Robert Audley could arguably be called the keystone character in Braddon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret” for many reasons, but the most important are that he is the reason George Talboys becomes acquainted with Audley Court, and he is the one who begins to sniff out a suspicious story, follow his intuitions, and make connections. Much like in the mystery novels that raged during the 1920s and 30s, or the old black and white films narrated by a private investigator, Robert is the reader embodied in the story, gathering evidence and being able to “draw a conclusion by induction” (155). Robert is the detective, the clue-finder, the gut-follower and inference maker who propels the story along.
Robert seems the least likely character of anyone in the book to pursue an interest such as the mystery of Talboys’ disappearance. Braddon describes him as “handsome, lazy, care-for-nothing fellow” (71) at the start, and nothing seems to interest him overmuch, a fact which is emphasized by Alicia Audley’s fury at his “stupid, inanimate countenance” (147). Braddon himself characterizes Robert as someone who “took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man” (98). However, he is also portrayed with a certain softness for anyone in need, as is shown by the many stray dogs he picks up, and even in his treatment of Talboys after the man discovers the loss of his wife. Robert’s whole attitude, in fact, seems to change after his time spent with Talboys. Robert’s compassionate and caring side seems to kick into high gear, something which surprises even him. “If any one had ventured to tell Mr. Robert Audley that he could possibly feel a strong attachment to any creature breathing, that cynical gentleman would have elevated his eyebrows in supreme contempt at the preposterous notion.Yet here he was, flurried and anxious… about his missing friend” (117). This side of Robert, almost unrecognizable even to himself, perpetuates the theme of there being much more going on behind a person’s exterior than anyone really assumes. In a time when the outward appearance was considered an accurate portrayal of an inward morality, Braddon seems to be toying with that generally accepted concept. The”lazy look” (164) that Robert turns on Phoebe is hardly accurate to describe the depth of thought that he puts into his conversation with her and her husband, Luke. These attributes also serve to place Robert in a good light with the reader. His growing curiosity and animation in his search for Talboys rubs off on the reader, bolstering their excitement as they follow the case and slowly see more and more facts become more and more intertwined.
Because of his role as the bridge between Talboys and Lady Audley, and his fervent desire to find Talboys after his disappearance, I would say that Robert Audley is a key character in the book. Without him, the whole story would end after Talboys buys Helen’s gravestone, but because something managed to spark excitement in Robert’s mind, he begins the arduous process of unraveling the mystery around Audley Court.