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January 21, 2012

Lady Audley's Secret

As he watched the snow-flakes falling every moment thicker and faster upon the lonely road, he was surprised by seeing a brougham slowly up the hill.
      'I wonder what unhappy wretch has too restless a spirit to stop at home on such a morning as this,' he muttered as he returned to the arm-chair by the fire.
      'He only reseated himself a few moments when Phoebe Marks entered the room to announce Lady Audley.
      'Lady Audley! Pray beg her to come in,' said Robert, and then, as Phoebe left the room to usher in this unexpected visitor, he muttered between his teeth -- 'A false move, my lady, and one I never looked for from you.'
As you probably know by now, I love to read mysteries, so when Karen chose Lady Audley's Secret as the January Cornflower Book Club book, I was happy to have a chance to read it.  Lady Audley's Secret was published in 1862, and is considered one of the best Victorian 'sensation novels.'  From what I'm learning about it, this genre became popular in the early 1860s, lasted for about two decades, often included 'bigamous marriages, misdirected letters, romantic triangles, heroines placed in physical danger, drugs, potions, and/or poisons, characters [who} adopt disguises, trained coincidences [and] aristocratic villains,' and was helped along by the popularity of serialised fiction, which was first published in new weekly and monthly literary magazines, and then in book form for the growing number of lending libraries.  The 'crowded field of practitioners' included Wilkie Collins. {There's a very interesting page on the sensation novel here, if you want to read more about it.}

Lucy Graham, a beautiful and sweet-natured governess, wins the hand and heart of Sir Michael Audley, a quiet widower who lives with his daughter Alicia at Audley Court.  Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew and presumptive heir, is a young man-about-town, living in chambers in London, although he has never bothered to practice law.  Sir Michael's marriage raises talk in the village, jealous dislike in Alicia, and amorous feelings in Robert.  Lady's Audley's new fortunes are also the target of Phoebe, her lady's maid, and Phoebe's boorish lover-then-husband Luke, who use something they find hidden in Lady Audley's jewelry box to blackmail her into setting them up as innkeepers. Meanwhile, Robert's old friend George Talboys is searching for his wife and child, whom he abandoned several years earlier so that he could earn money to support them. Almost immediately, Robert reads in a newspaper notice that Helen Talboys has died, and he helps George find his father-in-law, a retired navy captain, and his young son, who remembers a fine lady who came to visit them.  When George plunges into a deep depression, Robert tries to help by inviting him to visit Audley Court, but an introduction to Lady Audley is suddenly hard to arrange.  When they finally enter the old house, Sir Michael and Lady Audley have been called away. Lady Audley has taken the key to her rooms with her, but Alicia leads Robert and George through a secret passage so that they can see the fine collection of paintings in her boudoir, including a new portrait. Then George disappears, after calling on Lady Audley, and Robert vows to find out what has happened to him.

It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side bu meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thoroughfare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business there at all.
      At the end of the avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand -- and which jumped straight from one hour to the next -- and was therefore always in extremes. Through the arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.
      A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county. To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss. To the left there was the broad graveled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter.
      The house faced the arch, and occupied three sides of a quadrangle. It was very old, and very irregular and rambling. The windows were uneven; some small, some large, some with heavy stone mullions and rich stained glass; others with frail lattices that rattled in every breeze; others so modern that they might have been added only yesterday. Great piles of chimneys rose up here and there behind the pointed gables, and seemed as if they were so broken down by age and long service that they must have fallen but for the straggling ivy which, crawling up the walls and trailing even over the roof, wound itself about them and supported them. The principal door was squeezed into a corner of a turret at one angle of the building, as if it were in hiding from dangerous visitors, and wished to keep itself a secret -- and noble door for all that -- old oak, and studded with great square-headed iron nails, and so thick that the sharp iron knocker struck upon it with a muffled sound, and the visitor rang a clanging bell that dangled in a corner among the ivy, lest the noise of the knocking should never penetrate the stronghold.
      A glorious old place. A place that visitors fell in raptures with, feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever...  A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hands on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenues -- ay, even upon the stagnant well, which, cool and sheltered as all else in the old place, hid itself away in a shrubbery behind the gardens, with an idle handle that was never turned and a lazy rope so rotten that the pail had broken away from it,and had fallen into the water.
I love biography, literary history and context even more than I love to read mysteries, but I hadn't read anything about this book, this genre or this author until I was well into it.  It's often (usually) hard for me to really like Victorian novels, and always a wonderful surprise when I do, and this one, at least for the first half, fell right into that second category.  Better to find out later that some of the reasons why (the wonderful descriptions of settings, and the tight, suspenseful plotting) are trademark features of the sensation novel, and just enjoy them in the meantime.  I can't remember when Lady Audley's other secret became obvious -- was it supposed to be? or where we still meant to be wondering? -- but even though it was very early on, this didn't dampen the very well done plotting that drives the early part of the story. {The second half of the book -- Robert's search for proof, and the twist at the end -- didn't hold up as well, at least for me.}


Lisa May said...

I read this years ago and really enjoyed it. It was my introduction to sensation fiction as well. But I didn't like the next book of hers I read at all (John Marchmont's Legacy), so I've never read anything else of hers, though I have had two on the TBR pile for ages. Maybe seeing posts from the group read will inspire me!

Karen K. said...

I read this last October during the RIP challenge and loved it! It was such a page-turner. I liked it even better than The Woman in White, which to me seemed to need some editing. I was also able to figure out her secret pretty easily, but it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the book in the least.

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