Throughout her novel Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon explores the theme of power through the use of several tools. In some situations, Braddon uses non-physical, abstract means to communicate power — charm, manipulation, blackmail, secrets, etc. In other cases, the reader might notice more concrete forms of power such as physical evidence, gender, money, or social status. Although these are all effective sources of power, I would like to propose yet another form of power I have noticed throughout the novel: the power of choice.
Braddon makes it clear that Lady Audley’s origins did not offer her much choice in her life. This is shown in her response to Sir Michael’s proposal, “…you ask too much of me! Remember what my life has been; only remember that! From my very babyhood I have never seen anything but poverty” (Volume 1, Chapter 1, pg. 52). Up until Sir Michael’s proposal, Lady Audley seemed to lack the amount of choice the upper class was given. In her life prior to becoming Lucy Graham, Lady Audley was caught between abandoning her family for a new life or suffering a life of poverty. By marrying Sir Michael, Lady Audley inherits more choice. She’s free to live the life she wants, free of the discomforts of poverty. It is, perhaps, in this “bargain” that Lady Audley gains her power.
As the novel progresses, the power seems to shift from Lady Audley to Robert. Despite Lady Audley’s ability to charm those around her, Robert manages to collect concrete knowledge about her secrets and stores them in his pocketbook. It is only once he has compiled all the information he needs to connect the dots between Lady Audley’s lives that he realizes his power, “My duty is clear enough… not the less clear because it is painful – not the less clear because it leads me step by step, carrying ruin and desolation with me, to the home I love” (Volume 2, Chapter 9, pg. 258). On one hand, Robert feels his duty is to tell Sir Michael, his dear uncle, the truth. On the other hand, Robert knows telling his uncle the truth means he will be taking away his uncle’s happiness and sentencing a woman to a life of poverty and a lack of autonomy.
As Robert gets closer to exposing her secrets to Sir Michael, Lady Audley’s choices begin to narrow. This is best shown in Chapter 1 of Volume 3:
Perhaps it would be wiser in me to run away, to take this man’s warning, and escape out of his power forever… But where could I go? what would become of me? I have no money; my jewels are not worth a couple of hundred pounds, now that I have got rid of the best part of them. What could I do? I must go back to the old life, the old, hard, cruel, wretched life—the life of poverty, and humiliation, and vexation, and discontent (pg. 328).
In this moment, Lady Audley is faced with a powerful choice – should she run away and let go of the only power she’s ever known, or should she continue to try to hide her true identity in hopes of holding onto the power she has gained throughout the novel?
The characters in Lady Audley’s Secret use several tools to gain power over one another; however, the concept of choice as a weapon of power is among the most interesting. Although I believe every character is responsible for his or her actions, both George and Lady Audley are equally at fault for choosing to abandon their family, it is true that some characters have a larger variety of choices to make than others.