Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Coincidences, Near Misses and Disappointments

The plot of Lady Audley's Secret is set in motion in chapter four of Volume I when two coincidences happen. First, Robert Audley and George Talboys bump into each other. Secondly, George happens to pick up yesterday's "greasy" copy of The Times "from a heap of journals on the table" in a coffee shop and see a death notice for Mrs Helen Talboys (Vol I, chapter 4).

George Talboys faints:
"The hot August sunshine; the dusty widow panes and shabby painted blinds; a file of fly-brown play-bills fastened to the wall; the blank and empty fire-place; the bald-headed old man nodding over the Morning Advertiser; the slipshod waiter folding a tumbled table-cloth, and Robert Audley's handsome face looking at him full of compassionate alarm. He knew that all these things took on gigantic proportions, and then, one by one, melted into dark blots that swam before his eyes. He knew that there was a great noise as of half a dozen furious steam-engines tearing and grinding in his ears, and he knew nothing more, except that somebody or something fell heavily to the ground." (Vol I, chapter 5)

In a novel where every detail is pregnant with possible significance and dripping with sensational potential, the details of the coffee house seen through George Talboys' eyes come across as a nugget of realism in a highly romanticized and stylized narrative. It is also interesting that we get to experience the sensations of fainting with George Talboys in such detail. Later, when it is Lady Audley's turn to faint, we observe it from a distance (Vol I, chapter 15). Perhaps there is something particularly potent about the sturdy, manly George Talboys swooning, or the detail is included just to make the scene more dramatic. This moment brings a radical and lasting change in the character of George Talboys. From now in he is described in terms of a child: "The big dragoon was as helpless as a baby" (Vol I, Chapter 5), he was "as submissive as a child" (Vol I, Chapter 7). This is significant, because removing George Talboys as the dashing hero returning with a fortune from the colonies and reducing him into a helpless, tragic figure, prepares the way for Robert Audley to take a more prominent role in the novel.

The death notice in the paper is also the first significant twist in the plot. We have been led to think that Helen Talboys and Lucy, Lady Audley are the same person. Now we learn that Helen Talboys is dead. Do we believe what we read in The Times or do we trust the heavy hints given in the narrative? The matter must be investigated. And luckily, that is exactly what the two heroes do next.

In Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight, the landlady tells George of Helen's final hours in a scene full of pathos and melancholy. "Many of her lodgers came to her to die" (Vol I, chapter 5) and we were supposed to  understand that she had died of an illness like TB as soon as we learned where she died. George gets to pray at Helen's death bed and kiss her pillow tenderly while the landlady stands by crying. We also meet Helen's father Captain Maldon and the Talboys' little boy Georgey. It all seems perfectly clear: Helen is dead and buried and Lady Audley cannot be Helen Talboys, if only we could ignore the couple of discordant details which suggest that something is fishy in this sea-side resort.

The death of Helen Talboys is also the first near miss in the narrative, where by a whisker we miss finding out the truth. She died "within a week of" George Talboys' touching land (Vol I, chapter 6). As readers have been led to suspect that there is something odd about Helen Talboys' conveniently timed death, we are happy that the men next travel to Audley. They may be going fishing, but the reader is after something else: finding out once and for all if Lady Audley is Helen Talboys. Through a series of further near misses the narrative keeps reeling us along on its hook. George never catches sight of Lady Audley. This is blatantly and unashamedly contrived by the narrative. There is even a moment when Alicia hands a letter by Lady Audley to Robert, who admires Lady Audley's hand writing, while George Talboys stands nearby without showing any interest. If only George would get a good look at Lady Audley or even her hand writing, the truth would surely be revealed. Despite the elaborate near misses, the reader keeps reading, the narrative at this point is a comedy of errors, we know we are being teased.

One evening a storm is brooding over Audley Court. The weather creates an expectation of something dramatic about to happen. While the storm clouds gather, Alicia shows George Talboys and Robert Audley a secret passage to Lady Audley's chambers. The lady herself has escaped to London on a sudden errand and has locked up her rooms which have the best paintings in the house on their walls. Like adventurers penetrating an exotic cave, carrying a candle the two men enter this treasure trove of intoxicating, feminine scents and soft, velvety surfaces. There among other treasures, like the picture of Dorian Gray (a story only published thirty years after Lady Audley's Secret), is a pre-Raphaelite portrait of Lady Audley. Pre-Raphaelites were considered quite avant garde, daring and disturbing. The narrative suggests that this portrait may be telling the private truth about Lady Audley, unlike her simpering, golden-haloed, public face. Alternatively the effect of the painting is just a result of pre-Raphaelite affectation. Wearing a red dress which makes her appear like a Phoenix rising from the flames (an apt image), there is "something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend" in her portrait (Vol I, chapter 8). Now, we cannot wait for the moment when George Talboys sees this painting of the woman, we still suspect, who is actually the wife he thinks dead:

"But strange as the picture was, it could not have made any great impression on George Talboys, for he sat before it for about a quarter of an hour without uttering a word - only staring blankly at the painted canvas, with the candle stick grasped in his strong right hand, and his left arm hanging loosely by his side. He sat so long in this attitude, that Robert turned round at last.
            "Why George, I thought you had gone to sleep."
            "I had almost." (Vol I, chapter 8)

This is such a disappointment. The narrative very deliberately ignores this moment of opportunity for a sensational revelation. The men leave Lady Audley's room and Robert leads a passive George Talboys away from Audley Court just as the storm is about to break. Back at the inn, George stares out the window "white and haggard, with your great hollow eyes staring out at the sky as if they were fixed upon a ghost." (Vol I, chapter 9) Again the reader's expectations are raised. With the violent storm raging outside in the darkness of the night and George Talboys clearly shaken to the core, perhaps by Lady Audley's portrait, something momentous must be about to happen. Robert goes to his bedroom where "the lightning [was] fitfully playing round the razors in his open dressing case (Vol I, chapter 9) and wakes up to a sunny, peaceful morning to have breakfast with George Talboys. Disappointment again. Everyone seems cheerful all of a sudden. Lady Audley prattles on merrily at Audley Court, even after she learns about the men's visit to her rooms. She was petrified with fear during the storm, but now she is "restless from very joyousness of spirit." (Vol I, chapter 9) The two men laze by the river with their fishing rods. Robert Audley falls asleep and George Talboys goes for a walk ... to Audley Court ... and disappears. He is last heard mumbling something about "wishing to see my lady" and head off towards the Lime Walk where Lady Audley is thought to be. After a while Lady Audley returns from her walk from quite the opposite direction. She says that she never came across George Talboys.

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