One of the most important ancestors of the classical detective story was the Victorian sensation novel. Wilkie Collins is perhaps the best-known author of such books, with The Woman in White in 1860 and The Moonstone in 1868 cementing his reputation. J. Sheridan le Fanu was another master of the genre with Wylder's Hand being a particularly fine example. Equally popular at the time was Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, published in 1862.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) was a prolific writer although none of her other books has achieved the same kind of lasting reputation as Lady Audley’s Secret. Her lover’s literary magazine being in desperate need of material she dashed the novel off in a matter of weeks between other writing tasks.
Despite the haste with which it was written it’s a superbly constructed mystery, and like Collins’ sensation novels it gives considerable scope to characterisation and she manages to slip in some subtle social commentary, especially in regards to the position of women.
The somewhat mysterious but ravishingly beautiful Lucy Graham has charmed a wealthy and kindly baronet more than thirty years her senior, Sir Michael Audley, into marriage. When the baronet’s good-natured but incurably lazy nephew Robert Audley arrives at the family seat with an old acquaintance recently returned from the Australian goldfields a series of dramatic events is triggered off, events which in the fullness of time will reveal the secret of the young Lady Audley. Robert Audley’s indolent lifestyle is changed forever by madness, murder and the threat of shameful scandals that now hang over the house of Audley.
Lady Audley’s Secret combines enormous fun with some wonderfully memorable characters, and for anyone with even the mildest interest in the development of the crime novel it’s essential reading, as well as being immensely entertaining.