ritten some eight years prior to Dickens's working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, a sensation novel deliberately designed to pump up the weekly sales of her common-law husband John Maxwell's short-lived Robin Goodfellow, was one of a number of 1860s Sensation Novels inspired by the success of Collins's highly innovative The Woman in White (26 November 1859 through 25 August 1860 in All the Year Round). The early chapters appeared in print between 6 July and 28 September 1861, overlapping with Dickens's serialisation of Great Expectations in All the Year Round. In response to demands by readers who wished her to continue publication, she reinitiated serialisation in Maxwell's Sixpenny Magazine on a monthly basis in January 1862.
M. E. Braddon was just 27 when her breakout novel brought her literary celebrity and fortune; she subsequently became Editor of the weekly literary journal Belgravia, from which position she published the sensation fiction of Collins, and even Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native (1878). Dickens, on the other hand, at 48 was the period's best-established professional writer, the author of ten novels and hundreds of articles, as well as of a considerable body of short fiction. And yet, as Braddon observed from how the older novelist absorbed the style and manner of Wilkie Collins, Dickens was always ready to learn from his younger contemporaries, as is clear in the highly innovative The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Despite the popularity of her novels in the 1860s, references to Braddon in the authoritative Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens are few, and are further confined to a dramatic adaptation of Braddon's Aurora Floyd (also published in 1862, and dramatised immediately after its appearance in volume form). Since she and Bulwer-Lytton corresponded with one another, it is hard to imagine that Dickens could have known nothing of her work at a time when he and Bulwer were particularly close, namely when Dickens was completing Great Expectations in June 1861, the final instalment (3 August 1861) reflecting Bulwer's advice that, in accordance with popular taste, Dickens provide a happier ending that allows for the possibility of Pip and Estella's marrying after all.
As Editor-in-Chief of All the Year Round, Dickens closely followed the serial fiction market, and undoubtedly would have been aware that Braddon was publishing Lady Audley's Secret in The Sixpenny Magazine on a monthly basis from January through December 1862. After Tinsley Brothers published it in volume form as a triple-decker in October 1862 (thereby scooping the ending in the serial), Braddon's novel was serialised again, from 21 March 1863 through 15 August 1863, with twenty-two illustrations (one per weekly instalment), culminating with "The Wanderer Returned at Last," the reunion of the protagonist, the attorney Robert Audley, and the supposedly murdered first husband of Lady Audley, George Talboys (Vol. 38, no. 966, part 22). The novel, also adapted for the stage in 1863, must have come to Dickens's attention by the time he began writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Although The Mystery of Edwin Drood does not offer its readers the forbidden delights of the bigamy plot originated by Braddon, it does involve the disappearance and presumed murder of one of its central characters; further, the reader is reasonably assured of the murderer's identity and, of course, is consistently led to believe that a murder has taken place, and the body cleverly disposed of by the perpetrator, who, though possibly insane, is certainly a criminal mastermind when its comes to murder and deception. Braddon's solution in Lady Audley's Secret, may well be one that Dickens had in mind when he and Collins collaborated on the initial wrapper. In essence, Lady Audley erroneously believes that she has fatally shot her first husband, George Talboys, and that his body is safely disposed of in a well on the Audley estate. In fact, however, George had been rescued from the well by the brutish but devious publican, Luke Marks (who is married to Lady Audley's maid, Phoebe), and is out of the country. The novel (and its dramatic adaptation of 1863) concludes with the return of George Talboys from New York. Many believe that the figure at the bottom of the Drood wrapper in the Tyrolian hat is Edwin himself rather than Helen in disguise. If so, then Dickens was, at least initially, thinking of resolving Drood's disappearance in a similar manner, bringing him back from abroad to confront his would-be murderer in the crypt of the cathedral.
Synopsis of Braddon's Novel
When the novel opens, the social hierarchy represented by the world of Audley Court seems, at best, precarious. The title character, after all, seems to have risen from utter obscurity to head a prestigious and wealthy household. Next to nothing is known of her origins. Sir Michael Audley is past middle-age when the novel begins and he has no son to take over his estate. Robert Audley, who we might expect to be an ambitious and successful lawyer, given his advantages of fortune and family name, is instead a dilettante more interested in French novels and cigars than in continuing the Audley family line. Although Alicia Audley has, apparently, numerous marital prospects, she seems utterly disinterested in heading a house of her own: she far prefers the masculine pleasures of outdoor life, like hunting. The mystery of Lady Audley's Secret is, in part, whether or not a courtship plot capable of resolving the class tensions of the novel can even come into existence. (Karen Droisen)
The chief irony of the book is that the reader simultaneously feels sympathetic towards the protagonist (attorney Robert Audley) and his antagonist, the eponymous character, despite the fact that Lucy Graham has obviously married the much older Sir Michael Audley for his property and the comfortable life-style that his wealth will permit her. Even, however, when we suspect that she has murdered her first husband, George Talboys, and has attempted to murder the attorney by setting fire to the inn where he is staying, the reader still has the sense that she is merely trying to defend herself. Beautiful, charming but somewhat neurotic, Lady Audley is a woman with a past and more than one secret--but we would expect no less in one of the earliest and most popular Sensation Novels. We sympathize, too, with her stepdaughter, Alicia Audley, whose romantic designs her cousin Robert consistently rebuffs. However, Braddon satisfies the demands of the conventional courtship novel by having Robert Audley fall in love with and eventually marry his best friend's sister, Clara Talboys. His progress in his relationship with her parallels his progress in unmasking Lady Audley and freeing his family of the taint of bigamy, to say nothing of homicide and insanity.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Ed. Natalie M. Houston. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2003).
Droisen, Karen. "Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret (1862)." Las Vegas, Nevada: Department of English. Accessed 06/11/2006.
"Synopsis, Lady Audley's Secret (2000)." Rotten Tomatoes. Accessed 06/11/2006.
Last modified 8 November 2006