The Style and Genre of Lady Audley’s Secret
Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, is a novel of many elements. It has been placed in many different style or genre categories since its publication. I feel that it best fits under the melodrama or sensational genre, and under the subgenre of mystery. It contains significant elements of both types of writing, so I feel it is best to recognize both, keeping in mind that melodrama is its main device and mystery is a type of Victorian melodrama. In order to understand how the story fits into these categories, it is necessary to explore the Victorian characteristics of each, and apply them to the text. In addition to establishing the genres, it is important to explain why and how these genres fit into Victorian culture.
The term melodrama has come to be applied to any play with romantic plot in which an author manipulates events to act on the emotions of the audience without regard for character development or logic (Microsoft Encarta). In order to classify as a Victorian melodrama, several key techniques must be used, including proximity and familiarity to the audience, deceit rather than vindictive malice, lack of character development and especially the role of social status. The sensational novel is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is indeed one great element of sensation. A tale which aims to electrify the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid out in our own days and among the people we are in the habit of meeting. In keeping with mid-Victorian themes, Lady Audley’s Secret is closely connected to the street literature and newspaper accounts of real crimes. The crimes in Braddon’s novel are concealed and secret. Like the crimes committed by respected doctors and trusted ladies, the crimes in Lady Audley’s Secret shock because of their unexpectedness. Crime in the melodrama of the fifties and sixties is chilling, because of the implication that dishonesty and violence surround innocent people. A veneer of virtue coats ambitious conniving at respectability. Lady Audley’s Secret concludes with a triumph of good over evil, but at the same time suggests unsettlingly that this victory occurs so satisfyingly only in melodramas (Kalikoff, 96). Everything that Lady Audley does seems calculated. Unlike violent stories of the past in which a criminal kills for the sake of killing, Lady Audley is brilliant in her bigamy, her arson, and her “murder”. The nature of her crimes reflect a general fear of intimate and buried violence, suggesting a growing anxiety about being threatened from within. Her moves are calculated and planned. Murders and robberies spring from a specific social context, not from psychosis or vindictive malice (Kalikoff, 81). Murders in Victorian melodramas are often the result of elaborate plans to conceal identity, right a wrong or improve social status. A reader of Lady Audley’s Secret might notice upon concluding the novel that he/she knows very little about the characters at hand. Instead of being fully developed into people who are easy to relate to, the characters in this novel are used more as symbols or pawns that are moved in order to bring attention to social or moral problems. This can best be seen in the character of Lady Audley. Lady Audley is not much of a person, rather she is nothing more than a representation of the threatening woman figure trying to make changes in a patriarchal world. Lady Audley evokes a fear of women’s independence and sexuality. As a popular Victorian genre that trades on the power of the secret and frequently sexualized sins of its heroines, sensation fiction provides a resourceful perspective on the contradiction that frame these villainous victims who are simultaneously diseased, depraved, and socially and economically oppressed (Bernstein, 73). Lady Audley’s ability...
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