Sensation novels were a scandal of the 1860’s. The term, poorly defined then, as now, was used to condemn fiction by such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Charles Reade, as well as that by M. E. Braddon and many lesser figures. Condemnation focused on the novelists’ preoccupation with crimes, mostly murder, arson, and bigamy. Much of the criticism was thinly concealed class snobbery: Sensation novels spread the values of the working class, not of the governing classes. They were not genteel. In these novels, crime was not confined to the poor. In the stately homes of England, the novels suggested, there was considerable crime, but these criminals, unlike the poor, were often protected by their wealth and power. Then, too, sensation novelists often presented psychologically motivated, even sympathetic, people as criminals; their criminals were not stereotypical representatives of evil that had been found in the earlier gothic, romantic, and Newgate fiction from which these novels sprang. Also, critics perceptively observed, and objected to, female characters who successfully defied Victorian proprieties and challenged masculine authority.
By these criteria, Braddon was the most sensational of them all, and her reputation, too, was tainted by the scandals of her personal life. Lady Audley’s Secret was notorious. It was also widely read. It appeared in October, 1862; by the end of that year, eight editions had been printed. Braddon knew exactly what she was doing. In The Doctor’s Wife (1864), she created the figure of sensation novelist Sigismund Smith, who satirizes himself and his author with his methodical analysis of the number of corpses needed to satisfy public taste. Yet there is more than cold calculation in Braddon’s work.
In his definitive and excellent Sensational Victorian: The Life and Times of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1979), Robert Lee Wolff notes the social satire underlying Braddon’s work. He observes her critiques of Victorian class structure, and he proves her to be politically radical, although not revolutionary, showing that, in her later works, she revealed her radicalism quite openly. Yet this radicalism would have been obvious from the first to sophisticated female readers of her day. In Lady Audley’s Secret, for example, the dramatic tension does not evolve from the war of good against evil. To satisfy Victorian prudery, Braddon told that story, making sure that the forces of goodness are finally triumphant, but she fashioned the narrative in such a way that the sophisticated reader is virtually forced to identify with the forces of evil, as personified by Lady Audley. Lady Audley loses, but dramatic tension arises because the reader hopes that she will not. Similarly, in Aurora Floyd (1863), the reader is made to sympathize with a bigamist who foreshadows that in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891): Both authors insist that their criminal heroines are actually pure women. In The Captain of the Vulture (1862), there are two heroines, both bigamists. Birds of Prey (1867) and Charlotte’s Inheritance (1868) function a bit differently; both are direct attacks on the morality of the middle class. In these novels, too, with one exception, the strongest characters are the women.
Lady Audley’s Secret
In Lady Audley’s Secret, the opponents are Lady Audley, the former Lucy Maldon, and her detective stepnephew, Robert Audley, who remorselessly secures the evidence that will ruin her. Robert Audley is motivated by his belief that his is the hand of God and by his somewhat erratic loyalty to one of Lady Audley’s husbands, George Talboys. Much more space, however, is given to the justification of Lady Audley. Born into poverty, she is the daughter of an insane mother and an alcoholic father; her childhood is punctuated by nightmares in which her mother attempts to kill her. She knows that her beauty is her only asset, and she resolves to make a successful marriage. She believes that she has done so when she marries George Talboys, but his father disapproves, and the young couple is allowed to wallow in squalor. The girl complains; thereafter, the conventional reader is free to believe that she, as a nagging wife, deserves whatever happens to her. The worldly reader, however, will react differently when Talboys abandons his wife and infant son, leaving only a note to say that he will return when he has made his fortune. He does not communicate again in the years that follow. Lucy must...
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