Lady Audley’s brazen social climbing and pursuit of wealth reflect a common anxiety among the upper class during the Victorian era. As the economy grew and the English middle class arose, members of the upper class feared the encroachment of ambitious lower class individuals on their way of life. Braddon argues that economic stratification harms everyone, however, as characters like Lady Audley go to desperate lengths to escape poverty while the wealth of men like Harcourt Talboys and Robert Audley nearly leads to their own undoing. Both extreme wealth and poverty engender moral decay in the novel, allowing Braddon to suggest the danger of both covetousness and decadence.
Braddon details the devastating realities of poverty to underscore why her lower-class characters are willing to commit crimes in order to elevate their social status. When Lady Audley explains her life’s motivations, for example, she specifically describes feeling the “bitterness of poverty” from a young age. Her mother was forced to live in an asylum because Lady Audley’s father had to work for a living and could not take care of a madwoman. As a result, Lady Audley was left with a cruel foster mother. As an adult, she continues to feel humiliation at barely being able to scrape by, especially after her first husband, George, abandons her. She admits to marrying Sir Michael, even though she is already married to George, in order to lift herself out of the drudgery of poverty. She later attempts to murder George, Luke, and Robert in a desperate bid to keep her secret of bigamy safe and preserve her newfound wealth. Without excusing the horror of her actions, Braddon emphasizes the demoralizing affects that poverty has had upon Lady Audley in order to help the reader understand why she goes to such extremes to gain and maintain wealth.
Braddon turns to the characters of Harcourt Talboys and Robert Audley to reveal the ways in which the upper class also suffers from Victorian England’s rigid class structure. Harcourt is especially militant in his adherence to this structure, and his strictness about class undergirds his moral failings as a father. So concerned is he with keeping members of the lower class out of his family that he disowns his only son, George, simply for marrying the poor Lucy Graham. Harcourt ironically fractures the very family he was attempting to protect; George’s resultant poverty causes him to abandon his wife, setting in motion a chain of events that eventually leads to George’s disappearance and presumed death. Robert’s privilege is associated with moral decay as well. At the beginning of the novel, he doesn’t care for his profession as a barrister and instead spends all his time on his hobbies of smoking and reading novels. His idleness in life translates to carelessness towards others, as he is too relaxed and easygoing to appreciate his cousin Alicia’s love for him or to take note of Alicia’s conflict with her stepmother Lady Audley.
Only when Robert turns away from the luxuries of his upper class life is he able to discover a true sense of purpose. Once George disappears, Robert finds he can no longer enjoy the hobbies he once loved and can only focus on gaining justice for his friend. At the end of the novel, he is rewarded for his hard work with a wife and family. He lives a much more modest life in a rural cottage and has earned respect in his career. By contrast, Lady Audley is committed to an asylum and dies, suggesting that, however broadly understandable, the relentless pursuit of wealth ultimately leads to suffering. Instead, Braddon seems to present an argument for the moral sanctity of the middle class, suggesting through Robert that one must reject excessive luxury and dedicate themselves to more just pursuits.
Poverty and Wealth ThemeTracker
Poverty and Wealth Quotes in Lady Audley’s Secret
To the right there were the kitchen gardens, the fish-pond, and an orchard bordered by a dry moat, and a broken ruin of a wall, in some places thicker than it was high, and everywhere overgrown with trailing ivy…to the left there was a broad graveled walk…and shadowed on one side by goodly oaks, which shut out the flat landscape, and circled in the house and gardens with a darkening shelter.
“You know that nobody asks you to marry Sir Michael unless you wish. Of course it would be a magnificent match; he has a splendid income, and is one of the most generous of men. Your position would be very high, and you would be enabled to do a great deal of good; but, as I said before, you must be entirely guided by your own feelings.”
Robert Audley was supposed to be a barrister…He was a handsome, lazy, care-for-nothing fellow, of about seven-and-twenty…Sometimes, when the weather was very hot, and he had exhausted himself with the exertion of smoking his German pipe and reading French novels, he would stroll into the Temple Gardens.
Lucy was better loved and more admired than the baronet’s daughter [Alicia]. That very childness had a charm which few could resist. The innocence and candour of an infant beamed in Lady Audley’s fair face, and shone out of her large and liquid blue eyes. The rosy lips, the delicate nose, the profusion of fair ringlets, all contributed to preserve to her beauty the character of extreme youth and freshness.
“Do you know, Phoebe, I have heard some people say you and I are alike?”
“I have heard them say so too, my lady…but they must be very stupid to say it, for your ladyship is a beauty, and I’m a poor plain creature.”
“Not at all, Phoebe…you are like me…it is only colour that you want. My hair is pale yellow shot with gold, yours is drab…Why, with a bottle of hair dye, such as we see advertised in the papers, and a pot of rouge, you’d be as good-looking as I any day, Phoebe.”
“Lady Audley,” answered the young man gravely. “I have never practiced as a barrister…I have shrunk from those responsibilities and duties, as I have from all the fatigues of this troublesome life: but we are sometimes forced in the very position we have most avoided, and I have found myself lately compelled to think of these things. Lady Audley, did you ever study the theory of circumstantial evidence?”
[Harcourt Talboys] was like his own square-built, northern-fronted, shelterless house. There were no shady nooks in his character into which one could creep for shelter from his hard daylight…with him right was right and wrong was wrong…He had cast off his only son because his only son had disobeyed him, and he was ready to cast off his only daughter at five minutes’ notice for the same reason.
Lucy Audley looked up from her occupation amongst the fragile china cups, and watched Robert rather anxiously, as he walked softly to his uncle’s room, and back again to the boudoir. She looked very pretty and innocent, seated behind the graceful group of delicate opal china and glittering silver. Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea. The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance.
“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.”
“A conspiracy concocted by an artful woman, who had speculated upon the chances of her husband’s death, and had secured a splendid position at the risk of committing a crime…but a foolish woman, who looked at life as a game of chance, in which the best player was likely to hold the winning cards, forgetting that there is a Providence about the pitiful speculators, and that wicked secrets are never permitted to remain long hidden.”
Perhaps in that retrospective reverie she recalled the early time in which she had first looked in the glass and discovered that she was beautiful: that fatal early time in which she had first begun to look upon her loveliness as a right divine…Did she remember the day in which that fairy dower of beauty had first taught her to be selfish and cruel?
“The place was indeed select. I had not been there a month before I discovered that even the prettiest girl might wait a long time for a rich husband. I wish to hurry over this part of my life: I dare say I was very despicable. You and your nephew, Sir Michael, have been rich all your lives, and can well afford to despise me; but I knew how far poverty can affect a life, and I looked forward with a sick terror to a life so affected.”
“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.”
Two years have passed since the May twilight in which Robert found his old friend; and Mr Audley’s dream of a fairy cottage had been realized…Here amongst the lilies and the rushes on the sloping bank, a brave boy of eight years old plays with a toddling baby…
Mr Audley is a rising man upon the home circuit by this time, and has distinguished himself in the great breach of promise case of Hobbs v. Nobbs.
I hope no one will take objection to my story because the end of it leaves the good people all happy and at peace. If my experience of life has not been very long, it has at least been manifold; and I can safely subscribe to that which a mighty king and a great philosopher declared, when he said that neither the experience of his youth nor of his age had ever shown him ‘righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread.’