‘Stupid’ Clocks and Pocket-Watches: Defunct Time-Pieces in The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret

Hannah-Freya Blake

Leeds Trinity University

This paper analyses the use of traditional signifiers of time in Victorian sensation fiction, such as clocks and time-pieces, to assess the function they have in a world organised by new technology. As many critics have illustrated, time in the mid-Victorian era came to be measured and read by the telegraphy, the train schedule, and other modern technologies (Daly, Allan, Lee). This, however, does not mean that pocket-watches and other time-pieces were obsolete, or absent from the thoroughly modern sensation genre. For this discussion I will consider Willkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), both of which feature pocket-watches, while the latter notably also features a broken clock tower. In each novel, Braddon and Collins use time-pieces to illustrate the importance of using one’s own time fruitfully to make sense of modern life and to find one’s place in it.

According to Alfred Austen, writing for Temple Bar (1870), “[t]he first noticeable peculiarity in the novels of the time which are called sensational, is that their story is always laid in the present day” (412). Austen regards the popular genre established by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood to be interested in depicting the “contemporary incidents and contemporary manners” of the present time (412). That such stories are “always laid in the present day” of the country distinguishes the style of sensation fiction from one of the genre’s literary predecessors, the Gothic, achieving what Punter considers a “partial domestication” of the late-eighteenth century genre by exchanging the typical Radcliffean settings of an anachronistic European history for that of contemporary Victorian Britain (228). Gothic novels at the fin de siècle later adopt this preoccupation with contemporaneity, introducing horror to the urban cities of England in such monstrous forms as the degenerative Mr Hyde, who prowls the foggy streets of London, or the contagious vampirism of Count Dracula as he hunts cross-country in both Whitby and London. For the sensation novel of the 1860s, however, criminals and femme fatales were the monsters of the day, bringing the sensational mysteries, marriages and murders found in national and local newspapers into the home.

As a result of this contemporaneity, sensation fiction is preoccupied with methods of reading time. As Martin Daniel states, the “collapse of time and space by advances in transportation and communication […] allow for the probability of the seemingly impossible”, which sensation fiction writers were more than happy to exploit (195). Nicholas Daly argues that technological innovations to transport accelerated everyday life and “annihilated an older experience of time and space”, making trains in particular the emblem of modern life (Daly, 463). The decade of the 1840s saw railway transport rise to dominance, the same decade that the novel dominated the literary market (Gavin and Humphries). Just as the train altered the understanding of speed and distance, so did communicating by the telegraphy, which delivered news of “crime and murder into the familiar and homely environment of the receiver … collapsing the geographical and psychological buffer zone between the safe and the sensational” (Allan, 100). The sensation novel exploits this collapse between the public and private world, “one in which developments in communications and transportation created a new playing field for emergent identities, criminal activity, foreign secrets, conspiracies … all coming through the wire or down the tracks” (Martin, 188).

In a world where time and space appear to have collapsed, new methods of measuring and organising time are crucial to navigating modernity. Railway timetables, daily newspapers, the postal mail, and telegraphic transmissions subjected modern life to time-keeping based on transport and technology. In the plots of sensation novels, it is often heroines like Braddon’s infamous femme fatale Lucy Audley who can turn this world to their advantage, falsifying identities and re-writing the past, while men “seem stripped of all agency and autonomy by the advent of industrial modernity” (Lee, 136). Amateur-detectives like Braddon’s Robert Audley and Collins’s Walter Hartright must learn to decipher modern life and the ways in which the past has been doctored to forge the present.

To contribute to these discussions relating to sensation fiction and contemporary methods of reading time, this paper considers the time-pieces that might be considered defunct in the technologically-organised mid-Victorian era. Whilst trains, telegrams, and newspapers feature in many sensation narratives, in Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White so do clock-towers and pocket-watches, and it is the argument of this article that these more traditional methods of reading time still perform a narrative function in these novels. To illustrate this, I will firstly address the broken clock tower of Audley Court in Braddon’s novel which shares the insult “stupid” with Robert Audley. What I propose to be most significant about the use of the insult is the fact that the broken clock tower and Robert Audley are considered “stupid” on an equal number of occasions. While “stupid” can refer to a lack of intelligence, in the case of Robert and the clock tower, as I will come to illustrate, “stupid” refers to a lack of purpose (28). Following this, I will analyse the ornamental pocket-watches owned individually by the co-conspirators in Collins’s The Woman in White before considering the pocket-watch that George Talboys Junior plays with in Lady Audley’s Secret. In both novels, the use of time-pieces comes to highlight the necessity of making use of one’s time in order to understand, and regulate, the rush of modern life.

The Broken Clock Tower of Audley Court

The expansion of the railways from the 1830s and the development of the telegraphy brought about the need for standardised time to unify transport and communication. Despite localised resistance, by the end of the nineteenth century Greenwich time was omnipresent (Morus). Under the leadership of George Biddell Airy, Royal Astronomer, Greenwich Mean Time came to be applied to telecommunications in 1852, but standardisation of time was not just necessary for the benefit of international communication (Rooney and Nye). Banks, businesses, and factories, in and beyond the metropolis, needed to agree upon a regulated system of time, for both record-keeping and to comply with legislations that dictated working hours, such as the Factory Act of 1844 (Rooney and Nye). The standardisation of time was thus motivated by commerce and industry, with the telegraph and train network providing a catalyst for the necessity.

With the increasing significance of standardised time-keeping in mid-Victorian industry and culture, Audley Court in Braddon’s sensational novel of 1862 is noticeably unregulated and curiously behind the times. Out of touch with modern life, Sir Audley fails to suspect his pretty young wife has manipulated current technology to falsify her identity. As Louise Lee puts it, “[s]peed, mental acuity, and a precise grasp of the modern world around her makes this crinolined malefactor more than a match for her male pursuers” (135). By using modern technology to falsify her death and assume a new identity, Lucy Audley takes up residence in an estate that follows only the erratic hours of a one-handed clock. This clock is usually described as “stupid”, which I argue condemns the distinct lack of functionality of Audley Court in the modern, more regulated mid-Victorian world of technology.

Including in the adverbial form, the insult “stupid” is used on twenty-seven occasions, most frequently in relation to the broken clock tower of Audley Court and Robert Audley. The first instance of the term is reserved for the clock, which is introduced to the readers at the opening of the novel. Visitors must pass by the clock tower to visit the Audley estate:

At the end of this avenue there was an old arch and a clock tower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand—and which jumped straight from one hour to the next—and was therefore always in extremes. Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court. (7)

This somewhat humorous, but important, feature of the Audley estate is “always found in extremes” and is never able to identify even the correct hour with its one hand. The broken clock tower, as Anna Royal explains, indicates that “rather than adhere to precise schedules of the new railway lines, at Audley Court, both time and place possess a sporadic, haphazard quality” (2). The whole of Audley Court is described in terms of a picturesque remnant of different histories, a “glorious old place” (8) surrounded by “old timbers and luxuriant pastures” (7) with hints of Gothic possibility, such as the “broken ruin of a wall” (7) and the “stagnant well” (8) that George Talboys is later to be pushed into and left for dead by the beautiful new Lady of the Court. The house itself is a curious antique, thought to be “the handiwork of that good old builder, Time” with sections built chaotically through different historical periods from the Tudors to George I (8). The whole estate, then, is associated with a past that is illegible and erratic, from clock tower to house.

The tower, however, is more than simply broken and unable to show the hours as they pass by: it is “stupid”. On most instances that the clock tower is described, it comes with this adjectival insult, adding flashes of humour to the narrative. For example, when Robert and his friend head for Audley Court to spend the evening there, the clock is described in very similar terms as it had been introduced in the opening scene: “that stupid clock, which knew no middle course, and always skipped from one hour to the other, pointed to seven as the young men passed under the archway; but, for all that, it was nearer eight” (61). When they return, readers are told that “the one hand of the stupid clock had skipped to nine by the time they reached the archway” (66). The broken clock is “stupid” because it is unable to keep up with the time, progressing only in fits and starts, trapping the estate in a sense of stasis. For Eva Badowska, the clock “constitutes an obsolete relic of ages past … behind the times and out of touch with modernity” (160). As the previous discussion of Audley Court has shown, the estate itself is similarly “behind the times”. The condition of both the clock and the Court illustrate a reluctance to progress, to enter the modern world of industry and technology; instead the haphazard building and estate, which has been developed across “some eleven centuries”, clings to an old aristocratic world even as it crumbles (8). Thus, the “stupid” broken clock becomes symptomatic of Audley Court’s inertia.

While considering the Audley Clock signifies “an obsolete relic of ages past”, Badowska further illustrates that the clock “appears before any action takes place, before the enigma is posed and before the principal characters are introduced” (160). However, Badowska’s argument does not consider how the narrative associates the clock with particular characters. For example, on the one occasion the clock strikes the particularly Gothic time of midnight, Lady Audley has resolved to “duel to the death” with Robert Audley, and is on her way to the Castle Inn where he rests:

As she passed under that massive arch, it seemed as if she disappeared into some black gulf that had waited open to receive her. The stupid clock struck twelve, and the solid masonry seemed to vibrate under its heavy strokes, as Lady Audley emerged upon the other side, and joined Phoebe Marks. (270)

In Badowska’s view, the clock here indicates impending action, which is true, as this is the night that Lucy Audley will set fire to the Castle Inn with the intention of killing her nephew, though Luke Marks falls foul of the flames instead. The clock tower, posing as a liminal presence between the old Audley estate and the modern outside world, chimed upon Lucy’s arrival as if to signal a death knoll. The striking of the clock occurs simultaneously with the arrival of the titular character, as the “stupid clock struck twelve … as Lady Audley emerged upon the other side” (my italics). By the instantaneous nature of the chime at Lady Audley’s appearance, a connection is established between them. This connection between Lady Audley and the chiming of the tower does not rest solely on the clock itself, but also on the signal of time. She, better than any character, knows how to manipulate modern methods of reading time to forge her new identity and to hide the truth from her nephew, using newspapers, telegraphs and trains, initially, to her advantage. For example, a telegraphic message supposedly detailing the dire illness of Mrs Vincent summons her to London which, as Robert later discovers, had never been sent by Mrs Vincent at all. Lucy Audley also uses the telegraph to outwit Robert’s investigation, using this rapid, modern method of communication to dictate to her father that he must inform Robert that George set sail for Australia. Lucy’s navigation of the modern systems of communication and transportation identify her as a modern, progressive character, a character who moves with the times. While the rest of Audley Court is static, associated with the illegible passage of time, the chiming of the clock at Audley Court as she passes the arch further links Lady Audley with the present.

The link between Lady Audley and the clock will be resumed shortly, as this link cannot be fully realised until the end of the novel after Robert Audley’s own association with the clock has been overturned. Initially, throughout much of the first volume of the novel, Robert shares the insult “stupid” with the broken clock more so than any other character. Though “stupid” is used in several ways throughout the novel, for Robert Audley the term reflects his idleness and the unconstructive means of passing the time before he determines to discover his aunt’s secret. When readers are introduced to Robert Audley, they are advised that, though a barrister by title, and generally considered a “good fellow”, he is nevertheless “listless, dawdling, indifferent, irresolute” in attitude, preferring to smoke and read French novels than work (27). With £400 a year, and a name on the bar though inactive in the courtroom, Robert Audley is a man of leisure of the “middling” sort, to borrow John Tosh’s financial parameters of class, yet still decidedly lacking in the qualities of a bourgeois gentleman or self-made man. Robert’s own uncle believes his indolence to be a sign of unintelligence: “he thought because his nephew was idle, he must necessarily be stupid. He concluded that if Robert did not distinguish himself, it was because he could not” (240). Initially, Robert is more inclined to leisure, and to linger at his uncle’s estate; for instance, rather than leaving for the “10.50 express on the following morning” as Robert had planned, the “young men spent a dull, dawdling, stupid, unprofitable day” (60).

The coupling of “stupid” and “unprofitable” is telling in this quote. Receiving £400 a year from his inheritance, Robert is neither earning money nor, as his uncle laments in the aforementioned quotation, finding a means to “distinguish himself”. His supposed stupidity is linked here to his lack of professional employment. Manliness, according to Tosh, was for the Victorians “closely identified with work”, which justified “the priority they attached to money-making and personal advancements by elevating work as a good in itself” (466). Robert Audley, then, smoking pipes, reading novels, and wasting time in idle leisure, cannot be regarded as a manly person capable of making profit and elevating himself.  Before he embarks on his path as an amateur-detective, Robert’s unproductivity is closely associated with the picturesque countryside of the old gentile estates which, in the modern world of industry, are no longer the dominant producers of material goods or, after the Reform Act of 1832, the leading political class. For Aeron Haynie, Robert’s idle behaviour associates him with the stagnant well at Audley Court: Robert “embodies the stagnancy of the non-productive estate”, which is defenceless against the modern outside world that has left behind the aristocratic order of life and, in the case of Lady Audley’s Secret, permitted an imposter to infiltrate the estate (71).

Over the course of the novel Robert does learn to distinguish himself by searching for the truth of his young aunt’s identity and to find his missing friend. Petch argues that “Robert Audley’s pursuit of Lady Audley’s past is also his own quest for a professional future, and his investigation of Lady Audley’s secret is the means to the establishment of his own identity as a professional man” (1). In the pursuit of Lady Audley’s identity, Robert begins to leave the comfort of the estate to engage with the modern world. He travels across the country by train, undertaking the same routes taken by his aunt in order to trace her origins. The multiple railway journeys, from Mount Stanning, Audley Court, Portsmouth, Southampton, Liverpool, London suburbs, and other locations, are thus “assimilated into the fabric of the novel to facilitate rapid developments of plot that often hinge on mobility” (Mathieson, 50). The amateur-detective drive sets Robert on a path to prove himself capable of establishing and restoring order in a world that has been invaded by the technologically savvy femme fatale. In Lee’s terms, Robert began as one of the “narcoleptic male characters” who needs to educate themselves about modern technology in order to best the “crinolined malefactor” who has taken over the Audley estate (137).

As Robert Audley educates himself in the ways of modern time, he comes to be disassociated with the “stupid” clock tower of Audley Court and his old, idle habits. The frequency of the appearance of the clock tower in scenes led by Robert Audley’s narrative diminish as his investigation continues. In contrast, the bewildering clock appears more in scenes with Lady Audley as she becomes increasingly concerned that her nephew will inform Sir Michael of her secrets and misdeeds:

The solitary hand of the clock over the archway was midway between one and two when my lady looked at it.

“How slow the time is,” she said, wearily; “how slow, how slow! Shall I grow old like this, I wonder, with every minute of my life seeming like an hour?” (285)

Later, in the same chapter, she is again found “looking at the stupid one-handed clock, and waiting for the news which must come sooner or later, which could not surely fail to come very speedily” (289). Of course, this “stupid” clock will offer Lady Audley no sense of time passing to indicate how “speedily” Robert would bring the news of his discoveries to her. As her nephew learns the truth of the mystery, the narrative disassociates the “stupid” clock with the increasingly clever Robert; instead, the narrative associates the clock tower with Lucy Audley as her time as Lady of Audley Court runs out. Lady Audley is now trapped in the same stagnant world of old gentility that Robert has been battling to overcome.

By the conclusion of the novel the narrative is brought up to date, to the present of “this bright summer of 1861” (379). Ultimately, Robert has risen to his station as middle-class gentleman and asserted his manliness by becoming more active and less indolent, leaving behind the “stupid” clock and outmoded Audley estate as he solves the mystery of his young aunt’s real identity and the disappearance of his friend. Having further “distinguished himself in the great breach of promise case of Hobbs v. Nobbs”, Robert is a “rising man in the home circuit”, has established a career, and married Clara Talboys (378). Lady Audley has been expelled from the estate and sent to an asylum in Belgium, and Audley Court is “shut up” and left to the care of a “grim old housekeeper” (379). Though “the house is often shown to inquisitive visitors”, there is no mention of the “stupid, bewildering clock” which had been introduced to readers at the commencement of the novel, and had seemed to signal crucial plot points, if not the time. The erratic, one-handed clock, having never been functional in the outset as a method of reading time, no longer has a narrative function in the absence of the mysterious mistress of the estate.

Ornamental Pocket-Watches


In both The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret, men carry pocket-watches or other portable timepieces, but they are seldom used by the characters solely as methods of reading time. Indeed, pocket-watches have long been ornamental rather than functional. E. P. Thompson, in his celebrated article analysing the role of capitalist industry in the development of synchronised time and the ways in which this was experienced by the working masses, discusses the history of timepieces from sun-dials, grandfather clocks, and portable watches, noting that “ornate and rich design was still preferred to plain serviceability” in the case of pocket-watches, despite improvements in minute-hand mechanics since 1674 (38). As industry advanced, the regulation of labour required a greater synchronisation of time, and with it came a corresponding increase in the number of clocks and watches in individual houses. Yet while this may seem to respond to a necessity, clocks and watches also “conferred prestige on its owner” (Thompson, 69). This is not to say that these timepieces were owned only by those of wealth or business, as Sue Zemka notes that even as early as the eighteenth century “an impressive proportion of British working-class men owned watches” (3). Regardless of class, men took pride in owning watches, and this is especially evident in The Woman in White. This section first addresses the pocket-watches that can be found in Collins’s novel before considering the pocket-watch George Talboys Junior plays with in Lady Audley’s Secret.

In Collins’s novel, watches are ornamental markers of identity for the conspirators. Though they are shown on few occasions, the appearances of both the ominous Count Fosco’s watch and Sir Percival Glyde’s reveal something of their character. Fosco’s watch-chain is seen “resting in folds, like a golden serpent, on the sea-green protuberance of his waistcoat” (291). Always dressed in rich clothes of vibrant colours, the watch-chain is an accessory to Fosco’s flamboyant dress-sense, but it is also reflective of his personality. Described “like a golden serpent”, the connotations of a snake attach also to Fosco himself, as if the snake-like watch lurking atop his chest were a material manifestation of his personality. One contemporary reviewer for The Critic in 1860 even referred to Count Fosco as a “corpulent basilisk”, comparing the villain to the mythical serpent capable of killing onlookers with a mere look (233).

The same reviewer who compared Fosco to the basilisk finds the character too “unnatural” to be either entertaining or inspiring, yet generally Fosco was regarded as an intriguing and masterful villain by numerous critics at the time (233). While The Saturday Review complains that Collins’s characters are lacking in character at all, Fosco is upheld as an exception, who is “drawn with much more life and animation than the rest” (249). Charismatic and eccentric, Fosco is equally, if not more, manipulative as his confident Sir Percival. It is Fosco, after all, who leads Sir Percival to the realisation that he can pay his considerable debt of £20,000 in the event of Laura’s death: “Here is your position. If your wife lives, you pay those bills with her signature to the parchment. If your wife dies, you pay them with her death” (334). But for Richard Albright, Fosco’s skill is in the ability to “turn time to his own ends in a way that is unmatched by anyone else in the novel” by “transforming his temporal constraints into a performance that is nothing short of a tour de force” (178). For example, when Walter confronts Fosco and demands he confess his role in Sir Percival’s conspiracy to fake Laura’s death, he realises with some relish that he holds the final piece of information to resolve the date when Laura was forced to assume the identity of Anne Catherick. He addresses Walter with an “extraordinary mixture of prompt decision, far-sighted cunning, and mountebank bravado” (606). While Fosco writes his confessional account, Walter watches, observing how the papers pile up while time passes by: “one o’clock struck, two, three, four” (609). Fosco is so much master of his own time that, even having completed his writing to Walter’s “profound astonishment”, he organises the rest of the day into hourly tasks, which include “arrangement, revision, reading, from four to five”, an amusing “short snooze of restoration…from five to six”, and “final preparations, from seven to eight” before he leaves in the evening (609). Unlike his accomplice, Fosco receives neither criminal justice nor direct punishment for his involvement in Sir Percival’s plot; he has guarded his time too well and makes an escape from the country. His murder at the hands of a member of the Brotherhood is unrelated to the events in England; the “T” cut into his flesh signals only that he was killed for being a traitor of the society. However, his death is still poetic justice.

Keeping track of time and retracing the steps of the persons involved is important to resolve the mystery of the plot. Just as Helen Talboys forged a new identity for herself under the name Lucy Graham before becoming Lady Audley, Sir Percival forged the legitimacy of his birth by doctoring marriage and birth certificates to gain inheritance. Glyde’s forgeries enable him to assume land and title, the falsification of which he goes to great lengths to hide. Glyde seems to have been able to make these forgeries because Old Welmingham Church is old and disorganised. The clerk who escorts Robert Audley through the church’s cumbersome doors and awkward locks jovially remarks that “it’s a sort of lost corner, this place. Not like London – is it sir? Bless you, we are all asleep here. We don’t march with the times” (508; original italics). Old Welmingham Church is “asleep”, outside of the “march” of London life, beyond the industrial “Railway Time” and the increasingly synchronised public clocks. Here, amid the dust, is where Glyde re-wrote his own history in order to establish social status – here, too, will he be punished for his attempts to re-write the past by the flames that destroy the church, himself, and his own records, leaving only the pocket-watch with his fake crest unscathed.

Sir Glyde’s watch-piece is the principal marker of his remains after he perishes in the fire at the church: with “the evidence of competent witnesses” to help “settle the question of identity”, being “subsequently strengthened by an examination of the dead man’s watch. The crest and the name of Sir Percival Glyde were engraved inside it” (534). Even so, the engraving on the watch is another falsehood; he has neither crest nor name. Mrs Catherick, in a letter later sent to Walter, states quite firmly that she has no need to say the name of the man she is discussing, especially since “he never had a name” in the outset (541). With Mrs Catherick’s refusal to name the person of whom she writes, and with the records of Glyde’s identity burnt, there is no material evidence of his forgeries save for the narratives collected by Walter Hartright: the only material marker of identification for Glyde is a time-piece bearing the identity he falsified. Considering how much he tampered with material records of dates and time, it is ironic that the last trace of Glyde should be a pocket-watch.

Another watch featured in the narrative is revealed by the confessional letters composed by Mrs Catherick, explaining her part in the conspiracy to conceal Sir Glyde’s true heritage. In order to receive the key to the vestry so that he may “make an honest woman of his mother after she was dead in her grave” (544) and falsify the records of his birth, Glyde bribed Mrs Catherick with a number of beautiful gifts to gratify the “tastes of a lady” (541), one of which was a gold watch. Repeatedly, she emphasises how much she “longed for the gold watch” (542), going further to explain that she could not possibly forfeit her promised gift by telling the truth, as she had “set her heart on a gold watch and chain” (544). For her services, she does receive the items, which “were of superior workmanship, and very expensive” (545). In the letter, as if to evidence her account, though also to boast of her ownership, she states “I have got them still—the watch goes beautifully” (545). Mrs Catherick is, in The Woman in White, the only woman to own an ornamental watch and chain. It is not, at any point, used for its functional purpose of telling the time.

That the three central duplicitous characters in Collins’s sensation novel own ornamental pocket-watches is more significant when the protagonists’ methods of time-keeping are considered in contrast. Time-keeping and unravelling the past is crucial in the narrative organisation of Collins’s novel and the discovery of the central mystery. Contemporary critic E. S. Dallas recognised the significance of dates in his review for The Times, stating that “the question of a date is the pivot upon which the novel turns” (6), that is, as Walter Hartright demands to know of Count Fosco, “the date at which my wife left Blackwater Park, and travelled to London” (605). Readers are alerted to the significance of dates when the novel opens with the sentence “it was the last day of July” (6).  The narrative itself is an assembly of testimonies and dated documents: Marian Halcombe keeps a diary in which she records the dates and occasionally the time as well, recounting her interactions with Anne Catherick and her suspicions of Glyde and Fosco; letters, all of which are dated, between conspirators; confessional accounts from Fosco and Mrs Catherick; Anne Catherick’s gravestone, bearing the name Laura Fairlie, dated with her birthdate, marriage date, and falsified death, and the accompanying falsified death certificate.

The discovery of events is done without a pocket-watch in sight. With the regular references to time, of course, clocks of some kind are always presumably present, be it a church clock, personal clock, or portable clock. As I have already demonstrated, only the co-conspirators are shown to carry pocket-watches, all of which are used for ornamentation more so than for its intended purpose. The difference is between the ways in which the protagonists and antagonists use time: the former seeks to recover the truth, while the latter attempts to falsify history. Walter and Marian, for example, record and track time for investigative purposes; they have no use for ornamentation. The fanciful pocket-watches are indicators of the duplicitous means by which the co-conspirators have attempted to re-write history to secure financial gains.


An ornamental pocket-watch is also featured in Lady Audley’s Secret, which is often referred to when Robert Audley visits Captain Maldon – a watch given to the young boy by his mother in the guise of Lady Audley. When Robert Audley first visits his friend’s father-in-law, the watch has been pawned, and in its place is the pawnbroker’s note, which reads: “Watch, set with diamonds, £11” (85). Though the watch belongs to George Junior, the old man often needs to pawn the item to raise funds; appearing not to have any regular employment and therefore wage, Captain Maldon’s primary source of income is his son-in-law, whom he admits has been “very liberal”, though evidently the money from George is not enough to meet his needs or wants (85). His only recourse is to send his grandson’s watch to be “cleaned” for a temporary loan, which seems to provide his drinking allowance (85).

Pawning watches for quick money was not unusual; E. P. Thompson refers to portable timepieces as “the poor man’s bank” (38). Likewise Sue Zemka contends that, from the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, such timepieces could be used to keep owners solvent, as “watches also functioned as portable property ready to be turned into cash” (3). This conversion of watch items to currency is somewhat at odds with the ways in which E. P. Thompson suggests time is experienced in the industrial era, as he suggests that time is the new currency, “not passed but spent” (61). While time is something to be spent – and, as shown in the previous section, should be spent wisely – the material representation of time in the form of watches confuses the old proverb that “time is money” for a literal exchange of time for money.

Curiously, the pawnbroker’s note is made out to Captain Mortimer, not Captain Maldon – a subtle indication of the family’s practise of falsifying their names, though one not observed by Robert. The family resemblances are also evident in George Junior’s obsession with the fanciful watch itself, as the child makes repeated reference to the item on all of the occasions Robert visits. Watches in general are play things for George Junior, trinkets – like his mother’s expensive jewellery – to distract him from reality. When Robert returns to Captain Maldon’s house in his search for George when he has first disappeared, he takes the child upon his knee, and gives the boy his own “watch-chain to play with while he talked to the old man” (83). Young George’s own elaborate watch, however, is his most prized possession. Presumably, he is too young and uneducated to be able to use it for its functional purpose, and so instead it becomes a valuable toy, an object imbued with the power of protection, thanks to the stories his grandfather creates in order to pawn the item. When the watch in question is finally physically present and not merely referred to by the child or represented by the pawnbroker’s note, George

took the jewelled toy from his bosom and made for the door, proud of being possessed of a talisman which he had seen so often made useful.

“There are wolves at Southampton,” he said, with rather a triumphant nod to Robert Audley. “My gran’pa says when he takes my watch that he does it to keep the wolf from the door. Are there wolves where you live?” (149)

The watch is a “talisman” used to “keep the wolf from the door”, as if it were a magical item from a fairy tale. The item itself was gifted to him by his mother in the assumed identity of Lady Audley, appearing to be a mysterious benefactress. George is fond of this happy, pretty version of his mother, and wonders when she will return, though cares little for the mother he remembers to be “always crying” (84). Mother and son evidently share an interest in expensive trinkets, though George Junior and the watch are removed from the guardianship of Captain Maldon before any further familial influence may take hold on the child.

The right to forcefully remove George Junior from his grandfather’s care under the instruction of Robert Audley is dubious at best. His suspicions of Captain Maldon’s involvement in his daughter’s deception, however true they eventually transpire to be, are initially unfounded, and are merely the result of a judgemental first impression. When Robert first meets his friend’s father-in-law, he claims to have “a strong notion that that old man didn’t treat his daughter too well”, and goes on to say that he appears “to be half afraid of George” (43). While there might be some truth in this observation – Captain Maldon may well indeed have cause to fear George, as he knows of his daughter’s bigamy – the judgement at this point is made from very little physical or vocal indication; it is merely Robert’s thoughts. This could be taken as an early indication of Robert’s rising sense of class superiority, which is later further expressed in a much more coercive form when he intimidates Captain Maldon to gain entry into his home and answer his interrogation. Distressed by Robert’s behaviour, Captain Maldon complains that an officer would give a suspected criminal

warning, sir, fair warning, that he may say nothing which shall commit himself—or—or—other people. The—the—law, sir, has that amount of mercy for a—a—suspected criminal. But you, sir,—you come to my house, and you come at a time when—when—contrary to my usual habits—which, as people will tell you, are sober—you take the opportunity to—terrify me—and it is not right, sir. (147)

Captain Maldon, despite his complicity in some of his daughter’s schemes, is relatively sympathetic, especially in the above quotation as he blusters and blunders about what is “fair” and “right” in his search of “mercy”. Perhaps readers might even sympathise with his daughter, as she was abandoned by her husband with an infant to care for. Even so, Captain Maldon is punished by Robert for the part he played in Lucy’s/Helen’s deception, and his beloved grandson – along with the diamond pocket-watch – is removed. This punishment is not purely a result of his collusion with his daughter’s fraudulence, however; it also penalises his manipulation of George Junior to obtain his beloved pocket-watch for pawning.

The pocket-watches discussed in this section fulfil different functions in the narratives of Collins’s and Braddon’s novels, though none do seem to be used for their simple service of telling time. The pocket-watches are always ornamental, fanciful items that are used to either boast wealth, as is the case for Mrs Catherick, or to gain wealth, however temporary, as is the case for Captain Maldon. Further, pocket-watches are the property of the co-conspirators – Count Fosco, Sir Percival Glyde, Mrs Catherick, and Captain Maldon. Only George Junior, who sees the beautiful watch in his possession as a “talisman” to help his grandfather “keep the wolf from the door”, is absolved of complicity in the crimes of his family.


Studies of the significance of modernity and the emphasis on the present time in sensation fiction need not focus solely on contemporary technology like trains, telegraphs and newspapers. Clock towers and pocket-watches fulfil their own narrative function too, signalling plot events, reflecting upon the personality of their owners, and indicating the importance of reading and using time productively. The clock tower, though broken and one-handed, appears in scenes of Lady Audley’s Secret before any major plot event occurs, most notably the striking of the clock at midnight on the night the titular heroine burns down the Castle Inn. The elaborate pocket-watches of Count Fosco, Sir Percival Glyde and Mrs Catherick all identify them as co-conspirators in the substitution of identities between Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick. Their watches are reflective of their personality: Count Fosco, snake-like in his deceitful and persuasive ways, wears what is described to be “like a golden serpent” watch-chain upon his waistcoat; Sir Percival Glyde’s watch bears his initials and crest, though an equally false identification of a falsified name; and Mrs Catherick’s gold watch and chain, an item she so greatly desired, bought her obligation to permit Glyde’s entry to the vestry where he forged his parents’ marriage certificate and his own birth record. For “stupid” Robert Audley, his association with the “stupid, bewildering clock” of Audley Court is eventually broken down by the development of his detective abilities, which sees the idle young man invest his interest in his missing friend. The reward for his investigative pursuit is not only to find his friend survived the murder attempt made by his aunt, but to marry well, and to become increasingly distinguished among his peers.

In each of these instances, the maxim “time is money” has been peculiarly misinterpreted by the characters. Indeed, for Captain Maldon, the material representative of time in the form of a pocket-watch has been used in exchange for currency, though one which is only temporary, and that he must buy back from the pawnbroker. For the other characters here discussed, with the exception of the amateur detective Robert Audley, little hard work or investment has been made to make use of their time, or to make it profitable; rather, the erasure of the past and the fabrication of identity enables characters like Sir Percival Glyde to have land and titles which he is unworthy of, not merely because he was illegitimate, but because he did not work for the right. Many of those who rise above their station by illicit means meet “untimely” ends. Such punitive deaths provide an ominous reminder for readers: time will tell.


Works Cited

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