This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. We also have more of his gargantuan donation left, so continue pitching me your 18th and 19th century trash fiction stories.
I first came across Lady Audley’s Secret when I was going through a weird, obsessive phase where I tried to read all the Victorian books I’d studiously avoided for all the years prior. Victorian prose is intentionally turgid, and since I was born after Hemingway was put in charge of Good Writing, I’ve always been taught that less is more. Your good prose hides its subtext in pithy epigram while sipping something brown that will get it really drunk, but even in drunkenness it will be guarded and manly. Victorian literature spills its drink down your front as it tells you an ambling story while wearing too many frills and talking a little too loudly. It’s not tasteful by our current standards, and I hadn’t learned to love it in my earlier reading days, so I had to make myself take it up when I decided to fill in the gaps in my literary education.
Lady Audley’s Secret was a huge hit in 1862 for its author, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but it was put down by the critics immediately and for many years after. It was a sensation novel following the style of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, which had come out in serial two years previous. Like The Woman in White was for Collins, Lady Audley’s Secret would be Braddon’s most successful work, though she went on to write over eighty novels under a variety of pen names. Braddon wrote the book fairly quickly, and sometimes it shows in the plotting, which barrels along at a great clip, but the prose itself often takes the time to hang out and talk about a weird little moment in great detail. One of my favorite passages is nearly superfluous to the plot. Lady Audley is serving tea to the main character, Robert Audley, her husband’s nephew and a young would-be lawyer who suspects her of having done something sinister to his dear, dear friend George Talboys (1).
Lady Audley, unlike many villainesses of the Victorian imagination, perfectly embodies the angel of the house. She’s petite, blonde, beautiful, and she takes good care of the house keys, has a smile for everyone, and is the perfect wife to her rich baronet husband. As she pours the tea, the narration takes a detour and begins to muse on the art of serving tea:
Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea. The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance. The floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs, whose secrets are known to her alone, envelop her in a cloud of scented vapour, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells with Gunpowder and Bohea. At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable. What do men know of the mysterious beverage? Read how poor Hazlitt made his tea, and shudder at the dreadful barbarism. How clumsily the wretched creatures attempt to assist the witch president of the tea-tray; how hopelessly they hold the kettle, how continually they imperil the frail cups and saucers, or the taper hands of the priestess. To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire (2).
The ordinary and everyday ritual of tea is transformed into a rite performed by an empress-witch-priestess, as it should be. There is a satirical air to this passage, recalling the mock epic of the eighteenth century, in which domestic undertakings or acts otherwise considered illaudable are elevated through the epic form to something eternal and heroic. But rather than imparting heroism, Braddon brings the terrors of the unknown into a cozy domestic scene, infusing the products of empire (tea in this passage, but later diamonds, a sandalwood tea-caddy from India, and polished silver) with an awareness of otherness and unearthly control. The products that the man of action and empire has acquired through colonial domination become not the markers of his conquest, but the tools of the witch inside his very home. Victorian wives, like treasures, were meant to be displayed and to adorn the reputation of their master, but in this passage, all of the adornments of wealth and possession take on their own power and agency and rather than being possessed by man, they become markers of his own lack of belonging within the domestic space.
The fact that Lady Audley is described as super cute made her an unbelievable villainess to some critics. A review by W.F. Rae in The Living Age in 1863 (“Our Sensation Novelists”) scoffed that Lady Audley’s nerves “are the nerves of a Lady Macbeth who is half unsexed, and not those of the timid, gentle, innocent creature Lady Audley is represented as being. …All this is very exciting; but it is also very unnatural.” The idea that a woman could be at her daintiest when she was also at her most witchlike seemed to undermine the very foundations of the separate Victorian spheres of gender. A violent woman was not a true woman, so the woman whose body was marked with all the signifiers of true womanhood could not be a violent woman. Other critics saw Lady Audley as the men of her fictional world eventually come to see her: not mad, but dangerous and in need of containment (3).
(Scene from a magazine serial version of Lady Audley’s Secret pre-1900.)
Margaret Oliphant, who wrote many morally upright protests against sensation fiction, noted in 1867 that Braddon “is the inventor of the fair-haired demon of modern fiction. Wicked women used to be brunettes long ago, but now they are the daintiest, softest, prettiest of blonde creatures; and this change has been wrought by Lady Audley, and her influence on contemporary novels,” which influence was, to Mrs. Oliphant, self evidentially bad (4).
The sensation novel transgressed class boundaries, attracting upper-class readers to lower-class values and the physical sensations of fear and excitement. Lady Audley’s imagined transgressions of class, rising from a governess to the lady of a baronet on false pretenses, played off of Victorian anxieties about the greater social mobility that was allowed by greater physical movement. People no longer lived in the same village where their parents and grandparents had grown up, and could you really know anything about a person if you hadn’t known them from birth? A person might choose to represent herself as innocent and respectful when in fact she was wanton and sinful. Increased literacy in the Victorian era also led to a compression of class differences. An 1866 Macmillan’s Magazine article on sensation fiction refers to “the swell[ing of] the reading class,” which is noted with anxiety. Literacy could no longer be understood as a marker of class or respectability. The female reader might be a lady of leisure – or her scullery maid. Braddon’s readers were largely female, literate, drawn from multiple classes, and availing themselves of a form of entertainment seen as subversive and trashy. Then, as now, the reading habits of young women were noted with concern for the future.
Braddon herself was something of a worrisome model for femininity. Her parents separated when she was five, and she went on to live with her mother and two siblings in London. Beginning at the age of seventeen, Mary contributed to the family income by performing on the stage. Although her mother acted as her chaperone during her entire acting career, the role of actress was automatically viewed as somewhat licentious and certainly not the proper place for a young woman of good upbringing. Braddon left the stage in 1860 to pursue a full-time career as a writer, and by 1861, she was living with her married Irish publisher, John Maxwell, whose wife was confined to an asylum. The two had six children together before marrying in 1874 after the first Mrs. Maxwell died. The fact that Braddon wrote more than one novel about bigamy while engaged in what was seen as a bigamous union was not lost on her critics.
In the creation of her big-eyed, feathery-haired, tripping, smiling anti-heroine, Braddon exposed a fear that lurks at the bottom of any conception of gender that depends on binaries and absolutes. If a woman is understood only as sainted or demonic, then all women have the capacity for evil, even in the moments when she seemed most neatly contained. Watch her as she pours your tea. It may be a poisonous witches’ brew that will bring about your downfall.
1. Robert’s love for George, in addition to his fondness for French novels, his pet canaries, and a disinclination for work, marks him as improperly masculine within the constructs of Victorian gender. Only by meeting a female double of George will Robert be pushed forcibly into action and a safe, heterosexual marriage.
2. I have to thank my professor, Dr. Kirsten Saxton, for bringing this incredibly fun passage to my attention. Because seriously, it is the most fun to read and reread and think about.
3. Robert Audley, demanding Lady Audley’s confession, begins by telling her that, “Henceforth you must seem to me no longer a woman; a guilty woman with a heart in its worst wickedness has yet some latent power to suffer and feel; I look upon you henceforth as the demoniac incarnation of some evil principle.”
4. “Novels,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 102.
Kristen Hanley Cardozo writes and knits in between reliving embarrassing moments in her past in excruciating detail.