Wednesday 13 January 2010

Looking like the innocent flower, but being the serpent under it

I am sure I've long known of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's famous sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret (1862); indeed, I'm sure I memorized some ridiculous and useless factoid about it for my general comprehensive exam back in my grad school days. Whatever said factoid was (perhaps that Braddon penned 85 books in her lifetime!!!! My gawd, Wodehouse was positively amateurish in comparison to her!), I've forgotten it and Braddon has not been on my radar for a good long time. I was reminded of her and this novel, however, by Rohan Maitzen discussing her inclusion of Lady Audley's Secret in a class devoted entirely to Victorian sensation literature, which sounds like perhaps the coolest class I've never taken. It seemed time to push Braddon to the front of the reading queue.

And I'm very happy I did. Lady Audley's Secret is sensational and lurid in the most enjoyable ways. The thoughtfulness and artistry of her more famous near contemporaries such as Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy are not in evidence here, but Braddon knew very well how to pen an irresistible page-turner. I was thoroughly swept away by this novel even as I recognized that her writing wasn't always as good as it could be.

Besides the bare bones of the plot being compelling, I appreciated Braddon's choice of Robert Audley as the most unlikely of amateur detectives. Forced into solving the mystery of his friend George Talboys' mysterious disappearance, Robert resists with all the force of his comfortably lazy personality; resistance is, of course, futile though for he is drawn relentlessly on until he eventually solves the mystery. The suffering he experiences at the loss of his friend is not outstripped by his suffering at having to act so concertedly and towards such unpleasant ends, but it comes close.

Warning! Gestures toward plot spoilers throughout!
On the back of my edition of this novel, the anonymous copy writer informs me that this tale "subtly undermined the Victorian Myth that female self-assertion was a form of insanity." I must confess that this occurred so subtly as to be undetectable by me.

I think that in a case wherein in a character changes her identity, abandons her child, attempts murder (repeatedly!), and pretends to love her husband is altogether too extreme a set of self-assertions to be subtly engaged with much of anything.

Further, the crimes and sins which the titular lady commits are performed rather too behind-hand to be properly called self-assertion; rather, what we see here is the Renaissance art of dissembling practiced to astonishingly sordid and cruel lengths. Assertion, properly speaking, almost never figures into my lady's strategies and devices. She is much too careful of her designs to make anyone suspicious by clearly stating her purpose in anything - except, in extreme circumstances, with Robert Audley, her nephew by marriage.

Yes, the very resistant Robert described above is the only one who turns out to be a match for the diabolically clever Lady Audley. They ultimately find themselves locked in a mortal battle of sorts, but female self-assertion still doesn't seem to me to be a dominant theme in this novel. Rather, what seems more central are two ultimately connected issues: 1) The attractions and limits of homo-social (if not homoerotic) friendship between men; and 2) The fear of women's sexual power in a society that has tried to contain women's sexuality by sublimating it into idealized domesticity.

For Robert, these two confusing aspects of social interaction become disturbingly focused in his search for his missing friend and the lady he blames for his disappearance. Robert's notions of domestic bliss tend to focus primarily on the company of other men; in particular, his uncle Sir Michael Audley is for Robert both a father figure and the ideal of domestic warmth and welcome. Being with him is for Robert being in the proverbial safe bosom of family. As well, upon his return from Australia, George becomes in Robert's mind the ideal of a domestic counterpart:
The snug rooms in Fig-tree Court seemed dreary in their orderly quiet to Robert Audley upon this particular evening. He had no inclination for his French novels, though there was a packet of uncut romances, comic and sentimental, ordered a month before, waiting his pleasure upon one of the tables. He took his favourite meerschaum and dropped into his favourite chair with a sigh.

"It's comfortable, but it seems so d-d lonely to-night. If poor George were sitting opposite to me, or — or even George's sister — she's very like him — existence might be a little more endurable. But when a fellow has lived by himself for eight or ten years he begins to be bad company."

He burst out laughing presently, as he finished his first pipe.

"The idea of my thinking of George's sister," he thought; "what a preposterous idiot I
am." (p. 208)
What I find fascinating about this passage is how unclear it is in Robert's mind where the line between George and his sister Clara is, in relation to Robert's domestic happiness. But his contentment with George's presence in this way was established long before Robert ever meets Clara, and so his minor and amused uneasiness cannot, it seems to me, reflect the idea of George there but rather with the idea of Clara as a replacement for George.

Robert, however, doesn't actually express any serious concern about his affection for George; on the other hand he certainly does express anxiety about women's power over men, both in relation to the novel's villainess Lady Audley and in relation to Clara, the latter of whom in no way behaves in dangerous or diabolical ways.

Caught up in his unwilling detective work, Robert has a telling dream about Lady Audley:
In those troublesome dreams he saw Audley Court, rooted up from amidst the green pastures and the shady hedgerows of Essex, standing bare and unprotected upon that desolate northern shore, threatened by the rapid rising of a boisterous sea, whose waves seemed gathering upward to descend and crush the house he loved. As the hurrying waves rolled nearer and nearer to the stately mansion, the sleeper saw a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam, and knew that it was my lady, transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction. (p. 246)
The mermaid is a curious symbol here for it both reflects the threat of Lady Audley's sexual power and yet seeks to disperse the idea of the sexual into visions alien and mythical. In an attempt to explain Clara's increasing emotional hold on him, Robert engages in a similar sort of neutralizing of female sexuality and the power it contains:
"What am I in her hands?" he thought. "What am I in the hands of this woman, who has my lost friend's face and the manner of Pallas Athene? She reads my pitiful, vacillating soul, and plucks the thoughts out of my heart with the magic of her solemn brown eyes. How unequal the fight must be between us, and how can I ever hope to conquer against the strength of her beauty and her wisdom?" (p. 258)
The important difference in these two passages is that Lady Audley's sexual power is dehumanized, made monstrous; Clara's sexual power is erased through his Petrarchan-esque elevation of her to the status of a goddess. But in both cases, the fascination of these two women is not allowed to be represented for what it actually is - their power to control men mentally and emotionally via the physical, tellingly represented in both cases as forms of attack.

All this is a rather drawn-out way of saying I enjoyed Lady Audley's Secret both as simply a rollicking good read and a book that provides fodder for those inclined towards literary analysis. I recommend! And now I'm going to go read Rohan's posts on this book to remind myself of how far off the mark and pedestrian I've been in my musings. :) See her posts here and here.


Lesly said...

Love MEB and Lady Audley - am reading The Serpent's Trail for the Victorian Challenge right now.

Heidenkind said...

That DOES sound like the coolest class ever. Hmmm, I was thinking of doing a classics month--I might have to add this one to my list of to-reads for that.

J.G. said...

This one sounds great. Sensationalism is great fun, in its classic expression.

And the idea that either the brother or sister would do--they are practically interchangeable, eh?--is just delicious!

Bookphilia said...

Lesly: I'm definitely going to be checking out more MEB so I'm glad to hear that Lady Audley's Secret and Aurora Floyd aren't the only ones still in print.

heidenkind: High lit it is not, but good fun it definitely is!

J.G.: Delicious - exactly the right word.