Title Information At the Circulating Library
Author and Title: Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley's Secret
First Edition: London: Tinsley Brothers, 1862. 3 volumes, post 8vo., 31s. 6d.
Summary: One of the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century. The novel begins with the marriage of elderly Sir Michael Audley of Audley Court and Lucy Graham. The latter is the young, beautiful, and angelic-mannered governess of the local doctor. Alicia, Sir Michael's adult daughter from his first marriage, resents her new stepmother. Meantime, George Talboys returns from Australia with a fortune in gold and hopes to reunite with his wife Helen and son who he abandoned three years earlier due to his poverty. On landing, he meets his old friend Robert Audley, an idle barrister and nephew (and heir) to Sir Michael. Together, the two learn of the death of George's wife the previous week. The distraught George visits Helen's father and hears the story of her death from illness. At loose ends, George spends the next year traveling with Robert. On a visit to Audley Court, Robert and George miss meeting Lady Audley who is suddenly called to London to visit a sick former employer. Crawling through a secret passage, Robert and George view a portrait of Lady Audley. The next day, during a fishing trip, George mysteriously disappears while Robert is sleeping. A self-appointed detective, he becomes obsessed with finding his friend. He suspects Lady Audley has some knowledge of George's fate, so Robert begins to trace her past: first the doctor's house where she worked as a governess, then to the private school in London where she worked (a hat box with multiple labels is a telling clue). Meantime, Lady Audley is being blackmailed by her former maid Phoebe Marks and her husband Luke Marks—she pays them off and they buy a neighboring public house. Clue by clue, Robert connects Lady Audley with Helen Talboys who has changed her name and bigamously married the baronet. Confronting Lady Audley, Robert lays out his evidence and threatens to tell Sir Michael, but he gives Lady Audley an opportunity to flee. She defies him and attempts to kill Robert by setting fire to the Marks' public house where he is staying. Instead, Robert escapes and Luke is fatally injured. Confronted once again, Lady Audley confesses: bitter after George's desertion, she changed her name, became a governess, married Sir Michael given the opportunity, and pushed George down a well to keep him silent. She blames her crimes on hereditary madness: she is the mad daughter of a mad mother. Robert quietly packs her off to a foreign asylum. During his investigation, Robert falls in love with George's sister Clara and he marries her. George returns: he survived the fall down the well and fled the country rather than expose Lady Audley to shame. The novel ends with Robert, Clara, and George all happily living together.
References: BL; EC; Sutherland