We have been exploring in the deep dark forest the concepts of terror and horror. If you missed the post you can read in Search of Horror and Terror in the Sublime and The Shadowy Boundary Between Horror and Terror.
In this post, we are going to see how horror is present in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret. But at the same time, we are going to find out how this novel was revolutionary by trying to break some conventional ideas on gender in the Victorian era.
But first, let me introduce you to Lady Audley’s Secret without spoilers.
The Author: Mary Elizabeth Braddon
If you would like to know about Mary Elizabeth Braddon visit The Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association website.
The Novel: Lady Audley’s Secret
Despite nowadays we hear more about Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s was more well-known than Collin’s work.
The summary that it is given at the back cover is the following one:
“The flaxen- haired beauty of the childlike Lady Audley would suggest that she has no secrets. But M.E. Braddon’s classic novel of sensation uncovers the truth about its heroine in a plot involving bigamy, arson and murder.
It challenges the assumptions about the nature of femininity and investigates the narrow divide between sanity and insanity, using as its focus one of the most fascinating elements of the detective novel, the psychological thriller and the romance of upper-class life. Lady Audley’s Secret was one of the most popular and successful novels of the nineteenth century and still exerts a powerful hold on readers”.
– Wordsworth Classics
That description does a great job of summarizing some of the main themes that are treated on this book.
I hope that if you have not Lady Audley’s Secret written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon yet, you add it to your reading list because it is a wonderful book that everyone who loves Victorian literature should know.
Now let’s focus on our theme “Terror and Horror”.
Be aware! Now you will find many spoilers …
From the beginning of the novel Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon presented Lucy as a woman distinguished by her beauty:
“Miss Lucy Graham was blessed with that magic power of fascination by a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile. Everyone loved, admired and praised her”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 7
As noted above, Lucy Graham was presented to the readers as an attractive person that fascinated everyone who saw her. This characteristic remained as an important feature, for as the novel went on, every time another character alluded to her, her beauty is mentioned.
For example, when Robert visited Georgey for the first time, the main quality that he recalled about Lady Audley is her beauty:
“This is the watch the pretty lady gave me… Do you know the pretty Lady?”
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 132
On the quotation above we see that “pretty” was repeated twice. Despite Georgey was a little child, it is clear that the first impression he had on Lucy is that she was beautiful. It seems as if the only attribute Georgey could give to Lucy was her physical beauty, he did not give us any attitudinal quality. As if being pretty was her only distinguishable feature. Now, we readers did not know that he was specifically alluding to Lucy but we could infer that because she is the only character whose beauty is highlighted.
As the novel goes on, many actions happen but we are going to focus on a relevant moment.
When Lady Audley’s secret was revealed at the end of the novel, the way she was perceived by the rest of the characters changed dramatically. She was no longer considered beautiful but seen as a murderous monster. However, it was not the characters remarks about her beauty which leaded Lady Audley to live a horrible nightmare but her own reliance and self identification with such physical quality. Her own picture became shattered in the looking-glass as she contemplated her own image.
When for the first time, Robert Audley told Lady Audley that he suspected that she had murdered his friend George Tallboys, he pointed out:
“Your youth and beauty, your grace and refinement, only make the horrible secret of your life more horrible”
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 215
He tried to turn Lady Audley’s beauty against her, but he could not achieve such aim. As then, when she tried convincing Lord Audley that his nephew Robert Audley has gone mad, she naturally used her beauty towards her husband to convinced that Robert was losing his sanity. The narrator said that her husband was moved by seeing his wife’s beautiful face in agony but:
“These were not the weapons which she had intended to use; but perhaps no artifice which she could have devised would have served her so well as this outburst of natural grief”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 225
She was beautiful and her husband recognized that fact, but Braddon clearly points out that beauty was not part of her own treacheries. It was a natural quality of her own which it benefited her when it came to persuading others.
Braddon allowed Lady Audley to show her concern for her beauty letting her to identify herself with it. It seems that Lucy’s identification with her pretty physical features allowed her to exist and signify even after being accused by Robert.
But in the end of Book Two, Lady Audley ‘s attitude changed. She received a letter from Robert and she decided to murder him for:
“she could endure nothing; neither herself nor her surroundings”
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 243
This is interesting because, after the letter, Lady Audley did not seem to be comfortable with her surrounding but also neither with herself, her own identity and attitude. This seems also to imply her own beauty became tedious.
Afterwards, in the first chapter of Book Three, she wondered whethere she should murder Robert or not. The idea seemed terrifying but at the same time, she was restless because Robert knew her secret and was never going to leave her in peace. Lady Audley could only endure and reassure her murderous claim by appreciating and contemplating her own beauty on the oval mirror she had in her room.
Now, contemplating oneself on a mirror is a revelatory and meaningful action. Jacques Lacan suggested that when we see ourselves on the mirror we experiment a process of recognition. A process he called “the mirror stage”. This includes the identification which is: “the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body – image to a form of its totality” (Lacan, 730).
When Lucy reassured herself that she was going to murder Robert, she needed to see her own image reflected on the mirror to confirm herself that she was acting right. To see her own beauty made her feel secured.
Following Lacanian stages, at first, she denied herself, the image reflected on the mirror was strange and felt as if it was not hers.
“she was very pale; but there was no other trace of agitation in her girlish face. The lines of her exquisitely – moulded lips were so beautiful, that it was only a very close observer who could have perceived a certain rigidity that was unusual to them”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 246
She saw her own picture reflected on the looking -glass but there was something that seemed to be a little bit different from the image she was used to seeing: her eyes were more rigid than usual. Was really herself?
Then she tried to recostruct herself, she tried to identify and claim the body she was seeing on the mirror as her own:
“She saw herself, and tried to smile… but tonight, the rosy lips refused to obey her… she might command her eyes but not the muscles of her mouth”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 246 -7
Lucy recognised her own picture projected on the mirror’s surface but this picture differed from her usual one. She could not smile, which seemed to foreshadow the crime she was going to commit later: burn down The Castle Inn. Interestingly, here there was a denial of the self by knowing that committing the crime is not something of she would have usually done.
When she went inside the inn to burn everything, she saw herself in a mirror again. In this case, the looking glass was a cheaper one that:
“distorted every face whose owner had the hardihood to look into… My lady smiled as she looked at the festoons and furbelows which met her eyes upon every side… there was something in that sardonic smile that seemed to have a deeper meaning than any natural contempt for Phoebe’s poor attempts at decoration. She went to the dressing -table and smoothed her wet hair before the looking glass, and then put on her bonnet. She was obligated to place the flaming tallow candle very close to the lace furbelows about the glass, so close that the starched muslin seemed to draw the flame towards it by some power of attraction in its fragile tissue”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 257
Braddon masterfully used the mirror to describe Lucy’s inner feelings on the wicked crime she was about to commit. But at the same time, to shatter the image the readers or characters had about her. On the pictures seen in front of her own mirror, Lucy could smile. In contrast, on the projected image in front of the distortionary looking glass, because she had accepted her own distortionary image of the beautiful innocent lady who will become a criminal by burning down the inn she could show an innocent smile but a sardonic one.
At this point of the novel, the image of the pretty little lady is also burned down or shattered into pieces, as the mirror that had reflected Lucy in the inn, also burned with the laces under the candle’s flame.
When Lady Audley confessed her secret, Lord Audley and his daughter Alicia left home, and Lucy stayed behind supposing that she was going to be taken to live somewhere else latter.
Before she left the court, she looked again in the cheval -glass and she saw that she seemed to be beautiful again:
“A long night’s rest had brought back the delicate rose -tints of her complexion, and the natural lustre of her blue eyes. That unnatural light which had burned so fearfully the day before had gone, and my lady smiled triumphantly as she contemplated the reflection of her beauty. The days were gone in which her enemies could have branded her with white – hot irons, and burned away the loveliness which had done such mischief. Whatever they did to her, they must leave her beauty, she thought. At the worst they were powerless to rob her of that” .
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 296
Lucy saw a refreshed image of the self on the mirror for she had already told the truth about her crimes. She seemed to realize that it was beauty, her own beauty what had allowed her to, in Lacan’s terms, unify herself. Despite that she had been known or presented under different names: Helen Talboys, the pretty Lady, Lucy Graham and Lady Audley, all those women had a quality that unified them: beauty, which was reflected in the looking glass.
At the end of the novel, when Lucy was taken to the maison de santé, in other words, a madhouse, she left her own country, she was forced to take another name, Madame Taylor. But despite those changes, it seems that she still recognized herself when seeing her beautiful image reflected in the mirrors. This happened when she entered the room she is was to have in the madhouse, the narrator says that Lucy:
“started dismally round at the range of rooms, which looked dreary enough in the wan light of a single wax candle. This solitary flame, pale and ghostlike in itself, was multiplied by paler phantoms of its ghostliness, which glimmered everywhere about the rooms; in the shadowy depths of the polished floors and wainscot, or the window panes, in the looking -glasses, or in those great expanses of glimmering something which adorned the rooms, and which my lady mistook for costly mirrors, but which were in reality wretched mockeries of burnished tin”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 309
Lucy believed to be in a luxurious place and seemed to be content for having mirrors that will allow her to understand herself, but in reality, those mirrors only reflected her final solitude.
At the end of the novel, her own beauty was turned against her. She did not longer want to be beautiful, she said:
“Has my beauty brought me this? Have I plotted and schemed to shield myself, and laid awake in the long deadly nights trembling to think of my dangers, for this? I had better given up at once, since this was to be the end. I had better have yielded to the curse that was upon me, and given up when George Talboys first came back to England”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 311
Lucy had thought almost all her life that her beauty could have helped her to find a new life, the perfect life, but it only lead her to her own grave, to hate herself and her physical qualities.
Then, the reader does not know anything about Lucy until Robert received a letter saying that she passed away under the name of Madame Taylor. Her beauty is not mentioned at all. In contrast, her portrait still hangs in the court under a curtain covered by blue mould:
“and people admire y lady’s rooms, and ask many questions about the pretty, fair – haired woman, who died abroad”.
– Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret. p. 354
Her portrait reflects her beauty but not her own characteristics, she becomes nothing but an object for contemplation.
But where is the horror or terror in this post?
In the end, Braddon seemed to let Lady Audley speak from the women of her time: beauty is a female attribute according to society, but if it is used for self identification, it turns dangerous: Lady Audley’s horror is not the fear of losing her beauty, but realizing that there is no possibility for women to construct her own significance around their beauty which is attributed to them or it will lead them to destruction, becoming nothing but objects of mere decorations.
As it was mentioned in the beginning, Lady Audley is described as a very beautiful woman by the narrator and the characters. Robert, a male character, tries to turn Lady Audley’s beauty against her. But Elizabeth Mary Braddon does not allow a male character to turn female beauty towards herself, but rather, warned her female readers that beauty is dangerous when it becomes the only element that allows them to signify. Lady Audley seems to recognize the decision that turned her to ruin was her reliance on beauty to be meaningful rather than anything else, or she would have not recognized that at the end of the novel and remarked Lucy’s beauty so much at the beginning of it.
It interesting to notice that Braddon seems to turn horror into a critique of the conventional role of women in the Victorian era. She seems to make a call for women to recognize other faculties in themselves rather than being only superficially beautiful, in order to be meaningful, otherwise, they will only be turned into decorative objects with no purpose at all.
It might not be a typical post on horror and terror, but we should remember the contextual time when this novel was published for the first time, that a beautiful lady and woman should be murderous and that her beauty could be a negative quality turned against her, was certainly seen as a horrific novel.
Let me know your thoughts and comments on this wonderful book on Instagram or here.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. Wordsworth Classics. Hertfordshire, 2007.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage”. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Vols. 1-3 in one volume: v. 1-3. pp. 733- 737