Lady Audley's Secret is a sensation novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, written in 1862. It was originally produced in three volumes along with a serialized magazine version and, later, a single volume edition.
Lady Audley's Secret follows Robert Audley through his attempts to discover what happened to his friend George Talboys and to discover who his uncle's wife, Lucy Audley, really is. During his search, Robert faces lies, deceit, and even an attempt to kill him. Although the novel's content of bigamy and attempted murder was considered fairly immoral at the time of publication , it was extremely successful. It has been in print ever since its first publication.
The novel opens with the marriage of Lucy Graham, a beautiful, doll-like blonde, to Sir Michael Audley, a widower, in June 1857. Lucy was a governess for the local doctor, Mr. Dawson. Until her marriage, Lucy was in service with Mrs. Vincent, and all that is known of her past is that she is an orphan. Around the time of the marriage, Sir Michael’s nephew, barrister Robert Audley, welcomes back to England an old friend of his, George Talboys, who has returned after three years of fortune-hunting in Australia.
George is anxious to get news of his wife, Helen, whom he left three years ago when their financial situation became desperate, in the hope of returning to her with Australian gold. He reads in the newspaper that she has died, and, after visiting her home to confirm this, he has a complete breakdown. Robert Audley cares for his friend, and, hoping to distract him, offers to take him to his wealthy uncle’s country manor. George had a child, Georgey, who was left under the care of Lieutenant Maldon, George's father-in-law. Robert and George set off to visit Georgey, and George decides to make Robert little Georgey's guardian and caretaker of 20,000 pounds put into the boy's name. After settling the matter of the boy's guardianship, the two set off to visit Sir Michael.
While at Audley Court, the country manor, Lady Audley avoids meeting with George. When the two seek an audience with the new Lady Audley, she makes many excuses to avoid their visit, but he and Robert are shown a portrait of her by Alicia Audley, Robert’s cousin. George appears greatly struck by the portrait, somewhat to Robert’s surprise, but he does not comment further on it. Shortly thereafter, George disappears, much to Robert’s consternation. Unwilling to believe that George has simply left him, Robert begins to look into the circumstances around the disappearance.
While searching for his friend, Robert begins to take notes of the events as they unfold. His notes indicate the involvement of Lady Audley, and he slowly begins to collect evidence against her. One night, he reveals the evidence and notes that George was in possession of many letters that his former wife wrote. Lady Audley immediately sets off to London, where the letters were kept, and Robert follows after her. However, by the time he arrives, he discovers that George's possessions have been broken into with the help of a local locksmith and that the letters have vanished. However, one possession, a book with a note written by George's wife that matches Lady Audley's handwriting, remains. This confirms Robert's suspicion that Lady Audley is implicated in George's disappearance; it also leads Robert to conclude that Lady Audley is actually George's supposedly dead wife.
Suspecting the worst of Lady Audley and being afraid for little Georgey's life, Robert travels to Lieutenant Maldon's house and demands possession of the boy. Once Robert has Georgey under his control, he places the boy in a school run by Mr. Marchmont. Afterwards, Robert visits George's father, Mr. Harcourt Talboys, and confronts the Squire with his son's death. Mr. Harcourt listens dispassionately to the story. In the course of his visit to the Talboy's manor, Robert is entranced by George’s sister Clara, who looks startlingly like George. Clara’s passion for finding her brother spurs Robert on.
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