Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

The complex relation between the lady and Phoebe

Treated as a companion by her mistress, in the receipt of the most liberal wages, and with perquisites such as perhaps no lady’s-maid ever had before, it was strange that Phoebe Marks should wish to leave her situation; but it was not the less a fact that she was anxious to exchange all the advantages of Audley Court for the very unpromising prospect which awaited her as the wife of her cousin Luke. (Braddon, 110)

This passage implies the complex relationship between Lady Audley and Pheobe and each of their common/individual interest. And this relationship between them leads us to these questions; What made Lucy so anxious and burdened in her position as an assistant/accomplice to her lady that she wants to give up her benefits of being a maid of wealthy, generous lady as Mrs. Audley? What is Phoebe’s weakness that is seized upon Luke that made her go into an unwanted marriage? What does the ‘unpromising’ prospect of the marriage life with Luke indicate?

Firstly, the existence of huge burden that Phoebe has to bear is evidenced by her explicit and implied practices of running the lady’s errands regarding the secret quest the lady is going through. In the earlier chapter, Phoebe had been to London to run errand that should remain confidential to others except my lady and it seems that she must have been participating in additional works for the quest of lady. And Lady Audley’s referring to a tragic narrative of a beautiful woman who committed crime exposes the fear not only Phoebe but also lady herself even has to bear. It raises questions about what lies in their common fear of being revealed who they are or what they did.

Secondly, regarding the weakness of Phoebe that makes her go through the unwanted marriage, we can guess that it may not matter only to herself but also to the lady. In the later chapter of the book, there is a scene in which Phoebe is reprimanded for her sharing of lady’s secret with Luke. It may explain the fear that Phoebe and lady have in common, which makes up the motivation for cooperation out of necessity.

Finally, I want to explore the possible connotations that the word ‘unpromising’ implies. Given the conservative and women-oppressing environments of the Victorian age, it is very likely that the unpromising aspect/future of Phoebe’s marriage life does not simply mean dissatisfaction, but rather a more critical risk to her life, even to the degree of life-threatening. And it is also possible that Lady Audley herself may have gone through the predicament of unwanted, unsatisfactory, oppressive or threatening marriage before she got married to the ‘sweet’ gentleman like Mr.Audley.

The Tension between Robert and Lady Audley

“I do not believe in mandrake, or in blood-stains that no time can efface. I believe rather that we may walk unconsciously in an atmosphere of crime, and breathe none the less freely. I believe that we may look into the smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty” (Braddon 144).

In this passage, Robert makes it pretty clear to Lady Audley what he really thinks about her, and more specifically, what he thinks happened to George Talboys. In a literal sense, he says that George could have been killed by someone you would never expect to be a murderer, and it could have happened in the room you were just in. In reality, he is alluding to Lady Audley; he uses the words “smiling face” and “tranquil beauty”, which have been used throughout the book (or similar variations) as descriptors of Lady Audley. Robert is basically telling Mrs. Audley that he knows she killed George, and that everyone else may have been fooled by her looks, but that he knows better – all the while admitting that he does not currently have the proof to make anything of it.

While Lady Audley keeps a mostly calm, confident demeanor during the conversation, she does seem to get nervous from some of the things Robert says.  When he tells Lady Audley that he has letters from George’s wife, her initial laughter (at his mention of items George had left behind) turns to silence. She then simply asks the question, “Have you ever seen any of the letters written by the late Mrs. Talboys?” Clearly, the idea of George having seen Mrs. Talboys’ writing causes Lady Audley some distress, signaled by her sudden change in behavior. Personally, I have no doubt in my mind that Lady Audley is the same person as Mrs. Talboys, but even as obvious as it seems to me (and Robert), there is not enough evidence for Robert to mount a case against her. He and Lady Audley seem to be at a sort of standstill; she pretends like she knows nothing and acts confident, yet is worried about Robert being able to prove her guilt, while Robert seems to know for sure what the truth is, but is just as of yet unable to find the right evidence or crack Lady Audley’s facade.

What does Lucy have to lose?

“‘Do you remember, Phoebe. . . that French story we read – the story of a beautiful woman who committed some crime – I forget what – in the zenith of her power and loveliness, when all Paris drank to her every night, and when the people ran away from the carriage of the king to flock about hers, and get a peep at her face?’” (Braddon 109)

This passage emphasizes the juxtaposition between beauty and sins, how a woman of such loveliness, with such grand fortune could sink so low. As she recounts the story to Phoebe, Lady Audley emphasizes the woman’s fame, her beauty, and belovedness over the actual crime she committed. She never actually states the woman’s crime, as if her popularity was more important than her wrongdoings. Lucy seems to justify malevolence with beauty and fame; she pities this woman, expressing more sympathy for her loss of followership than concern over her sin.  This tale mirrors her own life story, as she conveys herself as this fresh, youthful, fairy-like woman, while she seems to be hiding a much darker interior.

Nonetheless,  this story seems to reflect Lady Audley’s fears of growing old and losing the support of those around her. Eventually, when her beauty has faded, Lucy will not hold the same power over her followers. As Lucy asks Phoebe, “‘What is to become of me when I grow old?’” she expresses a fear of losing the adoration of her followers after her beauty has faded (Braddon 109); she fears a loss of power, that she will no longer be able to enchant and seduce a crowd with her looks, and that they will inevitably turn on her. The question arises: what is Lady Audley concerned that they will discover? Or, more succinctly, what is Lady Audley’s secret?

Similarities Between Phoebe and Lucy

“Phoebe Marks, you have told this man!” The girl fell on her knees at my lady’s feet. “Oh, forgive me, forgive me!” she cried. “He forced it from me, or I would never, never have told!” (Page 113).


By chapter fourteen there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Lucy Audley may be Helen and that this secret is looming over her new life. In chapter fourteen we learn about a number of characters who might have knowledge of this secret. Because Alicia wants nothing to do with Lucy, Lucy ends up spending time with Phoebe. Phoebe has a fiancee named Luke. She has acquired him a job as a servant.


When Lucy meets him she doesn’t think much of him. Lucy is upset that she will be losing Phoebe as a maid to someone she feels is rather rude and boorish. Phoebe explains that she doesn’t love him. She first says she is still engaged to him because she fears him explaining that when he was a child he was violent and even threatened his mother with a knife. Lucy suggests that Phoebe not marry Luke, that doing so what be a terrible idea and that she wants to keep her as her maid. However Phoebe insists that she must marry him and that “It will be my ruin, and the ruin of others, if I break my word”(Page 112). So Lucy accepts that Phoebe must marry Luke and suggests that there must be some great secret at the bottom of this. All great liars suspect everyone of lying which again supports the possibility she is Helen and she is hiding her identity. Phoebe then admits that there is a great secret she has which she is hiding and turns away.


Lucy asks what Luke might want to do professionally. Phoebe tells her he wants to open a public-house(pub). So Lucy invites him to her home to help him in this project. He comes and listens to Lady Audley’s “liberal” promise of fifty pounds so that he might start this business of his. Instead of being thankful however he is rather rude and asks for double the amount offered. When Lucy refuses he says “Oh yes, you will though” with “quiet insolence, that had a hidden meaning”. This is when it is revealed that Luke knows about Lucy’s secret and that Phoebe was forced to tell him.


After some close reading we know a little more about the situation. Lucy has confided in Phoebe whatever secret she is keeping. Also Phoebe has revealed this secret to Luke. Whatever the secret is it gives Luke leverage to extort Lucy for more money than she offered, even given her social status. This suggests that her secret is pretty serious, especially considering her explosively angry reaction when she finds out Phoebe has revealed her secret. We have also found out that Phoebe has a secret of her own which she is hiding. Luke may also be holding this secret over her so Phoebe and Lucy have a similar relationship with him. She may also be ruined by the revealing of her secret, similar to Lucy. Neither of them love their significant other, though we know why Phoebe will marry Luke. It has not been made entirely clear yet why Lucy married Sir Michael though. Why are there so many similarities?

Stand Out Stand Strong

“Lucy Audley was radiant on this cold and snowy January morning. Other people’s noses are rudely assailed by the sharp fingers of the grim ice-king, but not my lady’s; other people’s lips turn pale and blue with the chilling influence of the bitter weather, but my lady’s pretty little rosebud of a mouth retained its brightest coloring and cheeriest freshness”(pg 141).

First, this passage is a clear example of two opposing sets of binaries.   Words and phrases like “radiant”, “pretty” and “brightest coloring and cheeriest freshness” are in extreme contrast with “rudely assailed”, “sharp fingers of the grim ice-king” and “bitter weather”.  This can be put into the light vs dark category.  On one hand we see this reoccurring idea of Lady Audley’s beauty and her bright defiant smile.  However, on the other lurks the overarching motif of darkness and of course secrets.

Off of this, the passage also showcases two other general themes that are prevalent throughout the book.  The first being the concept of Lady Audley’s strength.  Through the cold and harsh conditions Lady Audley still finds a way to prevail and radiate through.  She once again is breaking societal norms for women in the sense that she preserved through difficult circumstances rather than following what is expected of her (a bad reaction to the weather).  I believe that this shows how tough was Lady Audley really is.

Moreover, her ability to withstand the abrasive weather is also just one more thing that makes Lady Audley different and stand out from those around her.  For whatever reason, she can survive through situations that others can’t, which further separates her from all the other characters and continues to raise suspicion about her true identity.

Lucy’s Image

“The winter sunlight, gleaming full upon her face from a side window, lit up the azure in those beautiful eyes, till their colour seemed to flicker and tremble betwixt blue and green, as the opal tints of the sea change upon a summer’s day. The small brush fell from her hand, and blotted out the peasant’s face under a widening circle of a crimson lake” (Braddon 121)

Throughout the novel there has been a conflict or a binary between what is real and what is a merely a facade. This conflict can be seen by the reader in this passage. I was interested in this passage because of the way Lucy visibly reacts to Robert. Here, the image of Lucy’s eyes changing color implies that there is some part of her that is not real, and that she is uncomfortable by Robert. Lucy’s blue eyes are a part of the image of herself that she has created and chooses to show to the world, but when Robert starts to question her and what happened to George; Lucy’s eyes flash a green color thus revealing that a part of her that she keeps hidden is starting to reveal itself. A large part of Lucy’s power comes from her image. Everyone thinks she is a sweet, beautiful, innocent woman, and she needs people to have that idea of her in order for her to maintain her power and position. If Lucy is found out to be Helen, then she will loose her place as Lady Audley and likely be persecuted. Thus Lucy takes advantage of female stereotypes to get what she wants, and to help her achieve her goal. 

In this passage, Braddon also describes Lucy painting a “beautiful Italian peasant, in an impossibly Turneresque atmosphere” (Braddon 121). However after Robert accuses Lucy she messes up her painting. Lucy painting mirrors how she subtly manipulates the situations to benefit her and her needs. However, Lucy is so shocked by Robert’s accusation that she messes up her painting thus revealing that the scene she has set up is beginning to fall apart.

Crossing Thresholds in Lady Audley’s Secret

“Circumstantial evidence. . . a word dropped incautiously from the over-cautious lips of guilty; the fragment of a letter; the shutting or opening of a door; a shadow on a window-blind; the accuracy of a moment; a thousand circumstances so slight as to be forgotten by the criminal. . .” (Braddon, 123).

This passage shows Robert Audley finally becoming what Victorian society would have expected of an adult.  Rather than lounging around and doing nothing, Robert is putting his education as a barrister into practice.  Here, Robert is explaining to Lady Audley that he believes that George’s disappearance is nefarious in nature and that someone is responsible for it.  A pervading sense of mystery is present in this scene, and the effect that it has on the novel’s characters is drastic.  

Throughout the novel and in this scene, characters cross numerous thresholds, literally and metaphorically.  They cross from sanity into madness (George Talboys) and from the unknown into the known (Robert piecing together George’s mysterious disappearance).  In this passage, Robert mentions the “shutting or opening of a door,” (Braddon, 123) and a “shadow on a window-blind (Braddon, 123). ”  Both of these phrases have the connotation that even the smallest actions are capable of being used as evidence to catch a criminal.  This passage ironically shows Robert simultaneously crossing two significant thresholds, into both enlightenment and adulthood.  Robert is enlightened because he comes to realize that George’s disappearance may be intentional.  He enters adulthood because it is the first time in his life that he is doing something with real meaning, rather than superficially wandering from on frivolous activity to another.  Individual words used in this passage such as “evidence,” “guilt,” “crime,” “penalty,” and “criminal” (Braddon, 123) are all related to the legal profession.  By using these words, and by making connections between mysterious events, Robert asserts himself as a professional seeking to solve a serious problem, something Robert Audley never would have done without George’s disappearance.

Is Lady Audley’s facade finally cracking?

“Faint shadows of green and crimson fell upon my lady’s face from the painted escutcheons in the mullioned window by which she sat; but every trace of natural colour of that face had faded out, leaving it a ghastly ashen grey. Sitting quietly in her chair, her head fallen back upon the amber damask cushions, and her little hands lying powerless in her lap, Lady Audley had fainted away (Braddon 123-124).”

In this quote Lady Audley is responding to the description of circumstantial evidence by Robert Audley. Robert states that some examples of circumstantial evidence include “a scrap of paper;a shred of some torn garment; the button off a coat; a word dropped incautiously from the over-cautious lips of guilt (Braddon 123).” After reading this description from Robert, the baby’s shoe and the little lock of hair found by Phoebe in Lady Audley’s jewelry box immediately come to mind. The objects found inside of Lady may have nothing to do with Georges disappearance, but Lady Audley’s reaction to this description of circumstantial evidence may suggest otherwise.

My experience with victorian era literature is limited as is my knowledge of victorian era social cues, but when someone passes out after being confronted with information, that information must hit that person right where they are emotionally vulnerable or guilty of something. That spot for Lady Audley is most likely her secret and anything connected to that secret. Those little items found in her jewelry box, if they are actually connected to Lady Audley’s secret, may fall fall under the category of circumstantial evidence. This could explain why “every trace of natural colour in Lady Audley’s face faded out, leaving it a ghastly ashen grey” after hearing Robert’s description. I think as Robert gets closer to finding out George’s whereabouts, we may see Lady Audley become more and more anxious, because she may be more connected to George than originally thought.

Lady Audley vs. Alicia Audley

“‘What a severe creature you are, Alicia!” said my lady, making a little grimace. ‘I suppose you mean to infer by all that, that I’m deceitful. Why, I can’t help smiling at people, and speaking prettily to them. I know I’m no better than the rest of the world, but I can’t help it if i’m pleasanter. It’s constitutional.’” (Lady Audley, page 108)

Lady Audley’s acknowledgment that she is overly friendly on purpose gives the implication that she is trying to project this happy image that she created as much as possible so that people won’t suspect her of keeping a secret. This relates to the binary found in this passage where Lady Audley is trying to outwardly portray the ideal Victorian woman and fulfills the “Angel of the household” stereotype – charming and innocent – all while working to shield her secrets from the rest of the characters. Lady Audley is often contrasted with Alicia Audley, who is active (especially for a Victorian lady) and is constantly described as being in motion with her “bouncing walk”. Another notable Alicia characteristic that differs from Lady Audley is that she is full of passion – as evidenced by her shouting at her cousin Robert. Alicia being pushed out of the domestic sphere when Lucy became Lady Audley adds to the binary of Lady Audley doing everything she can to avoid suspicion. However, Alicia thinks that Lady Audley is too friendly, and does not consider her to be genuine. This assessment relates back to the poem “The Last Duchess”. Both Lady Audley and the Duchess are described as being overly nice and borderline flirtatious. Here, however, it seems that Michael Audley is not suspicious of his wife at all and is instead completely under her thumb. Instead is it the “wild” character Alicia and the animals (the dog and horse) that do not trust Lady Audley.

Lady Audley’s Practiced Demeanor and Robert Audley’s Slight Interrogation

“Better, perhaps that I should be out of the house – better, perhaps, that I should never have entered it…Oh, pray, do not be alarmed, Lady Audley,” he said gravely. “You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac, or Dumas fils, to fear from me.” Excerpt, Braddon p. 142

In this passage, Robert Audley has begun to interrogate Lady Audley. Leading up to this, Lady Audley had been talking with Robert about how “unfortunate” she thought it was that Robert had to be kicked out of their house. The reason she gives for Robert Audley being forced to leave is that her husband, Michael Audley, was concerned with it being “dangerous” for a man to be smoking so much around his wife. She tells Robert than he is owed an apology, because of her husband’s “silly thinking.” To the reader, this is clearly a lie, as we have heart the real reason Robert was turned away, and that Lady Audley clearly felt that no apology was needed. And although Lady Audley lied to Robert, she did it with her usual, “peculiar childish vivacity, which seemed so natural to her.” In this excerpt, Robert Audley shows the small amount of knowledge he has that she has malevolent intentions. By saying that it might have been better if he had never come into the house, Robert begins to bring up the idea that there is something dangerous about being inside it. After he says this, Lady Audley looks “with an earnest, questioning gaze,” that Robert fully understands. Although she looks up at him seemingly in earnest, what Robert understands is that this is all for show. He tells her not to be alarmed, as she shouldn’t expect any “nonsense,” or “silly infatuation” from him. He tells her that he will not have to borrow womanly tactics from the writing of Dumas, and the “fils” in them. This is Robert telling Lady Audley that he will not be pretending to be ignorant, or that he will not the true meanings of his words with anything “borrowed.” This passage shows the reader that Lady Audley is constantly retaining her façade around everyone, but that Robert Audley is challenging it.


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