Here, another melodramatic gothic extravaganza like I’ve come to love them. Might this be my ‘comfort reading’ region? There’s historical fiction which tends to put me in a compliant mood, and then there’s classic fiction, which also seems to agree with me on the whole. I usually steer clear of abridgements because if I wanted summaries of stories I’d get a Reader’s Digest subscription. As a creative, I respect the author’s original work too much to take those shortcuts, but in this case, I’d read the original (well, listening to it that time too, but in complete and unabridged form), so I thought refreshing my memory with the truncated version as narrated by my beloved Juliet Stevenson—who has soothed my frayed nerves many a time and over again—might be just the thing on a day when my reading life seemed to get away from me and not give me the peace of mind I’ve come to expect from that quarter (the book in my next upcoming review is partly to blame).
The action takes place in England, in the mid-19th century. Lady Audley, formerly simply known as Lucy Graham, has married up in the world. Renown for her exquisite doll-like blonde beauty, she was formerly employed by Mr Dawson, the local doctor, as a governess, which somehow put her in the way of meeting the much older and very wealthy widower Sir Michael Audley, Baronet, who must have her as lady of his Audley manor.
Sir Michael’s nephew Robert Audley, a barrister who likes to put comfort before duty, meets with his old and very good friend George Talboys upon the latter’s return to England after some years of gold prospecting in Australia. Talboys is expecting to return to a wife and infant son whom he left behind to seek a great fortune, so that he might give his beloved spouse the life of luxury she deserves. But shortly after disembarking from his ship, he learns that Helen Talboys has perished from a grave illness just shortly before his arrival. He is of course completely stricken, to the point where he does not see the point of living on. George is determined to leave at once for Australia and makes Robert his little son’s guardian, a son who is to receive 20,000 pounds upon his father’s decease. His plan is thwarted when it transpires he has missed the ship and must wait another month for the next voyage to the antipodes.
Back at the manor, Lady Audley’s erstwhile devoted maid Phoebe is about to marry her cousin Luke Marks. She brings him to her employer’s home to show him the luxury she’s been surrounded by, and while her lady is away, shows him the jewelry box which Lady Audley normally keeps safely locked, though on this occasion she has forgotten to take the key with her. While Luke and Phoebe are looking through the splendid jewels, her husband to be encourages his cousin to take a precious diamond necklace, but the young woman instead chooses to take a lock of hair which has been carefully wrapped and hidden away, feeling sure they can parlay this small secret into even greater wealth.
Meanwhile, Robert Audley has brought his grieving friend George to an inn near Audley manor so they can take advantage of the fishing and hunting, and in hopes of being received by his uncle to meet the new Mrs Audley, of whom the barrister has heard a great deal. But the lady repeatedly relays excuses to the two young men, in effect preventing them from meeting her in person. Not long after, George disappears without a trace, leaving no word to his friend. Robert must of course find out what happened to him. Is he still alive or dead? And why was his friend so struck by Lady Audley’s portrait?
I had fun revisiting this story, though of course the abridgement leaves many gaps, where the complete novel provides great detail. There is mention that Robert is lazy and complacent of a sudden, quite late in the story, as if this is a given, when there’s been no indication of this before, though I recall the novel describing his character in full. Here we must be contented with the general outline and those details that push the narrative forward. In a way, it was rather satisfying to go from the first few clues, to fully fledged crime, to almost immediate resolution in such a short time. Still, I would advise newcomers to Braddon’s novel take time to savour the complete work, a must for lovers of classic mysteries and fans of authors such as Wilkie Collins. But Juliet Stevenson does make for a splendid introduction, come to that.
My original review from 2012 for the full version is here.