A rare treat
M.E. Braddon was quite a woman. Born in 1835, she had a long and happy relationship with John Maxwell. Maxwell was in an unfortunate position, his wife was confined to a lunatic asylum; and in a period when divorce was well-nigh impossible, he met Braddon, who was then an actress. They started a relationship and had several children together before Maxwell's wife died and they were finally able to get married. That they managed to do this, and managed to keep a respectable front in an era that was renowned for its obsession with keeping up appearances says much for the character of both parties.
Maxwell had started a small magazine, and begged the 20-something Braddon to provide a serialised novel. The magazine failed, but the serialization was very popular, and Braddon was persuaded by another publisher to finish the novel, which she did in a matter of weeks. The novel, influenced heavily by Wilkie Collins' recent best-seller The woman in white, was a huge success. Thackeray nearly drove the people at the local railway station nutty waiting for his copy to arrive, while Wilkie Collins himself became a fan.
Collins' next thriller The moonstone, may be the first detective story but it owes much to Lady Audley's secret, as does his later novel, the previously reviewed Armadale, not least in its depiction of a brilliantly wicked anti-heroine. Braddon's novel would be enormously influential on many later novelists; "that woman" of the Sherlock Holmes' tales owes much to Braddon, and there would have been no Rebecca without Braddon, the similarities are so evident; and I suspect that Lord Peter Wimsey owes quite a bit to Braddon's protagonist, the seemingly effete young lawyer, Robert Audley.
If The moonstone is credited as the first true detective story, Lady Audley's secret must surely be the first amateur detective tale. Robert Audley, a young and rather lazy barrister, meets up with an old school friend newly returned from Australia having just made his fortune. Old friend is devastated to discover that his wife had passed away while he was abroad. Trying to cheer him up Robert Audley arranges a trip to the countryside to meet up with his uncle and his new wife; but when the friend suddenly disappears Audley becomes convinced that there is something fishy going on, and determines to find out the truth.
Some of the social mores and attitudes are certainly Victorian, but most of this novel could have been written easily in the last 40 years. It's the most readable Victorian novel I've ever read, it moves at a cracking pace; and the chain of evidence is beautifully developed. The final outcome is slightly weak; and I think this is the one area where its "Victorianess" shows, but generally it's as good a piece of crime writing as you'll find anywhere. Please don't be put off by the fact that it's a nineteenth-century novel, it's brilliantly readable. If I had been living in Victorian times I too would have been making a complete pest of myself waiting with bated breath for the next installment!