Monday, February 11, 2013

Notes on Lady Audley's Secret - How clumsily the wretched creatures attempt to assist the witch president of the tea-tray

Since Rohan Maitzen’s “19th Century Fiction” class is moving on towards Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), I should write up my long-postponed notes.  Professor Maitzen for some reason pointed people towards my little series on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which is, I admit, an especially good bit of blogging, since it is packed with quotations from Cranford.  Whatever I have to say about Braddon will be approximately a third as good, because Braddon Lady Audley’s Secret is about a third as good as Cranford (which is pretty good).

I said “notes,” yes?

1.  Although the mystery novel had not yet been invented, Braddon’s book is one of them, or is almost one.  A long stretch of the middle has a crime, a detective, clues, the works.  The beginning and end defy my notion of the genre as it normally works, which is pleasing. Any fan of mystery novels who is also comfortable with the language of Austen or Dickens or a Brontë should read Lady Audley’s Secret.  That’s millions of people, right?

2.  The plot is at times exceedingly clever.  I will pick an early example, Chapters VII and VIII.  By this point any reader paying attention has a pretty good idea what the titular secret is, or at least what Braddon wants me to think it is.  One character, George, does not know the secret but will know it instantly if he ever meets Lady Audley.  So the chapters are arranged as a series of near-misses, some of them highly artificial (“but Lady Audley was seated on the side of the carriage furthest from the inn, and he could see nothing of the fair-haired paragon of whom he had heard so much”), but knowingly so, meaning that Braddon knows I know she is toying with the mechanisms of fictional suspense, and I know she knows I know, and so on, clever enough, but the best part is that George never does meet Lady Audley in this section but learns her secret anyway, after which Braddon tosses in another near miss, just to rub it in.

At the end of Chapter VIII, I applauded – well done, Braddon!

3.  The detective, Robert Audley, is an indolent barrister on an independent income.  He spends his days smoking cigars and reading French novels, until he falls in love with the aforementioned George.  When George disappears, Audley takes up sleuthing, determined to discover the fate of the man he loves.

I have over-interpreted a bit here.  It is of course an anachronism to interpret Robert’s effusively homosocial language as homosexuality, but once I saw it, it was hard to unsee, and I am not sure there is any need to unsee.  The novel is no worse for it.  There is a strong streak of camp (another anachronism) in Robert’s character.  Why can’t more than one Lady Audley have a secret?

Robert does eventually fall in love with a woman, which should deflate my theory, except the woman is the absent George’s sister, who looks much like George.

4.  Sometimes Braddon writes the weirdest things sometimes, often in digressions that become increasingly frequent as the book progresses.   Maybe it is filler.  Dang curious filler, if so.

I will save this for tomorrow, although I put an example in the title (II.VII).  Do not expect anything Cranford-level.

9 comments:

  1. Agree that it is very difficult to 'unsee' the Robert/George element. I wonder who first realised it or whether it's a purely modern interpretation.

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  2. A third as good? I think you're being generous! I enjoy LAS (and my students typically eat it up) but really, it's hack work, isn't it? Braddon creates some great moments and shows just enough skill in it to make me frustrated that she didn't bother to make it a better novel. As far as I can figure out, for instance, she doesn't really think through whether Lady Audley is a villain or a victim: while these categories are simplistic in the hands of a good novelist, Braddon's attempts to have it both ways have always struck me as lazy. To put it another way, Helen is no Becky Sharp.

    Richard Nemesvari has a good article in Studies in the Novel on 'Male Homosocial Desire in Lady Audley's Secret' - the main title of the essay is "Robert Audley's Secret." Cute. From his introduction:

    "The concept of the "homosexual," therefore, as it has come to be understood in the twentieth century, was being formulated at almost the exact historical moment sensation fiction first achieved notoriety. It is perhaps not surprising that sensation authors found ways to work this newly-arisen "category" into their texts, which after all were intended to startle, if not appall, their audience."

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  3. Ha, yes, "a third" is just a metaphor! There are only maybe one or two other sections as clever as the one I describe above - maybe none quite so deviously playful.

    The weaknesses of the novel are perhaps why it does not do any harm to play around with Robert's homosexuality or Lady Audley's "madness" or other Strong Female Character qualities - our fan fiction may actually improve the novel! Braddon failure to "think through" encourages me to do it for her.

    Thanks, Rohan, for providing an answer to Lucy's question. Balzac has a couple of (likely, plausibly) homosexual characters in his novels thirty years earlier, and thirty years sounds about right for the transmission of shocking ideas from French to English fiction. The "French novel" theme in Braddon caught my attention.

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  4. I think I read this book. But my only memory of it was how grateful it made me for Dickens and Trollope.

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  5. Oh, Dickens, no, that's a whole other level of writing and imagination right there.

    Shelley, what is your taste for Wilkie Collins? The best passages in Lady Audley's Secret are not so far from good Collins. Not the best Collins, though - no Count Fosco or Miss Clack to be found in Lady Audley's Secret.

    Actually, maybe the right question is: what is your taste for concept compared to execution? Braddon is more of a conceptual novelist, so much of the pleasure of this book is in the conceit, not the execution. Trollope is temperamentally and creatively opposite. Dickens, of course, does everything.

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  6. I also couldn't unsee the homosexual overtones, just like I can't unsee them in Brideshead Revisited. I don't think we're meant to unsee them, and maybe not just for sensational purposes. I agree with Rohan, that Braddon often comes off as lazy in this book, but I wondered sometimes if there wasn't method in it--many of the characters are stupid and inconsistent and unpredictable--maybe on purpose, or am I being too generous? If Braddon was ahead of her time with the detective fiction elements, why not with undermining novelistic expectation generally? I can't give you any evidence to support these notions; I read the book a few years ago and I don't know where it's got to. But I have another novel of hers here--The Serpent's Tail, I think--it would be good to test these notions with it.

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  7. I like the idea that Braddon is undermining her characters, or our idea of what they should be, as well as mucking around with suspense. I wish she were. That would also be a better book. So many better books could spring form this one!

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  8. It's been too long since I read this, but I remember loving it. I'm aware of its shortcomings, but I loved it anyway.

    I was in graduate school in the late 1980's when homosocial bonding in 19th century fiction was a major discussion topic. The century is full of men marrying their best friend's relation, women doing the same thing too. It's very hard to 'unsee' once you notice it.

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  9. Hard to unsee, and in the case of this book, helpful - Audley makes more sense if he is gay, whatever language I should use to fit him more appropriately into his time.

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