One From the Archive: ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ by Mary Elizabeth Braddon ****

As far as classic novels go, Lady Audley’s Secret is a facile and rather stunning read.  I was surprised at the ease into which I slipped into the story; Braddon’s writing is beautiful, and casts a spell of sorts around the reader from the very beginning.

Lady Audley’s Secret is set during the 1850s, and centres around the novel’s named protagonist, who has rather a shadowy past: ‘The truth was that Lady Audley had, in becoming the wife of Sir Michael, made one of those apparently advantageous matches which are apt to draw upon a woman the envy and hatred of her sex.  She had come into the neighbourhood as a governess in the family of a surgeon in the village near Audley Court.  No one knew anything of her…  She came from London; and the only reference she gave was to a lady at a school at Brompton, where she had once been a teacher’.

Braddon’s initial descriptions of the house and its surroundings are stunning: ‘It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business imagesthere at all.  At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand – and which jumped straight from one hour to the next – and was therefore always in extremes.  Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.  A smooth lawn lay before you, dotted with groups of rhododendrons, which grew in more perfection here than anywhere else in the county.  To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy, yellow stonecrop, and dark moss.  To the left there was a broad gravelled walk, down which, years ago, when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand; a wall bordered with espaliers, and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter’.

At the risk of quoting the entire book, I feel that it is worth sharing Braddon’s initial, charming description of the Audley Court abode: ‘A glorious old place.  A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water.  A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenue…’.

Lady Audley’s Secret is both an atmospheric and compelling work, which felt rather modern at times.  At first, I was reminded a little of Ian McEwan’s marvellous Atonement, in terms of the style of the whole and the way in which Audley Court sprang to life before my very eyes.  Braddon seamlessly introduces her characters, and I very much like the structure of the whole; subsequent chapters follow different protagonists.  In this manner, those who own the house, as well as those who work there have been taken into account, and a well-rounded picture of the whole establishment is soon created.  The largely omniscient narrator takes the reader into his or her confidence through the use of small and infrequent asides, and this narrative voice works incredibly well with the unfolding whole.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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