Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon (1862) French title: Le secret de Lady Audley.

The first time I heard from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sensation Novels was on Guy’s blog when he published his review of Lady Audley’s Secret. (See his review here: Part I & Part II)  I knew this would be my kind of book and I’m glad our book club picked it for our August read. (Yes, I’m late again with my billet.)

When the book opens, Lady Audley has been married to Sir Michael for a few months. She was a governess at a nearby house and Sir Michael fell in love with her. She’s a beautiful blonde with stunning ringlets and captivating blue eyes. She’s an enchantress who bewitches everyone around her and poor Sir Michael stood no chance against her charms. So, against all odds, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia who is almost as old as his new wife. While Lady Audley delights in girlish activities, Alicia is more outdoorsy. The two women have nothing in common and Lady Audley’s arrival made Alicia lose her power over her father and the housekeeping. Needless to say, the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality.

Sir Michael has also a nephew, Robert Audley. Aged of twenty-seven, he’s an idle barrister in London. Alicia is in love with him but he doesn’t pay attention to many things around him.

Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

Fickle as he seems, Robert Audley is genuinely fond of his uncle and enjoys staying at Audley Court regularly.

In parallel to the new microcosm at Audley Court, ME Braddon introduces us to George Talboys. He’s on his way back from Australia where he took part to the Gold Rush and became rich. He left his young wife with their baby son back in England and he’s dying to go back to her and resume their family life now that he’s settled financially.

He’s just arrived in London when he stumbles upon his old classmate, Robert Audley. Alas, he quickly discovers that his wife just died and Robert accompanies him to see her father and go to her grave. George is devastated by grief and Robert takes care of him, inviting him to share his lodgings in London. The two men are great friends and Robert would like to cheer him up. He eventually takes him to Audley Court to meet his uncle’s new wife.

Several events in the story make the reader understand that Lady Audley hides something and that this something might be that she was George Talboys’s wife. She seems to make sure to never meet him and when he suddenly disappears from Audley Court’s grounds, Robert is instantly worried and fears the worst. He finds this disappearance very odd and turns into a detective to find out what happened to his dear friend.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859)

Nothing in this story stands against the question “Is it plausible?” It is full of coincidences, chance meetings, trains that arrive just at the right time to push the plot forward, little clues scattered here and there. It explores the ideas of murder in cold blood, bigamy and greed. For once, the villain is a beautiful blonde, an evil spirit hidden by her beauty but revealed in her portrait.

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

Robert, first described as lazy and fickle becomes obsessed with finding George and protecting his uncle from his wife. For an idle fellow, he sure deploys a lot of energy investigating his friend’s disappearance. The way ME Braddon described his grief over the loss of his friend, I wondered if there wasn’t a little bromance under all this friendship. (But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys.)

What makes the trip the most enjoyable is ME Braddon’s buoyant and bouncy style. She writes like a French writer paid by the page with lots of commas, strings of adjectives and long sentences.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else—so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

She’s very cinematographic in her descriptions, a gift that transports the reader on the action’s premises. She doesn’t think that a straight line is the shortest way to arrive somewhere and takes us into the detours of her delightful paragraphs.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

She also uses French references, mostly to describes flaws in a character.

Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels. He’s so addicted to them that he always carries six of them when he travels and they’re his main source of entertainment in London. Braddon talks about them with the same disdain as Flaubert when he describes Emma Bovary’s readings. They seemed to be what we call in French romans de gare (railway station novels) or airport novels in English but I have trouble using the term airport novels for 19th century books as it sounds a tiny bit anachronic. I kept wondering what kind of infamous novels Robert was reading until ME Braddon mentioned Balzac and Dumas fils. (You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me.) Ahem. Can’t say I classify them in railway station authors but who knows how these masterpieces were received in their time by the Victorian bourgeoisie. And of course, it’s ironic for ME Braddon to write this about Balzac and Dumas fils, given the kind of literature she wrote.

But Robert is not the only one whose character is marred by French influence. Lady Audley’s quarters are adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier. In other words, she is surrounded by king Louis XIV and his lovers (Louise de la Vallière, Athenais de Montespan) and Louis XV, the libertine king and his mistress Madame du Barry (Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier) Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses. Please note that there is no reference to the pious Madame de Maintenon.

Like a lot of 19th century British writers, ME Braddon peppers her prose with French expressions. Some were accurate and some were more imaginative. I couldn’t figure out what she meant with bonne bouche in this sentence The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne boucheOut of context it could means gourmet, although the usual expression is fine bouche but I don’t see how this meaning fits in the sentence. I had the same trouble with mauvaise honte in the young man’s mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. I suppose that the young man was shy.

Of course I couldn’t help smiling at this reference to my beloved Molière: “What the devil am I doing in this galere?” he asked. This is a direct reference to the play, Les Fourberies de Scapin where a character keeps saying What the devil was he doing in this galley?

This mix of effective descriptions, irony, bombast and improbable twists and turns makes of Lady Audley’s Secret a highly enjoyable ride. It’s well-written fun and it must be taken as it is, with a good-humored dose of suspension of belief. That’s comfort literature, good Beach and Public Transport reading, which is my non-debasing way to call the romans de gare.

  1. October 1, 2017 at 10:31 pm

    I should reread this one! Looks like I missed a lot, or maybe it has just been so long since I read it that I don’t remember. Love the comment “Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels.” We always laughed at the 19th Century Lit Group about the bad influence of those French novels and the ones with the yellow covers.

    I’ve read several of Braddon’s novels and enjoyed them all: Aurora Floyd, The Doctor’s Wife and even her first, The Trail of the Serpent.

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    • October 2, 2017 at 1:00 pm

      My knowledge of French 19thC novels is limited to the most famous writers.(Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo, Dumas…) and with my modern eyes, I don’t see the problem with them. So I wonder if there were others that were scandalous and have not survived because of their poor or average literary qualities but were nonetheless fashionable at the time.

      I have Aurora Floyd on the shelf, good to know it’s a great one too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • October 2, 2017 at 2:44 pm

        I don’t know about the ‘scandalous’ French novels either – one would think there must have been. Certainly some of Zola’s would qualify, but they were written after Aurora Floyd. One of Zola’s main translator/publishers, Vizetelly, was tried and fined for obscenity and may even have spent some time in jail. La Terre is the worst example of that I’ve read – and it is the one Zola book that I would never reread.

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        • October 2, 2017 at 10:25 pm

          I knew that Zola was shocking for the English public at the time.
          But in Balzac, there’s nothing scandalous, in my opinion.

          Liked by 1 person

          • October 3, 2017 at 1:08 am

            You’re mostly right about Balzac. I’ve always felt that whereas several of the Victorian translations of Zola’s books are not satisfactory, the public domain translations of Balzac’s books are just fine – and in some cases preferable to some mid-20th century ones which use awkward language. The only Balzac I can think of offhand which would have offended 19th Century readers much is La Fille aux yeux d’or with its heavy lesbian theme.

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            • October 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm

              I really didn’t like La fille aux yeux d’or.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. October 2, 2017 at 1:10 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed it Emma. The Doctor’s Wife sits very well in my memory.

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    • October 2, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      I owe you this one.
      I have Aurora Floyd first and I’ll keep The Doctor’s Wife in mind.

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      • October 2, 2017 at 3:28 pm

        I have that one too. The Doctor’s wife was supposedly her version of Madame Bovary which she found full of “hideous immorality.” Personally I don’t believe she found it immoral at all. Think she loved it. Just her excuse to pinch a good idea.

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        • October 2, 2017 at 10:24 pm

          I remember your post about it.

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  3. October 2, 2017 at 8:50 am

    This sounds fun! I have a nice Virago edition somewhere in the TBR pile, I’ll have to dig it out.

    I wonder if bonne bouche means amuse bouche – they went for something small to eat?

    Love your comment ‘the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality’ 😀

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    • October 2, 2017 at 1:11 pm

      It’s a lot of fun, an excellent autumn/winter read.

      I don’t think she meant amuse bouche. I think she meant to leave this portrait to real art amateurs, able to enjoy it. (like gourmet for food but applied to painting)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. October 2, 2017 at 9:04 am

    I really enjoyed your review of this, Emma – especially your comments on the French influences. It’s a book I know of mostly by reputation, so it’s great to read such a detailed critique. I can understand why it is held up as a classic of Victorian sensation fiction…

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    • October 2, 2017 at 1:13 pm

      I think you’d enjoy this. It’s a light read and she has such a joyful style.

      I’m glad you liked the “French part” of my billet: I can’t bring anything original about the plot or M.E. Braddon’s place in literature but this, I can comment. 🙂

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  5. October 4, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses.

    I’ve had this book on hand for ages without ever having made the time to sit down with it. However, your role models quote above and all that talk about art and novels make me sure I’ll enjoy it when it rises to the top of my TBR pile. Thanks for the reminder about what I’ve been missing!

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    • October 14, 2017 at 9:17 pm

      Hi,

      Sorry for the very late answer, I’m coming out of a work tunnel to literary light.

      You know what you’re getting into with that kind of books and a little suspension of belief is welcome. I loved the atmosphere of it and Robert running around and hopping on and off trains to solve the mystery of his friend’s disappearance.

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  6. October 11, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    That is such a terrible cover. If I get this I’ll get it on kindle for sure…

    That aside, nice to see a femme fatale in Victorian fiction but I suspect I might struggle with the lack of plausibility. Then again, “buoyant and bouncy” are tempting words.

    Bonne bouche sounds like a variant of some sort on amuse bouche, though an amuse bouche comes first rather than later. Perhaps it’s a period usage for a finisher dish but a term we no longer have.

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    • October 14, 2017 at 9:27 pm

      I have it on kindle. This cover is terrible but at least it tries to convey Lady Audley’s wicked ways. I thought that all the covers for this novel were awful. The French ones are more elegant but do not go well with the story. It seems like publishers are embarrassed by Lady Audley’s personality and can’t find a meaningful cover. Even today, blond angelic beauties who are actually wicked characters don’t agree with the usual stereotypes.

      I guess you could call Lady Audley a femme fatale. I didn’t think about it because it’s liked to crime fiction / Noir but this is actually crime fiction and it fits.

      I really think bonne bouche is a mistake. The closest seems “fine bouche” which means “to be fussy” or “to be a gourmet”. I think she meant that the two men left the analysis of the painting to true amateurs of arts.

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