Lady Audley's Secret was first published in serial form, meaning it appeared in short installments at regular intervals rather than all at once. This method of publishing, which was common in the Victorian period, suited works that were dramatic and suspenseful because readers would be motivated to anxiously await the next installment to see what would happen. The first portion of Lady Audley's Secret appeared in July 1861 in a magazine called Robin Goodfellow, which was edited by John Maxwell, Braddon's lover and future husband. Unfortunately, the magazine went out of business in September when only 18 chapters of the novel had appeared. Braddon had other demands on her time and had already begun writing her next novel, Aurora Floyd. However, many readers had already become enthusiastic about the story and Braddon received numerous letters asking her to finish the novel.
Publication resumed in January 1862 in a new magazine, the Sixpenny Magazine. Between January and December, the remainder of the novel was printed, with a new section appearing every month. In October 1862, with many readers impatient to know how the novel ended, a complete edition was published. Published in the typical Victorian three-volume format, this meant that readers who could afford to buy the complete work would have privileged access to the conclusion months ahead of those still waiting on the serialization. The novel sold extremely well and generated a great deal of public attention. By 1863, at least three different theatrical adaptations were already in existence. There was sufficient demand from readers that the London Journal reprinted the novel in serialized format, with 22 illustrated weekly installments appearing between March and August 1863.
Lady Audley's Secret is particularly significant for helping to create the popular Victorian genre known as sensation fiction, which became extremely popular in the 1860s. Sensation fiction reworked some elements of Gothic novels and crime literature, focusing on revealing dark secrets and shocking, often criminal, behavior. However, these other genres tended to suggest that criminal or deviant behavior was confined to particular settings: either it took place in urban underworlds, or in historically remote time periods in places like France or Italy. The great innovation of sensation fiction was that it suggested that secrets as scandalous as bigamy (being simultaneously married to more than one person), adultery, murder, blackmail, and insanity could exist in seemingly respectable upper- and middle-class families in England. At a time when the family home and the domestic world were often seen as safe refuges from a more corrupt public world, sensation novels by authors such as Braddon suggested that even the most seemingly pleasant and innocent homes and marriages could actually be covering up secrets.
The controversial content of sensation fiction, as well as its extreme popularity, made many reviewers nervous, and sensation fiction received a lot of bad press. Despite the initial reviews of Lady Audley's Secret being quite positive, Braddon's association with the rise of sensation fiction later made her subject to criticism. An 1865 review of a selection of Braddon's work (including Lady Audley's Secret) was written by W. Fraser Rae and published in the North British Review. He complained that Braddon had "succeeded in making the literature of the Kitchen the favourite Reading of the Drawing-Room" (105), suggesting that her interest in scandalous topics was associated with the lower-classes but had now infiltrated other classes as well. He called Lady Audley's Secret "one of the most noxious books of modern times" (96).
While much of Braddon's work was unfortunately neglected after her death, Lady Audley's Secret remained relatively well known. Film adaptations appeared in 1912 and 1920. More recently, a television adaptation aired on PBS in 2000. As interest in the genre of sensation fiction, as well as representations of gender and class in Victorian fiction, has increased in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the novel has become widely read and widely taught in college classrooms.