As promised, I am doing a few bad Victorian book cover posts to make up for the fact that I have been posting irregularly lately. Previous covers include Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Dracula, and East Lynne.
Today we are discussing Lady Audley’s Secret, an 1862 sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you do. It’s a great read. If you don’t have as much time as I do to read ridiculous nineteenth-century books, allow me to sum up the plot:
The book opens on Lucy Graham, the kindly, beautiful governess of a small-town family. She is so sunny and so lovely that she enchants every goddamned person who meets her. This book goes on and on about how bitch be luminous. Do we need to spell it out any more? She’s comely as hell, okay? Also, she’s blonde. That’s really important. Because in Victorian literautre, blonde women are the Angel in the House, the innocent, virtuous damsels who need to be rescued.
Lucy Graham attracts the attention of this old dude, Sir Michael Audley, and he’s like, “Marriage, my shapely duckling?” And she’s like, “Sure.” And now she is . . . LADY AUDLEY. And we can only presume that she has A SECRET. And their marriage is actually super creepy because he infantilizes her, and I think she’s about the same age as his grown daughter, Alicia, and Lady Audley is his whimsical fairy princess porn-star trophy-wife trophy-daughter darling, and Freud would have a lot to say about this book.
Meanwhile, Sir Michael has a nephew named Robert Audley, whose BFF, George Talboys, has just gotten back from Australia after a three-year absence. George had this ridiculously attractive, young BLONDE wife named Helen, who he married on a whim, and then discovered after she had a baby that, oh, whoops, he actually didn’t have any money to support them, so he just LEAVES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT to go dig for fucking gold in Australia and hopes to strike it rich and give his young wife everything she deserves, or maybe die of snake/spider/shark bite in the outback (the desert, not the steakhouse) (well, maybe the steakhouse, I dunno, he’s not that clear) and leave her free to marry again. Either way, it’s fine for him. Except he’s given no thought about how his wife is going to take care of herself and their child in his absence, and oh, by the way, forgets to write to her about his progress for the entire three years, so as far as she knows, he’s dead.
So he comes home with a metric ass-load of Australian gold and discovers that in his absence, she’s died and left their child with her ailing father. And George is soooo saaaad. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him, but I’m like, “Yeah, cry MORE, dickhead. I want to bathe in your tears.”
While George is busy having a complete mental breakdown, Robert’s like, “Hey, I know what will get your mind off things: let’s go visit my uncle, Sir. Michael, who has just taken a new, beautiful, blonde wife. That will definitely distract you and not make you think about your beautiful, blonde wife, right?” So he takes George up there, but Lady Audley is acting really strange and manages to avoid seeing George during his entire visit.
Gee, you don’t suppose that his dear blonde wife, Helen, could have faked her death, ditched her sproglet (who, to be fair, sounds like kind of a shitty kid, anyway), moved away, and become Lucy Graham/Lady Audley, do you? Wouldn’t that be awkward!
And then George just disappears from the Audley house one day. And Robert is like, “RUDE. But this is sensation fiction, so there should really be some sort of mystery to solve. How about I become an amateur detective and try to find him?”
And, of course, after much digging and game playing with Lady Audley, Robert Audley discovers that Lady Audley is totally Helen Talboys, who figured her husband had died or had abandoned her and was never coming back (BECAUSE SHE NEVER HEARD FROM HIM AGAIN AFTER HE SCARPERED, HELLLLLOOOOO). Lady Audley: Con Artist. So she changed her identity on the off-chance that bigamy could be in the works. Lady Audley: Bigamist.
When Robert confronts Lady Audley, she’s like, “Psh, where is your proof?” and he’s like, “Oh, crap, I knew I was forgetting something! Well, I will be staying over here at this inn, pretty much all alone, and will be looking for proof to DESTROY you. This is my room number. I am giving you this information because you are blonde, so clearly you cannot do anything devious, despite the very devious backstory I am confronting you with right now.”
And that night, Lady Audley sets fire to the inn.
SHE SETS FIRE. TO THE INN. Lady Audley: Arsonist and MY HERO.
Unfortunately, the fire only kills the inn’s shitty owner, and Robert escapes. He tells his uncle what’s happened and they both confront Lady Audley, and she confesses her whole backstory. As it turns out, her husband George never left Audley Court. He figured out who Lady Audley was, confronted her in the garden, and she pulled a Dolores Claiborne and pushes him down an abandoned well. Lady Audley: Murderist Murderess.
Sir Michael is, naturally, a bit upset. Then they bring in a doctor and he visits privately with Lady Audley and confirms that she has LATENT INSANITY that she caught from her mother, whatever the fuck that means. In my personal opinion, I think she found out a way to escape the gallows. She’s repeatedly described as being able to charm the pantaloons off of everyone, and, on top of that, everyone makes assumptions about her because of her looks. If she’s confessing to all of these heinous crimes, it can’t be her natural personality! A woman who looks like that could never be coldly manipulative or evil or opportunisitc. She must be “ill”.
She’s shipped off to the Continent to be kept in an asylum under an assumed name. It is later reported that she has died in the asylum after only two years. Guys, I’m telling you, she wriggled out of that one again and is somewhere in Italy married to a prince or high-kickin’ it at the Moulin Rouge or is an artist’s model in Spain or something. There is NO WAY she is dead.
But everyone back in moral old England thinks she is, and Robert discovers that George Talboys SURVIVED THE TRAGIC WELL-PUSHING, climbed out, and jumped on the next boat to Australia, and they get back in touch, and everyone is more or less fine and happy, except Sir Michael, who is going to have wife-related PTSD for the rest of his life.
The thing that I love about this book is that it is extremely ambiguous. Lady Audley’s ‘secret’ is very likely not the husband she already has, since Mary Elizabeth Braddon spells out for us almost immediately that Lady Audley is actually Helen Talboys. I mean, it’s so obvious and Robert starts to get suspicious so early that it’s not really a ‘secret’. The other potential secret is that she has ‘latent insanity’, although that’s just kind of thrown out at the end and seems like a very convenient diagnosis for her.
The way I read this is that Lady Audley’s secret is that she could be just as ambitious, heartless, and manipulative as a man could be. Her secret is that she’s not bogged down with morals and that she will do whatever she has to in order to make her life secure. Now, of course, a woman like that could never survive the plot or overtly succeed; she has to be punished. However, the looseness of the ending is part of its charm: Braddon can get away with writing this because Lady Audley is ‘crazy’ and dies penniless on the Continent and everyone else gets to be happy.
But is that what actually happens? Do we actually know her fate beyond all doubt? Nope. If you want to read this as a traditional, conservative, anti-feminist book, that reading is available to you. If you see nothing but potential in Lady Audley and think she got away with it all, then that reading is there, too. It’s brilliant.
Whoops, I kind of went crazy summarizing the book. That was way longer than the 4-5 sentences I had planned. ANYWAY, on to the book covers!
Firstly, let’s look at covers where the art department clearly did not read the book (Subtitle: “LADY AUDLEY IS BLONDE. HER BLONDENESS IS A GODDAMNED PLOT POINT“)
At first I thought that this might be a photograph of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but as far as I can tell, it’s not. It’s just a random brunette. Good work, guys.
Now let’s get on to my other pet peeve for Victorian literature in general: “Slap a random woman in period dress on the cover. Job done.” It tells you absolutely nothing about the book, except that there is PRESUMABLY a woman in it.
“Who are you? Why are you staring off into space like that? Are you Lady Audley?”
You’re a woman. You’re pretty. you’re blonde. You’re in nineteenth-century clothing. No more creative thinking is required.
I would like to point out that, 1.) I don’t remember her having a dog in the book. 2.) Braddon explicitly says that Lady Audley HATES READING.
“Do you like my vase and my Princess Leia hair? I am a generic piece of artwork that is thoroughly adequate.”
“Let’s see . . . Push husband down a well? Check. Set an inn on fire? Check. Wear a kimono from at least thirty years in the future? Check. Have absolutely anything to do with this book? Oh . . . whoops.”
“What’s this book about?”
“There is a woman. She wears a scarf, I guess.”
“Any general themes we should pick up on?”
“I think it’s windy in the book. Oh, and also, there are flourishes. Watch out for the flourishes.”
Then, of course, there is the even bigger pet peeve: “Slap a random Pre-Raphaelite woman on the cover. Job done.”
I think Lady Audley needs to tone down the thickening shampoo. Just a suggestion.
Then there are the covers with period dress SO WRONG that it actually offends the intelligence of the readers buying the book.
The book is set in the late 1850s. Which I guess means you have total carte-blanche when it comes to period dress. Anything before 1950 will do.
“Eat your heart out, Zelda Fitzgerald. I am fucking fabulous.”
“No, please, go on. Explain to me, my puppy, and my resting bitchface why this 1870s boating costume is appropriate for this book.”
“Do you like my big hat and slim dress? I got it in New York in 1885. I’m ahead of fashion like that.”
I know Lady Audley led a double life, but I think “She was really Marie Antoinette, escaped from prison, and also 104 years old by the time the book is set” is pushing it a bit far.
Wha . . . I . . . What time period is this even supposed to be? Renaissance? Was she Lucretia Borgia, who became Marie Antoinette, who became Helen Talboys, who became Lady Audley, who became Zelda Fitzgerald?
This is what I want: Lady Audley is either an immortal demon OR a time traveler, sexing her way through all of European history. Make it happen, Internet.
And because this is sensation fiction, that means we should have some truly sensational covers, right?
“Oh, god, the color saturation! The color saturation hurts so much!”
The strain of reading was too much for her delicate, womanly frame.
“AND THEN I WRESTLED THE BEAR LIKE THIS.”
“Mmm hmmm. Go on.”
What even the ever-loving fuck?
It’s like some sort of 1920s carnival hypnotist act has gone horribly awry.
I’m aware this is an illustration from inside the book, not a cover on the outside. Still, this teaches us valuable lessons. If you’re going to argue with your wife about her hideous secret–a secret which would benefit hugely from your death–don’t do it near abandoned wells, forgotten mineshafts, cliffs, trapdoors, rivers of boiling lava, electric fences, vats of radioactive waste, or highly-flamable inns. That’s just poor planning.
Finally, I’d like to show some really good (or at least more thoughtful) cover art. It’s easy enough to ridicule other people’s work, but it’s kind of pointless not to provide a positive contrast:
Is this the most riveting cover in the history of covers? No.
But it at least makes reference to a scene where Robert Audley watches Lady Audley make tea forever, and he is bewitched by how delicate and ephemeral she is, while still suspecting that there is something sinister going on. I also like that it plays around with the trope of tea in Victorian literature–we tend to think of these as stories about totally harmless women in bonnets gossiping over their teacups. This is very much a surface perception that Lady Audley takes advantage of.
Even though this scene never happens in the book, what I enjoy about it is firstly how YELLOW everything is–yellow being associated with insanity, and also being tied to the BLONDE BLONDENESS of her hair. Again, we have a very conscious cultivation of the surface. I also like that she’s in a crowd, but not part of it. Her giant fan serves as a wall, cutting her off from everyone else, as she stares into the distance.
Super girly pink, yes? That is a completely innocuous pink. Nothing bad could ever happen in this book. Which was probably the reason for that color choice.
You also have a woman shown from two perspectives, neither of which align very well. She’s faceted.
I love the hidden quality of this. She’s young and blonde with porcelain skin, and yet a total mystery to us. It emphasizes the physical, but we don’t actually get to see her.
I have a few other books lined up for the next couple of months, though I may try to get back to other types of stories for a bit. Let me know if you find any wackadoo covers for me to use in these posts!