This is a gentle read to a degree, being set in the 1800s when books weren’t full of blood and guts and there were rules to follow in polite society, but it also has quite a lot of suspense and a great plot. Robert Audley is introduced to his rich uncle’s new wife but discovers that she has a suspicious past, and when one of the witnesses to this past disappears Robert begins to suspect that Lady Audley has something to do with this and sets about to discover what has happened. The book includes blackmail, arson, murder and many more gloriously manipulative and devious plots.

I can imagine how the book caused a sensation in its day and can appreciate the huge influence it has had. It seems very daring at that time to have a female as the guilty party, and especially a wealthy upper-class female instead of a ‘commoner’. The novel is clever as Lady Audley’s secret isn’t actually revealed in so many words but the reader is led on by Robert’s deductions to believe what he believes, and I was left wondering if the solution is actually even more complicated than his surmisings. I can easily understand the book being described as an early detective story as Robert is like a detective with his determination to hunt out the truth and search for clues.

I think Robert is fast becoming one of my favourite male characters in literature; he is such a fair and considerate person who can empathise with others’ feelings; he is able to appreciate the consequences of his actions, as he knows the course he is pursuing will bring a guilty person to justice and avenge his friend yet he knows the discovery of the truth will cause pain to other innocent people he cares for; he is honest with himself and questions his own motives before he acts rather than just having blind confidence in himself (which is a contrast to the often high level of arrogance and self belief common in rich male characters of that day with their unquestioned rights and power); he also questions his own character to determine whether his suspicions are fact or are all just imaginings by a lonely bachelor; he recognises his own weaknesses in being tempted to abandon his investigations and go back to his easy life; he is generous with his money, tipping waiters liberally; he is kind-hearted, taking in stray dogs; he has a strong moral code as he won’t question a child even though he knows he’ll gain information from the boy’s innocent answers. I do wonder if these admirable qualities of Robert are actually present because it is a woman writing a man’s words and thoughts.

I adore Mary Braddon’s phrasing (and therefore Robert’s); her words are so thoughtful and accurate and beautifully put. I was quite touched by many of Robert’s thoughts, and some of the ones that stay in my mind include when he is considering how rare it is to find complete happiness and says if a man was to make, “a calculation of his existence… in which he has been thoroughly happy… really entirely at his ease… without the most infinitesimal cloud to overshadow the brightness of his horizon… and discovers the pitiful smallness of the amount. He will have enjoyed himself for a week or ten days in thirty years perhaps.” Also when Robert is considering his love for his uncle and says, “grateful affection was so much a part of himself that it seldom found an outlet in words.” And his thoughts on the subject of women made me smile, “To call them the weaker sex is to offer a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex.”

I was a bit uneasy with the diagnosis of Lady Audley’s madness, as it seemed as if all her actions and behaviours can therefore be explained away by this illness rather than the possibility that she may just be selfish and conniving and comfortable with hurting people. Robert certainly seems keen to adopt this convenient label of ‘madness’ as this means there is then no criminal trial and his uncle’s name is protected. I initially thought the author was taking the easy way out with a convenient solution and I was disappointed as the story seemed of a higher quality than that, but I wonder now if she is actually sarcastically pointing out to the reader how commonly used this diagnosis was at the time.

This is a very interesting and admirable book with an unusual story, particularly for the time it was written.

This novel, with its most untypically forceful heroine, can be seen as an anticipation of Ibsen's great dramas, and as an unabashed bid for freedom from the constraints of Victorian womanhood.
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