Mary Elizabeth Braddon – Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)

Review by Justin Tate

Lady Audley’s Secret is a gorgeous example of the Victorian ‘Sensation Novel’ which dominated Great Britain during the 1860’s and ’70s. It includes a unique female mastermind of evil, while also presenting enough evidence for a lively counter argument over who the real villain is. The prose is top-notch and very modern. At times it reads more like the latest literary prize-winner and not something that was published over a hundred and fifty years ago. There’s plenty of mystery and suspense to keep the pages turning, but intriguing characters are what really keep you glued. It’s a shame this classic no longer enjoys the massive popularity it once carried well into the early 20th century. It holds up extremely well.

Sensation Novels in general have been largely forgotten. The genre often consisted of over-the-top murder ploys, crime rings, fake identities, extreme domestic conflict and generally some mystery to sleuth. The premises were often pulled straight from the newspapers, where ‘sensation journalists’ hyped up the latest high-profile murder trial, marriage squabble, or some back alley mayhem happening throughout London.

This novel was no different. Braddon draws heavily from the headline-worthy Yelverton Case, where a man was accused of bigamy after marrying his lover while still married to his first wife. He argued that the first marriage was invalid because it was officiated under the Catholic religion (his wife’s faith) when he was an Irish Protestant. This bizarre argument resulted in one of the juiciest cross-examinations of the era, but the law ultimately sided with the man (of course). His first wife was left to ruin while he enjoyed no consequence.

Readers of Braddon will no doubt see a veiled resemblance between the plot of her novel and the real life Yelverton Case. Except Braddon flips the script and makes the woman the bigamist. There’s plenty of room for cross-examination as to the fairness of her outcome and who is ultimately responsible for putting the misdeeds into motion. Nobody comes out clean and it all makes for a great discussion. Check it out 🙂

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