Today I finished reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I read it for a good reason, since next year at university I’m taking an English module about Pre-Raphaelite literature (believe it or not) and Lady Audley’s on the reading list. At first I was unsure how a sensation novel could be considered Pre-Raphaelite, but having now read it I can see why it was included and I here present some of my observations on Pre-Raphaelite elements in the book. If you haven’t yet read Lady Audley’s Secret and do not want to know the titular secret just yet, then stop here!
Braddon’s novel was serialised in various English magazines from 1861-1863, and published in three volumes in 1862. It is Braddon’s most successful and well-known work, and a classic of the sensation genre. Sensation fiction is characterised by its melodramatic and intricate plots, always with some dark secret at the centre; it has its roots in Gothic literature and was controversial for its shocking depiction of murder, adultery and seduction, among other ‘depravities’. But this didn’t stop people reading sensation novels; rather, I expect it was all that murder, adultery and seduction which made the books so roaringly popular with Victorian readers. They are still widely read today and the classic ones have never gone out of print — proof that everyone still loves a good cosy mystery. Yet sensation novels were not above criticism, and some Victorian critics expressed concern that such mass public interest in shocking, risqué literature signified a cultural degeneration, a moral decay. Naturally, that didn’t stop the readers reading.
Besides Mary Braddon, Wilkie Collins is another famous sensation writer. I read The Moonstone for a module of Victorian literature last year and rather enjoyed it, ludicrous though it was at times. Lady Audley’s Secret offers the same mysterious atmosphere, the same exploration of corruption in supposedly respectable Victorian society, though for me the disappearance of George Talboys and the investigation into Lady Audley’s ominous past is far more intriguing than Collins’s doorstep-sized ‘Who stole my diamond?’
But where do the Pre-Raphaelites come into Lady Audley’s Secret? Well, for one thing, the Brotherhood gets name-dropped. In Volume I Chapter VIII the hero Robert Audley and his friend George Talboys, while on a fateful visit to the Audley Court mansion, sneak into the locked rooms of Lady Audley where they find a curious, half-finished portrait of her. Says Braddon of its painter: ‘I am afraid the young man belonged to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for he had spent a most unconscionable time upon the accessories of this picture.’ A little further on, the portrait of Lady Audley is described in more detail:
No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.
We are also told that ‘[Lady Audley’s] crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of colour.’ All this combines to create a very bewitching painting, one which leaves the heroes wondering if there is something sinister lurking in Lady Audley’s painted countenance. Alicia, Lady Audley’s stepdaughter and Robert Audley’s cousin, remarks that the painter must have been ‘able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes.’ The portrait possesses an intangible — but eerily present — duality, with two different expressions contained simultaneously in the same face; and this was some years before the split personality of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It eventually transpires that Lady Audley has undergone a drastic but secretive change of identity from being George Talboys’s wife to the woman who marries Sir Michael Audley, and that she also precariously treads the line between madness and sanity thanks to a mental illness inherited from her asylum-bound mother. This fracturing of identity, this dual personality, is suggestively expressed by the numerous mirrors in Lady Audley’s boudoir which ‘multiplied my lady’s image’. But I digress.
Braddon’s clear references to the Pre-Raphaelites would have made her novel very fresh and current to contemporary readers, since the PRB were continually making headlines and dividing public and critical opinion at the time of writing. Pre-Raphaelite paintings of women such as Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata, exhibited in 1860 a year before Lady Audley’s Secret appeared in print, would have been fresh in everyone’s mind; it would not be at all surprising if Braddon herself had seen such pictures in various London galleries. It’s the equivalent of a twenty-first century writer referring to, heaven forbid, Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst in a modern detective novel.
Although Lady Audley’s portrait is a fabrication and the painter’s name is never explicitly mentioned (though it is implied, as I shall explain shortly), one cannot help but speculate which ‘young man belonging to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood’ Braddon had in mind and, therefore, which painting might theoretically fit the description. For me the profusion of golden ringlets, delicate complexion, piercing eyes and pouting mouth brings to mind Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Helen of Troy, painted in 1863. Of course, this date is just slightly after the novel was written, but there are still similarities.
However, this would not fit with the fact that Lady Audley is wearing a crimson dress in her portrait. Perhaps Rossetti’s 1896 study for Pandora, fiery and intense, would make a better match.
A third work by Rossetti could be a likely candidate. The opulent, golden-haired Monna Vanna (1866) has the same lavish splendour as Lady Audley, as well as a certain bored vanity in her facial expression. An earlier Penguin Classics edition of Lady Audley’s Secret even uses Monna Vanna on the cover. I plan to write a separate post all about the painting so I shan’t discuss it in depth here, but it certainly reflects the vain decadence of Lady Audley in the novel.
A possible clue in this arty-literary mystery is that the name of William Holman Hunt is actually mentioned later in the novel. In Volume II Chapter XIII Lady Audley faces the possible exposure of her crimes by Robert Audley, who has been frantically digging into her ominous past in order to solve the mystery of George Talboys’s disappearance. The lady sits in her ‘fairy boudoir’ in tableau fashion, sorrowful at the prospect of being unmasked, surrounded by frilly decorative clutter as evidence of her materialistic nature. We are told that ‘If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced by-and-by upon a bishop’s half-length for the glorification of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.’ As Jenny Bourne Taylor notes, this explicit mention of Holman Hunt ‘suggests that he is the fictional painter of the fictional portrait of Lady Audley.’ If this is so, then his Il Dolce far Niente, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1859, immediately springs to mind. Although the model is dark-haired the luxuriant ringlets nevertheless match Braddon’s description, as do the woman’s rich garments and the fancy interior visible in the mirror behind her. The painting’s title is an Italian phrase meaning ‘It is sweet to do nothing’; similar, then, to Lady Audley’s life as a pampered belle of Essex county. Absent from Holman Hunt’s painting are any sinister undertones in the woman’s features, though a statuette of Cupid and Psyche behind her head could symbolise sexual desire. Similar to all this is Holman Hunt’s iconic The Awakening Conscience (1853), more information about which can be found at the end of this post.
Finishing this quest of conjecture to match Braddon’s imagined portrait with a real-life counterpart, Edward Burne-Jones’s Sidonia von Bork of 1860 could be another interesting possibility, especially since it was painted just before Lady Audley’s Secret was serialised. In this painting Burne-Jones portrays a character from a German Gothic novel by one Wilhelm Meinhold, called Sidonia the Sorceress. According to the Tate website, the novel ‘chronicles the crimes of the evil Sidonia, whose beauty captivates all who see her.’ Lady Audley’s beauty, too, captives the other characters in Braddon’s novel. The brooding side-long glance of Sidonia in Burne-Jones’s painting, like the sinister undertones in Lady Audley’s facial expression, shows her to be a scheming, secretive, potentially dangerous woman.
This segues nicely into the theme of Lady Audley as a femme fatale. Mysterious and with murderous inclinations, she is not dissimilar to those ‘dangerous women’ of the nineteenth century, from Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci (1819) to the Salomes and Judiths popular with the later Decadents and, of course, with the Pre-Raphaelites. Lady Audley is even described as a ‘beautiful fiend’, and despite her outward sweet nature she hides some eldritch secret within her which is eventually uncovered by the efforts of Robert Audley. A classic femme fatale convention invoked by Braddon is that of hair, specifically Lady Audley’s, almost to the point of fetishisation. Much is made of her mane of golden ringlets — gold like her wealth — numerously described as a ‘pale halo round her head’ and ‘falling about her neck in a golden haze’. In a feverish dream of Robert Audley’s her yellow curls transform into serpents, reminding us of Medusa. For the Victorians flowing female hair could be seen as a web to ensnare and seduce men, as a source of almost witchlike power, and even as a method of strangulation — sentiments difficult to imagine nowadays. Rossetti in particular had a rather erotic fixation with flowing female tresses, and one cannot help but be reminded of his painting Lady Lilith in which the titular lady’s abundant golden locks convey her sensual sexuality. According to Jewish tradition Lilith was Adam’s first wife, whose refusal to be subservient to Adam resulted in her banishment from Eden and her subsequent portrayal in folklore as a demonic vampire who preys on sleeping children — ah, clearly, terrible is the woman who thinks and acts for herself! Perhaps echoes of the Lilith story can be found in Lady Audley’s character, and the two women are also engrossed in their own reflections and physical appearances.
In the concluding chapter of Lady Audley’s Secret we are informed that Audley Court, the great ancestral pile, now lies empty; ‘a curtain hangs before the pre-Raphaelite portrait’ of Lady Audley. The lady herself has died an unhappy death in a mental institution in Belgium. There is something quite haunting about it all: the empty mansion, the forgotten portrait of a golden-haired woman with a sinister glint in her eye, a glint which is revealed to be insane. One almost feels sorry for Lady Audley; then again, she did fake her own death, abandon her infant son and commit bigamy, before trying to murder her first husband and set fire to an inn as an attempt to kill the man who wanted to expose all her aforementioned crimes to the world. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a melodramatic Victorian mystery.
- An article about the sensational novel on The Victorian Web, outlining its motifs and popularity with Victorian readers.
- An overview of the femme fatale in Victorian art and literature on The Victorian Web
- TateShots video about Rossetti’s Lady Lilith in Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, featuring model Laura Bailey
- Smarthistory video about Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853), a Pre-Raphaelite painting which shares the same themes of materialism and and feminine sexuality as Lady Audley’s Secret. See the painting on the Google Art Project to explore details in high-resolution.