Sunday, 8 July 2012

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she killed young

I love drama/melodrama. From drama and novels to cinema and television, all is grist to my mill. One of my favourite genres is the Victorian novel, the great age of British realism of the 19th century. One sub-genre of Victorian fiction is the novel of sensation, which, as the title suggests, are novels that depend on violent twists of the imagination for gratification. Novels of sensation are closely allied to Gothic fiction, and tend to involve a fragile, vulnerable and innocent female protagonist, subject to a sinister conspiracy to defraud her of her fortune, her virtue or both.
I recently read Lady Audley's Secret, available here as an e-book, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which turned out to be a delightful read. It turns most of the conventions of the genre on its head. Golden haired, blue-eyed, and poor to boot, Lucy Graham is definitely the right character, employed in service as a governess, with nothing known of her past. How much more vulnerable could the central character get? When she is rescued from poverty and servitude by Sir Michael Audley, one just knows that some dreadful secret from her past is just waiting to be found, making her susceptible to blackmail and whatnot. The secret is revealed to the reader pretty soon, and at this point in the book I thought I knew exactly what would happen next and how.
And this is where the book takes you by surprise. It takes a startling turn, and the fragile Lady Audley may, or may not, have committed a dreadful crime. If this were a silent film, this is how the captions would go: "Has she done it? So child-like, so innocent. Could she have done it? Is it not even a crime to think this of her, so pure in every way?" The rest of the book is about one man's journey to find the truth, to find out if Lady Audley is who she appears to be, or not. The conventions of the sensation novel are there: the female victim pursued by a male figure who slowly hunts down a 'chain of evidence' against her, even as she races against him to prevent his being successful and having any kind of power over her. Except that in this case the female figure in question may be (or may not be!) as much hunter as hunted, as it were.
The novel maintains a distance from Lady Audley, and the reader does not really get to know her. This is necessary, of course, to maintain ambiguity. For a good part of the book, the scenes she appears in describe the material possessions surrounding her in great detail - jewelry, ivory-backed hand brushes, gilded baskets of hothouse flowers, Indian tea-caddies of sandalwood and silver, perfume, shimmering satin and diapahnous lace - the various frivolous trinkets that she has amassed after her marriage. It seems done obviously to create distaste for her opulence, but can be read ironically too. She is open to suspicion because she has so much to lose - she is punished for marrying a rich man, punished for valuing and wanting all these pretty baubles, punished for not being able to say 'no' to him and to them. It is a universe where it is perfectly acceptable to have these things as long as you do not covet them or transcend your station to obtain them. As Tania Modleski points out in Loving with A Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, the paradox of all romantic drama, from Jane Austen onwards, is that the heroine is eligible to marry the rich man only if she does not actually care for his wealth. Woe betide her if she knows exactly how much he is worth!