We’re beginning Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret this week. The novel is one of the most popular works of fiction in the Victorian era. It was influential as a representative “sensation novel” of the 1860s, in addition to its shocking representation of a women who is willing to commit bigamy, attempted murder, and a variety of other crimes in order to secure a prosperous life for herself. One of the advantages of doing Victorian literary scholarship in the twenty-first century is that we have access to extensive digital archives of Victorian periodicals and newspapers. We can read online through Google books contemporary reviews of a novel like Lady Audley’s Secret. For example, have a look at H.L. Mansel’s influential review essay of sensation novels in the Quarterly Review (1863).
The most critically acclaimed of the sensation novelists of the 1860s was Wilkie Collins, but Braddon was not far behind, if only because of her reputation as one of era’s infamous “female sensation novelists,” who dared to write scandalous tales of women taking desperate measures to secure financial and personal well-being. As we read through Lady Audley’s Secret in the next two weeks, I would like you to think about why exactly this novel would have been so shocking for its contemporary readers.