Audley Court sits in a secluded country hallow, its dry moat and ruined wall standing out among its overgrown shrubbery. Audley Court is “very old, and very irregular and rambling,” with chimneys crumbling from age. Visitors stand in awe when viewing the stately historic house and feel inspired by it to abandon all the cares of life and lounge by its pond.
Audley Court is like the upper class: old and stately but vulnerable and crumbling. The decay on the exterior represents the moral decay on the interior, the source of which is soon revealed to be Lady Audley. The image of an old isolated mansion is also a common trope in gothic fiction (popular in the Victorian era).
The layout of the “noble place” is confusing and one can easily get lost. Once, the daughter of current owner Alicia Audley accidently discovered a secret passage in her nursery.
The secret passageway foreshadows the secrets present within Audley Court. This passageway will be used in Chapter 8.
Near Audley Court, thick trees cover a lime-tree walkway, making it seem like a place where “a conspiracy might have been planned or a lover’s vow registered with equal safety.” At the end of the walk, among overgrown weeds, is an old, abandoned well.
The secluded walkway suggests secrets and conspiracies. The old well will become relevant later in the plot as well, as the narrator sets the scene for dramatic and mysterious occurrences.
Sir Michael Audley likes to stroll up and down the lime-tree walk in the evening with his “pretty young wife.” Afterward the couple relaxes in the drawing-room, where Lady Audley plays music until her husband falls asleep.
This happy domestic scene appears to fit the Victorian ideal of a safe, peaceful home. Lady Audley appears to be the ideal Victorian wife, serving her husband.
Sir Michael is 56 years old and married Lady Audley, his second wife, a year ago. He had been a widower for 17 years, during which time his daughter Alicia (now 18 years old) acted as the lady of the household. When Sir Michael remarried, his new wife became the lady of Audley Court, usurping Alicia’s authority and causing a rift between stepdaughter and stepmother.
This passage describes three major characters and their relationships to each other. The tension between Lady Audley and Alicia shows how making decisions within the home was one of the few appropriate ways a woman could express her agency in the Victorian era.
Lady Audley used to be a governess for a surgeon’s family in a village near Audley Court. No one knows anything about her past.
This section establishes Lady Audley as a mysterious character who has gone from very poor to very wealthy.
Lucy Graham, as Lady Audley was then known, seemed completely content with her modest position as a governess. Everyone in the village thought her to be extremely beautiful, charming, and kind. Sir Michael fell helplessly in love with her.
When the plot later reveals Lucy’s hatred of her own poverty, this section’s description is revealed to be the first deception of many for her character.
As he courted Lucy, Sir Michael didn’t think his status and wealth would influence her attitude towards him because she seemed so innocent and pure-hearted. Instead, he believed he could rescue her from a life of poverty and protect her in her young age.
Sir Michael, due to his wealth, cannot take an honest account of Lucy’s impoverished perspective. He also shows the paternalistic attitude Victorian men took towards their wives.
Lucy was so used to being adored that she barely noticed Sir Michael’s attention. Mrs. Dawson, her employer, told her that while marrying Sir Michael would be socially and financially advantageous, Lucy should only accept his courtship if she returned his feelings.
Mrs. Dawson reveals the contradictory situation of Victorian women, where they could marry to improve their status but were not supposed to appear ambitious or greedy.
Sir Michael told Lucy she should only marry him if she loved him. She said he asked for too much, because she grew up in poverty and thus could not set aside his wealth and status when making her decision. Sir Michael said if she didn’t dislike him, they should get married anyway.
Lucy shows how the ability to disregard money is a luxury exclusive to the rich. Sir Michael notably agrees to an arrangement based not totally on love, showing he conforms to the class hierarchy when it benefits himself.
Lucy remarked to herself how this marriage would mean “no more dependence, no more drudgery, no more humiliations.” Upon accepting the proposal, she felt her old life “melted away,” except for the ring she hid in her bosom.
Lucy gives a realistic depiction of the demoralizing influence of poverty and how marriage can help improve a woman’s station. The ring, as the reader will learn later, is from her current marriage.