Book Club Questions: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

When beautiful young Lucy Graham accepts the hand of Sir Michael Audley, her fortune and her future look secure. But Lady Audley’s past is shrouded in mystery, and Sir Michael’s nephew Robert has vague forebodings. When Robert’s good friend George Talboys suddenly disappears, he is determined to find him, and to unearth the truth. His quest reveals a tangled story of lies and deception, crime and intrigue, whose sensational twists turn the conventional picture of Victorian womanhood on its head. Can Robert’s darkest suspicions really be true? A publishing sensation in its day, Lady Audley’s Secret is a thrilling novel of deception and villainy in which the golden-haired heroine is not at all what she seems.

My friend and I had the most fantastic time reading this book! For me, it was a reread, since it was one of the novels covered in a Jane Eyre and Revision course I took in college, while for my friend it was a new adventure. Lady Audley’s Secret offers plenty of mystery and suspense, along with wonderfully sly depictions of class and gender inequality in Victorian England during the time. It also moves at a relatively fast past with lively prose, for those of you who may have bad past experiences with Victorian literature. If you are a fan of sordid pasts, incompetent detectives, and vicious battles of wits, then this is the book for you!

Discussion questions below the cut!

Although the Cinderella fantasy is quite common in literature or everyday speculation, we often seem to revile those who only say yes to a man for the sake of his money. Yet, when Sir Michael proposes to Lady Audley, he himself says, “I dare say I am a romantic old fool; but if you do not dislike me, and if you do not love any one else, I see no reason why we should not make a very happy couple. Is it a bargain, Lucy?” (11). Why do you think we judge women who marry for money so harshly? Consider marriage’s origins in Western culture as an exchange of property (with women intended to be a passive object in this exchange). What does marriage mean to you today? For what reasons would you consider marrying someone?

As Lady Audley describes her youth to her husband and Robert Audley, she talks about her early life in poverty and says, “So you see that at a very early age I found out what it was to be poor” (348). She explains to them, “You and your nephew, Sir Michael, have been rich all your lives, and can very well afford to despise me; but I knew how far poverty can affect a life, and I looked forward with a sick terror to a life so affected” (351). Consider the concept of marriage for love as a fiction created by upper class men. Would you agree or disagree with that concept? Why?

When Robert Audley is speaking to Miss Tonks, she describes Lady Audley as “only ornamental; a person to be shown off to visitors, and to play fantasias on the drawing-room piano” and not at all “useful” (236). If Lady Audley’s only worth is in being ornamental, who values her most? Is her ornamental worth also tied to her class? Consider Robert Audley who, one might argue, spends most of his life prior to this book being absolutely useless. Does he have any “worth”? Is he required to have any worth given his gender and social status?

Lady Audley’s Secret is an example of sensation fiction, the forerunner to detective novels. Mary Elizabeth Braddon was one of the more popular writers of sensation fiction, along with Wilkie Collins (who has a shout out in this book). Sensation fiction tended to focus on domestic dramas and often more feminine concerns. Robert Audley is, quite obviously, our detective character in this novel, and Lady Audley mocks him for it, saying, “You seem to have quite a taste for discussing these horrible subjects […] you ought to have been a detective police officer,” to which he replies that he believes he would have been a good one, “Because I am patient” (141). What do you feel makes a good detective in real life? How about a good detective in detective fiction? Do you think Robert Audley is a good detective? Why or why not?

The narrator occasionally describes Lady Audley and Robert Audley’s stand-off as a game of cards, with Robert having shown all his cards while she kept hers hidden (274), and Lady Audley not having thrown away a single card or trick she could have used to her advantage, ultimately losing only because Robert holds a more powerful hand (372). In this game, Lady Audley and Robert Audley are essentially fighting for the Audley inheritance – the wealth, the land, and the “stainless name” (378). Do you think this novel is approving or disapproving of the hierarchical class structure which has created this cutthroat game they’re playing? Who were you rooting for? Did you feel like changing sides at any point in the novel?

Lady Audley thinks to herself, “Have I ever been really wicked, I wonder? […] My worst wickednesses have been the result of wild impulses, and not of deeply-laid plots. I am not like the women I have read of, who have lain night after night in the horrible dark and stillness, planning out treacherous deeds, and arranging every circumstance of an appointed crime” (297). How do you yourself define “wickedness”? Would you consider Lady Audley wicked? If so, were there any actions in particular that made you decide this? If not, why? (You might also consider how our justice system makes a distinction between premeditated murder and a “crime of passion.”)

Do you think Lady Audley is truly mad as she claims on pg. 346? Why or why not? Do you think that Lady Audley truly believes she is mad? Why or why not?

Robert Audley has Lady Audley committed to a mental asylum in order to save his own family’s name from degradation. He tells himself this is a kindness toward Lady Audley, and that her committal to the asylum in Belgium is better than the public trial and possible execution she would have faced from English law. Do you agree with Robert Audley or do you feel that his actions were purely self-serving?

1851 marked the beginning of the official women’s movement in England with the Ladies of Langham Place and their debates focusing on women’s right to education and marriage rights. This novel was published in 1861 but set in 1857. Do you feel this novel is a critique of existing domestic ideology or is it an anxious critique of female uprising at the time? What in particular makes you feel one way or the other?

Male homosocial desire, as coined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, is a way of describing the desire men feel to have close social relationships (not just a friendship, but a “bond”) with other men within a patriarchal society. Homosocial desire is distinct from homosexual desire, and tends to be created by an inability to have close social relationships with men due to societal structures and conventions (often with strong currents of homophobia defining how men are and are not allowed to interact). (To conceptualize this, you might think of bromance and the idea that men need a phrase to describe a close male bond distinct from romantic love or casual friendship – a phrase which allows them to have a close male-male relationship while adamantly denying any possibility of homosexual desire.) Male homosocial desire in literature frequently takes the form of a triangle in which male homosocial desire is expressed through a female conduit – for instance, two men with romantic/sexual desire for the same woman or a man who pursues a romantic/sexual relationship with the female sibling of another man. Essentially, the female conduit allows one man to express his desire/fascination/interest for the other man without violating social mores. Robert Audley frequently comments on Clara Talboys’ similarity to her brother both in appearance and personality (202, 208), and ends the book in a perfect picture of domesticity living with both George and Clara in their fairy cottage. Clara is also an obvious foil to Lady Audley, being upper class and independently wealthy as well as all that is pure and good in Robert’s opinion. Do you think Lady Audley also provides a female conduit for Robert Audley’s homosocial desire for George Talboys? Why or why not? And if you do, why is Lady Audley punished in this role while Clara is celebrated?

Lady Audley’s Secret (1861) has a number of similarities to Jane Eyre (1847), including the governess marrying a rich upper class man, madness, and a fire. In Jane Eyre, Rochester is conscious of his wife’s madness but hides her away in the attic pretending she doesn’t exist until this secret is suddenly revealed to Jane. In Lady Audley’s Secret, Sir Michael is unaware of his wife’s madness, only to have it revealed to him within his own domestic space. To whom in society is each scenario most frightening? How do you think fears regarding madness (or at least what madness represents) might have shifted between the two novels, keeping in mind the large social changes taking place during the Victorian era?

Page numbers referenced are from the 1987 Oxford World’s Classics edition.

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