within Victorian Society"
Anu Paulose L-SAW 2009
Who can ascertain the line between
sanity and madness? Throughout history, the definition of madness has been a
topic of much speculation. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novel, Lady Audley's
Secret, and a great many other novels of the time, reveal a preoccupation
with insanity during the Victorian era, which partially stemmed from a growing
consciousness of cases of wrongful incarceration that had shaken the Victorian
community's faith in the institution of the asylum. This preoccupation was
also swelled by the growing association of women with madness throughout the
course of the 19th-century. Madness is often associated with those
who refuse to conform to societal norms. It is used as a weapon to control
dissidents by discouraging nonconformity and by separating and thus
neutralizing the nonconformists so that society as a whole is shielded from
their bad influence. Thus, it is not a surprise that a society so absorbed
with female submissiveness to the patriarchal system and with such a narrow
view of proper female behavior should associate madness primarily with women.
In fact, it can be argued that because women in this period were expected to
function under such narrower behavioral constraints than men, they were more
likely and had more opportunity to actually commit the offense of "madness."
Furthermore, because the submissiveness of women was sought as an assurance of
their conformity to Victorian gender norms, an unmanageable woman must
obviously be sexually wanton. Thus, madness is more specifically associated in
the Victorian mind with licentious females, whose sexuality made them an object
of fear and even danger to the Victorian male. For this reason, madwomen became
recurrent characters within the popular genre of sensational novels during the
Victorian era. Repressed Victorian society was ironically fascinated by the
subliminal eroticism within sensational novels, but was spared the need to
apologize for this fascination by the moral nature of these novels, which often
concluded by reasserting the established order.
Lady Audley's Secret
was inspired by Wilkie Collins` own sensational novel, The Woman in White.
Yet, Braddon diverged and greatly expanded upon Collins` treatment of madness.
Collins depicts the wrongful imprisonment of Laura Fairly as a result of a plot
by her husband, Sir Percival Glyde, to seize her wealth. The novel thus reflects
a fear in this era that private asylums that lacked proper checks on their
powers were being used corruptly as a means of promoting greedy pecuniary
interests. It also alludes to the use of the madhouse to dispose of
troublesome wives and to the inequitable way in which the behavior of a
"mad" person was seen to reconfirm their insanity. Braddon expands
upon this allusion through her depiction of a woman whose actions prove that
she might actually belong in a madhouse. Lady Audley has to be "buried
alive" in an asylum because she is a dangerous woman (382). Yet, while
there is no denying her dangerousness, Braddon leaves the actual criminal
insanity of Lady Audley ambiguous thus making an indirect social criticism on
the arbitrary way in which a person may be identified as insane.
While Lady Audley has committed or
proved herself capable of committing a variety of acts of depravity, it is left
uncertain whether her actions result from desperation or true madness. What is
certain is that her committal into a madhouse is a means of preventing her
scandalous behavior from tarnishing the reputation of the aristocracy,
specifically her husband Sir Michael Audley. In fact, this scandalous behavior
is in itself seen as a sign of madness by Robert Audley, who makes the
Victorian association between madness and dissidence when he thinks that Lady
Audley's crime of bigamy and her attempt to fake her own death combined with
"the taints of hereditary insanity" will be enough to convince Dr.
Mosgrave of her lunacy even though these crimes only display her immorality and
the selfishness of her nature (377). Even Lady Audley herself had previously
made this association between madness and dissidence when she attempted to cast
doubt on Robert's own sanity through the evidence of his nonconformist "eccentric"
behavior, which he supposedly inherited from his "eccentric" parents (277).
Thus, Robert is the one with the hereditary taint. While Robert and Lady
Audley are willing to associate madness and dissidence, Dr. Mosgrave at first
refuses to see a woman who acted with such "coolness and
deliberation" as insane on the basis of a hereditary taint that might not
even have been transmitted to her (377). Yet, after he discovers that she may
have killed her first husband and definitely attempted to kill Robert, Dr.
Mosgrave ends up confirming the necessity of placing Lady Audley in an asylum
while not actually confirming the prognosis of lunacy. In fact he says, "The
lady is not mad…. She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of
intelligence. I will tell you what she is, Mr. Audley. She is dangerous" (379).
Thus, Dr. Mosgrave makes the decision that, despite the fact that Lady Audley
may have committed her crimes purely out of desperation, she is still not
"a woman to be trusted at large" because she is a danger to the
established order (381). Thus, her quick removal from the outside world, accomplished
in a fashion that would not expose Sir Michael Audley to any disgrace, would be
a "service to society" (381).
The problem of Lady Audley's mental
balance is driven by her own uncertainty of her sanity. Haunted by her
mother's mental illness, she worried that her own blood was tainted with
insanity. Such a fear in itself surely had an adverse effect on her mind
causing her to experience moments of madness that she might never have
undergone were she not aware of her mother's lunacy and the possibility that
she might inherit it. Her certainty that she had a proclivity to lose her
sanity makes her interpret her "fits of violence and despair" as the
result of madness and not the result of poverty and the desertion of her
husband, which are in and of themselves good reasons to suffer a breakdown
(353). When she later pushes her first husband down a well, she once again
blames it on her madness, when it could have been just as likely caused by her
hatred for the husband who deserted her and her selfish desire to keep the
wealth and social status that she had attained. Thenceforth, madness becomes
Lady Audley's excuse for every act of self-preservation. Whether or not she
was actually insane or even driven insane by the fear of her tainted blood is
left ambiguous. Yet, this ambiguity is important in exploring the 19th-century
conception of madness. When Lady Audley accuses Robert of insanity she calls
him a "monomaniac" (287): "Robert Audley has thought of his
friend's disappearance until the one idea has done its fatal and unhealthy
work" (287). The reader knows, however, that it is not Robert Audley but
Lady Audley who is mad and therefore the more likely to be the monomaniac. Her
constant preoccupation throughout the course of her life has been the
contemplation of her own sanity or lack thereof. Could this preoccupation in
itself have caused her madness?
Braddon also adapts Wilkie Collins`
work to further commentate on the arbitrary way in which the behavior of a
"mad" person was seen to reconfirm their insanity. Both Laura Fairly
and Lady Audley were treated as ideals of femininity in their respective
novels. Yet, because madness is associated with highly-sexed females, their
very femininity assists to associate them with madness. This is most obvious
in Lady Audley's Secret where both the readers and her fellow characters
are prepared to see Lady Audley as a madwoman not only because she is a
dangerous bigamist who does not conform to Victorian social standards but
because of the very sensuality of her nature, which is in itself a threat to
the patriarchal system of an era that sought to practice absolute control over women's
sexuality. The pre-Raphaelite painting of Lady Audley in chapter 8 not only
confirms her sensuous looks with the voluminous "masses of ringlets"
and the "pouting mouth" but also her dangerousness as "a
beautiful fiend" surrounded by the "flames… of a raging furnace… the
crimson dress, the sunshine on her face, the red-gold gleaming in the yellow
hair, the ripe scarlet of the pouting lips." The imagery is suggestive of both
hellfire and sexuality. This association is reconfirmed by the French doctor
of the maison de santé who calls her a "beautiful devil" and as such,
very fit for the madhouse (391).
While there is no denying Lady
Audley's dangerousness, Mary Elizabeth Braddon leaves the question of Lady
Audley's actual criminal insanity unanswered. Yet, this ambiguity serves to
emphasize the social reasons for which Lady Audley needed to be "buried
alive" (382). Whether or not she is actually a madwoman, she is still "insane"
under the Victorian conception of the word. Madness in Victorian society was
associated with dissident behavior, especially the dissident behavior of
unmanageable and sensuous women who were a danger to society and as a result were
constrained within the institution of the asylum where they could do no harm.