A Student Response to Lady Audley’s Secret

Victorian Lunatic Asylum

Madness and Mystery in Lady Audley’s Secret

By the third volume of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret, the initial mystery of the novel has vanished into near-obscurity in light of the revelation of madness within the titular Lady Audley herself. The perpetrator of the crime of George’s murder is never really in question, but the mystery of the motive is what drives much of the plot. As Lady Audley’s true history is revealed to both Robert Audley and the reader, her sanity seemingly begins to unravel, even as she attempts to frame Robert as the mad one, claiming that he suffers from “monomania” (291) as she already begins to exhibit signs of her own looming madness.

The madness that Lady Audley suffers from, according to the victim herself, is a “hereditary disease” passed on from her mother, who had “died mad” (358). Lady Audley treats this madness as an absolute eventuality; though she initially seems to escape the same fate of her mother, who “had appeared sane up to the hour of [her] birth” (358-9) before her mind degenerated, Helen became, simply, “more irritable” (361). It is only after the young mother is abandoned by her husband, George, that Helen “became subject to fits of violence and despair” that she considers to be the first time her “mind first lost its balance” and she “crossed that invisible line which separates reason from madness” (361).

What is curious, then, in the case of Lady Audley, is that her “hereditary madness” is not the same as that suffered by her mother. Helen describes her mother, when visited in her youth, as “frivolous as a butterfly” who “saluted us with radiant smiles, and gay, ceaseless chatter” (358), which seems quite unlike the homicidal madness Lady Audley claims. Lady Audley performs intricate acts of deception and manipulation to keep her position in life, which do not follow the acts of a woman suffering from a degeneration of intellect, but a sane woman with a vicious, selfish streak.

Lady Audley appears either an excellent liar, which she is proven to be, or personally convinced of her own madness. When preparing to accuse Robert Audley of monomania, Lady Audley declares that she “know[s] what madness is. I know its signs and tokens” (311) well before her background is explicitly revealed, before she has any reason to lie beyond the potential of preparing an excuse for her actions. The doctor that is called in to examine Lady Audley is critical of her supposed madness, declaring that “there is no evidence of madness in anything that she had done” (382), while also disagreeing with the sentiment that madness is hereditary (383). After examining her, the doctor declares Lady Audley “dangerous” but “not mad”, with the “cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence” (385), which matches the overall narrative and opinion of every character but Lady Audley herself.

Though she declares herself mad, Helen is distraught when her future is revealed—that she will live out her years in a “mad-house” (392). Such a place, a leniency in recompense for her actions should theoretically be regarded as a kindness, but Helen views the place as her “living grave” (396), horrified. The woman left behind in the “mad-house” shows less and less of the madness she claims, but her sanity is never confirmed in full by the narrator. The conflicting opinions of Robert, the doctor, and Helen herself leave the reader in a state of confusion. Though the mystery of George’s disappearance is solved, the mystery of Lady Audley’s madness is never explicitly confirmed. Until the end, her identity and history, even after being revealed meticulously as Helen admits her guilt, remains a mystery of sorts, perhaps the greatest mystery of the novel itself. There are only two answers—that Helen is mad, or Lady Audley is a shrewd, cunning, and dangerous woman.

Neither answer is wholly satisfying, and the obvious quality of the mystery of George masks the true, unanswerable question of Lady Audley herself. Even her death is mysterious; handled in a single paragraph, the great Lady Audley “expire[s] peacefully … dying after a long illness” (445). There is no way to verify her death, and while it is unlikely that the staff at the maison de santé would be willing to help Lady Audley fake her own death once more, it would not be entirely impossible that such a woman, given a new name and mysterious past, would not seek a way to escape her fate once again. Lady Audley’s Secret is not the singular secret of the novel. By the end of the novel, the readers have been presented with four individual mysteries: one, of the murder itself. Two, the motive behind the murder. Three, the state of Helen’s mind, caught between madness and sanity, and fourth, Lady Audley herself. Her past is exposed, but her future remains vague. Even in death or rather, the potential of death, Lady Audley remains an unknown quantity. The story of Lady Audley and Robert Audley is finished. The story of Helen Talboys, of Lucy, of Madame Taylor, remains, fittingly, a secret.

8 thoughts on “A Student Response to Lady Audley’s Secret

  1. This was a interesting discussion of the nature and progression of Lady Audley’s madness. I understand from your introductory paragraph that you argue in a sensation novel such as this the mystery and intrigue is contained in the characters rather than the plot. I am convinced of this based off of your examination of the way madness, which occurs in the minds of the characters, drives the actions of the story.
    Your comparison of Lady Audley to her mother is valuable to the understanding of the text as a whole. However in paragraph 3 you fail to acknowledge the similarity between the mothers “radiant smiles and gay, ceaseless chatter,” and the outward behavior of Lady Audley for most of the book. Her madness, or at least the madness she aims to portray, is very much inline with the account of her mothers who had “died mad.”
    The personal conviction of madness gives Lady Audley a paradoxical nature. Often those who are insane are unaware if their state of mind. However if Lady Audley is a sane woman who beliefs herself insane then she at the very least suffers delusions.You touch on this idea in your consternation of the Doctor’s diagnosis and Roberts uncertainty. Your eventual discussion of her life in the madhouse and the indistinct future of the characters draws the readers attention back to the novel’s final sensation, a feeling of being left unsatisfied.


  2. On the last quote of the second paragraph, you should follow that sentence up with some more analysis. It’s usually regarded as bad style to end a paragraph on a quote and not explain its importance, as well as it seems as though the quotes are speaking for your blog post. But maybe these norms are relaxed in a blog post.

    In the second to last paragraph you end a sentence with “horrified”, though it doesn’t seem to fit the sentence.

    I’m not sure whether there is much of an argument for Lady Audley being mad, in the clinical sense of the word. I also don’t find this blog post to make a strong argument for it either, other than you mentioning the narrator didn’t openly disqualify it. One could argue that Lady Audley qualifies herself as mad only to have her actions viewed with leniency, as she can no longer bear to keep lying and keep up her ruse by potentially killing more people (such as her attempted murder of Robert). As such, I’m not sure if Lady Audley’s potential madness is necessarily an unresolved mystery, or at least I didn’t find a convincing argument for it here.

    Your blog was very fun to read though, I definitely agree that the novels is more interested in exploring motive over simply who did it. The sentences flowed very well together and you used a fair amount of quotes to show that you had a commanding knowledge of the text. Great job!


  3. Your in depth analysis of Lady Audley’s sense of madness compared to the doctor’s or even Robert’s idea of insanity is thoroughly fascinating. Based on your discussion, Lady Audley seems to project her own personal madness onto Robert as a way of maintaining her fantasies (i.e. forgetting about her past life with George). Robert can also represent a reflection of her mind-set since they are similar characters in terms of covering up or uncovering the truth. One of their similarities that allows them to be close parallels to each other is based on how both of them act outside of their prescribed element: Lady Audley commits a crime unusual for her gender and Robert acting as a detective when that is not his occupation.

    Madness acts as a front or a mask that protects Lady Audley from realizing her murderous actions (the attempt on George’s life). You mention in paragraph four how she is more dangerous than mad because she does not have specific attributes associated with madness (as stated by the doctor). However, she is dangerous more so because she can perform madness without loosing herself to it. But she has to maintain this theatrical performance for as long as she lives, or else repercussions will catch up to her.


  4. Lady Audley’s madness is a mystery that is related to her identity, insofar as both are meticulously constructed in such a way that one finds difficulty in determining which aspects are true and which are fabricated. It is puzzling to even consider where Lady Audley’s story begins and where her lies end. Despite being pinned early on in the narrative, it is nonetheless interesting to observe how Lady Audley executes her cunning design. It is Lady Audley’s capacity to influence others and the confidence with which she conducts her manipulation that presents itself as a kind of performance for the reader. Lady Audley’s motives for murder are claimed to be spontaneous and desperate; however, the lack of moral restraint and the clarity of both her speech and thought processes throughout the narrative suggest that Lady Audley, regardless of being mad or not, maintains a dangerous amount of control that remains hidden from the perspective of the reader. The brief and ambiguous claim of Lady Audley’s death is certainly suspicious, insofar as it further delves into whether or not Lady Audley has simply escaped death once more through some subversive façade. Wilde’s open ended resolution for Lady Audley’s announced death seems to intrigue the mind and conjure all sorts of insane or maniacal schemes for Lady Audley’s possible return or escape from death—perhaps this is just a fancy and nothing more, but Wilde seems to create a fascinating mystery by allowing the reader to resolve the narrative with their own personally established mystery—their own secret of Lady Audley’s fate.


  5. This is great analysis on the relationship between Helen and madness. It raises a lot of questions. What’s the difference between true madness and the performance of madness? Can those two concepts be clearly separate from each other? Could the performance of madness lead to actual madness?

    The note I find most interesting from this analysis is how you contrast Helen’s madness against her mother’s madness. It’s a strong case for the stance that Helen’s performing madness instead of being genuinely mad herself. It does make me wonder though if Helen went so far to avoid her mother’s madness that she accidentally pushed herself into believing that she was mad, but in a separate fashion from her mother’s madness. It’s moving into speculation, but I find it an interesting thought to muse over in relation to Helen’s character that stems from this analysis.

    I agree that it’s this kind of questioning, and the open-ended ideas that are presented in the novel because of Helen’s undefined characteristics, that invested me in the novel. Lady Audley’s character is what is most interesting. The results of her actions are supplementary compared to what are her motivations and reasonings behind taking those actions.


  6. I think that this was a very interesting look at the theme of madness in Lady Audley’s Secret. I found the way madness was presented in this novel very interesting all on it’s own. I don’t believe that there was much there to really suggest that she was actually mad. She was definitely performing or pretending to be mad, especially in the end. I think it was probably easier for her to blame all of her actions on madness rather than admit that she was just committing terrible acts for her own selfish gain.

    It is interesting an interesting concept to think about whether or not pretending to be mad could actually push a person over the edge into madness.


  7. The analysis of Lady Audley’s madness and comparing it to Robert and the doctor’s idea of madness is quite interesting. Lady Audley and Robert appear to be similar since they both act out of their element, committing crimes which are unusual for her gender, and acting as a detective when that is not his job. However, Lady Audley becomes a performer for the readers as she goes on to influence and manipulate others. Her confidence during such pursuits deserves to be commended. She has great control which is uninfluenced by her lack of moral restraints and madness. While Helen’s madness is worth further discussion, Lady Audley’s character is the most interesting in the novel. Nevertheless, Wilde incorporates various open-ended ideas regarding Helen’s character and it is fascinating to note how you compare her madness to her mother’s. She is devastated to learn about her future in the “mad-house” and views it as her “living grave.” While Lady Audley’s madness is let unconfirmed and Helen admit to her guilt, the reader is left wondering if Helen is truly mad and Lady Audley is a cunning woman, since that appears to be the most logical explanation for the mystery that this novel is.


  8. I would have to agree with a majority of the class in their above posts. I did enjoy your analysis and the idea of analyzing whether Helen Talboys was truly mad. However, in her presentation of self (or her performance) she agrees that everything she does is an act. The beauty, the attitude, the way she presents herself to Michael; all of these aspects throughout the text she reminds herself are performative. The simple fact that she performs her identity at all times to reflect the “madness” she saw in her mother, the calm and frivilous aspects, and the way that she mimics the way that she was told her mother acted on her birth, these all seems to hint to something deeper.

    Yet, when Helens mother is removed from her child she becomes frivilous and childlike once more, in the same way that Helen presents herself as such after she removes herself from little Georgie. Something is to be said about that, I think, and the way Helen tries so hard to mirror her mother and cling to the excuse of madness to escape responsibilities for her actions.


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