The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Lady Audley's Secret (1862)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Lady Audley’s Secret was written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and first appeared in its final form as a serial in Sixpenny Magazine (Jan-Dec. 1862). Braddon (1835-1915) was a successful commercial writer who is best-known for her sensation novels. Lady Audley’s Secret is her best-known novel.

Sixty-year-old widower Sir Michael Audley marries the beautiful, enchanting, doll-like blonde Lucy Graham, about whom little is known beyond that she was a governess before Audley married her. Meanwhile Audley’s cousin Robert welcomes his old friend, George Talboys, back to England. George has just returned from Australia, where he became rich, and is anxious to hear word of his wife, who he abandoned three years before. Tallboys is heartbroken when he discovers that his wife died just before he returned to England. To comfort Tallboys Robert takes him to meet Sir Michael, where they do not meet Lady Audley, but they see a portrait of her, which causes George to act strangely. And then he disappears, something that upsets Robert enough that he devotes his life to searching for George. While doing so he begins taking notes and begins suspecting Lady Audley of having been involved in George’s disappearance. Circumstantial evidence leads him to believe that Lady Audley is actually George’s supposedly dead wife. Robert meets and begins to fall in love with George’s sister Clara, who looks like a female version of George.

Investigating further, Robert discovers the truth: Lady Audley was George’s wife, and faked her own death as a way to escape poverty and begin a new life elsewhere. (She also abandoned her son and left him with her father). Lady Audley tries to kill Robert off by burning down an inn he is sleeping in, but she fails, and he confronts her, forcing her to confess all to Sir Michael. Sir Michael, heartbroken (he truly loved his wife, and she, for her part, loved him to the best of her ability), leaves for Europe, and Robert has Lady Audley committed to a European insane asylum. George Tallboys turns up alive–even though Lady Audley had tried to kill him on the night of his disappearance–Robert marries George’s sister, and Lady Audley eventually dies.

Lady Audley’s Secret is an infuriating work, for the modern reader can’t help but conclude that the bad guys won and the heroine lost.

This conclusion would not have been reached by Braddon’s contemporary audience–who read Lady Audley’s Secret in droves–as they would have viewed the novel as being about a bigamist and child abandoner who married a man under false pretenses and ultimately got her comeuppance. The contemporary view of Lady Audley’s Secret was that the plot was conventional–though of course written enthrallingly, virtually forcing the reader to turn the page–with the only exceptional aspect being Lady Audley herself. The contemporary view of Lady Audley’s Secret was that Lady Audley was the villain, Robert Audley the hero, and so Robert’s triumph is that of the hero.

But modern readers will likely feel differently. Braddon does an excellent job of characterizing Lady Audley, of describing her hopes and her many fears and the torment she lives with. Poor Lady Audley–product of a broken home and an insane mother, and taught from a young age that her mother’s madness is hereditary and that she may well be subject to it, and living her whole life in poverty, suffering through a first marriage to a man who abandoned her. Modern readers, unless they have a heart of stone, will empathize with Lady Audley, whose treatment of Sir Michael (apart from the deception of her background) is flawless, and will eventually conclude that Robert is a monomaniacal prig whose merciless hounding of Lady Audley is unjustified under the circumstances, and that she, despite her desperate attempts at violence, is the victim and he the persecutor.

Those, of course, are the emotional reactions of a reader to what is a very well-told story, one that is readable, suspenseful, and involving. There are other aspects of Lady Audley’s Secret which are to be considered, however, and these aspects lead critics to view the novel as an outstanding example of the sensation novel 

Most significant is Lady Audley herself. The traditional trope in English popular literature was to identify sin with dark hair and innocence and purity with blonde hair. Heroines were blonde and villainesses, or at least complex women, had black hair. This was the case in Jane Eyre, among others. Braddon’s reversal of this trope, which is thought to have been written as a kind of direct rebuke to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, with Lady Audley being a villainous replay of Laura Fairlie,1 proved to be immensely influential, and created a new kind of character in English Sensation, crime, and popular fiction: what Mrs. Oliphant said was “that gentle and amiable heroine, fair-haired, blue-eyed, and capable of every crime, who has been so often repeated since.”2 

There is also the relationship between Robert Audley and George Tallboys. Few Victorian novels, sensation or otherwise, come as close as Lady Audley’s Secret to describing a homosexual relationship. Robert’s obsession with finding George, his constant dwelling on George, his interest in Clara only when discovering that she has her brother’s looks–even the moment when he should be thinking of Clara but George’s image floats before him–they all contribute to a novel in which, quite deliberately, a homosexual (or bisexual) protagonist is described, in a way that was obvious to the knowing eye, but otherwise carefully concealed:

Braddon has associated him with a recognizable aristocratic type possessed of, by this historical moment, clear homosocial/ homosexual overtones. His equivocal social status, as a member of an aristocratic family fulfilling the middle-class role of a barrister, makes that association even more provocative in that it hints at the possible transference of this "style" from one class to another. From his first introduction into the text, therefore, Braddon subtly implies that her hero's most intense bonds will be between himself and other men, something which the novel's events bear out.3 

That this was all quite deliberate on Braddon’s part seems clear. As later critics have concluded, Lady Audley Secret was intentionally written as an inversion of traditional Victorian literary cliches, and deliberately written to play on Victorian gender and class anxieties–Braddon intentionally wrote the archetypal sensation novel. If the Victorians would think of crime and murder as something that happens outside the home, Lady Audley’s Secret would have the murder of George Tallboys attempted at Lady Audley’s home. If the Victorians would think of blonde women and mothers as vehicles of domestic bliss, Braddon’s novel would give them Lady Audley, a bad mother who abandoned her child and twice attempted to commit murder. If the Victorians would think of women as authentic, passive and pure, Braddon would give the reading audience a pro-active woman who assumes femininity as an act rather than as part of her innate nature. If the Victorians would think of heroes as being dashing, hard-working, and resolute, Braddon would give them a passive, irresolute lounger and reader of French novels as her novel’s putative hero. If the Victorians would consider criminals to be inherently sinful, Braddon would write a novel in which readers were compelled not only to sympathize with the villain but to conclude that poverty, and not Lady Audley’s supposed hereditary madness, was to blame for crime. If the Victorians would view the class system as a comforting constant, Braddon would tell a story about how easily someone could rise from the servant class to the ruling class. If the Victorians wanted novels in which good triumphed and evil was punished, Braddon would give them Lady Audley’s Secret, in which Lady Audley’s punishment is only (!) being committed to an insane asylum, rather than dying as a male villain would. If the Victorians took their novels seriously, Braddon would introduce them to irony.

Braddon’s readers loved Lady Audley’s Secret, which John Sutherland calls “the most sensationally successful of all sensation novels.”4 Braddon’s contemporary critics were not so sympathetic, finding its popularity shocking and a sign of moral decay in the reading audience. Of particular note and alarm to these critics was Lady Audley’s popularity with female readers, something modern feminist critics ascribe to the novel’s expression of female emotions–rage and desire for social betterment among them–that men desired to see suppressed,5 and to the novel’s expression of specifically female fantasies of social movement, escape, and rebellion.6 

As a side-note, Lady Audley’s Secret is of interest for its approach to crime-solving. Lady Audley’s Secret is a sensation novel, written near the beginning of that genre’s ascendance but in the wake of The Woman in White, so Lady Audley’s Secret’s crime and mystery elements are part of the genre in which the novel was written, rather than being something new. But what is new in Lady Audley’s Secret, besides the notion of the audience solving the mystery at the same time that the detective does, is the identity of the detective: Robert Audley. The tradition in British mystery up to the time Lady Audley’s Secret was written was for the detective to be a professional–most notably Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and the crime-solvers in the casebook mysteries of the 1850s. Braddon’s crime-solver is an amateur, rather than a detective, and while the amateur uncoverer of mysteries was not new–uncovering a mystery is largely what the Gothics and the Newgate novels (see Proto-Mysteries) were about–the idea of the amateur detective was. Audley anticipates–and thanks to the popularity of Lady Audley’s Secret, is an influence on—the amateur detectives of the twentieth century. Audley is a departure from previous detectives, neither an aristocratic recluse, like Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, a hard-boiled policeman of the streets, like the casebook detectives, or a cheerful, working class policeman, like Dickens’ Inspector Bucket.

Lady Audley’s Secret was one of the most financially successful of all sensation novels and was one of the most aesthetically successful. It is a match for the more heralded The Woman in White and can be credited with jump-starting the sensation genre. It is a shame that the era’s expectations led Braddon to conclude the book wrongly.

Recommended Edition

Print: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret. New York: Oxford University, 1987.


For Further Research

David Skilton, “Introduction,” Lady Audley’s Secret. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Saverio Tomaiuolo, In Lady Audley’s Shadow: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Victorian Literary GenresEdinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Jennifer M. Woolston, “Lady Audley as the Cunning ‘Other’: An Economic, Sexual, and Criminal Attack on the Victorian Patriarchal Mindset,” EAPSU Online: A Journal of Critical and Creative Work 5 (2008): 156-168, accessed on Jan. 28, 2019,


1 Jennifer Hedgecock, The Femme Fatale in Victorian Literature: The Danger and the Sexual Threat (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008), 118.

2 Mrs. Oliphant, The Victorian Age of English Literature, volume 2 (London: Percival and Co., 1892), 199.

3 Richard Nemesvari, “Robert Audley’s Secret: Male Homosocial Desire in ‘Lady Audley’s Secret,’” Studies in the Novel 27, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 519-520.

4 Sutherland, Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, 360.

5 See Heidi Hansson and Cathrine Norberg’s “Lady Audley’s Secret, Gender, and the Representation of Emotions,” Women’s Writing 20, no. 4 (2013): 441-457.

6 As touched on by Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own: From Charlotte Brontë to Doris Lessing (London: Virago, 2009).