Professor Carolyn Oulton, Director of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW) explores the novel, Lady Audley’s Secret, complementing the Centre’s events taking place as part of the Being Human festival.
Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret would have intrigued, enthralled and horrified its first readers before they reached the first page, Victorian ladies after all were not supposed to have secrets.
First published in 1862, the same year that Coventry Patmore was revising his notorious Angel in the House, the novel chimes with Virginia Woolf’s later insistence that ‘Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.’ But Braddon’s protagonist is an unlikely spokesperson for the rights of women. Frail, blonde and frivolous, Lucy Audley spends her days charming the tenants on her husband’s estate and her evenings playing the piano while making what the most tolerant reader must admit is fairly vacuous after-dinner conversation. What secrets could such a woman possibly be supposed to have? But when the tragically widowed George Talboys goes missing from a visit to Audley Court, his friend Robert Audley is determined to uncover the truth about his beautiful young aunt. In the process he forces the reader to rethink everything they think they know about Victorian femininity.
In 1862 Lucy Audley evades arrest for her crimes, but ICVWW Co-founder and expert on Victorian crime Professor Adrienne Gavin points out that in any case, in 1862 the jury would have been composed entirely of men ‘as women didn’t serve on British juries until 1920 after passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which also opened to women careers as lawyers, judges and magistrates. … there are several cases of attractive women of the respectable classes being found not guilty of crimes they clearly did commit.’
As part of the ICVWW Being Human 2016 programme, ICVWW’s Alyson Hunt has rifled through letters, questioned witnesses and produced a case file of the history Lady Audley hoped to forget. Now she will be put on trial with a mixed legal team and a jury of the public, giving you a chance to decide – is she guilty?