Madness, Performance, and Illusion in Victorian Literature: the Picture of Dorian Grey & Lady Audley's Secret

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Evan Marks
Professor Boylan
Class ENG 104-01
12/6/11
Illusions of Madness: Performance in Lady Audley’s Secret and The Picture of Dorian Grey
Often quarantined from society at large, the mentally unstable of the Victorian era were simultaneously subjects of fascination and disgust, societal examination and segregation. Differing from centuries past, Victorian England expressed a desire to more closely understand the meaning of madness, as psychological historian Elaine Showalter notes: “By the middle of the century, however, visitors to the Victorian asylum saw madness domesticated, released from restraint, and unnervingly like the world outside the walls” (Showalter 158). The insane, warped perception of reality prompted questioning into the formation of the sane identity, especially through the medium of literature. Was “the self” so simple to understand and identify? The identity of humanity was much more complex and multi-faceted than the Romanticism of the early nineteenth century perceived it to be. Novels of the Victorian era, specifically Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, examine this complexity through the lens of madness. Both Lady Audley and Dorian Grey adopt new selves, and so conceal their unacceptable secrets from the outside world; however, this act cannot be sustained, as Victorian literature would admonish. Performance - creating a façade for the outside world - is ultimately what drives Lady Audley and Dorian Grey mad because the illusion of entertainment becomes their reality, causing a fascination with their own self-creation and destruction, respectively.

In hopes of escaping poverty, Helen Talboys creates a new identity that fractures who she is, leaving her vulnerable to scrutiny. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley’s Secret and the proclaimed “Queen of Sensation,” understood the goal of a performance: to distort reality. As an actress herself, Braddon witnessed the power of entertainment over a captivated audience, warping and disguising perception in order to achieve the desired effect. Helen Talboys, too, sees the temptation of masking her true self. Initially rational, Helen lives under the care of her alcoholic father because her mother is placed in an insane asylum when she is a child. The desire to advance her means is evident given her conditions; but, when George Talboys does not return for many years and she is left in destitution once more, she must make the difficult decision to leave her old life in favor of becoming Miss Lucy Graham. Undertaking such an act of empowerment was revolutionary and bold, as feminist critic Lynn Voskuil relates: “As players in this cultural drama, women were the compliant conduits of a transcendent notion of womanliness, weaker vessels perfectly type cast to express an idealized femininity reliably and coherently” (Voskuil 621). This further underscores the rationality of her choice to recreate her own identity because the likelihood of her discovery was slim while the benefits possible to her are innumerable. Although Lucy’s initial purpose in playing the role of performer is self-empowerment, it soon becomes a role of concealment. With George’s untimely return from her past life, the threads she weaves to create a tapestry of lies begin to unravel, until the constant scrutiny from her elevated status as mistress causes her intense psychological stress from her efforts. Literally tunneling their way into Lucy’s inner chambers, George and Robert Audley examine the representation of her secret, the pre-Raphaelite portrait that revealed “something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend” within her split identity (Braddon 71). This portrait of her conscience shows her deception, and reflects the conflict within her concerning her past life. In order to maintain this elaborate performance, she chooses self-creation over reality by attempting to murder her real husband....
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