Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote some eighty novels of which only a tiny handful remain in print today; and yet, given the terrific quality of Lady Audley's Secret, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a few more of Braddon's books creep back onto the list of acknowledged Victorian classics over the next few years. With stage shows and TV adaptations of sensational Victorian literature doing big business Mary Elizabeth Braddon is ripe for rediscovery. She could certainly write and her female characters in particular are beautifully vivid and well-realised.
Without wishing to give away the admittedly slightly convoluted and twisted plot (but twisted in the best possible fashion!) Lady Audley's Secret concerns the shady and vague past of one Lucy Graham who becomes, on marriage to an elderly baronet, the Lady Audley of the title. Beautiful, intelligent, manipulative and cunning she completely dominates the novel, easily out-shining the various po-faced and rather priggish males who try to uncover her distinctly iffy past and bring her to some sort of justice. Braddon possibly over-cooked the character of Lady Audley, making her so endlessly fascinating that she continually captures the reader's sympathy in spite of behaving in a downright devious, sinister and occasionally murderous fashion. She dominates every scene in which she appears to the extent one actually hopes she gets away with her nefarious activities and that her Nemesis, the rather dreary and humourless Robert Audley - the sort of single issue bore you really wouldn't want to be stuck with at a party - finds himself abandoned and ignored by all concerned.
The novel contains some exquisite set pieces, in particular a scene in which a Pre-Raphelite painting of Lady Audley is discussed in a fashion that actually touches on an idea developed years later by Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It seems the artist, in portraying the exquisite beauty of Lady Audley slightly marred by a sinister curl to the lip, has caught the essence, rather than the physical actuality, of his model. Something unconsciously felt, rather than seen, has been given a literal representation.
The plotting is quite leisurely, but even the passages which could be regarded as padding are not without interest and some fine descriptive writing, and the female characters in the book are all considerably more interesting than the males which can on occasion give things a slightly lopsided feel, but taken as a whole it's a wonderful novel which thoroughly deserved the considerable success it achived on its first publication. The critics in the Victorian press were sniffy, but Henry James - who knew a thing or two about fine writing - was a fan. Give it a go. If you like your literature as fragrant as a rose garden in high summer you won't be disappointed.