Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lady Audley's Secret, or The Byronic Heroine in the Madhouse

All right. We need to start by stating that Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is one of the best novels I’ve read in the preceding year. Braddon has definitely earned her place next to the Brontes and Dickens, and the fact that she is under-read is a testament to the unbalanced nature of the traditional Western Canon. It is a fabulous read.

That said, the novel does remain problematic for multiple reason that call out for discussion. First of these is the treatment of madness. We haven’t much discussed madness in this blog heretofore, so we’ll need to become serious for a moment. The appellation of insanity has no place in the psychologist’s office; it is a meaningless, legal term that does not act as a true barometer of a person’s ability to interact on a societal level. That said, Lady Audley does exhibit several sociopathic characteristics which may have necessitated her confinement in the masion de santé; that’s as may be. But the way in which Braddon characterizes her confinement is incredibly problematic, i.e., that she must be sequestered in order to protect society; I’d like to see a man in a similar situation be so treated.

Furthermore, Lady Audley’s character reflects certain classic elements of the Byronic Hero; so much so that I feel it fully justifiable to call her a Byronic Heroine, along the lines of Jane and Cathy. She is devious, secretive, with a dark past, ravishingly beautiful, possibly or partially mad, a bigamist (Rochester) and finally sort of evil (Heathcliff). Her actions, meanwhile, are no worse than theirs are; none of them directly kill another, for example. The way that the text treats her, however, seems somewhat misogynistic.

That said, I’d be hard-pressed to call this work anti-feminist. Yes, we have woman as our antagonist [if we posit that Robert is our protagonist] but the language that Robert uses in regards to women, the fully-fleshed characterization of the women, and the neutrality that the narrator maintains while Lady Audley enters the madhouse, all speak to the (possibly half-hearted) feminist elements of the text. Yes, the treatment of women in this novel is incredibly complex.

Our insight into the character of Robert, meanwhile, labels him as less of a Byronic Hero and more akin to a Pathetic or Anti Hero. I mean, the narrator has no compunctions about calling out his shiftlessness or laziness, yet he is fully prepared to act when given a good enough reason. Braddon has a talent for characterization.

All right. Next week, we’ll be discussing Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women Fame) and her work A Long Fatal Love Chase (1866/1995).

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