Literature is full of good ideas that turn into bad books. My most recent experience in this category has to be “Lady Audley’s Secret” (1861 - 62) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. To me this was one of the most frustrating books I have read recently, since despite a very good plot line, the main characters are at best uninteresting, and at worst completely dull.
Briefly the story is this: George Talboys returns from Australia, after having made a fortune, to find out that the wife he abandoned has recently died. Overwhelmed by grief he is taken by his friend Robert Audley for a tour of Europe and then a time at Audley Court. Here they meet Lord Audley’s (Robert’s uncle) new wife, the young Lucy Graham, now Lady Audley. Then George Talboys disappears – and Robert suspects Lucy might have had something to do with it. What follows (i.e. most of the book) is Robert’s obsession with finding out the truth.
But why did I find it so frustrating? Firstly, because never George Talboys is considered something other than a victim, despite the fact that he abandoned his wife without any money and with a child to raise. Surely not even in Victorian Literature this is a good thing. Lucy is the baddy, and so she must be, but the book’s point of view raises George to virtuous heights (more about this later). The book was written by woman, which as far I recall from the introduction was raised by a single mother. Unless the book is to be taken ironically – which I have to consider as a possibility – its values are too far away from mine to fully engage in it.
Secondly, because as detectives go, Robert Audley is the one of the silliest – He insists in behaving as a gentleman towards Lucy and therefore tells at every step what evidence has he just collected against her – in some cases prompting her to rush to destroy them (as happens at end of Part I).
Then there is the reasoning behind Robert’s obsession with George’s disappearance. My theory is that unless you consider that Robert is attracted to his friend – which is certainly not as preposterous as it may seem, at least to a modern reader – his obsession, and the vision of George as a true model of a man, makes no sense at all. I have to admit that the idea was placed on my mind after skimming through the introduction to my edition (Penguin Classics), but Robert’s characterisation made it flourish.
And finally, there’s the final twist. Until then in the book, it was easy to predict what was happening next. This caught me unaware and is probably one of the cleverest things in the plot (and I’m not revealing it in case anyone wants to read it, otherwise it can be found in cyberspace), but that leaves me wondering if Lady Audley is only being punished because she married above her class, at least in the eyes of her authoress.
If only Lucy was a cleverer woman, similar to Wilkie Collins’ Lydia Gwilt (the main character in “Amardale”) and acted accordingly, then this could have been so much better. Also it would have helped if poor Robert admitted that he might have had a crush on George – my suggestion would have been they met at school and George was the most popular boy.