivings, the doctor allows himself to be persuaded to commit her to an asylum – probably convinced because of Lord Audley’s money and position in society, and the scandal that would be caused if the whole story of Lady Audley’s background comes to light.
All these men arbitrarily deciding a woman’s fate left me with a bad taste in the mouth.
All said and done though, this was the Victorian times, and the book acts as a mirror to Victorian attitudes, and so, while I may not like some aspects of this book, it is good to read and to serve as a reminder of how far we have come since then.
I thought this book made a fantastic thriller. It kept me on its toes, and even the ambiguity surrounding women and their roles in society, did not reduce my pleasure in reading this book.
Note: I read this book as part of my Classics club initiative to read 50 classics within 5 years.
You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon