Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A French Thrill Under Yellow Covers

I have recently finished reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Critics have pointed out how cheap and risqué French romantic thrillers provided both inspiration and atmospheric pointers for this sensation novel. The narrative makes several references to popular French romances. Lady Audley orders "yellow-paper covered novels" in French from Burlington Arcade and reads them with her lady's maid Phoebe (Vol I, Chapter 14). A little later in the story she compares her own situation to the plot of such a novel (Ibid.). The detective hero, Robert Audley, is also a habitual reader of sensational French novels (Vol. I, Chapter 4). However, once the mystery in Lady Audley's Secret grips his imagination, "the yellow-papered fictions on the shelves above his head seemed stale and profitless." "The metaphysical diablerie" of Balzac is no longer of interest when visions of Lady Audley's golden curls "danced and trembled in a glittering haze" in his mind (Vol. II, Chapter 1. See also Vol II, Chapter 6).

These references to contemporary French fiction in Lady Audley's Secret and Braddon's known fondness and admiration for it have been well noted by critics. Braddon was specifically impressed by Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. She has been credited as the first person to draw attention of British readers to Flaubert's genius. Later, she re-worked the story for English sensibilities in The Doctor's Wife, serialized in Temple Bar in 1864.

Madame Bovary was first serialized in Le Revue de Paris from October 1856 and published in book form in 1857 (a year before the events in Lady Audley's Secret begin to unfold). In his 1987 introduction to Lady Audley's Secret, David Skilton suggests that Robert Audley may well have been the very first fictional character to own a copy of Madame Bovary: Robert collected novels by Michael Lévy, the Parisian publisher of Flaubert's book (Vol III, Chapter 9).

There are clear similarities in the characters of the tragic heroines in both novels. Lucy, Lady Audley and Emma Bovary are both women who desire more - more love, more stimulation, more excitement, more luxury. They are both selfish and amoral (the occasional, vague twinges of conscience they suffer seem to be more self-dramatization than true remorse). Both women are also resourceful and at the same time limited in their intellect and ability to imagine the consequences of their actions. They are passionate and impulsive. But while Lady Audley merely toys with a fatal dose of opium (Vol III, Chapter 2), Emma Bovary famously cannot resist her self-destructive impulse.

I am now curious to see why M. E Braddon, the mistress of sensation fiction should have admired Flaubert's Madame Bovary so much. Flaubert's novel is celebrated as the very model of great realist writing and a milestone in development of world literature. The man was famous for being a perfectionist and seeking out just the right words to convey his meaning. But all of that is secondary; what I want to find out is if Flaubert's tale has the power to thrill, to intoxicate and to hook me. Is it sufficiently sensational to satisfy my literary cravings?

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.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tricks of Serial Writing

Lady Audley's Secret was published serialized in instalments like most Victorian three-deckers, including the novels by Charles Dickens. After serialization the novels were published in three volumes (hence a 'three-decker'). With the rise of the circulating libraries a discussion developed about the practicality of these mammoth novels, when a slinky one-decker would be so much more convenient for the libraries to circulate and readers to consume. There was nothing worse than to read the first two volumes and then having to wait to get your hands on the third one. We do not see much of the serial-novel anymore, or multi-volume works. However, many novels published today are hitting the 500-page mark reminiscent of the three-decker size, and internet publishing is offering a platform for serialized publication in both blogging and e-publishing of smaller but linked pieces of writing which can be downloaded to various e-readers. Maybe the Victorian format of story telling familiar to Dickens, Collins and Braddon will make a comeback.

Some writers wrote a whole novel and then submitted the lot for serial publication. Others, like Braddon and Dickens wrote the story while it was being published, keeping one or two instalments ahead of the publication. This approach meant meeting tight dead-lines, but it gave the author the flexibility of modifying their story according to reader feedback. It also forced the authors to produce uniform sized snippets with a consistent quality of content.

Writing for serialization requires its own techniques, has its own conventions and sets its own limitations to novel-writing. While the most important quality in any novel is to keep the reader turning pages, make her want to read on, this is even more critical in serial writing, because the reader has to wait a week, sometimes a month, to get to the next page. And the reader pays for each instalment separately. People have to be persuaded to keep on paying as well as to keep on reading. A serialized novel has to be exciting and engaging throughout. It has to be addictive from the beginning to the end, all 500-600 pages of it.

It helps if you have a sensational plot with a mystery that you can unravel slowly. Needless to say sensation novels and detective stories of the 19th century follow this model. It also helps if you have interesting characters that either earn the reader's sympathies like Charles Dickens's Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop whose death (1841) caused wide-spread sorrow on two continents, or who otherwise appear larger than life and memorable. Lady Audley as well as Count Fosco in The Woman in White (1860) are engaging villains, Dickens's Edwin Drood (1870) is an engaging victim. Robert Audley is a reasonably engaging hero, as is Franklin Blake in The Moonstone (1868). While sensation novels are not celebrated for their careful attention to character development, they make good use of stereotypes. It is scandalous to present a stereotypical lady as a villain, it is sensational to suggest that a gentleman can be a thief. In this way, even if characters themselves are not memorable, the way they are depicted as representatives of their class and social 'role' can be used to keep readers hooked.

Pacing of the narrative is crucial. Reveal the secret too early and you waste potential for exciting narrative tension, keep it too long and you will irritate the reader and insult her intelligence. In Lady Audley's Secret Braddon manages to do something very interesting and clever. As soon as something has become glaringly obvious to the reader, the narrative accepts that it is so without confirming it. For example, the narrative assumes that we have figured out that Lady Audley is Helen Talboys quite early on. We then get teased about this assumption: if Lucy is Helen who is buried in he grave and how was that managed? We are sure Lady Audley met George Talboys in the limewalk and something terrible happened. The narrative makes us think this, and then goes on to tease us about it: how could George Talboys still be alive when Lady Audley is so sure that she killed him? In this way, the narrative very consciously takes into account what the reader is thinking at each stage of the unravelling of Lady Audley's various secrets. We think we know what has happened, and we probably know what has happened, but we have to read on to find out if we are right, because the narrative is constantly hinting that we might be wrong after all.

As long as there can be any doubt about the facts, the narrative keeps wavering, hoeing-and-humming and winding us up. The narrator is constantly teetering on the verge of overdoing this, but never quite goes over the top from tension to tedium. With the reader always one step, but only one, two steps at the most, ahead of the narrative revelations, the reader can feel smug and smart, without losing her respect for the narrator's ability to tell the story and keep manipulating the reader's experience in a satisfying manner. And what is most surprising of all, when in the end all is revealed and Lady Audley's secrets are peeled open like layers of an onion, we are not disappointed that we figured something out pages and pages ago, quite the contrary, we are pleased to see how neatly it all fits together.

Cliff-hanger endings are crucial. You have to leave the reader on tenterhooks lusting for more to ensure that your next snippet of sensation will sell. Braddon is quite good at this and there are many excellent chapter endings in Lady Audley's Secret. There are two ways of doing a cliffhanger: dangling and twisting. You can leave your hero suspended over a precipice of doom by his shoelaces.Or you can leave the reader with an unanswered, burning question. Alternatively, you can produce a plot twist or a surprise revelation. Of course it can also be a red herring, we have at least one such ending in Lady Audley's Secret. Volume I, Chapter 3 and Volume II, Chapter 9 have dangling endings. Volume I, Chapters 12 and 15 and Volume III, Chapter 2 in Lady Audley's Secret are examples of the twisting cliff-hanger. If you cannot produce an actual cliff-hanger, then the next best thing is to whip up emotion. End of Volume II, Chapter 13 is a good example of this: we leave Lady Audley filled with murderous passion after an accusing letter from Robert. It is clear something awful is about to happen.

Readers' lives are busy and they have much to occupy their minds. Serial writer needs to keep reminding them what has been going on in the story so far and who all the characters are. This means that repetition and summing up is required. This must be delicately done and Braddon overdoes it only occasionally and very slightly. We are regularly reminded how bewitching Lady Audley is, and how Robert Audley is compelled to continue his investigations. A serial writer also has to keep promising future delights. This can lead to heavyhanded foreshadowing. Braddon avoids this, I believe, with her consistent use of promising and engaging chapter endings and much more cleverly, with the way the narrative manipulates the reader's assumptions in unravelling the mystery. When the reader is allowed to maintain the illusion of scampering one step ahead of the narrative in solving the mystery, there is no need for foreshadowing, the reader's imagination is doing it.

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?