Sympathy for the Lady

Braddon’s carefully architected portrayal of Lady Audley becomes infinitely more successful when the reader chooses to be complicit in her crimes.  Braddon compromises the reader with her subtle attempts to elicit sympathy for Lady Audley and distaste for Robert.  I think that the novel’s “success” is directly proportional to the sympathy or distaste created in the reader.  In this blog post I will identify several methods and examples employed by Braddon.

There is no question as to the guilt of Lady Audley.  The only item therefore would be the justification for her actions, those criminal, immoral and unethical.  A method Braddon uses to portray Lady Audley as a victim is to paint the men around her as immoral, unethical and misogynistic.  Robert repeatedly offers to the reader accounts of his vile views of women.  He shamelessly states that he “hate[s] women” and that they simply act in self-interest and are calculating mercenaries (229).  He laments that women control men like marionettes, pulling their strings, forcing men into undesired behavior and actions at a whim.  Men may be the head, but women function as the neck, driving them to action.  He evokes Tennyson, “men might lie in the sunshine and eat lotuses, and fancy it ‘always afternoon,’ if his wife would let him! But she won’t, bless her impulsive heart and active mind (228)!”

Braddon’s narrator often breaks action of the novel to provide an observation or create perspective for the reader.  On Page 243, the narrator interrupts the seemingly mundane to express the sacrifice women must make and the continuously shifting gender expectations placed on women.  Lady Audley is preparing tea, where “she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable.”  The choice of words expresses the shrinking sphere of influence and the small arena that women are allowed to control.  Fear exists that even this task of serving tea may be stripped away.  “To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire (243).”  “Better the pretty influence of the teacups and saucers gracefully wielded in a woman’s hand, than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of the pen from the unwilling sterner sexy (243).”  Men legislate away everything from women, leaving them the remaining scraps to rule over.

Lady Audley is described as victim of uncontrollable circumstances, cast upon her by fates beyond her control.  Her beauty was her fatal flaw.  After her encounter with Robert in the lime-walk, she reflects on “that fatal early time in which she had first begun to look upon her liveliness as a right divine, a boundless possession which was to be a set-off against all girlish short-comings, a counter-balance to of every youthful sin (310).”  The narrator personifies character flaw to remove guilt from Lady Audley.  “Surely, if her thoughts wandered so far along in the backward current of her life, she must have repented in bitterness and despair of that first day in which the master-passions of her life had become her rulers, and the three demons of Vanity, Selfishness and Ambition had joined hands and said, ‘This woman is our slave; let us see what she will become under our guidance (310-311).’”

I’m not certain what Braddon was attempting to do in this last passage.  I personally found it more revolting than humanizing.  I still believe that the success of this novel is directly linked to the response of the reader and how sympathetic they feel for Lady Audley.  However, I think that gender, class and time alter this success.  With many of the novels we have read this semester for class, I think we must recognize that as modern readers we were not the intended audience.  We should understand who the intended audience would have been and make every attempt to view it through that lens.



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