Lady Audley's Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon $3.50 (original publication date 1861-2).(out of print, check for used copies at our ABE store).
All I can say is - delicious. Mary Elizabeth Braddon was disdained by her contemporaries as a sensationalist - but she was lapped up and read by the public. Today's public should find her tale of the devious and complicated Lady Audley no less fascinating. In true Victorian fashion, this is a novel rife with coincidence and conspiracy, and with the fiendish but seemingly angelic Lady Audley at its center, the story is one you may not be able to put down. It opens with the proposal of Lord Audley to his neighbor's governess - she agrees, telling him that it exceeds her wildest dreams - and thus the tale begins.
No story of a second marriage (for Lord Audley is many years older than Lady Audley) is complete without a disgruntled stepdaughter, devoted to her father and suspicious of her stepmother; nor is it complete without a narrator who, while part of the family, still exists outside of it, and with her portrayal of Robert Audley, Lord Audley's layabout nephew (though he is qualified to practice law, he doesn't choose to) she shows her real skill as a novelist. The character of Robert Audley is one of the more memorable in all literature - he is vividly portrayed as a lazy but contented man who is too lazy even for deep emotional attachment - but then, through a chance encounter with an old friend, who is grieving the loss of his wife and who disappears mysteriously, we see Robert mature and change before our eyes. The change is all the more believeable because when you reach the end of the novel it's not entirely clear that Robert's essential lazy nature is changed - but his heart is engaged, and in turn, it engages the reader as he begins a quest to find his friend, and to discover Lady Audley's secret.
The labyrinthine turns of the plot are too various and surprising to reveal here - let us just say that this is a wonderful story, well told, that should leave you perhaps casting about for more wonderful books of this same era. If Wilkie Collins is still a stranger to you as a reader, give The Moonstone or The Woman in White a try. Yesterday's novelists are every bit as fascinating as the page turning authors of today.
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