Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Ever-Pervading Threat of Madness

When the full scale of Lady Audley's crimes has come to light in Lady Audley's Secret, a decision is reached how to deal with her misbehaviour. Dr Mosgrave, a medical expert from London, is called to examine Lady Audley and gives his verdic:

"I have talked to the lady, ... and we understand each other very well. ... The lady is not mad; but she has the hereditary taint in her blood. She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence. I will tell you what she is, Mr Audley. She is dangerous!" (Vol III, Chapter 5)

The Victorian ideal woman, "the angel in the house," was a caring wife and mother, a home-maker with no other ambitions than seeing her family safe and content. If the woman did not fit this mold, she was viewed as a monster; unnatural and unfeminine. This is the argument Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar present in their influential The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). They took their title from Charlotte's Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), where Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester's first wife, is kept imprisoned and hidden from the world, while Mr Rochester gets very close to committing bigamy by marrying Jane. Ever since then 'the madwoman in the attic' has come to denote an unmanageable female who has to be locked up out of sight of polite society.

Lady Audley pretty much fits this image. At first glance, she appears to be the delightful, childlike wife whose very presence makes her husband happy. But she is also selfish, scheming and criminal. She is both an angel and a monster. In a way Lady Audley's Secret does exactly what Gilbert and Gubar called for: it breaks down both social images of the angel and the monster, because neither of them is truthful.

The swiftest way to deal with amoral, independent, entrepreneurial women, who refused to conform to the social expectations of the ideal female, was to declare them insane and remove them from view, sometimes to an attic, sometimes to an asylum in a suitably dull suburb. Following this thinking, Lady Adley is seen by critics as another 'madwoman in the attic:' she is not mad, only wicked. She is declared mad by the men around her, to enable them to lock her up without causing a scandal in Audley Court. In short, Lady Audley's secret is not that she is mad, but that she is not mad.

There is more to madness in Lady Audley's Secret than this well-established reading of Lady Audley's insanity. Robert Audley is the first person to mention madness and remark that he might be driven mad by the mystery George Talboys' disappearance.

First there is the general discomfort of begin a detective plagued by an unsolved mystery. Robert Audley has "a vague feeling of uneasiness" (Vol I, Chapter 11), "the usual lazy monotony of his life had been broken" to an unprecedented degree and his "mind was beginning to grow confused upon the point of time." (Vol I, Chapter 13). He has "disagreeable dreams ... painful ... from a vague and wearying sense of their confusion and absurdity. (Ibid.) He sits for hours "smoking and thinking - troubled and gloomy thoughts, leaving a dark shadow upon his moody face" (Ibid.). Then, by the end of Volume I, Robert Audley thinks of the possibility that the mystery might be making him insane: "am I to be tormented all my life by vague doubts, by wretched suspicions, which may grow upon me till I become a monomaniac?" (Vol I, Chapter 19).

Madness is another way of interpreting the mysterious, disembodied "hand" of fate that keeps beckoning Robert forward on the dark road of detection. (Vol II, Chapters 1 and 2). It is an obsession he would give his last penny for, and it is a purpose strong enough to change his very character (Ibid.). Detective work causes paranoia, sleepless nights, obsessive thoughts, monomania. Ferreting out other people's secrets does not only create an unbearable conflict between public respectability and private passions; keeping others' ugly secrets and knowing what others do not know, forces the detective to live a lie, exist in a state of split reality, the seen and the unseen. The life on the surface goes on as usual, while ugly secrets are festering underneath and corpses are rotting in moss-covered, stinking wells.

After his return from the Talboys at Dorsetshire, in the cab on the way to his lodgings Robert's mind is again engaged in the mystery, he is torn by his knowledge and suspicions, by how Clara is now forcing him "onward upon the loathsome path - the crooked byway of watchfulness and suspicion." While Robert pays the cabman, the narrator charges off on a tangent about madhouses:

"Mad-houses are large and only too numerous; yet surely it is strange they are not larger, when we think of how many helpless wretches must beat their brains against this hopeless persistency of the orderly outward world, as compared with the storm and tempest, the riot and confusion within: -when we remember how many minds must tremble upon the narrow boundary between reason and unreason, mad to-day and sane to-morrow, mad yesterday and sane to-day." (Vol. II, Chapter 6).

Madness is introduced in the narrative as closely linked to the work of the detective. As a detective delves into the dark secrets of the human soul, he must traverse the boundary between the "orderly, outward world" and the chaos seething underneath its surface. And in the process the detective himself becomes tainted with madness (See also Vol II, Chapter 10). It is significant that in Lady Audley's Secret, madness is not introduced as a female malady, but as a disease of the detectives.

Madness in Lady Audley's Secret becomes a social disease with criminality and amorality as its distinguishing symptoms. In Volume II, the gloves are off and Robert and Lady Audley are fully engaged in their duel. Madness is the weapon they try to whack each other with. Robert Audley accuses Lady Audley of madness akin to that of Lady Macbeth's - a murderous woman haunted by her victim. Lady Audley retaliates: "Are you going mad, Mr Audley, and do you select me as the victim of your monomania?" (Vol. II, Chapter 11). "You are hypochondriacal, Mr Audley, and you must take camphor, or red lavender, or sal volatile. What can be more ridiculous than this idea which you have taken into your head?" (Ibid.) This exchange of accusations of madness gives Lady Audley an idea, and she tries to convince both Alicia and Sir Michael that Robert Audley is, indeed, insane and nothing he says is to be believed.

It is the very activity of detection and his outlandish claims that a crime has taken place in Audley Court that Lady Audley presents as proof of Robert Audley's madness (Vol. II, Chapters 12 and 13). While she does so, she reveals more of herself: "You are mad, Mr Robert Audley, ... you are mad and you fancies are a madman's fancies. I know what madness is. I know it s signs and tokens, and I say that you are mad."(Vol II, Chapter 13). It takes a lunatic to know a lunatic, perhaps?

By the start of Volume III we are in an interesting situation, as Sir Michael observes: either Robert Audley or Lady Audley has to be mad (or both, although that possibility is never mentioned). "She appeared to be possessed with an actual conviction of Robert's insanity. To imagine her wrong was to imagine some weakness in her own mind. The longer he thought on the subject the more it harassed and perplexed him." (Vol III, Chapter 2) There are plenty of indications that Sir Michael considers as possible signs of Robert's wavering mental stability (Ibid.). The battle of the sexes, the struggle between the detective and the criminal, the hero and the heroine has led to an impasse of insanity.

 Lady Audley's Secret works its way out of the impasse, not by deciding who is mad, but by associating madness with criminality. Both the detective and the criminal are morally suspect, their actions are unconventional, they lie and deceive and break social codes. And both view the world differently from other people as a place of dark, evil opportunities. Robert has a close brush with madness because of his detective work. Lady Audley, when committing crime, goes temporarily a little insane for the duration: "Again the balance trembled; again the invisible boundary was passed; again I was mad." (Vol III, Chapter 3) Here her words recall the narrator's earlier description of madness existing under the pressures of respectable life (quoted above) (See also Vol III, Chapter 6).

Even after Robert Audley has left Lady Audley in the asylum in Belgium and has returned to London, the narrator reminds us: "Do not laugh at poor Robert because he grew hypochondriacal, after hearing the horrible story of his friend's death. There is nothing so delicate, so fragile, as that invisible balance upon which the mind is always trembling. Mad to-day and sane to-morrow. ...Who has not been, or is not to be, mad in some lonely hour of life? Who is quite safe from the trembling of the balance? (Vol III, Chapter 7)

What Lady Audley's Secret does with madness is far more interesting that just locking up yet another madwoman in the attic - or in this case in a Belgian maison de santé. I would argue that the way the novel presents Lady Audley's criminality as temporary insanity and associates Robert Audley's detective work with madness, makes an important point on the one hand about crime as a social disease - as a result of poverty, unhappiness, inequality and personal tragedy - and about madness as a social construct - a label of convenience to glue on detectives and any other individuals who society finds uncomfortable to accommodate, including ambitious women like Lucy, Lady Audley.

Madness is exciting, thrilling and scary, and it is very close. Any one of us, at any moment, so Lady Audley's Secret seems to imply, can stumble over that invisible, trembling line into insanity, into uncontrollable desires and criminal passions, dark deeds and unimaginable horrors. All it takes is one false step, one impulse and you can be swept away into madness. That thought is enough to make your nerve ends tingle, a shiver run down your spine. That is sensational.

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