When considering the general plot of “Lady Audley’s Secret,” It may be hard to believe that there is any room at all to sympathize with Lady Audley herself. It’s not long into the novel before the reader is able to put together that not only is Lady Audley the sweet, innocent governess Lucy Graham, she is also Helen Talboys who abandoned her husband and child in a misguided attempt to secure a life without want. Again, on the surface it may seem that there is nothing particularly redeemable about a character written in this vein, but closer scrutiny at a few key passages could possibly persuade the reader to at least understand her motives.
One passage that serves to produce some empathy in the reader can be found on page 262 in which Robert Audley questions the landlord to figure out some information about Helen Talboys. When Robert asks the landlord to relay what he knows, the landlord starts talking about Helen Talboys misfortune and says “But the gentleman ran away to Austrailia, and left the lady, a week or two after her baby was born…” When the situation is described this way, it makes Lady Audley’s actions seem less malicious, especially when considering the background of her relationship with George. He had already been struggling to provide for her in the first place, and his abrupt departure without a return date or really any substantial information at all might be enough to make a woman, who had spent most of her life living in extreme poverty, very desperate. It’s definitely not enough to entirely excuse Lady Audley’s actions, but this passage certainly helps to further illuminate her motives.
Another area in the novel that might provide slight redemption for Lady Audley is page 311 where she says “I was not wicked when I was young…I was only thoughtless. I never did any harm– at least, never willfully. Have I ever been really wicked I wonder?” The way in which Lady Audley self-reflects, again, alerts the reader to the fact that, at least in her opinion, she’s not doing what she’s doing with malicious intent. The removal of malice from Lady Audley’s actions help to soften the way in which the viewer reads them. She is a desperate young girl, and while her methods are not the best, in this passage it helps to show her as someone who has really just gotten way in over there head.
Regardless of the few passages that may point to sympathizing with Lady Audley, overall, I think it would be hard for a reader to completely commit to saying the feel bad for her entirely. Where there or one or two passages where it seems the story is less judgmental of her, there are 10 or 12 more that characterize her negatively. Especially while leading up to the climax of the novel, the impression of Lady Audley that I was stuck with was vapid, childish, and concerned with the frivolous things in life. In the contemporary reader, as well as the modern day reader…these just aren’t qualities that inspire pity, regardless of the circumstances.