by Parama Basu


In this article I would like to study the ‘deviant’ and defiant heroine portrayed in Victorian Sensation Fiction as a fictional construct whose rebellious ways was a cause of  critical consternation to the respectable Victorian society. My objective shall be to explore how various social, medical and legal constrictions threatened to libel the Sensation heroine, guilty of resisting all sexist assumptions of Victorian respectability and flouting the age’s strict adherence to gendered patterns of behavior. Were the mostly unsympathetic representations of such women in contemporary fiction as dangerous and/or ‘deviant’ betraying the anxieties of an age fast changing, unable to cope with the unstable gender roles that these women generally assayed?


My article will attempt to trace and reinterpret the social constructions of ‘deviance,’ defiance and ‘discipline’ in Victorian Sensation Fiction by focussing on one such Sensation heroine, viz. Lady Audley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel Lady Audley’s Secret, in order to reinterpret the construction of the ‘Victorian Woman’ as a specific subjective, imaginative as well as political category worthy of literary representation.


Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon first appeared in July 1861 in the popular weekly magazine Robin Goodfellow and its phenomenal success helped to launch and stabilise the genre of Sensation Fiction in literature. This new novelistic mode thrived on plots of crime, sensation and sexual transgression, lapped up eagerly by an addicted readership, contouring the new literary tastes of the age. Sensation novels combined moral, psychological and physical reactions to lurid tales of shock, scandal and exaggeration, and this admixture stirred the anxiety of the age over the rise of a genre that implicitly suggested pathological aberrations, which could prove to be the ‘indications of a widespread corruption, … called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite and contributing themselves to foster the disease, and to stimulate the want that they supply.’[1]

The sensation novel brought in its wake a sense of urgency, trepidation and anxiety that was representative of this age of transition wherein religious reading was being supplanted by secular reading, individual agency was slowly but surely replacing collective expression, and wherein criminality too was relocating its epicenter from the grandiose  gothic mansion of the eighteenth century to the apparent ideal of the  peaceful, complacent and respectable middle-class or upper-class Victorian family. Contending with the shifting categories of domestic stability, criminal responsibility, mental health and gender identity, Lady Audley’s Secret offers ‘a site in which the contradictions, anxieties, and opposing ideologies of Victorian culture converge’.[2]

Despite all claims and misgivings about the covert femininity of the form being written ‘by women, about women and, on the whole, for women’,[3] sensation fiction reveals itself to be highly ‘unfeminine’, and sometimes even ‘antifeminine’. Lyn Pykett notes that:

[…] despite their faithful transcriptions of the surfaces of provincial life, sensation novels were seen as deviating from the realist criteria of the proper feminine because they disappointed the “natural” expectation that a “lady novelist” would produce “portraits of women which shall not be wholly untrue to nature”.[4] […] Mary Elizabeth Braddon was censured for defying these unwritten rules of representation in her portrayal of Lady Audley.[5]

Lady Audley’s Secret, like much of the other sensation novels written during the period, offers minutely detailed accounts of women’s sensuous and sexual responses, investing in them a sexual agency hitherto relatively unexplored in literature. The dangerous politics of such representation overstepped the boundary of decorum not only because what the female writer represented was revolting, but also because the way it was represented openly refuted all sexual mores of the age. This transgression raised many moral objections due to the manner in which it ‘read’ the body, by its ‘appeal to the nerves rather than to the heart’,[6] to base passions rather than to the tempered intellect.

The ‘fleshly and unlovely record’[7] of the sensation heroine becomes now typecast as ‘the natural sentiment of English girls’, opines Oliphant in a caustic attack on the harmful effects of sensation fiction. Despite this exaggeration, the sensation novel clearly voiced suppressed female emotions and articulated their covert anger at the constricting social roles they were compelled to play. E. S. Dallas wrote in The Times:

If the heroines have the first place, it will scarcely do to represent them as passive and quite angelic, or as insipid – which heroines usually are. They have to be high-strung women, full of passion, purpose and movement.[8]

The heroine of the sensation novel was distinctive by her agency, for, as Elaine Showalter remarked in A Literature of their Own (1978), she was ‘a new kind of heroine … who could put her hostility toward men into violent action’[9], and thus externalize the darkest recesses of the Victorian woman’s mind, yearning to break out of the fetters of patriarchal surveillance and authority, and therefore reveling in this ‘grotesque falsification of lived experience’[10] that the genre offered.

Lady Audley’s radical transcendence of traditional socio-moral codes and ideologies is manifested in her attempts to secure social mobility and economic luxury for herself at the cost of deserting her minor son, concealing her real identity by pronouncing herself dead to the world, and supplanting her body with that of Matilda Plowson, a working-class girl; by effortlessly assuming the new identity of Lady Audley  – the blonde beauty who marries into aristocracy – all the while trying to protect that cherished identity from all the forces that tend to expose and expel it. In a bid to conceal her past, Lady Audley attempts the murder of her first husband, George Talboys, by pushing him down a well; and also tries to silence Robert Audley, her nephew by marriage, and the proto-detective in the novel, by setting fire to the inn in which he was sleeping. These double acts of attempted annihilation reveal her potential for violence, amounting to criminal accountability and possible incrimination.

According to Pykett:

[…] woman becomes the frontier between the order of man and chaos. [ … ] Neither inside nor outside the frontiers of high culture, sheis always in danger of receding into the chaos that lies beyond its gates.[11]

Braddon’s narrative in Lady Audley’s Secret ushers us into this very slippery terrain. So, what begins as a marriage of convenience between the young and sensuous governess Lucy Graham and the unsuspecting aristocrat Michael Audley soon lapses into a nightmarish encounter with the destabilization, staunch rejection and violent overthrow of the existing power and gender equations by the strong-willed heroine.

Lady Audley’s appropriation of the role of the female avenger is especially disturbing because she connives to destroy the Victorian domestic ideal while appearing to strive towards the very attainment of that ideal. Lady Audley plots and commits criminal offenses only to acquire a financially secure and socially profitable marriage, ‘to keep up appearances’[12] of respectability rather than ‘fall on to the streets’ [13] when her prospects are marred by her first husband’s disinheritance from his family property, and his consequent abandonment of her when encumbered with his child. Her target was what every middle-class girl of the age aspired to achieve, while the means to that end shows ‘the sensation heroine’s failure to conform to social codes … [and] convey[s] a sense of the threat of insurgent femininity trying to break out of the doll’s house of domesticity’,[14] as represented by the numerous ‘passive, dependent women, who are imprisoned by it, unable to articulate their sense of confinement, and driven to desperate measures’.[15]

When Helen Talboys advertises her own obituary to the world, she metaphorically kills the passive, restrained, unassertive and dependent wife who had so long defined her identity. When she resurfaces in the narrative as Lucy Graham, she is already a part of the newly emerging Victorian female workforce, setting a strong foothold in her role as a governess. In this new capacity, she seemed ‘perfectly well satisfied with her situation … as if she had no higher aspiration in the world than to do so all the rest of her life’.[16] In taking up the profession of a governess, Lucy earned for herself a modicum of agency as an independent earning subject, realized her potential to work, and thereby marked a departure from the conventional destiny of woman as the mere help-meet of man. Achieving emancipation from a male-controlled economy and a male-dependent identity, Lucy became the iconic representation of the woman of the age defiantly highlighting the ‘Woman Question’. However, Lucy Graham’s/ Helen Talboys’ dereliction of her motherly duties toward her infant son, whom she trusted to the care of her disreputable and alcoholic father, seems to be an early pointer in the novel to her latent ‘monstrosity’ and ‘unwomanliness’, which could make her ruthlessly ambitious for power, position, and their attendant luxury.

Each role that Helen Maldon faultlessly adapts herself to – whether it be that of the virtuous wife Helen Talboys, or the industrious governess Lucy Graham, or the aristocratic Lady Audley – actually records the number of times that she has successfully performed a masquerade, carefully concealing her vile potential and intentions. In her stint as Lady Audley, she manages to gain considerable finesse at performing the role of a ‘domestic angel who both is and isn’t  what she seems – she simultaneously qualifies as an icon of gentility and threatens the gentility of the gentry by gentrifying the middle class’, notes Jenny Bourne Taylor.[17] Embodying the ideal of complaisant femininity, Lady Audley sustains her masquerade for long as the criminal imposter, tenuously holding on to her new name and higher social rank. Though ultimately exposed and expelled from the narrative as well as the Audley household for her heinous crimes, Lady Audley’s facile impersonations repeatedly indicate that aristocratic manners and elite social status are acquired artifices. As Pykett astutely remarks, ‘Helen/ Lucy’s role-playing is a particularly acute form of Victorian self-fashioning’, intensely conscious that for a middle-class Victorian woman, the value of life lay in marrying well, and most importantly, in marrying above one’s station.

Lady Audley stuns and shocks because she does not merely internalize this social stricture, but also decidedly engineers its execution. Her transgressive actions critique the institution of marriage itself, laying bare that the sacrosanct union of two souls is a sham, a respectable cover actually hiding the layers of ‘lies, impersonation, fraud and murder’[18] which go into its making. Lady Audley’s act of bigamy can well be read as her sexual impropriety – she wants to traverse a sexual territory made inadmissible by the limits of law. Her crimes, then, are somewhat provoked by the uncompromising legal rigidity of the times. Lady Audley’s decision to remarry without legally concluding her first marriage is not simply influenced by her desire for a double identity under more enabling circumstances, but is also a result of the stifling contemporary legalities, which made the procedure of obtaining divorces a sexist, expensive and time-consuming choice.

There are obvious parallels between the plot of the novel and its creator, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s own life, as John Maxwell, Braddon’s husband, was married to another woman, and Braddon had to wait until 1874, when her husband’s first wife died, before she could legally marry him. Contemporary law relegated women to the status of vulnerable, powerless and dependent flotsams in the hands of patriarchy, constantly performing duties and never claiming any rights in their unaltering state of coerced subordination to the male sex. Barbara Leigh Smith’s pamphlet, ‘A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, Together with a Few Observations Thereon’, circulated in 1854, criticized the legal condition of ‘coverture’ which defined the marital status of all Victorian women at that time, for rendering these women wholly subject to the absolute control of their husbands. Marriage in such a society traded the woman’s subjective persona to make her into an object, subjected to a state of subservience and repression. Legally, women of the time found it extremely difficult to absolve their marriage on grounds of incompatibility alone, and they were only granted ‘an entire dissolution of the bonds of matrimony’ if they could prove adultery along with ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ or ‘Unnatural Practices’ in their spouses.[19] The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 made divorces more accessible by reducing the cost to around £30. Nevertheless, it was not before the Married Woman’s Property Act was passed in 1870 that married women could retain some portion of their own wealth even after ending their union. In the light of these prohibitive legal complications, it is understandable why Lady Audley found it easier to tackle the pressure of living under a fake identity rather than filing for divorce from George Talboys.

Lady Audley’s Secret throws open many of the major anxieties of the age. Disrupting tradition by venturing into the male domain of work, Lady Audley transforms her identity from being the public spectacle of domestic respectability to represent the ‘Girl of the Period’[20] who was fast, passionate, fiercely deviant and financially independent. Standing at the juncture between Victorian ideas of male domination and the newly emergent rebellious streak of female liberation, Lady Audley’s defiant sexual stance inverts the conventional gender paradigms of rational pragmatism in men and moral fortitude in women. Lady Audley charts her own life’s course by marrying well, and takes extreme measures to safeguard her newly found status from being sullied by the blemishes from her past.

Lady Audley’s downfall is caused when Michael Audley’s nephew, Robert Audley, is at first disturbed by the unbelievably angelic exterior of his young aunt, and soon grows suspicious of her undisclosed past, and so takes it upon him to unmask and shame his uncle’s wife. Robert’s initial awe of Lady Audley is not merely out of reverence for his uncle’s wife, but it also shows his inwardly growing misogynistic fears and insecurities. Robert enjoys the cat-and-mouse game of detection that he plays with Lady Audley – frightening her with threats of exposure, and yet giving her a chance to redeem herself by confession and escape, even as she tries her best to hold on to her fraudulent identity and the superior class position that it granted her. In her bid to live a life distinguished by luxury, abundance and indulgence, Lady Audley marries men whom she does not truly love, and the repetition of such a decision twice in the narrative becomes an unforgivable crime. The ‘penniless heroine’ is a social climber, and has no inhibitions in brutally destroying all that which could be dangerous for her situation. The bigamist soon becomes capable of murderous violence, attempting to kill George Talboys before he can reveal too much about her. Again, when later in the narrative, Robert Audley resolves to discover the mystery behind the sudden disappearance of his bosom friend, George Talboys, Lady Audley feels insecure and first tries to ensnare him sexually and, on failing to do so, sets fire to the inn in which Robert was supposed to be resting, fervently hoping that the fire would claim his life and thus obliterate her nemesis.

Much as she justifies her radical ways as the result of the workings of an insane mind that she has inherited from her mother, Lady Audley’s madness, on deeper probing, is shown to be nothing more than a rueful chafing against poverty and the trying circumstances it gives rise to. Her confession of madness pathologises her aggressive actions, but they also hint at a larger socio-economic reality. Madness for this intelligent woman becomes an able cover-up for her ambition to rise above the lot of the average Victorian woman with limited means, fettered by the dogma of patriarchy. And so she contrives, in the early part of the narrative, to convince her husband Michael Audley that it is not she, but her over-zealous observer Robert Audley who is mad. Here, she transforms ‘from a frivolous childish beauty to a strong woman’[21] and betrays to the readers how she had been concealing her manipulative wit and self-assertive nature beneath a well-guarded mask of innocence and vulnerability.

The subversive potential of the novel plays around with the changing notions of gender identity, constantly oscillating between the roles of the active, masculinised transgressor and the passive recipient of violence simultaneously represented by Lady Audley; and from the ‘improper masculine’ of ‘feminised indolence’ to the dynamic, ‘socialised’ and ‘masculinised’ ‘head of the bourgeois family’, as in the case of Robert Audley.[22] Robert Audley’s perseverance in exposing the crimes of his aunt also leads to the simultaneous formation of his masculine, bourgeois identity, well-honed in the professional ethics of work and the patriarchal codes of manhood. He discards his feminized identity and becomes, in the course of his quest to discover his aunt’s secret, a legally sound detective, who was ‘anxious to keep to the strict line of duty’[23], in order to reveal his aunt to be ‘the demoniac incarnation of some evil principle’[24] who did not flinch from any act of perfidy. Defying essentialist notions of gender roles and gendered behavior patterns, Lady Audley, on the other hand – as Pamela K. Gilbert remarks in her article ‘Braddon and Victorian Realism: Joshua Haggard’s Daughter’ – is:

At once the heroine and the monstrosity of the novel. [ … ] The nerves with which Lady Audley could meet unmoved the friend of the man she had murdered, are the nerves of a Lady Macbeth who is half unsexed, and not those of the timid, gentle, innocent creature Lady Audley is represented as being. […] All this is very exciting; but it is also very unnatural.[25]

Lady Audley is ‘unnatural’ because she does not believe in the stoic self-suppression which characterized the psychic discipline and regulated the spontaneous expressions of the women of the age. Her increased agency was often seen as a sign of a rapidly eroding sexual purity. Violating the norms of respectability, she set up an opposition to the Victorian archetype for ideal womanliness – ‘The Angel in the House’,[26] i.e. the submissive and sexually timid image of the respectable lady in Victorian households.

However, Andrew Radford’s insight into the character of Lady Audley provides a significant contrast to the aforementioned notion:

Lady Audley is an interloper but a victim as well, who struggles to negotiate the tensions between marriage as an economic contract and marriage as an emotional bond. She is ‘buried alive’ by her husband’s family because they cannot face the ignominy of a public trial. It is only by pretending that Lady Audley is mad and transporting her away from the public gaze to the more sinister and absolute privacy of the asylum – an extended version of the home – that she can really be silenced and the family’s ‘honorable’ name salvaged.[27]

Contesting nineteenth century conceptions of femininity, Lady Audley’s criminality also places her securely in a discourse exploring subversive possibilities for women in an age which denied them most positive ways of self-expression. And much of her destructive violence is, according to critics such as  Andrew Mangham, led on by innate sexual desires ‘that, it was assumed at the time, could cause the inherent fires of womanhood to flare up with destructive consequences’.[28] Another important critic, Jenny Bourne Taylor, interestingly notes that Robert’s detection too ‘is as much about the instability and tenuousness of the masculine detective consciousness as about the threatening femininity it investigates and controls’.[29] Ann Cvetkovich too records in Mixed Feelings how ‘The novel is obsessed with the dangers of excessive passion and sexual madness, but it rewrites this dilemma as the problem of an individual woman’s murderous instincts and inherited madness’.[30] Thus are the hysterical outbreaks of the female protagonist in her crimes of passion perceived as the necessary, albeit inverted expressions of her long repressed sexual nature rarely gratified as per the conventions of the day.

Lady Audley’s adeptness at playing the part of a respectable, puerile lady is such an act of imposture that when torn apart, it shows the socially ascendant bourgeois subjectivity’s characteristic claim to a coherent self to be a sham. Her role-playing also opposes conventional notions of Victorian femininity to show what Radford observes as the deeply disquieting ‘malicious relish with which the anti-heroine acts out the contradictions and perversities that validate middle-class prerogatives’.[31] By this, ostensibly ‘unfeminine’ actions of criminal self-assertion became justified as the means by which the rising middle-class femininity rejected aristocratic Victorian conventions. Thus inequities of class and gender were sought to be neutralized by the modern woman who completely gave up her hapless, docile image in this new sensational representation of bourgeois femininity. In this light, much of the resentment of the age towards the Sensation Novel arose from the society’s acute consciousness of breaking from within, when faced with the alarmingly altering dynamics of social stratification and female sexuality.

Conventional expectations of feminine propriety are exploited by Lady Audley to serve her own ulterior motives. Initiating cold-blooded acts of villainy with perfect ease, Lady Audley soon turns the familiar familial site of the home into the perfect address for bitter resentment and hysterical violence, rendering it less worthy of the faith that religious and social guardians had so long instilled in it. By her own admission, Lady Audley had wanted to avoid fighting ‘the hard battle of the world, more disposed to complain of poverty and neglect’.[32] She acknowledged unflinchingly that madness first dissociated her from the realm of reason when her first husband, George Talboys, left her without any provision, staring into the face of poverty. But once she had secured for herself money and rank by marrying Michael Audley, the ‘mad’ fury of love never once besotted her. However, when this notion of stability was jeopardized by the announcement of George’s imminent return, and later provoked further by Robert Audley’s inquisitive investigation, Lady Audley recoiled in terror as she thought of her peril, and her dazed brain once again trespassed the invisible boundary, and found itself once more dictated by the passionate fits of unreason. Her madness then, in a sense, is also the strife of a woman of low birth to avoid a life of hardship, neglect and poverty. Jenny Bourne Taylor observes that Lady Audley disregarded the expectations from natural femininity – even before she was confessedly ‘mad’, Lady Audley had declared that she did not love her son, who had been nothing but a burdensome responsibility to her – thus showing that it was not madness, but rather the stark awareness of her fiscal and social position which made her loathe her maternal duty and blight her maternal love. Hence, irrespective of whether her decisions and actions are prompted by sanity or insanity, Lady Audley displays a natural intelligence to judge her situation and station in life, and it is this very intelligence that patriarchy fears and seeks to control.

The purging of criminal aberration is the requirement of the narrative, opines D. A. Miller in The Novel and the Police. Yet, in Lady Audley’s Secret, though the agent of the criminal deeds is neutralized, the young offender goes unpunished due to her claim to mental instability, and consequently, to diminished criminal accountability. Lady Audley is incarcerated in a madhouse and this, according to Miller, ‘reinstates the “phallocentric system of sexual difference” because the hysteric provides “the conduit of power transactions between men”’.[33]In her bid to alleviate her position in a society which was for the most part economically and psychologically governed by patriarchy, Lady Audley committed many crimes. On being found out, Lady Audley could well have come up with her insanity defense as a safety measure to relieve her from the enormous burden of guilt at having shown insubordination to patriarchal dictates concerning feminine deportment and, thereby, making all her crimes, moral and legal, pathologically excusable.

Lady Audley was not isolated and incriminated in order to extricate truths that she had struggled to keep secret, but rather, her confinement in a mental asylum on grounds of mental incompetence was a well thought out plan to ‘discipline’ her wayward nature by compelling her to conform to a condemned life of silence, guilt, regulation and forced attrition. Reconciled to a forced identity and a compromised mental condition, Lady Audley lives out her days as Madame Taylor, till she succumbs at last to ‘maladie de langueur’,[34] totally failing to remove the fetters of punitive power that bound her to the last. This power was no longer inflicted physically on the erring individual, rather such a force left an indelible impression on the mind, more so, when that very mind of the criminal offender was medically diagnosed to be unstable and incapable of rational thought. The voice of patriarchy now commanded every action of her body and soul in the punitively assigned institution of the sanatorium.

Autonomy is replaced by the strict regimen of state-discipline in order to curb the ‘demonic’ potency of the criminal heroine and thereby ‘shape a healthy, middle-class self. Until madness is pulled out of the hat as a solution and the means of plot resolution, what seems primarily to be the matter with Lady Audley is that she threatens to violate class boundaries and exclusions, and to get away with appropriating social power beyond her entitlement’.[35] Lady Audley’s own claim in the face of exposure that ‘You have conquered – A MADWOMAN!’[36] anticipates to some degree that this disclosure of her familial secret would be just the instrument that Robert Audley would need in order to wield his power over her. Her worst fears are confirmed as she enters the formidable portals of Villebrumeuse. In sheer horror of the dismal future that awaits her, she exclaims, ‘You have brought me to my grave, Mr. Audley, you have used your power basely and cruelly, and have brought me to a living grave’[37].

It seemed of little concern to the moral guardians of the time that Helen Talboys was jerked out of a sense of security, both emotional and economic, when her husband George Talboys deserted her to try his luck in Australia. Later in life, money again becomes the prime means of warranting her social death when Robert Audley sponsors all pecuniary arrangements necessary to confine his aunt by marriage, Lady Audley, to the mental asylum. Money purchases not just a solitary life for Lady Audley under an assumed name, but also saves Michael Audley from the public ridicule of pressing criminal charges against his wife at court. Thus, money, which acts as a motive for spurring Lady Audley’s criminal acts, becomes the very means for containing them.

In another important critical response to the depiction of female insanity in fiction, Helena Mitchie writes about sensation heroines:

Sensation novels abound with women who disguise, transform, and replicate themselves, who diffuse their identities and scatter clues to them all over the surface of their parent texts [ … ] In the cases of Lady Audley and Isabel Vane this duplicity, this multiplicity of identity, is explicitly marked by the text as criminal; it is the job of the reader and/ or detective figure of each novel to sort through the multiple identities offered by each heroine, to work against her self-reproduction, and to close the novel with a woman confined to a single identity, a single name, and a single place – In both cases, the grave […][38]

Braddon’s first ‘femme fatale’, Lady Audley, – like many of the other Braddon heroines – has her roots in an impoverished family. The daughter of an ignoble half-pay naval officer and a mother who is conspicuous by her untimely death as a mad woman, Helen Maldon/ Lady Audley grows up without any maternal guidance or indoctrination in the principles of Victorian morality and middle-class domesticity. She inherits both the burden of shame associated with her abject poverty, and the anxiety that she too may one day fall a victim to the very madness that tainted her mother. Though many may blame her for her well-preserved silence about her past, it must also be borne in mind that had she not been secretive about the streak of insanity running through her family, she would never have been recommended or favored enough by wealthy men to find a job and subsequently a match for herself in respectable upper-class society. Again, given her working-class background, it is also futile to suppose that she could economically support her own treatment. So her only chance of self-sustenance lay in suppressing her mental ailment till such time that circumstances forced the bitter truth out of her. Foiling all her attempts to improve her lot through devious means, Lady Audley is finally confined away from the public gaze in a mental asylum in the appositely named Belgian town of Villebrumeuse where she is only ‘At Peace’ on her death after much suffering.

With Lady Audley’s death, her secrets too are silenced forever and her identity as ‘Lady Audley’ effaced from public memory, never to be restored and reclaimed by mainstream society.

The figure of Lady Audley – the angel in the house turned domestic fiend – is also produced within and by a socio-medical discourse in which the image of female purity always contains within itself the antithetical image of female vice. Such a figure represents and explores fears that (actual, historical) women cannot be contained within dominant definitions of ‘woman’, or of normal femininity.[39]

This cultural anxiety is further explored when Dr. Alwyn Mosgrave, the expert on insanity called in by Robert Audley to medically confirm his aunt’s madness, declares that Lady Audley:

[…] ran away from her home, because her home was not a pleasant one, and she left it in the hope of finding a better. There is no madness in that. She committed the crime of bigamy, because by that crime she obtained fortune and position. There is no madness there. When she found herself in a desperate position, she did not grow desperate. She employed intelligent means, and she carried out a conspiracy which requires coolness and deliberation in its execution. There is no madness in that.[40]

Robert Audley unmasks the domestic angel to be a calculative fiend, and wants to get Lady Audley punished for her criminally duplicitous behavior. However, Dr. Mosgrave qualifies her madness and orders her confinement, not because she is mad or can inherit madness and also infect others with it (by means of transferring her debility to her progeny), but because she is ‘dangerous’ for the society:

There is latent insanity! Insanity which might never appear; or which might appear only once or twice in a life-time. [ … ] The lady is not mad; but she has the hereditary taint in her blood. She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence. I will tell you what she is, MrAudley. She is dangerous![41]

  1. A. Miller argues that the ambiguity of the doctor in pronouncing a verdict on Lady Audley proves ‘two contradictory propositions: 1) Lady Audley is a criminal in the sense that her crimes must be punished and 2) Lady Audley is not a criminal in that neither her crimes nor her punishment must be made public in the male order of things’.[42] Lady Audley is ‘dangerous’ because she uses her rational faculty to openly challenge sexist Victorian assumptions and traditional patriarchal restrictions on women. She is dangerous because she refuses to be reined in by patriarchal authority, and because she might inspire other women to break out of the fetters of Victorian domestic ideology and think and act like herself. Lady Audley’s final removal from the aristocratic estate to the Belgian ‘maison de sante’ not just dispels the threat to patriarchy that she represents, but also redeems the aristocratic family from being contaminated by the working-class girl turned ‘lady’.

Robert’s insistence on exposing his aunt is suggestive of an attempt to publicly condemn Lady Audley’s deviant sexuality as a cover-up for his own ‘closet-secret’ of homosociality with deep sexual undertones, keeping it from becoming public knowledge for as long as possible. This decision turns the tables as the apparent protector of moral values and sexual mores of the Victorian society, who has himself been the victim of a superbly contrived game of fake identity, turns the oppressor into the oppressed, shrewdly scheming to defeat Lady Audley in this criminal politics of sexuality. Lady Audley, according to Pykett, was not ‘properly socialised’ to her class and gender position, and the urge to contain her transgressive aspirations gives vent to much of the anxiety the novel portrays. The normativity of femininity was a compulsory Victorian endorsement. Lady Audley could not live up to the ‘wifely expectations’ that her upper-class aristocratic family and the society in general had from her, and this was her real crime. Her secret then, as Elaine Showalter rightly suggested, is that she is perfectly ‘sane’ and knows only too well the devious ways of patriarchy which make a victim out of every inarticulate and dependent woman, and libel as ‘criminal’ every other.

Jill Matus in her influential chapter on ‘Maternal Deviance’ in Unstable Bodies writes:

Maternal insanity is itself a slippery term that signifies both madness occasioned by becoming a mother (puerperal insanity) as well as madness inherited from the mother (insanity transmitted through the maternal line). In Lady Audley’s maternal history, women go mad at the point that they become mothers. [ … ] On becoming a mother herself, she confronts exactly what she sought to avoid – drudgery and dependency and want – and she experiences fits of madness which cease when she takes action to make a new and better life for herself.[43]

Lady Audley’s abrupt transformation from sanity to insanity projects her as a victim of ‘partial insanity’ or ‘monomania’, a mental condition which, as Dr. James Cowles Prichard affirmed in his Treatise on Insanity (1835), was not the loss of reason, but rather an ‘understanding [that] is partially disordered, or under the influence of some particular illusion, referring to one subject, and involving one train of ideas, while the intellectual powers appear, when exercised on other subjects, to be in a great measure unimpaired’.[44] Madness, thus defined, perfectly suits Lady Audley’s individual case of an incorrect alliance between ideals and morals. Dr. Prichard, an authority on medical jurisprudence, stressed in his 1842 book, On the Different Forms of Insanity in Relation to Jurisprudence, on the general absence of motives behind the revolting crimes carried out under the impulse of moral insanity, and insisted ‘that the partially insane have as great a claim to acquittals as the raving lunatics’.[45] Yet in the case of Lady Audley, her actions were not without motive, and so, she too was not outside the orbit of judgment.

According to Laurie Langbauer, Lady Audley’s criminal actions signify her strife to avoid her mother’s mental disposition, and in this perspective, her acts may thus seem necessary and even justified, designed consciously to reject the hysteric inheritance of her mother’s deviance. ‘Mother’, notes Langbauer, is the ‘archaic synonym’[46] for the psychologically imbalanced – both are institutionalized for their own wellbeing and for the welfare of the society of which they are a part, but to which they can never fully belong. Maternity itself is considered a precarious condition – one in which the woman becomes prone to weakness – both physical and mental. Maternity causes particular consternation when acute mental strain and depression cause puerperal anxiety (insanity post childbirth) in mothers, and nursing babies in this condition puts the babies at risk of inheriting this dangerous taint from their mothers. Such a condition is explored in Lady Audley’s Secret where Lady Audley self-diagnoses her madness to be hereditary, a medical problem she inherited from her mother, who herself was the victim of a similar transmittance. The tainted maternal line therefore, is accused of being hazardous to the welfare of their progeny. Braddon’s narrative thus offers an alternate site covering up the sudden outburst of female disruptive energy which was a long due backlash against patriarchy, by cleverly imputing the guilt of the children on to the genes and poor mental health of their mothers. Her fiction also manages to conflate the actual statistics of criminality and insanity in the age because even though criminality was ‘five times higher among men than women,… insanity itself [was] higher among the latter’[47] as per W. Charles Hood’s Statistics of Insanity (1851), and Lady Audley’s representation as an offending lunatic served to show the vice of criminality as another dimension of insanity.

Michel Foucault writes in Madness and Civilisation that ‘All those forms of evil that border on unreason must be thrust into secrecy’[48], while quoting Malesherbes’s defense that ‘That which is called a base action is placed in the rank of those which public order does not permit us to tolerate…. It seems that the honor of a family requires the disappearance from society of the individual who by vile and abject habits shames his relatives’.[49] Lady Audley was kept away from the world in order to induce this sense of guilt in her, without letting the aristocratic Audley family feel embarrassed and ashamed. Moreover, the asylum conferred on to Lady Audley the doubly discriminated status of being a woman, and a criminal lunatic at that, robbed of all powers of autonomy, and of all claims to a civil status. Foucault notes in Discipline and Punish that penal justice which ostensibly aims to ‘correct and transform’[50] without encouraging savage forms of punishment, was one in which the punishment is such that it deters offenders from repeating the crime by maximizing ‘the representation of the penalty, not its corporal reality’.[51]

In the instance of Lady Audley, this translates into the pain caused to her because of social rejection, resulting in her withdrawal from articulation and assertion in the scheme of the narrative. Foucault writes, ‘A secret punishment is a punishment half wasted’[52], and Lady Audley’s eternal banishment would have meant the same had it been intended to reform and return her to the mainstream Victorian aristocratic society which had rejected her. In her stint at the sanatorium Lady Audley was deprived of the liberty even to cling on to her last claim to respectable society – her name, which stood for her rank and esteem – and in turn, she too, as a criminal who was perhaps conveniently concealed as a delinquent, unwittingly deprived the masses of their share of the knowledge of the scandal surrounding the convict. Thus was her secret punishment wasted, as it bore no impact on others, but only crushed her in body and soul. Even by punishing her crimes was a crime committed – that of stopping all possibility of others being warned through the publicity of Lady Audley’s pitiable state of confinement. Under the punitively acquired identity of Madame Taylor, Helen Maldon/ Helen Talboys/ Lucy Graham/ Lady Audley was for the first time in her life deprived of her very selfhood, forced to acclimatize herself to a new name, a new persona, and the changed ways of a world as it was too unyielding to accept her free-spirited, active agency which did not conform to the limits made permissible by the rigidly patriarchal Victorian society.




[1]W. F. Rae (Unsigned), ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’, North British Review XLIII (Sept. – Dec. 1865), pp.481 – 482, quoted in Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Taylor, p.xiii.


[2]Lyn Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 50 – 51.


[3]Ibid., p. 32.


[4]W. F. Rae (Unsigned), ‘Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon’, p.189, quoted in Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 33.


[5]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 33.


[6]‘Our Female Sensation Novelists’, Christian Remembrancer 46 (1863), p.210, quoted in Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 35.


[7]Margaret Oliphant, ‘Novels’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 102 (1867), p.259, quoted in Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p. 34.


[8]E. S. Dallas (Unsigned), ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’, The Times, November 18, (1862), p.4, quoted in Braddon,  Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor (London: Penguin, 1998), pp.xiv – xv.


[9]Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, (London: Princeton University Press, 1977), p.160, quoted in Andrew Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p.105.


[10]Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p. 87.


[11]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p.32.


[12]Pykett, The Sensation Novel (London: Northcote, 1994), p. 54.


[13]Ibid., p.54.


[14]Ibid., p.49.


[15]Ibid., p.49.


[16]Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. Esther Saxey, (London: Wordsworth, 1997), pp.6 – 7.
[17]Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor (London: Penguin, 1998), p.xx.


[18]Pykett, The Sensation Novel (London: Northcote, 1994), p.54.


[19]Barbara Leigh Smith [Bodichon], ‘A Brief Summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women, Together with a Few Observations Thereon,’(London: J Chapman, 1854): p.10.


[20]Elizabeth Lynn Linton, “The Girl of the Period”.Saturday Review, March 14 (1868), pp.339-40.


[21]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p.104.


[22]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine, p.103.


[23]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 125.


[24]Ibid., p. 274.


[25]Pamela K. Gilbert, ‘Braddon and Victorian Realism: Joshua Haggard’s Daughter’, Beyond Sensation: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context, Marlene Tromp,Pamela K. Gilbert and Aeron Haynie eds., (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), p.185, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp.101 – 2.


[26]Coventry Patmore, The Angel in the House (1854), <>.


[27]Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p.101.


[28]Andrew Mangham, Violent Women and Sensation Fiction: Crime, Medicine and Victorian Popular Culture (Hampshire, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 90.
[29]Jenny Bourne Taylor quoted in Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor (London: Penguin, 1998), p. xxxiii.


[30]Anne Cvetkovich, Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), p.52, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p. 101.


[31]Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p.88.


[32]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 280.


[33]D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p.178, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 96.


[34]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 354.


[35]Jill Matus, Unstable Bodies: Victorian Representations of Sexuality and Maternity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp.192 – 93, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, pp. 100-1.


[36]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p.274.


[37]Ibid., p. 310.


[38]Helena Mitchie, Sororophobia: Differences among Women in Literature and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp.59 – 60, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, pp. 107 – 108.


[39]Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 95.


[40]Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, p. 377.


[41]Ibid., p. 379.


[42]D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p.169, quoted in Mangham, Violent Women and Sensation Fiction: Crime, Medicine and Victorian Popular Culture, p. 81.


[43]Jill Matus, Unstable Bodies: Victorian Representations of Sexuality and Maternity, pp.189 – 90, quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, pp. 115 – 116.


[44]Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, edited with notes by Jenny Bourne Taylor, with an introduction by Jenny Bourne Taylor with Russell Crofts, p. xxxvi.
[45]Ibid., p. 161.


[46]Laurie Langbauer, ‘Women in White, Men in Feminism’, Yale Journal of Criticism 2: 2 (Spring 1989), pp. 228-229 quoted in Radford, Victorian Sensation Fiction, p.115.


[47]Daniel N. Robinson, Wild Beasts and Idle Humours: The Insanity Defense from Antiquity to the Present, p. 160.


[48]Michel Foucault, Folieet Deraison: Histoire de la folie a l’ageclassique (Paris: LibrairiePlon,1961), Richard Howard, trans. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, with an introduction by David Cooper (London: Routledge Classics, 2001), p.64.
[49]Ibid., p. 63.


[50]Michel Foucault, Surveilleretpunir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1975), Alan Sheridan, trans., Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 74.
[51]Ibid., p. 95.

[52]Ibid., p. 111.

Parama Basu is a Ph.D. scholar in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She is currently researching on Victorian Sensation Fiction as part of her doctoral thesis. Other related research areas of interest include criminology and feminism. She has been registered as a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, Jadavpur University, since 2012 and has been serving the Higher Education Department, Government of West Bengal, since August, 2014. At present, she is posted at Government General Degree College, Singur, as an Assistant Professor of English under the West Bengal Education Service.