Is Lady Audley Really Mad?
'Poverty, and fear of poverty, made her commit terrible crimes'
Rebecca Taylor | 15 July 2018

Lady Audley’s Secret is a typical Victorian ‘sensation novel’, a term created by critics to describe a novel that is scandalous, exaggerated or outrageous. Often these popular novels included murder, bigamy, sexual deviance, fraud, adultery and madness. Lady Audley’s Secret is no exception, including almost all of the foregoing. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novel, published in 1862, follows Lady Audley in her quest to escape poverty and find a comfortable life, while slowly unpacking her tainted past, unbeknownst to Sir Michael Audley, her elderly husband. By the end of the novel, Lady Audley is admitted to a lunatic asylum in Belgium after Sir Michael Audley’s nephew, Robert Audley, finds out about the dark secrets of Lady Audley’s past (which include identity theft, attempted murder and arson).

When answering the question, “Is Lady Audley really mad?” it is important to have a grasp on the Victorian ideas about madness in relation to women. In the Victorian era, scientific discoveries meant madness was not viewed as some sort of divine punishment or a product of the supernatural, and instead a more medical understanding emerged. Madness was commonly believed to be a disease which was highly likely to be hereditary. ‘Monomania’ was a term coined by the early nineteenth century French psychiatrist Etienne Esquirol. It was described by Athena Vrettos as “partial insanity in which the afflicted subject could appear to be entirely normal and sane in all areas of behaviour except one”. This disorder was particularly perilous because it suggested that madness could coexist beside generally rational behaviour. Madness in women was connected with the female life cycle (puberty, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause) during which the female mind was "weakened"LO and the symptoms of insanity could emerge.

Lady Audley uses the common Victorian portrayal of madness to justify her morally abhorrent behaviour. When Robert confronts Lady Audley and threatens to tell Sir Michael about her past, in frantic desperation Lady Audley says, “You have conquered – A MADWOMAN”. She then claims her madness began when she was left alone by her first husband, George Talboys, when he went to search for fortune in Australia to provide the income and comfort Lady Audley, formally known as Helen Talboys, desired. She alleged that at that precise moment she ‘crossed the invisible line which separates reason from madness’ and left her home in Wildersea to change her identity, leave her son, fake her own death and start afresh as a governess, this time named Lucy Graham. While Lady Audley does some very questionable things to hide her past from her husband, they all seem to be rationally thought out. It seems convenient that when she feels ‘goaded’ by George Talboys and Robert Audley, her mind ‘utterly [loses] its balance’, and when she is threatened or her lust for a luxurious lifestyle is compromised her ‘mad’ actions start.

What is perhaps more interesting to examine is the ready acceptation of her madness. Perchance she is considered as mad as she does not portray a typical Victorian woman; Gubar and Guilder argue that female writers did not have much freedom and therefore made their female characters nothing more than the angel in the house or the mad monster in the attic. What Braddon does is combine these two elements of the feminine - Lady Audley has childlike beauty which captivates those who she meets, yet this opposite half to her character which is disguised by her visual appearance and superficial actions. Robert is given the task of deciding Lady Audley’s fate, and since sending Lady Audley to an asylum would have caused far less scandal for himself than putting her on trial for her crimes and humiliating her husband, he does just that. Insanity is a term often assigned to those who do not observe societal standards. Lady Audley does not conform to the image of an ideal woman and therefore it is accepted that she is mad, even when the Physician that is sent to observe her mental state proclaims that ‘she committed the crime of bigamy, because by that crime she obtained fortune and position. There is no madness in that’.

As the Physician asserts, Lady Audley is not mad. Poverty, and fear of poverty, made her commit terrible crimes, which lead to a uncontrollable spiral of moral degradation. Madness was used in this case as the ‘easy way out’ for all parties and can represent the outdated Victorian view on madness.

James Routledge 2016