70 pages 2 hours read

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Lady Audley's Secret

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1862

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Summary and Study Guide


Lady Audley’s Secret was published in 1862 and caused a stir among Victorian readers with its depiction of murder, madness, extortion, and bigamy.


The novel centers on a young woman, Lucy Graham, a governess working in the village of Audley. Everyone in the village is charmed by her, including Sir Michael Audley, who was instantly smitten with her youth, beauty, and sweet demeanor. Sir Michael is a wealthy, 56-year-old widower who did not want Lucy to marry him for his money and status. Still, when Lucy accepted his offer of marriage, she admitted that the lifestyle that he could provide attracted her. After their marriage, they live at Audley Court, along with Sir Michael’s teenage daughter Alicia, who resents her new stepmother.


Meanwhile, a young man called George Talboys is sailing for England, keen to be reunited with his wife, Helen, and his son. Originally, from a wealthy family, he was cast out after marrying a woman of a lower social status and was forced to seek employment in Australia. He is now looking forward to resuming his married life but a conversation with a fellow passenger causes him anxiety. Who knows what might have happened in the three-and-a-half years he has been away?


When George returns to England, he is shocked to learn that his wife has died. His friend, Robert Audley—Sir Michael’s nephew— decides to take him to Audley in an attempt to lift his spirits, but this proves to be a more significant decision than he could have imagined.


Though Robert is keen for George to visit Audley Court, Lady Audley keeps postponing their meeting until she finally runs into George and Robert one night. A storm breaks this same night, and both George and Lady Audley seem very much affected by it: George seems anxious and preoccupied, while Lady Audley is terrified and hysterical.


In the following days, George attempts to meet with Lady Audley before he suddenly disappears. Most people think nothing of this, but Robert becomes increasingly worried. As he investigates the matter, he becomes suspicious. In particular, he uncovers a variety of circumstantial evidence implicating Lady Audley in George’s disappearance, as well as suggesting that she is not who she claims to be.


As Robert pursues his investigation, Lady Audley makes every effort to thwart his progress, even making an attempt on his life. At this point, Robert tells Lady Audley that she must reveal the truth or he will.


Lady Audley subsequently tells Sir Michael her life’s story: she grew up in poverty and has been blighted with a form of madness inherited from her mother. She also explains her anger upon being deserted by her first husband—George Talboys. She thus confirms what the reader had already guessed, which is that she is Helen Talboys and has created a false identity so as to move on with her life and marry a wealthy man. This involved faking her death in an attempt to prevent George from pursuing her when he returned to England. In reality, the person lying in her grave is a young woman who died of consumption and whose mother agreed to pass her off as Helen in exchange for money.


Sir Michael is dejected and does not wish to have any further contact with Lady Audley, entrusting her care to Robert. Following her claims of madness, Robert contacts a doctor who is skeptical but agrees that she is dangerous and would be better off in confinement.


Helen is consequently admitted into a mental institution, where she reveals the truth of George’s disappearance: he confronted her and she killed him, pushing him into the well in the gardens of Audley Court. Robert is horrified.


Upon returning home, Robert receives a letter from Luke Marks: the husband of Lady Audley’s former maid, Phoebe. He and his wife had known Lady Audley’s true identity, as well as what she had done to George, and had been extorting money from her in exchange for their silence. However, Luke reveals that he had discovered an injured man in the gardens of Audley Court one day—George Talboys. Luke hadn’t told anyone of his discovery so as to continue extorting money from Lady Audley. As he is now on his deathbed, however, he wishes to tell the truth.


Robert sets about trying to find George, but this proves unnecessary when George pays him a visit. He has been working in New York but has become increasingly lonely and oppressed by the burden of his past. He has therefore returned in order to seek the company of friends.


The novel concludes with Robert marrying George’s sister and George building a relationship with his young son. Sir Michael is dealing with his grief as best he can, with Alicia’s help, while Helen Talboys dies following a long illness.