“La Femme” ‘s Covert Intention

“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. 

Age Before Beauty

Paragraph beginning “That one quiet evening had sealed Sir Michael’s fate…” and ending “Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love” (Braddon 12-13). 

This paragraph begins with the description of Lucy Graham, a charming governess beloved by all for her quiet beauty.  Sir Michael Audley, upon meeting Miss Graham, wrestles with the complexity of his emotions.  He sees her largely in a gentle light and recognizes her femininity, yet this is almost immediately and violently juxtaposed with the tumultuous conflict over love which occupies his mind.  Michael cries (inaudibly), “Destiny!  Why, she was his destiny!  He had never loved before” (Braddon 12).  This phrase indicates that Michaels sees love not as a relationship between people, but as a means of ownership and submission between those who partake in the marriage vow.  He also places the value of his happiness on her by saying that she alone is what his future holds.  This view of ownership and power dynamics is further substantiated by the description of his wrestling thoughts.  He describes his definition of love as a, “fever, this longing, this restless, uncertain, miserable hesitation; these cruel fears that his age was an insurmountable barrier to happiness” (Braddon 12).  The emotions of a man are seen in this passage as a plague or something to be pitied.  Both the presentation of Lucy Graham and Michael Audley’s view of love and emotion seem to fall within typical expectations between sexes: the female being sweet and silent; a beacon of light in a dark world, while the male is vocal and dominant.  This passage appears to be about a man’s ability to express emotion, as Michael Audley repeatedly struggles with his emotional desires, his age, and his past marriage.  Because of the strength of the words being expressed, but only within the confines of Sir Audley’s mind, this passage implies an apparently typical emotional alienation and the invocation of a public mask to protect private life.