When "Lady Audley's Secret" was published in 1862, it created an enormous sensation. It was a new thing in fiction. The sensational society novel with which now we are all familiar sprung full-blown upon the world, and this, although the first, still remains one of the best of its type.
The principal characters in the story are well contrasted. We have Sir Michael Audley, the dignified, charming, adoring, fifty-six-year-old husband of Lucy, whose golden ringlets and baby face are the light of his autumnal years. We have Lucy, bearing her elevation from the position of a poor governess to that of Lady Audley in a charming spirit of gentleness and brightness. There is Robert Audley, Sir Michael's nephew, a good fellow in a lazy, but very genuine way, and Alicia, Sir Michael's high-spirited daughter, who cannot bear her stepmother. Then there comes on the scene George Tal-boys, the good-hearted young fellow, fresh from making a fortune in Australia, palpitating with eagerness to meet the lovely young wife he has left, and to tell her that their days of poverty are over; but when he returns to England all he finds is an advertisement of her death, and a slab in a churchyard bearing her name. But while he is broken beneath this crushing blow, the reader knows that Helen Talboys is not resting in that quiet churchyard, but is reigning at Audley Court as Lady Audley.
It is a coincidence that George Talboys should be a friend of Robert Audley, but beyond this Miss Braddon has treated her theme in a wonderfully quiet manner, never forcing the circumstances of everyday life to give way to the exigencies of her story, but rather using them to further her plot. When Robert Audley and George Talboys go to stay near Audley Court, we fully expect a dramatic confrontation. But we do not read of it taking place, we merely judge that it must have done so from the fact that George Talboys disappears.
From this point onwards a series of dreadful suspicions gather in Robert Audley's mind, and, although great restraint is used in the telling of the story, we not only realise the conflicting feelings which now hold him back from making inquiries, now urge him on to discover the whole dreadful truth, but also share them with him.
At last Robert Audley has a chain of evidence complete. His friend had come to Audley Court and had last been seen going to join Lady Audley in the Lime Walk-a gloomy, lonely place. He has never been seen since. A scrap of paper, the comparing of Lady Audley's handwriting with that of Helen Talboys, a label carelessly left on a hatbox, the prattle of a drunken old manlady Audley's father-and of little Georgie, Talboys' son, pieced all together, make it clear to Robert Audley's mind that an awful crime has been committed, and yet he would draw back and leave his uncle in peace rather than involve him in shame and misery were it not for the sister of George Talboys, with whom he comes in contact in his investigations. It is she who urges him to avenge her dead brother, so that when he comes to Audley Court with his evidence complete, he decides that he must go on to the bitter end.
At last Lady Audley is forced to confess to Sir Michael as much as he will hear of her miserable story-for all he will not hear. So soon as he realises that she was a married woman when he met her, he refuses to listen any further, and leaves her to be dealt with by Robert. In her confession a circumstance appears of which the reader has never been allowed a suspicion-that there is madness in her family, and that she has herself felt its insidious approaches more than once. A specialist is called to examine her, with the result that she is conveyed to Belgium, there to finish her days in safe confinement.
But not yet are the surprises of the book oyer. George Talboys is not dead, despite his wife, who pushed him into a well with the fullest intention of removing him by murder. He was wounded and broken, but not killed, and his one idea being to leave the neighbourhood of all who knew him, he, when he had managed to climb out of the well, bribed to secrecy the man who found him, and sailed by the next boat for America whence he returns in time to gladden everybody by his safety. This does not lessen Lady Audley's guilt. It was no fault of hers that he was not killed, and, in addition, she was guilty of arson in setting the Castle Inn on fire, with the dreadful purpose of burning alive not only the man who held her secret, but another who had never done her any harm.
The book closes on a note of quiet happiness. Robert marries Clara Talboys, George is slowly recovering his happiness, Sir Michael is surviving the first strength of the blow, and Alicia has married her honest squire.
Such is the bare story of " Lady Audley's Secret," a book which so stirred the public interest that its publication appears as a literary event of the year in date-charts of the Victorian era. To relate the plot of any book can give no true idea of its value. The story of Lady Audley is well told, with restraint, good sense, and keen power of characterisation.