Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tough Cookie, Part 2: Lucy, Lady Audley (Plot Spoiler Alert)

Money and possessions are at the centre of Lady Audley's life. Even to Robert Audley's comment "Dawson is a good fellow, isn't he?" Lady Audley replies by telling him how little Dawson used to pay her (Vol. I, Chapter 15). Lady Audley's possessions become part of her beauty and charm. Her boudoir is a treasure cave which she occupies like she is the most precious of all the jewels. She is "Beautiful in herself, but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the shrine of her loveliness." (Vol II., Chapter 13). Her possessions reflect her moods: "The dreary wretchedness of her thoughts had communicated itself to every object around her, and all outer things took their colour from that weary inner life which held its slow course of secret anguish in her breast." (Ibid.)

Lady Audley's beauty, enhanced by the luxury surrounding her, is her most important asset: "she looked upon that beauty as a weapon, and she felt that she had now double need to be well armed. She dressed herself in her most gorgeous silk." (Vol. III, Chapter 2). In the novel, there are several references to Madame Rachel Levison scattered across the narrative (Vol I, chapter 7; Vol II, chapter 7; Vol III, chapter 2; Vol III, chapter 7). Madame Rachel was at the height of her beautifying powers at the time of Lady Audley. She was known as an imposing and impressive businesswoman with the magical arts of making ladies "beautiful for ever." Madame Rachel built her empire of exotic lotions and potions and the mysterious technique of "enamelling" ladies' faces from scratch. She started as a rag-lady dealing in used clothes and ended up with a smart shop on Bond Street and aristocratic customers (even if she was later revealed to be a fraud, a blackmailer and a procuress of male (!) prostitutes for her lady customers) There are several parallels connecting Madame Rachel and Lady Audley, not only the conscious use of beauty as a means to get what they want.

Is Lady Audley a victim or a villain? Or both? She grew up in poverty, with her mother in the madhouse and her father a profligate push-over. At an early age she understood that the way for her to advancement in the world lay through the right man that would take her up the social ladder. Well, Lady Audley is no Becky Sharp and ends up being abandoned by her rather useless husband with a baby in her arms. Is it any wonder that she cannot resist Sir Michael's offer of marriage? Her bigamy is but a second step on a slippery slope - she has already abandoned her child and changed her name to Lucy Graham. Then she pushes George Talboys down a well in a fit of unpremeditated desperation. Her next crime is planned: the torching of Castle Inn with the intention of killing Robert Audley and Luke Marks. Along the way we have a whole series of lies and dissimulations in faked telegraphs and faked deaths. Lucy Audley is not a very nice woman and there is a limit to how much bad behaviour we can condone based on past hardship and a tough life.

The power of Lady Audley's character in the novel is built out of a series of contradictions. Contrasting features tend to make a fictional character more interesting and Braddon has used this method well. Critics generally draw attention to the obvious contrast between Lady Audley's selfish, immoral nature and her babyfied looks; the stark contradiction between the child-like blue eyes and golden tresses signifying innocence and the molten lava in her black heart.

This is outrageous and sensational: the Victorian ideal woman, and an English noblewoman to boot, turns out to be rotten to the core. It also rings true to life; children are both selfish and devious. The apparent contradiction here is really between the conventions of child-like innocence and sweetness traditionally seen as positive feminine qualities and the almost atavistic egotism of naked, unrefined humanity in us all. Importantly, Lady Audley is not dissembling: "There was nothing studied or affected in this girlish action. It was so natural to Lucy Audley to be childish that no one would have wished to see her otherwise." (Vol., Chapter 12).

Child/adult, good/evil, victim/villain, natural feminine/unnatural de-feminized are the more obvious dichotomies that the characterization of Lady Audley plays with. There is also the question whether she is smart or lacks intelligence and whether her character is mostly result of nature or nurture. And of course, there is the little matter of madness (more about that later).

The meeting of Robert Audley and Lady Audley at the dismal Castle Inn at the end of Volume I is the starting bell for the battle between the sexes (the male detective and the female villain/victim). In Volume II of Lady Audley's Secret a "duel to the death" (Vol. II, Chapter 11) develops between Robert Audley who continues his detective work, while Lady Audley fights back and tries to outfox him. The excitement in the narrative comes from the machinations of these two characters in their cat-and-mouse game. Chapter 11 in Volume II is absolutely crackling with tension.

Volume III, Chapter 2 shows us Lady Audley restless and frustrated waiting for the news of the fire at Castle Inn. Time passes and no one comes to inform them of Robert Audley's death. Lady Audley grows increasingly anxious. We grow fidgety too, longing for the release of the confirmation whether Lady Audley's crime has been successful. Finally, at dusk a figure appears, and we are almost as shocked as Lady Audley to find out who it is. This is another excellent chapter.

Volume III gives us more insight into Lady Audley's character and shows the plot developments increasingly from her point of view rather than Robert Audley's. It presents a reasonably well crafted development of Lady Audley's despair as the noose appears to be tightening around her delicate neck.  Lady Audley resorts to the weapons she is so good at applying: her beauty and sweet words: "those false and plausible words, her only armour against her enemies." (Vol II, Chapter 12) In Volume III we see Lady Audley desperately plotting against Robert in her attempt to save her skin. It all boils down to who can win the heart and mind of Sir Michael.

Lady Audley is the tough cookie in the novel, but Clara Talboys, George's sister enters the narrative half way through as a force to be reckoned with. Clara is established as a new threat to Lady Audley. As long as Lady Audley had only Robert Audley, a gentleman and a gentle soul to deal with, her secret was safe. Robert and Lady Audley have been locked in their private battle, the outside world knowing nothing about it. Now Clara swears to avenge her brother's death and discover his murderer. Robert is put in the curious position of Lady Audley's protector. In order to keep the scandal from Audley Court Robert has to keep a lid on Lady Audley's secret.

Exasperated Robert caught between Clara and Lucy declares: "To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the most self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators - anything they like - but let them be quiet - if they can." It is the hero of the novel that makes the feminist declaration for women in a long tirade about the power and energy of women (Vol II, Chapter 6). Even if it is done in a slightly sarcastic tone, it sounds genuine, for he goes one: "I hate women. ... They're bold, brazen abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors." By 'superiors' Robert does not necessary mean men in general, but those he thinks good men like George Talboys and Sir Michael. If M. E. Braddon was a man, would we read this (and the whole of Lady Audley's Secret) differently, more as sarcasm instead of with a hint of a suffragette's passion?

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