Lady Audley’s Secret uses the sensation genre to question the difference between appearance and reality. One way the novel does this is through the contrast of exteriors against interiors. It uses the domestic setting of sensation novels to explore outward appearance to morality. The book opens, not with Lady Lucy Audley, but with a description of Audley Court even though the first chapter is called “Lucy.” Through extensive description, the house becomes a character of its own. The first three pages exclusively describe the court. To describe the manor, the narrator states, “It was very old, and very irregular and rambling” (3). The word “old” suggests the home’s deeper, invisible history, such as how it was once a convent. “Irregular” ties to the patchwork nature of the place while “rambling” personifies the house as either a drawn-out character or a random growth, both of which fit according to the rest of the description. Yet, the outer appearance of the house differs to its inner character. The narrator goes on to call the house “a noble place; inside as well as out, a noble place” (4). Later passages provide a catalogue of the interior of the house, which contains objects of beauty, specifically paintings, but this section focuses on the religious and aristocratic history of the house as justification for its appearance. While the description of the outside of the home is not characteristically noble or beautiful, the interior beauty and history cover its outer flaws to make it “noble.” Through this image, the author sets up the idea that appearance does not equal character. The tension of the differences arises from the horrible secret the fine, old house holds; Lady Audley’s secret past taints the nobility of the home. One of the main symbols of this is the painting of Lady Audley (107). The painting hints at Lady Audley’s secret within the materialistic context of the house. It also highlights the connection between her extreme beauty and her selfish actions. Through the painting, the narrator reveals how Audley Court takes on and reflects Lady Audley’s sins.
Lady Audley embodies the juxtaposition of interiors and exteriors; her outer beauty masks her inner darkness. The narrator suggests that when Lady Audley was a child, she saw her beauty as “a counter-balance of every youthful sin” (310). From the beginning of her life, her beauty is her sole virtue against all her other sins. The first thing, and sometimes the only thing, people notice about Lady Audley is her beauty, in which she grounds her identity and self-worth. When Robert questions a landlord of a hotel about Lady Audley’s original identity, the landlord responds, she “was much pitied by the Wildersnea folks… for she was very pretty, and had such nice winning ways, that she was a favourite with everybody who knew her” (262). The first thing the landlord comments on is not her character but her beauty. Additionally, the first reference of Lady Audley in the novel is as Sir Michael’s “pretty young wife” (46). Indeed, the majority of the descriptions of her focus on her physical beauty (49). Characters within the novel equate beauty with morality and form their moral judgments on appearance. Lady Audley recognizes societal understanding of beauty and manipulates it to hide her lack of morality. Even after Robert learns her secret, and she receives her punishment, she states, “But even exile was not hopeless, for there was scarcely any spot upon this wide earth in which her beauty would not constitute a little royalty” (387). While Lady Audley claims her beauty as justification for her actions, she also uses it as a way to gain power. She never learns that she needs to change her character instead of relying on her beauty. In the end, she refuses to repent.
The novel’s treatment of the house and Lady Audley condemns the way that their exteriors do not match their interiors, specifically because of Lady Audley’s secret. At the end of the novel, “Audley Court is shut up”; a year earlier, Lady Audley “had expired peacefully at Villebrumeuse, dying after a long illness” (445). Neither the house nor the woman survives the struggle of the book, perhaps because of the discord between their appearances and realities. The secret of Lady Audley’s past destroys the beautiful and noble facades that Lady Audley and Audley Court create. Despite the novel’s critique, the protagonist, Robert Audley, experiences the same disjunction between the way that others see him and his true character. Sir Michael, as well as most if not all of the other characters, “mistook laziness for incapacity” because he had “no occasion to look below the surface” (297). Through Robert’s search for justice, he proves his worth. He reveals his honest and loyal character under the guise of lazy indifference. Clara Talboys, similarly, seems to be cold and unfeeling toward her brother. When she is alone with Robert, however, she reveals her deeper affection for George and her overall virtue. The narrator explains, “This girl, this apparently passionless girl, had found a voice, and was urging [Robert] on toward his fate” (221). Clara forces Robert to confront and question his first impression of her. She therefore comes to serve as a major motivation and model for him. There are also characters within the novel, both houses and people, whose interiors and exteriors match. For example, Harcourt Talboys appearance matches his character, which also matches the appearance and character of his home (205). Later on, however, Robert learns the depths of Harcourt and his home underneath their appearances. In addition, Luke Marks begins and ends the novel as a gruff character, yet he reveals depths to his character, both through his blackmail of Lady Audley and his ultimate treatment of Robert (421). Just as characters automatically favor Lady Audley, they immediately overlook and underestimate Luke for his lower-class behavior, such as heavy drinking. His home, the Castle Inn, mirrors this appearance, inside and out (161). While Lady Audley uses these expectations, Luke rejects them by gaining power over Lady Audley. The novel explores the ways in which exteriors and interiors differ or match to show that the reader cannot rely on either to form a moral judgement of a character.