The Role of Gender and Sexuality in Lady Audley’s Secret

June 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

Romance and sexuality are not unfamiliar concepts to the typical Victorian sensational novel. Reversing and deconstructing these themes, however, marks a more sophisticated sensation novel and makes for a more enduring literary work. This technique is intriguing to a postmodern audience, but to a Victorian audience such an idea may have been seen as threatening and dangerous. In Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizbaeth Braddon deftly criticizes the conventional views of marriage, heterosexuality, and gender roles, all while veiling the contradictions in seemingly traditional views. These contradictions primarily serve to demonstrate the power of women; their roles are hidden, but they are nonetheless active under the guise of normative society and gender restrictions. Braddon clearly sets up the predicament of women and their need to find alternative ways to exert control over their lives (and sometimes the lives of others). For example, Clara Talboys must listen to evidence about her brother’s death, all the while staying composed and emotionless lest she be reprimanded by her father, as she once was simply for dropping a reel of cotton. As she listens to Robert Audley’s story, she “never once lift[s] her face from her clasped hands…her attitude never change[s]” (Braddon 216). Robert perceives her as cruel and heartless, but she is really only highly restricted. Although Clara remains one of the most passive female characters, true to the stereotypical female role, it is noteworthy how frequently Robert comments on her physical similarities to her brother George, thereby effectively reversing the gender roles and blurring the relationship between gender and passivity. Lady Audley is positioned as the most powerful and compelling female presence in the novel, and it is not hard to draw comparisons between her treachery and her need to improve her situation. Lady Audley even warns Sir Michael when he proposes, crying, “you ask too much of me! Remember what my life has been; only remember that. From my very babyhood I have never seen anything but poverty….I have been selfish from my babyhood” (52). Lady Audley begins her search for power by using her beauty and charm to improve her status, but when her status is threatened she must result to desperate (and illegal) measures. Lady Audley complies with the original model of using acceptable feminine means to take control of her life, but her actions only become despicable when she addresses matters in a more aggressive, or masculine, way. Lady Audley’s banishment and subsequent death can therefore be seen as a punishment for pursuing power in an overt and transgressive (and masculine) way, instead of in a covert (and appropriately feminine) way. Robert Audley even plays a role in the empowerment of women in the novel, for he is quite often described as somewhat feminine. For example, he “pushe[s] his hands through the thick luxuriance of his straight brown hair, and uplift[s] the dark mass in despair.” (229). He also “stroll[s] into the Temple Gardens…with his shirt collar turned down and a blue silk handkerchief tied loosely about his neck” (71). He dislikes hunting “and[keeps] at a very respectful distance from the hard riders; his horse knowing quite well as he did, that nothing was further from his thoughts than any desire to be in at the death” (72). And although Robert appreciates his cousin, Alicia, for her beauty and her affection for him, “the idea of turning his cousin’s girlish liking for him to some good account never enter[s] his idle brain” (72). In fact, Alicia pursues Robert much in the way a man pursues a woman. In addition, Robert also displays what seems to be a sexual, homoerotic love for George. The two friends live together up until the point when George disappears. The rest of the novel centers on Robert’s obsession with George’s disappearance: it is clear that Robert “seem[s] to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys” (232). For instance, Robert says, “it’s comfortable, but it seems so d – d lonely to-night. If poor George were sitting opposite to me, or – or even George’s sister – she’s very like him – existence might be a little more endurable” (230). The feminization of Robert’s character, in addition to his hypothetical homoerotic love for George, creates an interesting dynamic between the feminine means for acquiring power and the aggressive, masculine ways he is entitled to pursue control by virtue of his gender. For example, Robert is allowed to aggressively investigate George’s death, but he often expresses a seemingly feminine desire for Lady Audley to simply flee the country so he can avoid the confrontation and hurt that will be associated with his aggressive and masculine pursuit. As it relates to the novel as a feminist statement, it is interesting to note that Braddon feminizes the main character before she allows him power. At times, the author barely disguises her message at all. The frequent interjections of rants describing women as “the stronger sex, the noisier, the more pervasive” (229) seem so out of character for Robert and so in tune with the author’s message that one may see the passages as narrative reflections on female power. For example, Robert says, “if they can’t make mountains of warfare and play at ball with hemispheres, they’ll make mountains of warfare and vexation of out of domestic molehills; and social storms in household teacups” (229). This statement perfectly describes the predicament of women: unable to find power overtly in the world, they must resort to the means and the environments they can control – the social and domestic spheres. In addition, it seems belittling to say that “a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea,” but “at the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable. What do men know of the mysterious beverage?” (242-3). It can also be said that tea’s power, like a woman’s power, lies in its domesticity and inherent mystery to men.Interestingly, Braddon wholly discredits the institution of marriage and consequently empowers women. The purest example of love is seen in a homosexual (and therefore non-marital) context, while the main marriage in the novel – that of Lady and Sir Michael Audley – is the most flawed and deceitful relationship of all. Sir Michael even prophesizes his own dismal fate when he says, “nothing but misery can result from a marriage dictated by any motive but truth and love” (51). Even Robert laments, saying “Look at marriages! Who is to say which shall be the one judicious selection out of the nine hundred and ninety-nine mistakes? Who shall decide from the first aspect of the slimy creature, which is to be the one eel out of the colossal bag of snakes?” (225) The negatively charged diction – not to mention the pessimistic message itself – certainly reflects on the author’s view of marriage. One can even wonder if Clara only agreed to marry Robert in an effort to help the search for her brother, which would be an effective way of using her limited power for her own means.This argument, of course, is not without its contradictions. The conclusion of the novel is enough to raise serious doubts about the integrity of the theory, for all of the characters end up happily (and heterosexually) paired off. Is this merely to satisfy the traditional Victorian audience? Is it an attempt by Braddon to resolve the aforementioned issues, at least in her own conscience? The answer remains unclear. In addition, the role of Alicia Audley – a seemingly masculine and aggressively forward character – remains in conflict with the feminine power theory. Perhaps it is noteworthy that when Alicia acts in a manly and assertive way she gets nowhere – her father doesn’t listen to her, Robert refuses her, and she loses her chance with Sir Harry Towers. Yet she ends up assuming a feminine role in caring for her father, and then marries Sir Harry. Was it insulting of Braddon to only allow women to acquire power and manage their destinies by manipulating their social and domestic sphere? I think this choice can be more aptly described as “intelligent.” There are obvious difficulties inherent in the assumption that women should drastically shift the balance of power in society so as to procure alternate means for acquiring power, so it stands as a tribute to the skill and intelligence of women that they can find ways to empower themselves while still operating within the rigid confines of their feminine roles. WORKS CITEDBraddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. Ed. Natalie M. Houston. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2003.

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