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.