In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s ‘Lady Audley’s Secret, the reader is presented with multiple scenarios where one must, for lack of a better phrase, “play detective.” For example, it becomes apparent very early on in the novel that the woman of interest, Lucy Audley, has some past with Mr. George Talboys, and it is the reader’s job to weigh the materials presented to come to a conclusion regarding the nature of the relationship. In addition, once Mr. Talboys goes missing, we have the barrister, Mr. Robert Audley, take it onto himself to discern the cause of his friend’s disappearance and where he might be located. Regarding the evidence presented, the reader may take notice of the varying degrees of rationality characteristic of each individual piece. Potentially a product of her time, Braddon includes many examples of ’empirical evidence,’ in that most of the clues within the novel make mention of some physical quantification; they may all be proven or felt, etc. It is also important, however, to analyze the pieces of information gathered that have, perhaps, very little tangible qualities; how they present a certain knowledge that takes serious consideration and may, in fact, lead one astray. By analyzing both of the scenarios mentioned earlier in this introduction, the reader is able to observe how Braddon effectively uses empirical evidence to guide us to one particular conclusion, but also how she employs non-empirical evidence to present a sense of greater mystery.
By observing Lady Audley – her mannerisms, her keepsakes, physical characteristics, and people she associates with – one can pick out evidence of her relationship with Mr. Talboys that is both of an empirical nature and of a less direct nature, and come to conclusions that she might be both deceitful and genuinely graceful. One such example of direct physical (empirical) evidence arises when Phoebe and her lover enter the Lady’s chamber while she is away from the Audley Court. Upon examination of the Lady’s jewelry box, the two eventually find a hidden compartment containing “a baby’s little worsted shoe…and a tiny lock of pale and silky yellow hair, evidently from a baby’s head” (Braddon, 70). As the reader is told throughout the first volume of the novel, George Talboys and his wife had a child, and the child – his mother said to be deceased – is noted as having blonde curly hair, similar to that in the box. Here is what the reader is led to believe as direct evidence of some relationship between the two, and the effect of such evidence is simple; it makes Lady Audley seem deceitful – a direct contrast to the whimsical persona she puts on. One other piece of direct evidence, is that of the bruise marks on the lady’s arms towards the end of the first volume. “It was not one bruise, but four slender, purple marks, such as might have been made by four fingers…across one…there was a darker tinge, as if a ring worn…had been ground into the tender flesh” (123). This physical evidence can speak to the reader in multiple ways. It can speak to them as if saying Talboys had confronted Lady Audley at some time and the bruise was a result of the confrontation, or it could simply speak to the fact that she has been caught in a “little white lie” when she waves it off as the result of tying a ribbon around her arm. Either way, once again we have direct evidence of the Lady’s deceitfulness and are thus drawn to doubt her. One example of the indirect variety of evidence is present in the lady’s mannerisms herself. Throughout the first volume of the novel, we are told of her gracefulness; how she spent a long time in Essex without being overbearing and taking joy in the smallest things, and how she was agreeable to virtually everyone she met, save Alicia Audley and her dog. In small intervals, however, we are also shown mannerisms that show doubt, melancholy, and fits of radical temperament (such as that during the storm). These all draw question to the Lady, yet she is seen as so agreeable the rest of the time. Such is the nature of indirect evidence; it creates an aura of mystery and uncertainty – an element tactfully used by the author to force the reader into a sense of disarray amidst such seemingly secure evidence.
Finally, and briefly, one may similarly approach Robert Audley’s investigation into the absence of his friend George with the same degree of analysis, and also discover how Robert, like the reader, finds evidence that is both of empirical nature and contrasting nature. First and foremost, the first direct bit of evidence comes from the servant at the Audley Court when Robert stops by to inquire about George. When asking the servant if he was sure that the man he talked to earlier that day was George Talboys, the servant responded: “Yes, perfectly sure. He remembered the hour because it was the servants’ dinner hour” (117). This may seem superfluous, but in effect, this is the only direct account of Mr. Talboys that Robert will find; it is the only guarantee that Robert is given of George’s whereabouts throughout the day. Afterwards, the other accounts of where George may be were disreputable and unclear. When talking to the railway station clerk, all he received was a vague description of someone who could be George. When talking to George’s father-in-law, an air of elusiveness perforated Robert; was the man being genuine or was he being blinded by a promise of money given by George Talboys? Regardless, Robert was directed to Liverpool, where once again he was met with a vague description of someone who could have been George, and ultimately came to the conclusion that his friend was still in England, but missing nonetheless. This indirect evidence led Robert on a wild goose chase. Again, such is the effect of this type of evidence. Where direct evidence creates a direct relationship with something, indirect evidence creates a dubious atmosphere that may perhaps lead one to false conclusions. Is this, potentially, an underlying message being provided by the author to not be lead astray by ‘false leads?’
Whatever the case may be, the reader is able to discern the differences between what may be determined as empirical evidence and what may be determined as indirect evidence. Braddon’s use of both these elements is masterful in creating a gripping tale of mystery/discovery. Where she employs empirical evidence, she effectively leads the reader to a prescribed conclusion. Where she uses indirect evidence, she effectively forces the reader’s thoughts into doubt and disarray. Thus we may parallel our own situation with the situation that Robert Audley found himself in; where he is so sure of certain facts, he is simultaneously so unsure of the greater picture surrounding them.