The Victorian ideal of the perfect woman was one who was pretty but modest, who made a socially advantageous marriage but was not ambitious, and who submitted to her husband in all matters. At the beginning of Lady Audley’s Secret, Elizabeth Braddon’s 19th century novel of romance, bigamy, and murder, Lady Audley appears to fit into this model perfectly. As her many secrets are revealed, however, it becomes clear that Lady Audley subverts and defies such restrictive gender expectations for her own self-interest. Braddon uses her female characters to highlight the conflicting demands placed on Victorian women, ultimately suggesting that achieving the Victorian ideal is impossible. Furthermore, the story reveals how women can manipulate rigid gender roles to obtain power in a world that routinely denies them agency.
One of the most obvious contradictions Victorian women faced was on the marriage market, since they could (and were often encouraged to) use marriage to advance their status yet were expected to give the outward appearance of marrying for love. This dilemma is what initially shatters Lady Audley’s image as an ideal Victorian woman. Posing as the poor governess Lucy Graham, she ensnares the rich and respected Sir Michael, whose proposal she accepts solely for his fortune despite the fact that he urges her to only marry him if she reciprocates his love. Mrs. Dawson, Lucy’s employer, further emphasizes the contradicting messages of marrying for love and marrying for status when counseling Lucy about Sir Michael. She specifically comments on his “splendid income” and the fact that Lucy’s “position would be very high” through such a marriage,
yet in the same breath tells Lucy she must be “entirely guided by [her] own feelings.” This is why, when Lucy does marry Sir Michael and becomes Lady Audley, she signals (disingenuously) to those around her that she returns his love. Indeed, the couple’s neighbors later remark how “romantic” the pair is. Nevertheless, Lady Audley tells Sir Michael that she cannot separate her desire for him from his wealth, and when she accepts the proposal, she remarks to herself how she is now free from the dependence and drudgery of poverty. In this way Braddon presents association with men as an invaluable means to power.
This power that women gain through marriage is important, since women in Lady Audley’s world were denied genuine power of their own. For example, Lady Audley’s abandonment by her first husband, George Talboys, leaves her penniless in an era when women depended upon men for financial survival. Lady Audley thus relies on her traditionally feminine attributes—her beauty and charm—to find a new husband and obtain the financial security she needs. This leveraging of traditional femininity to gain agency is not limited to Lady Audley, either: the beautiful Clara Talboys, George’s sister, similarly uses her influence over men to get what she wants—namely, revenge for the alleged murder of her brother. She compels Robert Audley—George’s friend and Sir Michael’s nephew, who, not incidentally, has fallen in love with Clara—to continue his investigation when he wants to give up.
Of course, while both Lady Audley and Clara manipulate traditional femininity to gain power over men, they meet very different fates. At the end of the novel, Lady Audley dies in an asylum while Clara is happily married and has her brother back. This can be read as a commentary on the moral value society has assigned to their behavior. Clara’s manipulations are never brazen enough to fully undermine others’ image of her as an ideal Victorian woman. By contrast, Lady Audley’s real transgression, it seems, is the blatancy with which she rejects the role of a submissive woman and the lengths to which she goes to in order to shape her destiny; when George and then Robert threaten to expose her crimes, she attempts to murder the former by pushing him down a well and then sets a fire to try to kill the latter. In displaying such obvious ambition, greed, and selfishness, Lady Audley defies stereotypical femininity to the point that those around her deem her evil. Despite her misdeeds, however, Lady Audley ultimately serves as a critique of strict Victorian gender roles and the ways in which they circumscribe women’s opportunities and choices. Braddon’s titular anti-heroine ultimately exemplifies the extremes to which one may go when denied control over her own life.
Women and Power in Victorian England ThemeTracker
Women and Power in Victorian England Quotes in Lady Audley’s Secret
“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.”
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.”
“How charmingly she sits her horse! What a pretty figure, too, and a fine, candid, brown, rosy face; but to fly at a fellow like that, without the least provocation! That’s the consequence of letting a girl follow the hounds…If ever I marry, and have daughters…they shall never go beyond the gates till they are marriageable, when I will take them straight across Fleet Street to St Dunstan’s Church, and deliver them into the hands of their husbands.”
“What a wonderful solution to life’s enigma there is in the petticoat government! A man might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses…if his wife would let him! But she won’t, bless her impulsive heart and active mind! She knows better than that…She drags her husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament.”
“I hate women…They’re bold, brazen, abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors. Look at this business of poor George’s! It’s all woman’s work from one end to the other. He marries a woman, and his father casts him off, penniless and professionless. He hears of the woman’s death and he breaks his heart…He goes to a woman’s house and he is never seen alive again.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.’