Thursday, 18 October 2012

Why Do I Go On With This?

Robert Audley is not a happy detective. He feels the pangs of guilt and discomfort of every Victorian amateur sleuth. And he struggles with the question that haunts all amateur detectives in fiction: why go on since you are not getting rewarded for it? But Robert Audley has to go on for the plot to progress.

Robert's initial motivation for finding out the fate of George Talboys is his affection for the other man. After the accidental meeting in London, the winter spent together in Russia and their living together at Fig Court the two men are close and very fond of each other. Like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, here are two young men living together like a couple, like lovers. It is unlikely that Braddon is intentionally suggesting this. George Talboys appears very much in love with his wife, Robert falls in love in with a woman in the course of the narrative as well. Homoeroticism is probably unintentional and possibly seen by our modern eyes in places where a Victorian reader would only see a friendship between blokes. The close relationship between the men is needed in the narrative, because it gives Robert Audley his first reason to find out what happened to George Talboys. As Robert Audley says: "Who would have thought that I could have grown so fond of the fellow ... or feel so lonely without him? ... I declare that I would freely give up all and stand penniless in the world to-morrow, if this mystery could be satisfactorily cleared away and George Talboys could stand by my side." (Vol. II, Chapter 2).

Detective work is highly dubious activity. It means prying into other people's secrets, and penetrating their private lives. Detectives have to talk to low-life, often associate with outright criminals and be familiar with the dirty underbelly of society. Muck sticks and criminality rubs off on those who detect it. Detectives' methods are questionable; they lie, deceive and entrap innocent people in order to extract clues and snippets of information from them. Detection is not respectable. It is no wonder that the first police detectives were viewed with mixed feelings (Metropolitan Police Detective Department was established in 1842). Often recruited from the working class, these plodding men could walk rough-shod over decent people's parlour carpets and poke their noses into the private matters of their betters. Inspector Buckett in Bleak House (1858) and Inspector Cuff in The Moonstone (1868) are two famous examples in fiction who illustrate the extraordinary position of the police detective seen as powerful and socially inferior at the same time. It was an intricate manoeuvre for a mid-Victorian author to make a detective the hero of the story. The motivations of amateur detectives had to be impeccable to justify their morally suspect activity.

Braddon's handling of Robert Audley's role as a detective is further complicated because he provides the main point of view in the narrative. Detectives, as the most active characters in plot-driven mystery novels, usually do. As readers follow Robert's investigation, we see the events from his perspective. We, too, get to experience the thrills and agonies of detective work. And while the reading experience is aimed to be titillating and exciting, this is not called sensation fiction for nothing, the reader must not be made to feel dirty or nosy or morally wanting. Braddon has to find a way around these dilemmas for us to enjoy the sensational unravelling of mystery in Lady Audley's Secret with a clear conscience and our sense of propriety intact.

Robert is painfully aware of his bad behaviour. He questions his own need to investigate George's disappearance and he is horrified by the prospect of a family tragedy at the end of it. "Why do I go on with this, ... when I know that it is leading me, step by step, day by day, hour by hour, nearer to that conclusion which of all others I should avoid? ... Should I be justified in doing this?" (Vol II, Chapter 1). "Why should I try to unravel the tangled skein, to fit the pieces of the terrible puzzle, and gather together the stray fragments which when collected may make such a hideous whole?" (Vol II, Chapter 2). Robert Audley bridles against his own compulsion to go on "the loathsome path - the crooked byway of watchfulness and suspicion" (Vol II, Chapter 6) and work his way ever closer to revealing Lady Audley's secret.

Robert's sense of responsibility as the keeper of terrible secrets is almost overwhelming and turns his care-free life into the miserable existence of a detective. He withdraws from his friends: "How could he sit amongst them ... and yet carry in his mind those the horrible burden of those dark terrors and suspicions that were with him day and night? He could not do it! He had shrunk from these men as if he had, indeed, been a detective police officer, stained with vile associations, and unfit company for honest gentlemen." Vol III, Chapter 7)

Braddon's first trick is to turn the whole question on its head: detective work, instead of making Robert morally suspect, makes him morally sound: "The one purpose which had slowly grown up in his careless nature until it had become powerful enough to work a change in that very nature, made him what he had never been before - a Christian; conscious of his own weakness; anxious to keep to the strict line of duty; fearful to swerve from the conscientious discharge of the strange task that had been forced upon him; and reliant on a stronger hand than his own to point the way which he was to go." (Vol II, Chapter 1). Detection is now a Christian duty, dictated by fate and directed by God. From now on destiny compels him (Vol II, Chapter 2). He is helpless and not in control of his own actions. "Why do I go on with this? ... how pitiless I am, and how relentlessly I am carried on. It is not myself; it is the hand which is beckoning me further and further upon the dark road whose end I dare not dream of." (Vol II, Chapter 3) Robert even sees his task as a punishment from God for his frivolous life: "surely this must be God's judgment upon the purposeless, vacillating life I led up to the seventh day of last September." (Vol III, Chapter 4).

God's hand or the hand of destiny, however, is not enough to keep Robert going after all. He decides to let George's family determine whether he should continue his investigation. Robert gives "a minutely-detailed account of all that has happened" (Vol II, Chapter 4) to George's estranged father Harcourt Talboys. Harcourt refuses to provide Robert with a legitimate motive to detect: "If you go on, you go on for your own satisfaction." (Vol II, Chapter 4). Robert leaves the Talboys' home with a sense of "an unutterable relief." "The crisis is past and I am free!" He is released from his despicable role as a detective: "His generous nature revolted at the office into which it had found himself drawn - the office of a spy, the collector of damning facts that led on to horrible deductions." (Vol II, Chapter 4).

If Robert hangs up his deer-stalker, we will never find out Lady Audley's secret. Fortunately, the handsome and smart Clara Talboys, the sister who so reminds Robert of his lost friend, runs after him. Clara injects a whole new level of passion into the investigation: "I shall go mad unless I can do something - something towards avenging his death." This lady is serious: "Choose between the two alternatives, Mr Audley. Shall you or I find my brother's murderer?" (Vol II, Chapter 5)

Clara Talboys finally clears all doubt from Robert's mind and the resolution to his crisis of motivation comes in a nice moment of textual self-awareness: "He was on the spot at which all record of his friend's life ended as suddenly as a story ends when the reader shuts the book. And could he withdraw now from the investigation in which he found himself involved? Could he stop now? For any consideration? No; a thousand times no! Not with the image of that grief-stricken face imprinted on his mind. Not with the accents of hat earnest appeal ringing on his ear." (Vol II, Chapter 7)

Clara's role as Robert's motivator is left intriguingly ambiguous. Robert's reaction seems at first glance romantic: he will do battle for Clara and protect her from soiling her own delicate hands in detective work. However, Clara's vehemence and self-assurance are so convincing that she appears as a capable adversary to Lady Audley. Robert Audley will be her tool and her weapon.

Now that he has a strong, insistent woman behind him spurring him on, Robert can crack on with the detective work and all qualms about the moral justification of his investigation are removed. He is fully motivated.

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