Murder and More in Victorian England
I have often heard that there is a time and a place for everything!! Apparently this holds true for books as well. Take the case of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, which I had bought more than 3 years ago and only read it like couple of weeks ago as part of Classic Club’s Victorian Age Reading Event. The case was same with Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I had bought the book, well over a year ago after mention by Jane (She has till date never led me wrong vis-à-vis new authors!!! Thank You Jane!) But for one reason or another I did not read it till last week – again propelled by the Victorian Reading Event (Big Yay to Classic Club for always making me read what I should have read long back!!)
Now about Lady Audley’s Secret…..
The novel opens with the beautiful and extremely talented, albeit impoverished governess Lucy Graham making a great match and marrying Sir Michael Audley, Bart. Audley Court. The new Lady Audley is liked by all both for her beauty as well her child like behavior which endears her to everyone except her step-daughter Alicia, who till the arrival of Lady Audley had reigned supreme both over her father and his house. Parallel to these events, George Talboys is returning home to England after three years; he had been gold mining in Australia and had finally made his fortune after bitter struggle and was now looking forward to re-uniting with his lovely wife and child. On reaching London, he runs into his old Eton schoolmate and friend, Robert Audley, a young indolent barrister, who also happens to be the nephew of Sir Michael. The two friends catch up on each other’s lives and it is revealed that George Talboys who was the only son of a very rich Squire had married a beautiful but penniless girl, which had incensed his father, who had then disinherited him. George Talboys had then sold his Naval commission and left for Europe with his pretty bride and had spent some luxurious months, while the money from the commission lasted. However once the money ran out, the Talboys returned to England and settled down in a house, which they shared with his bride’s father. As money ran low, there were arguments and dissatisfaction among the couple, until George deserted his wife and new born son and left in the middle of the night to make his fortune. He now hoped that his beautiful wife would forgive him and they would now settle down to a life of happy domesticity and love. George Talboys plans are dashed when on he learns of his wife’s death a week before he reached England. Heartbroken and depressed beyond his depth, he makes Robert Audley the guardian for his son’s education – the little boy had lived with his grandfather and wants to set off to Australia again to bury his sorrow in the wilderness of the land, but falls ill. Robert Audley nurses him back and finally convinces him to take a trip with him to Russia. As George Talboy’s spirit and heath mend, Robert Audley takes him to Audley Court, which he visits annually during the hunting season. Robert always stays at his uncle’s place during the hunting season, but this year is turned away as Lady Audley is unwell and unable to act as a hostess to visitors. Robert Audley and George Talboy take up residence at one of the Inns near Audley Court and one day when Sir Michael and Lady Audley are out, convince Alicia to take them on a tour of the house. George Talboy comes back from this tour of Audley Court visibly disturbed, but by morning regains his composure. He and Michael decide to spend the day fishing and return to the Inn for dinner before taking the last train back to London. They settle themselves down for a day of peaceful fishing and Robert Audley falls asleep; George Talboy again restless gets up and starts walking towards Audley Court. When Robert Audley finally wakes up, he hurries to the Inn, thinking that George Talboy must have wandered off and the comeback for dinner per their agreement. But the innkeeper tells Robert Audley that George Talboy never came back to the Inn and the barrister soon discovers that no one has seen his friend; George Talboy seems to have disappeared from the very face of the earth on a balmy afternoon. Robert is not satisfied by the way the disappearance is treated by all including Talboy’s own father, and begins in earnest to search for his friend, by piecing together his life before he left for Australia. As he slowly gets nearer to the truth, he is torn between his duty and his loyalties and face the horrifying facts, that threatens to destroy everything he holds sacred.
The book written in 1862 discusses things that Henry James said “that ladies are not accustomed to know”. Written more than 160 years ago, the book is all about murder, treachery, blackmail and bigamy – things that could simply not be discussed in the polite Victorian circles during afternoon tea visits and often considered “racy”. Yet the book is marvelously well written, with a taut plot and with strong characters that do not let you rest, until you reach the last page of the book and naturally was a rip-roaring success that brought justified praise and recognition to Braddon. The characters are extremely well drawn out and it is they and not the events that propel the story forward. I could not warm to either Lady Audley or Alicia Audley but both their characters were extremely believable and their angst and actions are alike understandable, in the shadow of their past. Robert Audley is the quintessential Victorian hero, a bit sardonic, but intelligent and generous, whose loyalties are clear and conduct is always that of a gentleman. But my favorite cast in this ensemble was Sir Michael –the kind generous noble man, deeply in love with wife, sincere enough to know and face the truth and honorable in every conduct, even when the worst comes to his doorstop. The novel naturally being a mystery tale keeps you hooked, but there are these clever tricks where Ms. Braddon pulls an unexpected whopper that hits you as a reader and you are left thinking “Wow! That I did not see coming!” She does this judiciously and cautiously without descending to theatrics and manages a fine balance between a social commentary and a good read.
An awesome book…again one that I should have read long back!!