“Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea. The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance…To do away with the tea-table is to rob a woman of her legitimate empire” (Braddon 222).
The Victorians cultivated rigid social structure, despite the time period of mounting social questioning of fronts such as women’s rights. This passage portrays the picture of domesticity embodied by Lady Audley, entertaining in her husband’s court. Lucy prepares tea under the scrupulous eye of her nephew, Robert. Because this passage is observed from the perspective of a man, it is quite telling of the expectations and unconscious biases that Victorian men hold with regard to their female counterparts. Robert’s choice of descriptors such as the repetition of the word “pretty” show a surface level of understanding of women, and reinforces the idea that he views her as an ornament for his uncle’s domestic pleasure. Within the private confines of his mind, and interestingly within the confines of the same sentence, he presumes that a woman being “feminine” and “domestic” are integral aspects of a home’s harmony. These adjectives indicate that it is a woman’s ability to be submissive that gives her value so to take this from her would be to rob her of her entire purpose, as suggested by the tea table empire. If a man gives a woman the world in the form of a tea table, it is quite a small sphere is which he expects her to live.
What is interesting about this passage as well is the comparison of feminine harmony to witchcraft in the second sentence. In a way, this choice of word is poignant because, to mention the idiom, Lucy appears to have “cast a spell” upon her husband. He is compliant to her whims because she is the perfect domestic socialite – the pinnacle of femininity and the epitome of perfection. Throughout subsequent chapters, it is by her delicate pining and gentle pleading that Lady Audley is able to manipulate and misdirect audiences. This realization speaks volumes about the novel as a whole, and though it may sound crazy, it is possible that Lady Audley uses her femininity as a means of deception, which is in direct opposition to the common conceptions about female gentility. Lucy’s actions in subsequent chapters suggest a mask that she uses in public, and a more private desperation for control which lead her to manipulate her position as a beautiful, ornamental wife. It also poses the question to her character is a critique of seemingly archaic womanhood in contrast to broader historical context showing an evolving female character.