Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A Setting Ripe for Sensation

Lady Audley's Secret opens with a lengthy description of Audley Court. The house is 'very old, and very irregular and rambling.' It used to be a convent: the house is 'a refectory that had been standing since the Conquest [and] had contrived, in some eleven centuries, to run up such a mansion as was not elsewhere to be met with throughout the county of Essex.' (Lady Audley is an Essex girl.) The house is described in romantic and Gothic terms. It is not quite the Castle of Udolpho, but nevertheless a place where we can expect to find dark secrets and mysteries as common as fixtures and fittings. The 'still fish ponds' in the moat and particularly the shaded lime tree walk that 'seemed a chosen place for secret meetings or for stolen interviews' are drawn to our attention. At the end of the lime walk 'half buried amongst the tangled branches and neglected weeds' there is an old, rusted well. When 'a fierce and crimson sunset' colours the old iron wheel and broken woodwork of the well 'as if they were flecked with blood,' you can be pretty sure that something or more likely someone will come to a nasty end here. To make sure that we get the message that Audley Court is a setting ripe for evil deeds and misfortune, the atmosphere is described as one of 'intense stillness' like 'a corpse must be lying somewhere.' By now we are all straining our necks to spot that corpse, and our bets are on the well. Or maybe the fish pond? Or is that a red herring? Although the description of Audley Court is painted with heavy tints of melodrama, it works. It has all the clues readers need to expect something exciting, possibly gory, definitely sexy.

As soon as our imaginations are tickled with tension, the narrative undercuts our expectations by showing us that extremely boring people live in Audley Court. We see Sir Michael Audley 'with his pretty young wife dawdling by his side' strolling along the romantic lime tree avenue, of which the narrator says: 'I very much doubt if it was ever put to any romantic uses.' Soon Sir Michael strolls back to the drawing room and falls asleep in his chair while his wife plays melodies on the piano. We have an interesting picture of a humdrum life being led in a very dramatic setting.

Sir Michael Audley is a long-term widow in his mid-fifties with an 18-year-old, spoilt-rotten daughter Alicia. He falls in love with a pretty little thing working locally as a governess. Enter Miss Lucy Graham, our Lady Audley. She is 'the sweetest girl ever lived' that brings light and happiness to the lives of all those she meets. She charms the socks off everyone with her golden ringlets and blue eyes. She is clearly a woman with a past, for the simple reason that nobody knows about her past, even her age is not known. She arrived with one glowing reference. She carries a ring hanging from a black ribbon around her neck under her clothes. Lady Audley's secret is clearly her mysterious past. We are still in chapter one, and already we are picking up the first clues.

Lady Audley is not evil, but seemingly honest and open. When Sir Michael proposes to her, they recognize the disparity in their wealth and Lucy's lowly position as a governess. Sir Michael confesses his love, but Lucy makes it clear she cannot return the same ardour. In this scene we see Sir Michael trapped by the twin twines of his own desire for the woman and his sense of propriety Once the offer of marriage has fallen out of his mouth, there is no going back, even if Lucy explains that, quite frankly, she is marrying him for his money and position. Sir Michael staggers away heavy with unsatisfied longing and disappointment 'as if he carried a corpse in his bosom.' This is clearly not a good start. The Audleys do not stand a chance and we expect to see their marriage go up in a ball of flames.

In chapter II we are transported to a completely different place: the deck of The Argus sailing to England on her voyage from Australia. On the deck stands a handsome live-wire George Talboys. He is not very learned, or even very smart - he does not play chess - but is otherwise described as a decent, young man. With another governess, Miss Morley as a clumsy narrative device, we are told the story of Talboys: three and a half years earlier he abandoned his wife and baby to go to Australia to make his fortune. He was driven there by poverty and desire to provide for his family. Not once during this time has it entered into his head, that his wife might not want him back, might not even be alive any more. See: he cannot be very smart. Only when he is returning with his fortune made expecting a warm welcome, his conversation with Miss Morley makes him see things differently and get "that sick, sinking, dread at [his] heart.'

In chapter III we are back at Audley Court and get another dose of heavy foreshadowing with a description of a crimson red sunset over the fish pond, lime walk and the well. Lady Audley's maid Phoebe, who is another woman who has been lifted above her station, from a house maid to lady's maid, has seen Lady Audley's rise to riches. She is jealous and longs for a similar meteoric rise through the social ladder. The opportunity arises, possibly, when she takes her 'clod-hopper' childhood sweetheart Luke to see Lady Audley's chambers. Phoebe opens Lady Audley's jewellery chest to show the treasures to Luke, he contemplates stealing a little something to finance a public house for himself and Phoebe. She is horrified by the idea. But then they stumble upon a secret compartment in the chest and discover a baby's shoe and a lock of hair. Phoebe smiles slyly and pockets them. 'You shall have the public house, Luke' she says.

Next we are in London with Robert Audley, Sir Michael's lazy and amiable nephew who is making a career out of avoiding work as a barrister. He reads French novels and smokes a German pipe. That either makes him doubly romantic, both in the racy French and tragic young Werther (note his blue necktie) ways, or it makes him both romantic and rational. In any case, Robert is fashionable and has continental tastes. Alicia, Sir Michael's daughter, has written to him about the news of her father's marriage. Her letter is scathing about her new step-mother: Lady Audley is 'a wax-dollish young person, no older than Alicia herself, with flaxen-ringlets and a perpetual giggle.' It is 'an angry, crossed and re-crossed letter." It is clear that Alicia has no sympathy for Lady Audley.

By the beginning of chapter IV, we can see the storm clouds gathering over Audley Court. We have a marriage based on great inequality in terms of wealth, age and feelings. We have a first husband arriving back in the country, because let us not kid ourselves: no reader would fail to think that Talboys' sweet, little wife and sweet, little Lady Audley are the same person. We have Phoebe contemplating a career as a blackmailer. There is a baby somewhere: Talboys' child he abandoned with his wife. And finally we have a furious step-daughter

Braddon writes with a lively but heavy pen. Her phrases and language are colourful and flow well. She is an easy read. But she insults the reader's intelligence and lacks subtlety. Someone will end up in the well and Phoebe really is not a nice country lass. We are left in no doubt about what we should be thinking. The characters are stereotypical and not much lumbered with internal life. Structurally however, the start of the novel is effective if a little contrived. We are given the setting and we are given the main characters. We see small character sketches of Sir Michael, Lady Audley, George Talboys, Phoebe and Robert Audley. Each character is distinct if not deep. We can easily tell them apart.

Braddon quite economically sets up a complicated starting position for the plot. Lady Audley is surrounded by threats to her newly won social position and happy prosperity. We are put in a state of anticipation - which bombshell will land on her first, and what will she do? The source of tension and suspense is not in the reader's attempts to discover Lady Audley's secret, it is in finding if and how Lady Audley will get away with it.

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