Lady Audley's Secret was serialised from July 1861 to December 1862 first in Robin Goodfellow and then in the Sixpenny Magazine. Thanks to David Skilton for sharing his transcription of the article. —  George P. Landow

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he secret of the imaginary Lady Audley ... belongs entirely to modern times. It is a good galloping novel, like a good gallop, to be enjoyed rather than criticized. It is full of rapid incident, well put together. When we begin to read we cannot choose but go on; and if, when we come to an end, we observe that we have travelled through well-known country, that the ditches and hedges we have leaped are familiar to us, it is not to be supposed that in passing this criticism we are of necessity depreciating the work of a really clever authoress.

The Greek dramatists wrote hundreds of plays, but the tragedians at least had only two stories to work upon. On the tale of Troy and the tale of Thebes they rung innumerable changes, though with all that they had to relate their audiences were perfectly familiar. A modern writer has to provide his readers with much greater novelties; the matter must be fresh and the treatment original; but if it is not entirely so, and if, in spite of that want, the writer succeeds in interesting the public, there is not much room for complaint. In plain English, the present writer has laid her hands upon some well-known materials, but she has turned them to such good account that in the general interest we forget the imperfections of detail, and in the rush of events take little note of what is new or what is hackneyed.

Miss Braddon's story belongs to a class of fiction which Mr. Wilkie Collins has rendered extremely popular, though he can scarcely be said to have invented it. Perhaps Edgar Poe has done more than any other man to show the capacity of exciting the imagination which their species of story affords. There is a secret, generally a crime, to be discovered. There are no apparent means of reaching the discovery. But our modern police regulations have gone far to reduce the detection of crime to a science, and there is nothing which the public are more eager to unravel that such mysteries as every now and then fill the newspapers. Suppose a carpet bag full of mangled remains found on Waterloo-bridge. That secret has never yet been penetrated, but once recognized as a secret, we know how the fascination of crime can be intensified by the fascination of mystery. Every little hint or clue is seized with astonishing avidity; countless suggestions are made and theories are started; millions of readers wait impatiently for more and more news; and the police and the newspaper offices are besieged by correspondents eager to propose new lines of inquiry. The secret which baffles the detectives, it is the province of the novelist to unravel.

Whereas the old classical novel always had a villain to make all the mischief and the complications of the plot, and a hero to fight through these complications and to come off victorious by force of bravery or love or some irresistible sentiment; the modern fictions of which we speak delight chiefly in a villain and a villain-finder. The villain is the hero, and the villain-finder is set like a sleuth hound on his path. The fineness of scent which these animals display in fiction is amazing. Where to ordinary perception there is no appearance of anything wrong they detect in a word, in a look, far more than Lord Burleigh ever intended. It is really delightful to see how the evidence accumulates bit by bit, and each bit in its proper place and at the proper time, in the most logical order. The acuteness of the villain-finder is preternatural. He sees a hand you cannot see, he hears a voice you cannot hear. At length, the final link in the chain of evidence is secure. In many cases the hunter has to go across the world for it - to Australia, to America, but he always finds it. The poor hunted beast is driven to bay; the secret is out, and the tale ends. Tell us not that the hunt is an old story, and that one hunt is like another. So it is; but whether over grass or over paper, it comes always new to the keen sportsman, and he who has been at the hunt oftenest enjoys it best. A foxhunter never seems to have enough of it, and a novel-reader will go on reading novels to all eternity, and sometimes even will have several in hand at once - a serial of Mr. Trollope's here, a serial of Mr. Dickens's there, and the last three-volume tale into the bargain.

The most distinguished of the novelists who excite an interest in the analysis of evidence forbade the critics, when his last work appeared, to divulge his secret. To divulge it, however, could have done him no harm, and we do none to Miss Braddon when we say that the secret of Lady Audley is bigamy. We mention it the rather because it is characteristic of the modern novel. That the lady should be the centre of interest, that she should be the sinner of the tale, and that her sin should be a violation of the marriage law are as natural to recent novels as that her guilt should be a secret, and a secret discovered by the most elaborate espionage. This is the age of lady novelists, and lady novelists naturally give the first place to the heroine. But, if the heroines have first place, it will scarcely do to represent them as passive and quite angelic, or insipid - which heroines usually are. They have to be pictured as high-strung women, full of passion, purpose, and movement - and very liable to error. Now, the most interesting side of a woman's character is her relation to the other sex, and the errors of women that are most interesting spring out of this relation. Hence unwonted prominence has of late been given to a theme which novelists used formerly to shrink from; and we are honoured with descriptions of the most hidden feelings of the fair sex which would have made our fathers and grandfathers stare. Truth to tell, however, the novelists have seldom been able to conjoin much analysis of feeling with much analysis of plot. If the novelist gets interested in the analysis of complications and the construction of evidence, he soon finds that he must ignore a good deal of passion, and do continual violence to character. It is needful to keep the two apart, and we generally find female analysis in one class of novels, and the secret police system in another.


[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. “[Review of] M.E. Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, The Times (18 November 1862): 8.

Last modified 12 May 2022