In what ways is Lady Audley an unconventional character?
Lady Audley challenges many ideas about Victorian femininity and about the representation of literary characters. Traditionally, a villain would be ugly, sinister, and make people suspicious. Lady Audley, however, is extremely beautiful and charming, and people readily assume that she is a good person. Her deceptive appearance makes it easy for her to trick people and get away with her schemes. In Braddon's time, it was also shocking to represent a woman as capable of committing criminal acts like bigamy and attempted murder. Lady Audley will do whatever it takes to get what she wants, and she will ruthlessly protect herself, using violence if necessary. She is also driven by ambition in both of her marriages. While she likes George Talboys, she wants to marry him because she hopes he will give her a better life than the one she has with her father. When it turns out that marriage to George also means living in poverty, she becomes disappointed and frustrated. Her decision to take on a new identity is driven by her desire to make a better life for herself, and she marries Sir Michael because she cannot resist the temptation of the wealthy life he offers her. Not only is Lady Audley motivated by greed, but she is also capable of abandoning her child, a fact that contradicts Victorian ideals of motherhood and the idea that women were innately more moral than men. By showing that a woman can be capable of very dark acts, and that she can use her beauty to escape the consequences of those actions, Braddon created a surprising and controversial character.
How does Robert Audley develop as a character during the novel?
At the beginning of the novel, Robert Audley is lazy and unmotivated. He does not like to work hard, and he does not have to because he comes from a wealthy family. He is also somewhat gullible and does not easily notice the ways in which other people are behaving: he is attracted to Lady Audley because of her beauty, and does not realize that his cousin Alicia is in love with him, even though she gives many hints. Over the course of the novel, as Robert strives to solve the mystery of what happened to George, he becomes a more mature, responsible, and hard-working character. He refuses to give up on solving the case, even when he is finding it very difficult to uncover information, because he knows he is the only chance of George's murderer being found. In order to do so, he becomes very active, travelling a great deal and not wasting any time. He also becomes much more attentive to small details, since he realizes that these might hold the key to the case, and becomes a more logical and organized thinker, through actions like writing down all the events of the case in order. He becomes less willing to trust people, because he knows that they can lie, but he also becomes more sympathetic because he can imagine how hurt Sir Michael will be by learning the terrible truth about his wife. Robert also falls in love for the first time and comes to understand what kind of partner he needs. Because of the changes he experiences, by the end of the novel Robert Audley is a hard-working barrister who is succeeding at his career, and who is happy with his marriage and child.
What role does changing technology play in the novel?
Braddon is very careful to give specific dates throughout the novel, and sets the action only a few years before the novel was published (in 1862). In this way, Victorian readers knew that she was writing about the same world that they were living in, and that this was a world that had changed rapidly in a relatively short period of time. One way in which Lady Audley's Secret makes use of changing technology is through representations of travel. Characters are able to move around the globe, such as when George goes first to Australia and then to New York. While these trips require long sea voyages, characters are not completely cut-off in these far away places: news that George has struck gold travels to England, alerting Lady Audley that he will be returning, and Robert is able to advertise for George in Sydney and Melbourne. Closer to home, the development of train travel makes much of the novel's action possible. In order to solve the mystery, Robert is constantly coming and going from place to place, and it is sometimes very important that he be able to travel quickly, which the train makes possible. Technology, in the form of the telegram, also makes a new form of rapid communication possible when characters in different places need to exchange information. As Louise Lee argues, "Lady Audley certainly could not have much of a ‘secret’ in the age of the carrier pigeon, the village hall, and the horse and cart. But in modernity, with its railways, telegraphs, and newspapers, and with its disaggregated and urbanizing social realm, a bold new set of possibilities presents itself" (139).
However, while technology plays a strong role in making it possible to solve the mystery, it also creates the condition that can make deception possible. Because of how rapidly telegrams can be sent, and because they can be faked more easily than a handwritten letter, Lady Audley uses them in a number of her deceptions, such as when she goes to London to avoid encountering George Talboys, and when she sends a message to her father to tell him what lie to give to Robert Audley. In contrast, handwritten letters are presented as reliable, because handwriting is unique and can confirm someone's identity. This suggests that technology is shown to be powerful, but not entirely trustworthy, in the novel.
How are characters from different classes represented in the novel?
In some ways, Lady Audley's Secret suggests that lower-class characters are not to be trusted. Phoebe and Luke Marks, who are both servants at the beginning, scheme to manipulate and blackmail Lady Audley. Luke is driven by greed and the desire to advance to a new social position because he wants to become the owner of an inn and pub. Similarly, Lady Audley herself is motivated by the desire to be wealthy and surrounded by fine things. From the very beginning, her marriage is considered suspicious by many because she is only a governess when Sir Michael marries her, and she herself admits that she marries him in part because of the money he has. She later refuses to confess her crimes because she does not want to lose her wealth and status. Throughout the novel, Lady Audley a number of working-class characters to play a part in her schemes, suggesting that characters from the lower classes are deceitful. However, by the end of the novel, this idea becomes more complicated, because readers learn that Luke Marks, although he has certainly done some bad things, was actually responsible for saving and helping George Talboys. This implies that characters may be complex and have both selfish and selfless aspects, as does Phoebe's reaction when she realizes the inn is on fire and wants to go back and help. Also, Mr. Harcourt Talboys, who is from a very wealthy and well-established family, behaves very coldly towards his son and does nothing to help solve the mystery of his disappearance. He is angry with George because George married someone from a lower class position. This suggests that higher-class characters may have their own negative tendencies.
How do the female characters in the novel challenge ideas of Victorian gender roles?
Although they are very different in their personalities, Lucy Audley, Alicia Audley, and Clara Talboys all offer challenges to Victorian gender roles. The ideal woman during this time was delicate, sensitive, soft-spoken, and dedicated to caring for others, especially her husband and children. Lucy Audley appears to be conventional because she meets standards of beauty, being blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and petite, and is also quite fragile and childlike in appearance. She seems very sweet and graceful. However, under this exterior, she is selfish, ambitious, and violent, and will not let anyone come between her and her goals. Alicia Audley, on the other hand, is not very conventionally feminine: she is tall, athletic, and likes to be in charge of things. All of these traits make her somewhat unattractive to her cousin Robert, who prefers the delicate beauty of Lady Audley. Alicia, however, turns out to be a loyal and loving daughter, and also a good judge of character, because she is suspicious of her stepmother from the beginning. Clara Talboys is somewhat a mixture of the two: she is more attractive than Alicia but she still bears some masculine resemblance, since she reminds Robert very strongly of George. She is also more reserved and refined in her behavior, but can still be very strong-willed and assertive. Robert finds this combination very exciting. Together, the three female characters show that expectations around femininity can be deceptive. Lucy Audley, the character who apparently meets the standards of the ideal woman, turns out have a dark and hidden side. Alicia Audley and Clara Talboys, who seem to behave in more unconventional ways, turn out to be more honorable, and end the novel by being good wives to Robert and Sir Harry Towers, respectively.