If the characters in Lady Audley’s Secret were simplified to the terms of protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain, (perhaps in some high school English class,) then Lady Audley would be the obvious antagonist and villain. But one of the main themes in the book is that people in real life cannot be categorized simply- lines between good and evil, victim and villain are often blurred and depend on point of view. Therefore, given the book’s intention to suggest this theme, it would be careless and crass to attempt to settle for simple categories.
Lady Audley made the most mistakes in the novel. But every other character made mistakes as well- especially George Talboys’ “desertion” of his young wife, who was left “with no protector but a weak, tipsy father, and with a child to support”(pg 361). He didn’t contact her the entire three years he was away. The ship journey to Australia and the gold fields in Australia were so dangerous in the 1800s, it is understandable for Lady Audley to come to the conclusion that her husband was dead. She moved on as best she could- as a dependent woman in the 1800s, she didn’t have the luxury of mourning him for the rest of her life.
But although she was victimized in this instance, her actions later upon the realization of George’s return are malignant and calculated. She posted the “advertisement of [her] death”(364), and left George for dead after knocking him into a well. It is difficult to conclude if her “inheritance of insanity” from her mother is real or imagined, and if it excuses her in any way (359). Her attempt to kill Robert with a fire is another blatantly villainous action. But her sad response later when Robert informed her that no lives were lost in the fire makes you doubt how truly villaionous she is; three times she repeats that she is glad- “I am glad of that…I am glad of that- I am glad no life was lost”(373). Is that something a villain would say?
Lady Audley is a strong active character, who takes her fate into her own hands, however misguided her decisions turn out to be. The book makes it clear that it is difficult when you are living the events to see what decisions will turn out good, and what bad. One must rely on past experiences and a well-trained moral compass, and Lady Audley’s experiences and moral values were from childhood deprived and neglected. It is no wonder that she found it difficult to choose auspiciously, when passion, fear, and limited information muddied the distinctions between ill-advised decisions and good ones.