Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lady Audley's Secret Readalong 5: "I have been afraid of you, Mr. Robert Audley, but perhaps the time may come in which you will have cause to be afraid of me."

Now that Lady Audley has made a good-faith effort to burn Robert to death in his bed, this seems like a good time to analyze Rob’s capital-W, capital-I Woman Issues.

Whenever the narrator has given us Rob’s perspective on matters, especially this week, we’ve been treated to his manifesto on the state of womankind—her inner plottings, her outward treacheries.

First, it was the thesis-worthy paragraph essentially expounding on that old adage, “Behind every great man is a woman who just will never shut up OMG.” Then we were treated to a lesson on the “witchery” of the tea ritual, the “legitimate empire” of women. “What do men know of the mysterious beverage?” It’s a very important job, and women are indispensable in carrying it out. Let the “sterner sex” worry about all this other tiresome business.

Then he’s dishing out judgment regarding women’s manner of dealing with other women and thus taking life out of men’s hands. And poor, unsuspecting man! He knows nothing of these womanly wiles until they are being applied to him mercilessly while the band plays on. And here is yet another comparison of women to witches and yet another depiction of men as helpless victims.

Through this dizzying and sometimes contradictory inner monologue delivered via narrator, two of Rob’s core beliefs emerge: Women abuse the power they’re given, and it’s up to men to ensure that doesn't happen. This is the same sentiment that powers most instances of prejudice and discrimination. It's fear.

Rob is afraid of women. And I’ve gotta say, within the framework of this story . . . he has reason to be.

Aside from the obvious external threat posed by Lady Audley, the women in this book seem to have most of the power—although not explicitly, because it’s still Victorian England. Think about the men though: Sir Michael, George, Luke, Rob. They are all written as strong in body and mind (maybe not you, Luke) but ultimately ruled, for better or worse, by the women in their lives.

But no, the women don’t always exert their power through selfish manipulation, as Lucy does. Alicia would have made Rob a powerful ally if he had ever bothered to confide in her about his doubts and suspicions. And Rob wastes a great deal of energy fretting over whether Clara will figure out what he’s been trying to conceal from her, the name of the person he suspects in George’s death. Meanwhile, Clara connects a few dots and figures it out all by herself in about 5 minutes.

And a couple of key Victorian tropes are being turned on their heads, too.

First, we have the commonly held belief at that time that a woman’s outward appearance was a foolproof indication of her inner character. Beautiful women were good, and ugly women were bad. Period. Rob muses over the shocking possibility that Lucy could be evil despite her beauty. But, alone in her chambers, Lucy contemplates the likelihood that she has done wrong all her life because of her beauty—because people discounted her character in favor of her appearance and thus gave her license to do as she pleased.

Second, how often in Victorian literature is a woman pronounced mad and wrongfully committed because a man needed her out of the way for one reason or another? In this case, Rob is terrified that Lucy will use her feminine power to reverse that trend. Based on my knowledge of the time period, such an occurrence would be virtually unheard of.

What I don’t understand is what Braddon is trying to tell us with all this. Is she using Rob as a mouthpiece for what she knew to be outdated views on women, in an effort to illustrate their absurdity? Is she expressing her feminism the only way she knows how, by painting the women as calculating and clever and the men as helpless and naïve? Will Rob ever admit to himself that maybe he keeps women at arm's length because his mother died when he was 5 and he just wants to be held?


  1. I would LOVE IT if Robert actually got committed to the insane asylum for talking crazy about Lucy being a murderess. Because, yeah, that is usually women that that happens to in fiction (and probably in life), and I'm mad at Robert so I feel like he deserves it.

  2. That would have been SO subversive of Braddon to write an ending like that. Which is why it would be awesome. But I'm not so sure Rob deserves that.

  3. "They are all written as strong in body and mind (maybe not you, Luke)" Hahaha, too true. I would say poor Luke, but he definitely rapes his wife so NO.

    Awwww, Robert totally just wants his mummy to hold him. And, I mean, I can't tell if MEB is trying to be all like 'women are great and everything you think you know is a lie' or if she's actually like 'women suck, and here's why.' I honestly don't know which it is. Stupid MEB causing conundrums...

  4. Wow, this is an EXCELLENT analysis of all of Rob's angry anti-lady rants and what MEB is doing with Victorian tropes and OH MAN this book is far more complicated than it seems at first glance.

  5. Hey thanks!

    I hope MEB is somewhere feeling pre-tty vindicated right now.

  6. I'm not sure if he's trying to protect the women or himself. I DON'T KNOW. Rob is a puzzler.

  7. poor Lukes here.

    Does Braddon expect us to, like, do research or something? I mean, really.

  8. YES! Yes to all of this! I want to slap Robert. I think part of the reason Robert takes so long to figure it all out is that Lucy is pretty and giggly. How could such a blonde thing do murder? Clara, on the other hand, sees it right away. Even Alicia could have told Robert this if he'd tell her a darn thing. All this protecting the womens is not doing anyone any good.