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Lady Audley's Secret (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – October 22, 1998
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The story of Braddon's book is clearly inspired by Collins's "The Woman in White" (especially by Laura's story), but it is quite unfair to call "Lady Audley" a poor imitation. (And remember, Collins's story is also said to be based on a French book recording actual crime cases). Lady Audley takes a more defying view on the Victorians, roles of women in particular, and that's the real reason she was such a "sensation," and is again getting our attention now.
The story goes like this: Lucy, a governess without family, is loved by Sir Michael Audley, a rich landowner of Audley Court, Essex, and marries him to the chagrin of some people who look at her as an adventuress. No matter how people think, however, they are living happily.
In the meanwhile, George Talboys, after his long, hard days in Australia searching for goldmine, finally comes back to London, after many years, with money to make his wife happy. But when he encountered his old friend Robert Audley, nephew of Sir Michael, he accidentally knows that his beloved wife is no longer alive.
Those two seemingly unrelated events begin to get entangled after George's sudden missing. Robert starts his own investigation, as if beckoned by a fate, and he, collecting evidences, gradually comes to one inevitable conclusion.
And ... let me say this first; "Lady Audley" is an absorbing book, but absorbing not in the way a good detective story is. The "secret" in point is, one often mistakes, NOT the secret you can easily discover in the early stage of the plot. (You must wait to see the nature of Lady's secret at the end of the book, which is still controversial.) The story is melodramatic and sometimes predictable, but the real virtue of the book is the portrait of the strong-willed heroine, who dares to challenge the social codes of women in Victorian era.
The book is full of action that you might find in any potboilers, shocking for the comtemporary people, which includes: murder, arson, secret passage, blackmail, you name it. But the way Braddon handles them is always steady and well-controlled, and at some places they look unexpectedly modern, reading like a movie script, anticipating the cinematic treatment in the early 20th century (this had been made into films three times in silent-film days, and once on TV even in 2000) Her book has many flaws, surely, but should be never called dull.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon, when she was working on this book, was living with John Maxwell, ambitious publisher in debt, and she was the main provider of income. While living together (and John was still married to another woman in asylum, which makes an interesting parallel with George Eliot), she wrote with a frantic speed. Through 1861-62, when she wrote "Lady Audley's Secret," -- and she was also writing for cheaper periodicals under false name! -- Braddon confesses that she wrote the Third Book (the final third part) of the "Lady Audley" in a fortnight. Considering the fact, the book is incredibly tight, and infallibly engaging.
In any case, the first half of Lady Audley's Secret is compelling in its set-up of the mystery that follows, and I read it very quickly as it kept calling me back to it. The rest of the book, while still interesting, is spent observing the Lady's nephew (through marriage) as he attempts to discover the circumstances of the disappearance of his good friend which he believes is related to the Lady's "secret." The reader easily guesses much of the circumstance of the novel, although it's not quite as simple as it appears. It is also important to note that Braddon plots rather deftly and she savors the development of the novel's progression.
I did have some trouble getting through the last 100 pages of the book, as there was very little left for the reader to do but follow around the nephew's movements as he attempted to prove his theory. And, while Braddon does offer a twist at the end, it is not entirely unexpected, and so is not as effective as it could have been. Still, there is much to like about this book; in contains all the elements of Victorian society and, as such, has several layers within which it serves its audience. Not a must read, but if you're interested in Victorian literature, this is a book which was a sensation during the author's lifetime and may well be worth a look into.
Read, enjoy this escapist novel