Lady Audley's Secret (1862) was one of the most widely read novels of the Victorian period. It exemplifies "sensation fiction" in featuring a beautiful criminal heroine, an amateur detective, blackmail, arson, violence, and plenty of suspenseful action. To its contemporary readers, it also offered the thrill of uncovering blackmail and criminal violence within the homes of the upper class. The novel makes trenchant critiques of Victorian gender roles and social stereotypes, and Braddon deliberately creates significant sympathy for her criminal heroine, who rebels against the "marriage market".
Initially I thought I would dislike this novel quite a lot. 'Sensation fiction' is called that because back in the Victorian age these novels would call upon every cliched horror that the middle and upper classes could imagine and exploit it for narrational purposes. Most of these tragedies either centered around the lower classes rising up or women not knowing their "places". Similarly to Gothic fiction, I felt that it potentially all relied too much on drama and fake suspense rather than any actual tension created by the plot. Although this novel suffers from some of those problems, e.g. the title gives away the fact that Lady Audley has a secret that has to be discovered eventually, but that is an advantage sensation fiction has. From the get go, you're expecting to be amazed and horrified and therefore there is a certain tension that never quite leaves throughout the entire novel.
Plot-wise this novel is very interesting. Although certain aspects of it were predictable, there were definite angles and twists that I didn't see coming. An important theme, I thought, was that of the independent woman. Lady Audley has to make her own way and has her own agency. Although I dislike her character quite a lot, especially her reliance on looks and material possessions, I understand some of the choices she makes in the novel. She offsets her stereotypical femininity with an incredibly ruthless personality. What I liked is that she uses both of these as her weapons. She knows exactly how she affects those around her with how she looks and especially which roles comes with that. For that time it was quite revolutionary, but even now I feel it is quite a feat for an author to allow his female character to be so aware of herself and her own actions. The only failure of this novel is one that is simply related to its contemporary period: Lady Audley can't possibly succeed. Her trying to ascend the social ranks is not something that can be allowed because not only would it disrupt the social order but it would also change the power balance between men and women. If women have too much agency and can make men do what they want, men can impossibly keep the order. There is also an interesting homosexual undercurrent that might not have been recognized at the time or might just have been seen as strong friendship, but when looking at it from a literary point of view you can't help but notice the affection and emotion in the relationship between these two male characters. When bringing female agency into it, that makes for a very interesting read.
Braddon's writing style is very entertaining and nice to read. She manages both description and dialogue with easy and that is partially why even the occasional plot weaknesses are no problem. She leaves little hints throughout the novel as to the development of character and plot and manages to set a mood for each location. She manages to describe both busy London and the quiet rural countryside. There is an array of side-characters, some of which are relatively stereotypical yet none of which are superfluous.
I give this novel...
Although it's a classic of its genre, I don't know whether I would recommend it to anyone. In some ways the plot halts here and there and some of the characterization is very of its time. But I liked Braddon's writing style and there are some very interesting and beautiful passages.