Because those living during the Victorian era did not fully understand mental illness, its symptoms were often classified as incurable, unmanageable madness stemming from moral deviancy and an inability to conform to society. With no stringent criteria for diagnosing “madness,” baseless accusations could lead to institutionalization with relative ease. Such mis-categorizations cause lasting negative effects for the characters of Lady Audley’s Secret, even as accusations of madness, made by both Robert and Lady Audley, offer short-term solutions to immediate problems. Lady Audley’s confession of her own madness, for example, helps her shift the blame of her criminal actions yet also leads to the loss of her freedom. Braddon ultimately suggests that Victorian society’s vague conception of madness could be transformed into a both a defense and a weapon, a label that exculpates characters from blame at the cost of being ostracized from society.
As Robert’s investigation leads him closer and closer to exposing Lady Audley’s secrets, both characters accuse the other of madness. Lady Audley attempts to convince Sir Michael that his nephew is insane so that no one will believe Robert when he reveals her crimes. While this would indeed be a partial solution to Lady Audley’s fear of exposure, it would not absolve her of guilt nor address the fact that others, such as Luke and
Phoebe Marks, also know about her bigamy. Relying on an accusation of madness, then, proves a short-sighted and ill-fated idea.
Robert also accuses Lady Audley of madness, though it is unclear whether he believes this to be true or simply an easy means to avoid putting Sir Michael through a lengthy public criminal trial. Indeed, the question of whether Lady Audley actually is mad hangs over the end of the novel. Madness was believed to be hereditary at the time, and Lady Audley’s mother went mad after childbirth. The secret of her mother’s disappearance haunted Lady Audley throughout her childhood, and when she feels compelled to abandon her old life and assume a new identity, she claims to have experienced the first signs of her mother’s affliction. When Robert confronts Lady Audley about her indiscretions, she responds by yelling, “You have conquered – A MADWOMAN,” continuing, “I killed [George] because I AM MAD!” Lady Audley immediately brings up the “madwoman” label as a defense. Of course, to place the blame of her choice solely on an inherited madness disregards her other motivations, such as her selfishness and vanity or her desire to improve her social standing. Her confession of madness thus may simply be a way for her to avoid accepting responsibility for her crimes of bigamy, arson, and attempted murder.
Lady Audley’s claims to madness become all the more dubious when Robert sends for Dr. Mosgrave to examine her. The doctor concludes, that, although she has shown dangerous behavior, Lady Audley is not in fact “mad” because she displays cunning that a truly mad person would not. Nevertheless, Lady Audley further dismisses responsibility by describing her “situational madness,” stating that her insanity does not drive her to evil as long as she is happy. She blames George for “goading” her to the point that her mind “lost its balance.” She then accuses Robert of similarly pushing her over the edge with his investigation. Lady Audley believes that other people, specifically George and Robert, are to blame for her actions because they aggravate her mental state. This again would point to “madness” as a solution to immediate problems, albeit a foolish one: because the doctor deems Lady Audley dangerous to society, Robert has her committed to an asylum. As such, all Lady Audley’s efforts to keep her secrets and shift her responsibility result in the opposite of her intentions: she loses her freedom rather than preserves it.
At the end of the story, the reader cannot be quite sure whether or not Lady Audley really is mad. Robert has her diagnosed as part of his pursuit of the truth, but this action also conveniently pushes Lady Audley out of his way. Lady Audley could also be claiming hereditary madness in order to excuse her own crimes. Whatever the reality may be, the accusation leads to Lady Audley’s expulsion from Victorian society and underscores the drastic impact that suspicions of madness can have on an individual’s life.
Madness Quotes in Lady Audley’s Secret
“I am weary of my life here, and wish, if I can, to find a new one. I go out into the world, dissevered from every link which binds me to the hateful past, to seek another home and another fortune. Forgive me if I have been fretful, capricious, changeable. You should forgive me, for you know why I have been so. You know the secret which is the key to my life.”
“Mr. Audley may be as you say, merely eccentric; but he has talked to me this evening in a manner that has filled me with absolute terror, and I believe that he is going mad. I shall speak very seriously to Sir Michael this very night…I shall only put him on his guard, my dear Alicia.”
“But he’ll never believe you,” said Miss Audley, “He will laugh at such an idea.”
“No, Alicia; he will believe anything that I tell him.”
“I killed him because I AM MAD! because my intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that narrow boundary-line between sanity and insanity; because when George Talboys goaded me, as you have goaded me; and reproached me, and threatened me; my mind, never properly balanced, utterly lost its balance; and I was mad!”
“Because there is no evidence of madness in anything that she has done. She 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 required coolness and deliberation in its execution. There is no madness in that.”