Pre-Raphaelite References: ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’

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?’

William Powell Frith, 'Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (née Braddon)', 1865
William Powell Frith, ‘Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (née Braddon)’, 1865

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.

K¸nstler / Rossetti / Werke

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Pandora', 1869
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Pandora’, 1869

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Monna Vanna', 1866
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Monna Vanna’, 1866

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.

William Holman Hunt, 'Il Dolce far Niente', 1859-66
William Holman Hunt, ‘Il Dolce far Niente’, 1859-66

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.

Edward Burne-Jones, 'Sidonia von Bork 1560', 1860
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Sidonia von Bork 1560’, 1860

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Lady Lilith', 1866-68, altered 1872-73
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Lady Lilith’, 1866-68, altered 1872-73

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.

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Further information

  • 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.
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The Pre-Raphaelites and the St George Legend

The story of St George defeating the evil Dragon and at the same time rescuing a young princess is a popular subject in the history of art. It is found on many religious icons (often minus the princess); other notable paintings of the legend include those by Paolo UccelloTintoretto and Rubens, all featuring the same imagery of courageous St George lunging at the Dragon on horseback while the rescued maiden looks on (and, in the case of Tintoretto, runs dramatically right towards the viewer). The tale has strong Christian overtones: St George, an early Christian knight, slays the Dragon in an act of Christian heroism — a dragon also being visually similar to the Serpent of Eden — and apparently caused a mass conversion as a result. For the Pre-Raphaelites, however, it was an ideal tale of romantic medieval chivalry and was lyrically illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti among others.

Icon of St George slaying the Dragon, c. 1600s, Crete. A more typical image of the saint.
Icon of St George slaying the Dragon, c. 1600s, Crete. A more typical image of the saint.

Let’s start with Burne-Jones. From 1865-67 he painted a series of seven paintings representing the legend, beginning with the Princess and finishing with her return to the King’s palace after her rescue. The seven paintings, commissioned by the popular Victorian artist Myles Burket Foster, are now separated in various galleries around the world, and the climactic episode of St George slaying the Dragon is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Given the drama of the legend Burne-Jones’s painting is remarkably serene, owing in part to the Princess’s rather nonchalant facial expression and the quiet pastoral surroundings. The Dragon itself is probably the weakest aspect of the picture and resembles a larger-than-average lizard or, strangely, a reptilian mole, rather than a gigantic, fire-breathing monster; it is a minor nuisance easily cut down by St George’s sword instead of a deadly threat. Still, the painting has that haunting, dreamlike quality so characteristic of Burne-Jones, and when viewed close-up one can see the straining tendons of St George’s sword hand and the look of determination in his furrowed brow which adds some tension to the picture.

Edward Burne-Jones, 'The Legend of St George and the Dragon, VI: St George Kills the Dragon', 1866
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Legend of St George and the Dragon, VI: St George Kills the Dragon’, 1866

An earlier painting in Burne-Jones’s series, the first, showing the Princess reading in the palace rose garden before her selection to be sacrificed to the Dragon, shifts the focus to the legend’s female character in a way that feels refreshingly different from the more typical emphasis on the heroic, manly St George. She is even given a name, Sabra, probably derived from a ballad about St George in Thomas Percy’s influential collection, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), in which the Princess is named Sabra and her father King Ptolemy. Burne-Jones’s Sabra is a delicate, even androgynous beauty, her eyelids drooping as if in sadness at the terror which has befallen her native land; just beyond the low rose trellis looms a dark tangled forest, perhaps foreshadowing her perilous role as the Dragon’s next victim. The painting also displays Burne-Jones’s medievalism, with its shallow depth, decorative flowers and the crisp folds of Princess Sabra’s long, gothicised dress. Although the city terrorised by the Dragon was traditionally thought to be in Africa, the Princess’s skin is pale like that of an English woman. Four paintings later she is tied to a tree to await her death.

16-burne-jones_princesse-sabra
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Legend of St George and the Dragon, I: Princess Sabra (The King’s Daughter)’, 1866
Edward Burne-Jones, 'The Legend of St George and the Dragon, VI: The Princess Tied to a Tree', 1865-67
Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Legend of St George and the Dragon, VI: The Princess Tied to a Tree’, 1866

Dante Gabriel Rossetti seems to have been far more interested in later events, when Princess Sabra and St George fall in love following the death of the Dragon. In Thomas Percy’s version of the legend their love was discovered by the non-Christian King Ptolemy, who subsequently banished St George in anger. Rossetti’s watercolour St George and Princess Sabra, painted from 1861-62 a few years before Burne-Jones’s series, shows St George washing the Dragon’s blood from his hands in his upturned helmet, while outside the citizens rejoice and carry the dead beast through the streets. The Princess Sabra kneeling to kiss his bloodied hands distinctly resembles Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti’s wife and muse who died just shortly after the painting was completed; they share the same heavy-lidded eyes and streaming red hair. I particularly like the warm, rich colours of this painting, the way the vivid green of Sabra’s medieval-style dress blends beautifully with George’s golden tunic. Incidentally the tunic is a dalmatic, a type of Christian liturgical gown, which clearly references, along with the golden halo, George’s purity and future sainthood. Also rather lovely are the walls of the interior which are patterned with small scrolls and trees in full leaf, lending the painting a decorative feel and reminiscent of William Morris’s early attempt at tapestry weaving in 1857.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'St George and Princess Sabra', 1862
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘St George and Princess Sabra’, 1862

Another watercolour by Rossetti from 1864 also portrays St George with Princess Sabra. It is based upon an earlier design by Rossetti for a series of six stained-glass windows which, like Burne-Jones’s paintings, illustrate the St George legend. Both the watercolour and the original stained-glass drawing can be compared below. Although titled The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra, the scene feels more like a celebration of the Dragon’s death, particularly because of the lively trumpeters and the presence of the monster’s severed head in the foreground. (In Thomas Percy’s ballad St George and Sabra did eventually get married, though not until the Princess had eloped to England with him.) St George sits beside Sabra beneath an archway in the centre of a symmetrical, tightly-arranged composition; the figures to their left and right are presumably King Ptolemy and his wife, and the King’s melancholy expression hints at his disapproval of his daughter’s love for St George. The jewel-like colours, the heraldic symbols on the trumpet flags and the ornamental patterns on the Queen’s cloak and the tapestry along the back wall are typical of Rossetti’s romantic medievalism, and indeed the picture belongs to that distinctive category in Rossetti’s oeuvre of watercolours with medieval subject matters.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Story of St George and the Dragon: The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra', 1861-62
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Story of St George and the Dragon: The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra’, 1861-62
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Story of St George and the Dragon: The Wedding of St. George and Princess Sabra', 1861-62. The design for stained-glass upon which the above watercolour was based.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Story of St George and the Dragon: The Wedding of St. George and Princess Sabra’, 1861-62. The design for stained-glass upon which the above watercolour was based.

The legend of St George afforded the Pre-Raphaelites the opportunity to indulge in their love of chivalric romance. They seem less concerned with deep Christian symbolism and more with evoking the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, and they offer new and unusual interpretations of a well-worn story.

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Further information

  • Rossetti’s six stained-glass window designs for ‘The Story of St George and the Dragon’ on the Rossetti Archive
  • Another Rossetti watercolour depicting The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra (1857) on the Rossetti Archive. In a video for the 2012 Tate exhibition’s trip to Moscow, Alison Smith discusses the watercolour and Rossetti’s innovative painting techniques.