Mary Braddon, in a magazine interview, acknowledged the debt her hugely successful novel of 1862, Lady Audley’s Secret, owed to Wilkie Collins’s novel of 1860, The Woman in White. In her novel she had reversed Collins’s central situations: her criminal is female, her victims male: Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie are rescued from a lunatic asylum, Lady Audley is consigned to one at the end of the novel. But as Toru Sasaki points out, and as these reversals suggest, “she was also expressing opposition to [Collins]. … Lady Audley was clearly meant as a protest against the passive and angelic heroines of the period” (Sasaki, xii). Extending the idea of reversal or protest to the novel’s title image, I wish to suggest that Lady Audley is a Woman in Colour, but that her colours are bound up with her “secret.”
Even Collins’s admirers must have found Laura Fairlie, the heroine of The Woman in White, irritating. A needlessly supine victim of men, Laura, like so many of Collins’s ostensible heroines, is bleached into nonentity. She is pale, fair and blue-eyed, and the bleaching effect is doubled in her alter ego, Anne Catherick, whose face is “colourless,” whose hair – like Laura’s – is “a pale brownish-yellow” (Collins, 20). The frequent confusion of these women with wraiths further undercuts their physicality. Laura’s single concession to colour is in the “delicate” blue stripe on one of her otherwise white dresses – and for her last evening with Walter before her marriage she wears blue silk. Anne always wears white.
Laura is wisely kept absent during much of the action. Often too weak to leave her room, ill, believed dead, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, and then reduced to such infantilism that even speech fails her, she becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called “the Macguffin” – a catalyst for the actions of others. One of the most attractive of those others is, of course, Marian Halcombe, her dark and voluptuous half-sister. Marian dresses more interestingly, in rich yellow silk for evening, but when she climbs out of her window onto the roof to eavesdrop on Count Fosco’s plot against Laura, she compounds the unfemininity of the action by removing not only her silks but her petticoats – there would have been many in the heavily-crinolined 1860s – to stand in the rain in coarse dark flannel and a black cloak. Count Fosco in the novel is one of literature’s more appealing villains, not least because he admires Marian, “this magnificent woman” whom he compares with “that poor flimsy pretty blonde,” Laura (Collins, 331). But Collins confuses gender stereotypes and quickly scotches Marian’s sexual attractions for the hero, Walter Hartwright, by giving her a moustache. If this masculine attribute frees her to become the intelligent and resourceful protagonist who rescues Laura, it does not radically challenge the blonde/brunette oppositions of popular literature.
Collins himself seemed to be pleading against such formulae in 1856 when he wrote that he wanted to “revolutionize our favourite two sisters. … Would readers be fatally startled … if the short charmer with the golden hair appeared before them as a serious, strong-minded, fierce-spoken, miserable, guilty woman?” (cited in Carnell, 154). Readers, as we know, were in fact delighted in their millions when in 1862, Mary Braddon gave them Lady Audley, a heroine with Laura Fairlie’s looks and Count Fosco’s wicked ingenuity and energy. Laura/Anne had been the Woman in White. How then would Helen Maldon/Lucy Graham/Lady Audley colour her multiple personalities? The colouring is, as I hope to show, not just a matter of dress and complexion, but a matter of description, representation and associated properties.
Braddon’s heroine wears the white summer dress appropriate to an unmarried woman when, at the sunny start of the novel, as the humble young governess, Lucy Graham, she wins the love of Sir Michael Audley. As Lady Audley, however, she appears in a sequence of highly-coloured, lavishly-dressed set-pieces. The change in style and colour of dress reflects, on the most superficial level, her altered social and (apparent) marital status, from poor spinster governess to wealthy aristocratic wife; but the way Braddon dwells on these scenes, in a novel she wrote at high-speed, suggests there is more to it than this. Collins’s title concealed the fact that there were two women in white; equally Braddon’s title teased the reader with the question of just what Lady Audley’s awful secret was – there seem to be several. She’s a bigamist, possibly a murderer, she has a baby, her father is an alcoholic, she’s a forger, she may be mad – but most of these facts are revealed well before the end. Only hereditary madness is offered with any sense of revelation. Under that first white dress, however, she wears a trinket on a black ribbon, “but whatever the trinket was, she always kept it hidden under her dress” (Braddon, Lady Audley, 8).
While working on Lady Audley Braddon was also writing Aurora Floyd, a novel in which Aurora’s appearance is frequently noted, but the focus is almost entirely on hairstyles and headgear; dress is registered in brief colour-notes. Aurora too has her secret, but it is not really bigamy she conceals, it is a traditionally angelic heart beneath a hoyden’s surface. Elsewhere Braddon chose to describe dress precisely enough to date a novel. For example, the costume in which Lesbia intends to elope in Phantom Fortune(1884) is described minutely, from her “little blue silk toque” down to the toes of her “dainty little tan-coloured boots” (Braddon, Phantom Fortune, 256). In Lady Audley’s Secret, however, Braddon gives us neither a single telling detail nor a fashion-plate, but instead focuses on dramatically loaded effects. Henry James accused her in a review of 1865 of “getting up” her “photograph” of Lady Audley with “the small change … [of] her eyes, her hair, her mouth, her dresses, her bedroom furniture” (James, 744-5): it is not, however, photography she has in mind but, quite specifically, Pre-Raphaelite painting. The deliberate references in the novel to this other, earlier, popular “sensation” seem worth exploring.
Before Robert Audley meets Lucy Audley, he and George Talboys enter her apartments while she is absent. Making their way through the intimacies of discarded dresses and untidy toilet-table, they penetrate her boudoir, where they face not her but her portrait: “I am afraid the [painter] belonged to the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for he had spent a most unconscionable time upon the accessories of this picture – upon my lady’s crispy ringlets and the heavy folds of her crimson velvet dress” (Braddon, Lady Audley, 69). First Robert, then George, look at the picture:
No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets with every glimmer of gold and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion and a strange sinister light to the deep blue eyes… I suppose the painter had copied quaint mediaeval monstrosities until his brain had grown bewildered, for my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.
Her crimson dress, exaggerated like all the rest in this strange picture, hung about her in folds that looked like flames, her fair head peeping out of the lurid mass of colour, as if out of a raging furnace. Indeed, the crimson dress, the sunshine on the face, the red gold gleaming in the yellow hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips, the glowing colours of each accessory of the minutely painted background, all combined to render the first effect of the painting by no means an agreeable one. (Braddon, Lady Audley, 70-71)
We should note that the demonic hints in these paragraphs are the narrator’s. The focus is on colour but is selective, what the French critic Denis Apothéloz terms a découpage, where face, hair and dress are “cut off from [their] surroundings” (cited in Hughes, Reading Novels, 58) – which are described only as “minutely painted.” George Talboys says nothing, Robert Audley says he dislikes the portrait; but in the novel’s final pages, visitors to Audley Court wonder about “the pretty, fair-haired woman” in the portrait (Braddon, Lady Audley, 446).
Braddon was evidently familiar with the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, who had first shocked the London art world in 1848. Though they were controversial and claimed to be radicalizing British art, in their first phase they simply brightened and intensified its colour-range while creating a rage for medieval subjects. Otherwise they continued to produce the detailed moral narratives that typified Victorian art. In fact, with Ruskin’s support, they were soon fashionable, though they maintained a reputation for outrage and modernity. It is worth asking just what Pre-Raphaelite paintings Braddon could have seen, with which works she might expect her readers to be familiar, and what associations these would have had.
As we now know from Jennifer Carnell’s biography, at the time of the Pre-Raphaelite exhibitions of the 1850s, Braddon was pursuing a career as an actress, mainly in Brighton, but occasionally in London and the north (Carnell, 287-375), so she could have visited any London exhibitions in which she was interested. That she had more than a passing interest in art is suggested by her 1865 letter to a fringe-Pre-Raphaelite, Alfred Elmore, suggesting titles for a work of his she had evidently seen before it was offered for exhibition (Carnell, 178). In Elmore’s picture, On the Brink, a woman is the focus of a morally ambiguous drama, a scene characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite work after1860. Pre-Raphaelite images of women before this betray few obviously sinister aspects: Rossetti’s early pictures feature pure if etiolated virgins: Holman Hunt’s seductive shepherdess, in his much-discussed Hireling Shepherd, is a cheerful, bouncing brunette.
Braddon’s focus, in Lady Audley’s portrait, on a meticulously painted head of golden hair, blue eyes and a pale face against a brilliant dress does recall, however, two of the most popular works exhibited by the P.R.B. at the Royal Academy: Arthur Hughes’ April Love (1856) and his Long Engagement (1859). Ruskin rhapsodised over April Love in his Academy Notes, praising its sweetness and use of colour. The girl at the centre of both pictures conforms to the angelic stereotype – blue eyes and a tremulous, child-like face framed by fine gold hair. Both wear vivid violet blue clothing (a colour we will see on Lucy Audley, and very fashionable at the time) – velvet in one case, silk in the other – set against a sharp green backdrop. The violent colouring runs oddly counter to the otherwise ideally angelic appearance of the women, and in both cases their vividness almost obliterates the background males. Though never exhibited, Hughes’Aurora Leigh of 1860 takes the image further: blonde Aurora in her acid-green dress overwhelms her dim suitor. Ellen Heaton, who commissioned the work, wanted a more traditional white dress, but Hughes held out for green. Ruskin, urging Heaton to commission a work from Hughes, assured her that he was “quite safe – everybody will like what he does” (Bowness, 190).
These popular images have nevertheless none of the hell-fire Braddon hints at in Lady Audley’s portrait. The essence of Braddon’s plot, however, is the success with which Helen Maldon inhabits her successive roles. She is not simply an actress, putting her costumes on and off; she becomes her other personae, and Braddon never uses her earlier, “real” name, as she moves from one identity to another. There is no suggestion that she is anything other than a model governess to the Dawsons, and a loving and attentive wife to Sir Michael. Alicia Audley’s dislike of Lucy is based not on any perceived threat, but contempt for her childishness and china-doll looks. Lucy’s sunny kindness is welcomed by her husband’s tenants and no demons are visible until she feels threatened by the boorish Luke Marks and misogynistic Robert Audley. I would suggest, then, that it is part of Braddon’s scheme to remind the reader of actual Pre-Raphaelite icons of blue-eyed, golden-haired, blameless girlhood, an ideal to which Lucy Audley, in life, seems to conform, while at the same time colouring the fictional portrait in sinister lights. To be really dangerous Lady Audley must seem utterly innocent.
The strength of a novel, as opposed to a painting, is that several images can be held by the mind at once, denying a single viewpoint on which to rest. As Lyn Pykett has argued, Lady Audley’s Secret “is staged as a spectacle, just as within the narrative the character is staging herself” – and, furthermore, being re-staged as a painting. The heroine becomes the object of our gaze, but as Pykett points out, there is “no single ideological perspective” nor even “a coherent range of perspectives,” but a series of conflicting views – “if the sensation heroine embodies anything, it is an uncertainty about the definition of the feminine” (Pykett, 89, 81, 82). Nina Auerbach, in her study of 19th century iconography, Woman and the Demon, describes strategies for maintaining angelic faces in mid-19th century fiction: among Dickens’ pure angels, Little Nell dies young to stay intact; Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, while a cat-vampire, keeps an angel face; Thackeray’s demonic Beatrix Castlewood lives side by side with the ageless angel, Rachel. Auerbach notes that Braddon “employs with scholarly precision angelic iconography for demonic purposes … it requires only the fire of an altered palette to bring out the contours of the one latent in the face of the other” (Auerbach, 107).
Indeed the novel’s Pre-Raphaelite colouring pales the morning after the viewing of the portrait, when Lady Audley appears in pink muslin, seen within the classic Victorian frame for a domestic “Queen” – in the garden, gathering roses. The sinister suggestions of the night before are overlaid and confused by this very different style of female imagery. But we return to P.R.B. tones in the scene where she gives Luke Marks fifty pounds on his marriage to her maid Phoebe: “Lady Audley sat in the glow of firelight … the amber damask cushions of the sofa contrasting with her dark violet velvet dress, and her rippling hair falling about her neck in a golden haze.” When Marks insolently demands more, she realizes he knows something of her secret, and confronts him, “her clear blue eyes flashing with indignation” (Braddon, Lady Audley, 108-9). Shortly after, when Robert Audley menacingly recounts his suspicions of her role in George Talboys’ disappearance, she faints against the amber cushions, and “shadows of green and crimson [fall] upon my lady’s face from the painted escutcheons in the mullioned windows” (120). The colours are exotic rather than demonic, and recall John Millais’ popular painting of Tennyson’s long-suffering Mariana, of 1851.
It is always a risky exercise to nail a factual detail to a fictional account; Mary Braddon was not a note-book novelist nor even as meticulous about train-timetables as Wilkie Collins. She wrote at speed, which sometimes led to slips. (In a later novel she calls the Italian police “carbonari” – a nice confusion of cuisine and law-enforcement.) She does, however, refer specifically to one painter, Holman Hunt, in a later scene in the novel, after Lady Audley has left the bedside of her sick husband and returned to the boudoir, whose inner recess contains her Pre-Raphaelite portrait. These two descriptions – the portrait and the boudoir – occasioned James’s criticism of the novel. The description of the boudoir runs to over a page and is so overloaded with accounts of objets d’art, furniture, rich colours – as well as references to notorious Frenchwomen, the whole bathed in firelight, with a storm howling outside – that Braddon might reasonably be accused of overkill. I have elsewhere criticised Braddon for using descriptive details indiscriminately (Hughes, Henry James, 11), but it might well be suggested in defence of her style that this particular description has its equivalent in Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, a work that had a sensational reception at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1854 and with which readers of the novel would be familiar.
Virginia Morris rightly notes in her study of murderous Victorian heroines, Double Jeopardy, that “there is no Hunt work as evocative of the sense of feminine evil that Braddon is trying to create” (Morris, 162). She suggests alternatives: either Rossetti’s Lucrezia Borgia or Burne-Jones’s Sidonia von Bork, both of 1860, as sources for Lady Audley’s “portrait.” There seems to be some confusion here between two very different parts of the novel: on the one hand there is the portrait of Lady Audley, on the other there is a description of Lady Audley in her boudoir (which happens to contain a reference to Holman Hunt).
Chris Willis points to the same Burne-Jones work as possibly “the original of Lady Audley’s Pre-Raphaelite portrait,” relating it to the first description of Lady Audley, though she acknowledges the colour is wrong (Willis). Sidonia von Bork is indeed gorgeous and sinister, but as Pykett says, Braddon’s image of Lucy Audley is always ambiguous, and the image of Sidonia could never have been described at the end of the novel as “the pretty fair-haired woman” of the portrait. Moreover, Burne-Jones was almost unknown at this time; this apprentice watercolour was bought by a Newcastle magnate, James Leatheart, and not exhibited until 1892 (Wilson, 123). As for Rossetti, he exhibited only once, privately, in the 1850s – though his work at this time has a significance to which I will return.
In turning, then, to a consideration of The Awakening Conscience, I wish to make clear that the woman at the centre of the work bears no resemblance to Lucy Audley. Hunt’s Fallen Woman, moving out of her lover’s clasp, is undergoing a repentance that has been stirred by memories of lost innocence, symbolised by the sunlit natural world seen through the window of her “love-nest.” Lucy Audley is alone and unrepentant to the last. Hunt’s brunette wears a loose, ivory gown in the Aesthetic style, but Braddon describes Lucy only briefly, and in sensual rather than fashionable terms – “the rich folds of drapery [fell] in long undulating lines from the exquisite outline of her figure.” She is beautiful, “but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings” (Lady Audley, 295). As is clear from Ruskin’s defense of The Awakening Conscience, it is the fevered, magnified focus on the details of the setting in this painting that draws the eye, not the rather vacuous central figure: “nothing is more notable”, Ruskin wrote, “than the way in which even the most trivial objects force themselves upon the attention”. He felt there was something especially sinister in “the terrible lustre … the fatal newness of the furniture,” most evident in the piano at which the girl sits (Ruskin). Her sheet music lies on the piano and on the floor; beside the piano, is an embroidery frame, whose coloured silks also tumble to the floor. Behind her is a gilt-framed mirror that reflects her figure within a window-frame, against a garden-view.
In Lady Audley’s “elegant chamber” the piano is open, “covered with scattered sheets of music … my lady’s fairy-like embroideries of lace and muslin, rainbow-hued silks and delicately-tinted wools littered the luxurious apartment; while the looking-glasses, cunningly placed at angles and opposite corners, multiplied my lady’s image.” The reference to Holman Hunt follows, after which Braddon intensifies the account of the room by listing china, gold, ivories, cabinets, figurines, Indian filigree, pictures, mirrors and drapery. The image concludes with Lady Audley looking not at a redemptive garden, but “into the red chasms in the burning coals” (Braddon, Lady Audley, 294-5). The devil is – we might say – in the details. This account of her background reverses the découpage of the portrait description; Lucy Audley’s figure is now placed within a surrounding mass of objects, which are recorded in one sweeping unselective gaze, a bonfire of the vanities – almost an English version of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus.
As she had reversed Collins’s situations in The Woman in White, Braddon now takes Hunt’s modern moral subject of a Kept Woman, clad in near-white, saved from the “wages of sin” (all those shiny new things) by a vision of Eden, and reverses it while she protests at its implausibility. Lady Audley is fixed and defined by the “wages” of her respectable marriage, by even more shiny new things. The notion of giving it all up for an epiphany of grass and trees, trusting to the mercies of the patriarchal world of Robert Audley, is mocked by the sound of the wind in the leafless branches outside Lady Audley’s window. Her figure, left unrealised amidst the intensely realised welter of rich objects, is neither evil nor sympathetic, but more simply, disturbing.
The Garden of Earthly Delights in which Lucy Audley now finds herself has become a nightmare. She has seen no reason why a determined and competent woman should not only be able to survive by her wits but also amass the trophies of success, the paintings and objets d’art of a Victorian consumerist world. Denied legitimate masculine paths to material rewards, she has worked through the means available to beautiful women – men – and has arrived at her goal, her connoisseur’s boudoir, which is now also her trap. To keep it she has to “wade in blood” much deeper, for repentance is not really an option. And so, as Dr. Musgrave diagnoses, she is “not mad … she is dangerous” (Braddon, Lady Audley, 379), an uncertifiable and more alarming condition.
Hunt’s art is avowedly there in the text. But we may also return to Rossetti, whose images of female beauty have so often been evoked in relation to Braddon’s heroines. Indeed, Jennifer Carnell records that Braddon’s favourite stage version of Lady Audley’s Secret was that of 1863, with Ruth Herbert, who had also modelled for Rossetti (Carnell, 196-7). As I have said earlier, Rossetti did not exhibit during the 1850s. It cannot, then, be a question of Rossetti influencing Braddon, but rather of an idea – that of the Dangerous Woman – whose time had come, an idea which Braddon and Rossetti had begun to explore simultaneously. What Hughes’s blonde angels lacked were “the strange-coloured fires” of Braddon’s first “portrait” (Lady Audley, 71). In the unrealised figure of Lady Audley in the second description “it requires only the fire of an altered palette,” the slumbering volcano of a Rossetti woman, to emerge from behind Hunt’s white girl, to reveal the true colours of Braddon’s heroine.
By the1850s the original Pre-Raphaelite group had disbanded; Rossetti had withdrawn, the movement had acquired new members and could now be seen as moving towards Aestheticism, or, as has recently been suggested, a British version of Symbolism (Wilton). Rossetti had begun to experiment with Italian Renaissance subjects and a simplified colour range, and, among a series of watercolours featuring the Borgias, is Rossavestita, of 1851, a single female figure against a plain background, in voluminous crimson dress, with the mass of gold hair that would become Rossetti’s signature. There can be no actual connection between this sketch and that first Pre-Raphaelite description of Lady Audley, but there they both are – startlingly crimson and gold heralds of things to come.
Rossetti moved back into oils in the late 1850s, and, phasing out his anorexic maidens, decided to “exploit the more voluptuous style of Titian and Venetian art in general” (“The Rossetti Archive”). Big, blonde Fanny Cornforth also entered Rossetti’s life at this time and displaced ailing Elizabeth Siddal as model and mistress. The pivotal work in his new style was Bocca Baciata, painted in 1859 and exhibited in 1860 at the Hogarth Club. This innocent/seductive half-length figure of Fanny, trapped between a parapet and a dark floral background, richly dressed and jewelled with flowing red-gold hair, marks the emergence of the distinctive Rossetti Woman. Placed in “hieratic scenes of various kinds” these pictures “arrange themselves in a dialectic of ‘Madonna and Whore’ figures” (“The Rossetti Archive”). There followed a succession of increasingly dangerous, beautiful females – Fazio’s Mistress, 1863; Morning Music andVenus Verticordia, 1864; The Blue Bower and Il Ramoscello, 1865; Monna Vanna of 1866; Lady Lilith, started in 1864 and finished in 1868. They don’t stop there, of course: like Mary Braddon’s women they have many years of life, but these sirens of the 1860s, who “turn traditional portraiture on its head” (Wilton, 19), share enough characteristics with Lucy Audley – who turned traditional heroines on their heads – to make my point.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that the paintings are without attendant males – as are the two central descriptions of Lady Audley. What drives Lucy Audley is not sexual desire, after all – the man is only her means to an end, which is the possession and enjoyment of luxury. “Luxury,” as Lyn Pykett puts it, “is erotic to Lady Audley” (Pykett, 101). Rossetti’s women are most frequently shown at dressing tables, usually alone, gazing into mirrors, or abstractedly out at the spectator – or, as Andrew Wilton suggests, “into their own soul” (Wilton, 19). Rossetti said of the first of these self-caressing women, Fazio’s Mistressof 1863, that the picture “was chiefly a piece of colour… done at a time when I had a mania for buying bricabrac, and used to stick it into my pictures” (cited in Rossetti, 69). With their vibrant colour, nets of golden hair and “bricabrac,” Fazio’s Mistress, Lady Lilith or Monna Vanna might sit at the vacant centre of Braddon’s version of The Awakening Conscience – and reverse Hunt’s intentions. Hunt called Rossetti’s new style “remarkable for gross sensuality of a revolting kind,” and there is indeed nothing redeemed or redeemable about these big, brooding women, who threaten unnameable things if once allowed out.
Rossetti’s women have not abdicated as Queens in Gardens or Angels in Houses, but the fiction of power attached to such empty titles now threatens to become real. His Liliths, Pandoras, Proserpines and Marianas are far too big for their spaces, and they push up against and out of parapets, windows, curtains and high hedges. Rossetti’s rendering of dress has moved from an archaeological approach to a much less specific treatment, in which voluptuously draped figures can inhabit Titian’s Venice, Winterhalter’s mid-19th century Europe or the medievalising modes of late 19th century British Aestheticism. Shown in half-length and close to the picture surface, demanding the spectator’s attention, Rossetti’s women display symbols of the World, the Flesh and quite possibly the Devil: jewels, bottles, mirrors, brushes, textiles, and, above all, hair.
Braddon’s concluding account of Lucy Audley is similarly selective: the dreary room in the mad-house has a “faded splendour of shabby velvet and tarnished gilding”; what appear to be mirrors turn out to be “wretched mockeries of burnished tin” (Braddon, Lady Audley, 389) – and a mockery of her luxurious boudoir. The light of a single candle illumines her figure, which rises out of the darkness in a defiant blaze of diamonds and golden hair; while her dress, undescribed, merges with the gloom. Confronting her adversary, Robert Audley, she plucks “at the feathery golden curls as if she would have torn them from her head. It had served her so little after all, that gloriously glittering hair; that beautiful nimbus of yellow light” (391-2). I resist defining Lady Audley by a single image, because I believe Braddon uses multiple images to confuse rather than define, but Rossetti’s Lady Lilith contains enough suppressed violence, moral ambivalence, self-caressing sensuality – and hair everywhere – to make one wonder if he had not recently read Lady Audley’s Secret. The companion poem Rossetti wrote for the painting speaks of Lilith winding round Adam’s heart “one strangling golden hair.”
Like Lilith of pre-Christian legend, Lady Audley is a capable and intelligent woman, who sees herself the equal of the male, who refuses to lie down under a series of early reverses and, bent on self-improvement like David Copperfield or Julien Sorel, sets out, like them, to secure much more than bare survival. Those are her transgressive secrets. For a woman in mid-19th century Britain the means to this end is a man, and, as she says, the means to a man are her golden-haired, blue-eyed good looks and the meanings society attaches to them. Angelic virtue only becomes a problem when things go wrong. Her angel self is still a workable pretence until Sir Michael consents to her incarceration, after which she confesses to hereditary madness as her “secret.”
Braddon, as I have indicated, uses a montage of conflicting images to convey ambivalence. The portrait within Lady Audley’s boudoir contains the artist/creator’s insight – the prototype Rossetti woman in blazing red and gold – but other images drawn from the art of her time, and beyond her time, co-exist and often conflict with that portrait. Images late in the novel are left unrealised, inviting the reader to colour them according to the way they have read the woman within her surroundings: there is, as Lyn Pykett says, “an uncertainty about the definition of the feminine.” I have said that both Rossetti and Braddon continue to explore the Femme Fatale; I should perhaps qualify that by adding that Braddon’s Lucy Audley is – as far as I have read in her immense oeuvre – the only consistently ambivalent and therefore memorably dangerous woman: the rest conform or die. Although Braddon mentions Lucy Audley’s death, years later, our last image is of her blazing defiance, and of a “pretty, fair-haired woman” in a portrait, in the novel’s final pages (Braddon, Lady Audley, 390).
The ambivalence is then not only Lucy Audley’s but Braddon’s own ambivalence over her creation – she didn’t paint such a colourful portrait again, though she had dealt a fatal blow to the old Woman in White. The precarious trajectory of Braddon’s own career – from poverty, to bare subsistence as an actress, to mistress then wife of an improvident man, and then hard-won security in respectable Richmond – did not invite further risks. It needed, in fact, a Rossetti – a man, most importantly – but also an outsider, a self-styled hedonist, who both shocked and seduced Victorian England with his images of women, to write tenderly and frankly of his mistress while she slept,
I lay among your golden hair
Perhaps the subject of your dreams,
These golden coins. (D.G. Rossetti, Jenny, 1860)
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Lady Audley: The Woman in Colour
by Clair Hughes
The Wilkie Collins Journal 05 (2002)