Robert E. Rains on Lady Audley’s Secret Crimes @DickinsonLaw




Lady Audley’s Secret, a Victorian “sensation novel,” was published in England in 1862 and made its author, M. E. (Mary Elizabeth) Braddon, a wealthy woman. Although Braddon continued prolific for decades to follow, it was Lady Audley’s Secret that remained her most successful work. It has been filmed many times, including a silent movie starring that great vamp, Theda Bara.[1] And quite appropriate it was for a great vamp to play Lady Audley who was, in fact, more of a vamp than a lady, this being a rather extreme understatement.

Publish or perish being what it is, there have been many critical analyses of Lady A’s Secret, from multiple perspectives: feminist,[2] gender roles,[3] mental health,[4] homo-erotic,[5] consumerism,[6] etc. But a thorough search of the literature[7] has revealed to this author no prior legal analysis of our heroine’s many high crimes and misdemeanors. This humble little essay is an initial attempt to fill that scholarly lacuna.


The convoluted plot of Lady A’s Secret, played out over 350 or 500 or more pages depending on which edition you are lugging around, is quite complex; and I will spare the reader unnecessary detail, ignoring many characters along the way. We are first introduced to Lucy Graham, a young, twenty-something, governess, who “was blessed with that magic power of fascination, by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile.” Lucy becomes Lady Audley by marrying the widowed baronet Sir Michael Audley, then age 55. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia Audley, by his first marriage, who is not much younger than her new stepmother, Lady Audley, and trusts Lady A not at all. Sir Michael also has a nephew, Sir Robert Audley, who is described as a singularly lazy barrister who is not much interested in the practice of law.[8]

Meanwhile, on board the good ship Argus, George Talboys is returning to England from Australia after a long absence. He explains to a shipmate that he left his wife, Helen, and their young son, Georgey, three-and-a-half years ago to search for gold because he was unable to support his family back home. For better or worse, he took off in the middle of the night, leaving Helen and little Georgey to the not-so-tender mercies of Helen’s father, Captain Maldon, who has the unfortunate habit of pawning other people’s possessions. But George Talboy’s luck has changed, he recently found a “monster” gold nugget and became the richest man in Australia. He wrote to Helen the night before setting sail for home to tell her he is returning and where to contact him in London. (A somewhat desultory correspondent, he hadn’t written her in the preceding three-and-a-half years.)

Sir Robert and George were school chums at Eton. They reunite in London. George is eagerly awaiting word from his beloved Helen, but rather than a “come hither, all is forgiven” letter from her, George finds an obituary in the Times stating that Helen Talboys has died and is buried in Ventnor, Isle of Wight. He rushes there and visits her grave. Despondent, he decides to leave Georgey in Capt. Maldon’s tender care, providing money for his education, and making Sir Robert Georgey’s trustee/guardian. For reasons unclear, Sir Robert and George then take off for a trip to Russia. Before leaving, Sir Robert writes to his cousin Alicia Audley to inform her of his plans, and she replies that he should bring his friend George to Audley Court “if he is very agreeable.”


A year later, we find George living with Sir Robert at his flat in Figtree Court, London.  Sir Robert writes to Alicia (who is secretly in love with him) that he and George want to run down to Audley Court for a week’s shooting. But Alicia writes back that Lady A “has taken it into her silly head that she is too ill to entertain visitors.” So, instead of going to Audley Court itself, Sir Robert and George take accommodations at the Sun Inn in the village of Audley.  Lady A keeps avoiding George on one flimsy excuse after another. The reader might begin to suspect that she has her reasons. One evening at dusk, Alicia lets Sir Robert and George into Lady A’s chambers at Audley Court via a secret passage. There, George sees an unfinished portrait of Lady A with “something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend.” George is stunned, dumbstruck. “He sat before it for a quarter of an hour without uttering a word.” We know not why.

When Lady A returns home, she finds a glove that George had left behind in her chambers and realizes that Sir Robert and George have been there. She is frightened and upset. The next day, she tells Sir Michael that these men had the audacity to enter her private precincts and look at her unfinished picture. Sir Michael says he will go to the Sun Inn and invite them to dinner, presumably with the intention of remonstrating with them. That fateful September day, Sir Robert and George go fishing. Then, Sir Robert takes a nap, and, when he awakens, George is gone. Sir Robert returns to the Sun Inn where the landlord tells him that Sir Michael had been there and invited him and George down to dinner at the Court. Sir Robert heads to Audley Court expecting to find George there. A servant at the Court tells Sir Robert that George was there at 2 o’clock, but not since. After dinner, Sir Robert notices purple marks on Lady A’s wrist which look as if she had been grasped a shade too roughly. Lady A’s explanation of the marks lacks a certain degree of verisimilitude.

This might perhaps be an opportune time to mention that we learned way back in Chapter I that the grounds of Audley Court feature a lime-tree walk, shaded from observation by over-arching trees, at the end of which, hidden away, is an old, abandoned, stagnant well. Could there possibly be a better, more convenient, spot for the disposal of unwanted guests?


Sir Robert now sets off on a multi-chapter search to learn what has happened to George. I will spare you, dear reader, from all the details spread out over this three-volume Victorian epic. Suffice it to say that Sir Robert slowly (he is rather slow) finds clew (clue) after clew suggesting that Lady A is none other than the supposedly late Helen Talboys. Rather unwisely, Sir Robert keeps Lady A abreast of his findings and tells her exactly where he is holding the mounting evidence. Oddly enough, the pieces of evidence keep disappearing. Lady A realizes that the heat is on. In a desperate effort to avoid exposure, Lady A tells Sir Michael that unfortunately Sir Robert has lost his mind and needs to be whisked off to a sanitorium.

Meanwhile, not only is Sir Robert hot on Lady A’s trail, but so is another character, Luke Marks, husband of Phoebe Marks. Lady A’s maid and confidante. Luke has some information that he is holding over Lady A. Luke’s information is sufficiently to Lady A’s detriment as to compel her to give Luke money to buy his own pub, the Castle Inn. Phoebe informs Lady A that Sir Robert is now staying at the Castle Inn. Lady A fears that Sir Robert will wring Lady A’s secret from Luke. A woman of direct action, Lady A sneaks off to the Castle Inn that night, double locks from the outside the door to the room where she has been told Robert is sleeping, and leaves a lit candle near some highly combustible material nearby. A fire ensues, and the Inn is no more.

But things don’t work out for Lady A this time. Sir Robert appears at Audley Court the next day, singed but still alive. He informs Lady A that he had switched rooms before she came to the Inn, that he knows she set the fire, that he got everyone out alive, but that Luke Marks was very much burnt and lies in a precarious state. Sir Robert says he will now tell his uncle, Sir Michael, all he knows.

Realizing that she is undone, Lady A admits to Sir Robert that she killed George Talboys, but not (according to her) “treacherously and foully.” She tells Sir Robert to summon Sir Michael; she is ready to reveal all. Well, not quite all; she’s just not that kind of girl.

Lady A tells Sir Michael the story of her unusual childhood (of which, more later), acknowledges that she married George Talboys and had a child by him, that she deserted her child, applied to be a governess under a feigned name, and, under that name, married Sir Michael. A month after her wedding to Sir Michael, she read that a certain Mr. Talboys, a fortunate gold-seeker, was returning to England from Australia. She reasoned that, “Unless he could be induced to believe that I was dead, he would never cease in his search for me.” So, she arranged for an advertisement of her death to be placed in the Times and for a recently deceased young woman to be buried in a grave under her name.

A man of honor, Sir Michael says he wants to hear no more. He entrusts Sir Robert with the duty of providing for the safety and comfort of this lady who he thought was his wife. He leaves the room without looking back.

Despite the fact that Lady A tried to burn him to death, Sir Robert carries out Sir Michael’s wishes in a gentlemanly fashion. He arranges for a Dr. Mosgrave to examine Lady A. Based on her physiology (rather than her alleged crime spree), Dr. Mosgrave diagnoses that she is a woman not to be trusted at large; she is dangerous. Dr. Mosgrave arranges for Lady A to be received in a maison de santé (sanitorium) in Belgium run by a friend of his. Sir Robert deposits her there under the name of Madam Taylor. And there she–Helen née Maldon, a/k/a Helen Talboys, a/k/a Lucy Graham, a/k/a Lady Audley, a/k/a Madam Taylor—shall remain. But her evil deeds will bear yet more fruit.

The severely burned Luke Marks summons Sir Robert to his deathbed. “I cannot die,” says he, “with a secret on my mind.” He reveals that last September he had found close against the mouth of the dry well on the Audley estate “a gentleman as was wet through to the skin, and was covered with mud and slush, and green slime and black muck, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, and had his arm broke, and his shoulder swelled up awful.” Luke brought the gentleman home, cleaned him up, and gave him brandy. The next morning, Luke took the gentleman to a surgeon who set his broken arm. At the surgeon’s, the gentleman wrote two notes, using his other arm, before departing on a train. Luke now hands both these notes to Sir Robert.

In the first note, intended for Sir Robert, the gentleman explains that something awful has happened to him which will drive him from England a broken-hearted man and says that Sir Robert should forget him. It is signed “G.T.” In the second note, addressed to Helen, he asks God to pity and forgive her and says that henceforth he shall be “that which you wished me to be today.” He is leaving England never to return.

Luke was supposed to deliver these notes personally to Sir Robert and Lady A. But Sir Robert had already left, and Luke did not know how to find him. Before Luke could deliver Lady A her note, he ran into Phoebe who revealed that she had observed Lady A walking with a strange gentleman in the lime-walk toward the old well and saw what Lady A did. Lady A knows that Phoebe knows, so Phoebe now has Lady A in her power. Since both Phoebe and Lady A believe that the gentleman is dead, Luke decided to hold onto the gentleman’s letter. If Lady A had “acted liberal” by Luke and given him all the money he wanted, he would have told her everything. But she didn’t, so he didn’t. Having thus unburdened himself, Luke expires, the last of Lady A’s victims.


Before addressing the specifics of Lady A’s crimes, we must digress to try to ascertain the general timeframe of her nefarious doings, and here there is some confusion.  We know that the novel was published in 1862. At one point, we are informed that Lucy Graham became a governess in May 1856 and married Sir Michael in June 1857. Later we find out that only one month after the wedding, she learned that George is returning from Australia. But confusingly, when describing the ongoing enmity between Alicia and Lady A, the narrator likens it to the ongoing American Civil War (1861-1865). And the final chapter takes place in the summer of 1861. In any event, we can be relatively confident that the action takes place in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Let us now consider what criminal charges a crusading prosecutor might have levelled against Lady A. First, rather central to the plot, would be the charge of bigamy. We know that Lady A married husband number two without having first unloaded husband number one. Whilst some might argue by way of mitigation that she did subsequently attempt to rid herself of husband number one, her method is surely subject to censure and, in any event, was unsuccessful.

In an 1843 case with a plotline worthy of M. E. Braddon herself, Regina v. Brawn and Webb, the Huntingdon Assize (Crown Side) considered the situation in which Jane Brawn, while still married to Thomas Brawn, married Thomas Webb, who happened to be the widower of Jane’s sister. Both defendants were found guilty of the felony of bigamy and additionally Webb was found guilty of the felony of counselling Brawn to commit bigamy. Remarkably, although the statute called for the defendants to be liable for transport (presumably to Australia) for seven years or imprisonment with or without hard labour for two years, they were each sentenced to a mere two months’ imprisonment.[9] Perhaps the learned court did not consider bigamy to be much of a felony or simply felt that love conquers all.

Lady A assumed a new identity, but was her marriage under an assumed name a crime? Under English common law, as I was taught in law school lo those many decades ago, one could take a new name as long as one used it continuously and for no fraudulent purpose. Can we say, based on the facts at our disposal, that Helen Talboys became Lucy Graham with an intent to commit an improper act? It is true, of course, that she then married Sir Michael under her assumed name. But in the almost contemporaneous case Regina v. John Smith in 1886, Willes, J. instructed a jury that if a man signed a notice for the purpose of procuring a marriage under his assumed name rather than his birth name that was not a crime. “If a man had a name which displeased him, there was nothing in law to prevent his changing it to any other name he liked better, provided he could get the public to adopt and use the name he preferred.”[10]

We must assume that Sir Michael believed Lucy Graham to be a maiden lady. But was her name change critical to Sir Michael’s belief? Had she remained Helen Talboys, would Sir Michael have had any reason to believe her married? And, while we are on the subject of fraud, did Helen/Lucy ever actually tell Sir Michael or any civil or religious authority that she was nubile? We do not know. Was it her fault if Sir Michael jumped to an unfounded conclusion? Can one commit fraud by omission rather than commission?

Is Lady A technically guilty of personation, the crime of assuming another person’s identity for a wrongful purpose? Surely Helen Talboys was able to obtain the status and wealth of becoming Lady A through the act of impersonating an unmarried woman. But the case law generally held that to be guilty of personation the defendant must have assumed the identity of a real person;[11] and we have no reason to believe that a Lucy Graham existed before Helen Talboys created her. By either luck or design, Helen did not take the name of the actual young lady currently moldering in the grave under the headstone of Helen Talboys.[12] So it appears that Lady A would have dodged the personation bullet.

Then there’s arson. The evidence is overwhelming that Lady A purposely left a lit candle in the Castle Inn in such a way as to ensure the ensuing conflagration which destroyed that edifice. Even Lady A’s usually loyal maid, Phoebe, could see that the fire was no accident.

Working our way up the list, there are at least two possible counts of attempted murder: George Talboys and Sir Robert Audley.[13] In both cases, Lady A believed she had succeeded but in fact had failed in her evil plans. Again, the evidence of her guilt of these crimes is overwhelming.

And, what of the unintended death of Luke Marks, ironically the only victim Lady A manages to kill? Whilst Lady A was surely not a fan of Mr. Marks, who was after all blackmailing her, we have no reason to believe that she intended his untimely demise. How should this offense be graded? Manslaughter or murder?

Happily for this author, a learned article in the Stanford Law Review traces the evolution of the felony murder rule in England.[14] During the mid-nineteenth century, the commentators and the courts did not always see eye-to-eye on the exact contours of felony murder. But one 1862 case, R. v. Horsey,[15] seems almost directly on point. In that case, the accused set fire to a barn, unaware of a tramp sleeping inside who was burned to death. Justice Bramwell charged the jury that, “where a prisoner, in the course of committing a felony, causes the death of a human being, that was murder even though he did not intend it.” And, surely, Mr. Horsey, who did not intend to kill anyone, was less culpable than our Lady A who did intend to kill Sir Robert, but missed her target, killing Luke Marks instead.


But there is more to be considered here. Lady A has been spirited away to Belgium where she is residing under an assumed name. What was the state of extradition, if any, between England and Belgium in those days of yore? At least one character, Dr. Mosgrave, apparently believes that in Belgium Lady A will be “out of the reach of justice.” We realize, of course, that he is a medical doctor, not a lawyer, but Sir Robert the barrister does not contradict him on this point. And surely, if a doctor and lawyer agree on something, it must be true.


An additional consideration could have potentially saved Lady A’s lovely neck from the gallows if she were to have been extradited. You, dear reader, might well suppose that Lady A’s secret entailed such indiscretions as actually being Helen Talboys rather than Lucy Graham, faking her own death, entering into a bigamous marriage, shoving husband number one down a well, engaging in arson in an attempt to murder Sir Robert and actually fatally injuring her blackmailer, Luke. But, no, none of these little peccadillos constitutes the SECRET, at least not in Lady A’s eyes. Her secret, confessed to Robert and Sir Michael, is that she is “a MAD WOMAN.” Her mother went mad and was institutionalized. Now, Lady A deems herself to be mad, as well. “My intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that narrow boundary-line between sanity and insanity.”

Of course, her claims of madness may well be in the nature of self-serving declarations. Lady A is nothing if not clever. Had she researched the M’Naghten Rule[16] which was fairly well established in England by the time of her misdeeds? Under the Rule, all defendants are presumed to be sane unless they can prove that at the time of committing the criminal act their state of mind caused them to either (1) not know what they were doing when they committed the act, or (2) not know that it was wrong. Given the prodigious amounts of conniving demonstrated by Lady A and her attempts to avoid discovery, it is doubtful that she would have prevailed on a M’Naghten defense.[17]


E. Braddon’s three-volume epic comes to a close with a happy ending for most of the main characters, with the dual exceptions of Luke Marks, deceased,[18] and Lady A, who, as Madame Taylor, has conveniently died in the Belgium sanitorium, apparently in 1859 or 1860, after a long illness.[19] Sir Robert is married to George’s beautiful sister Clara who looks quite a lot like George. Together Sir Robert and Clara are raising Master George (Georgey) Talboys and a toddling baby of their own production. George Talboys, who never went back to Australia but was staying in New York, has returned and been reunited with friends and family (except, of course, Helen). Alicia Audley is planning to marry an old suitor whom she had previously rejected and will get a new title. Sir Michael will not return to Audley Court but is otherwise recovered from his shock and disappointment.

Lady A’s demise tidily resolves potential legal issues for both George Talboys and Sir Michael. George, after all, legally married Helen Maldon, the future Lady Audley. Surely, her subsequent bigamous marriage to Sir Michael did not automatically vitiate the bonds of matrimony between herself and George. It is probable, under all the circumstances, that George might not wish to remain married to a woman who shoved him down an old, abandoned well and left him for dead.  And, if she were in fact insane in the civil, not criminal, sense, might George not be legally tied to her indefinitely, not unlike poor Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre who keeps his insane wife locked in the attic? Under Section XXVII of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, a husband could bring a petition for dissolution of marriage on the ground that his wife, has since the celebration thereof, been guilty of adultery. But here there are two problems. First, has Lady A in fact committed adultery? We are never told whether Lady A’s supposed marriage to Sir Michael was ever consummated. Second, if she is insane, can she be sued at all?

And what is Sir Michael’s matrimonial status? A widower, he entered in good faith into a second marriage with Lady A. To all the world, he is a married man. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 removed jurisdiction over matrimonial matters from the Ecclesiastic Court and vested it Her Majesty’s Courts. No doubt a prudent solicitor would have advised Sir Michael to clarify his matrimonial status by obtaining a decree of nullity per Section XXVII thereof. But might he have found himself in the same position as Mr. Rochester, unable to sue a crazy woman?

Fortunately, these potential legal difficulties for Sir Michael and George were all removed by Lady A’s demise. M. E. Braddon makes no apology for this happy ending. “I can safely subscribe to that which a mighty king and a great philosopher declared, when he said, that neither the experience of his youth nor of his age had ever shown him ‘the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging their bread.’”[20]


Perhaps the happiest aspect of the happy ending, dear reader, is that Sir Robert, after all his sleuthing and amassing of evidence against Lady A, has rekindled his love for the law and become a rising star in the legal profession, specializing in—you guessed it—breach of promise.


Robert E. Rains is Professor Emeritus at Penn State Dickinson Law. He wishes to thank Dickinson College Professor Sarah Kersh for assigning this epic in her class on “Monsters and Madness,” a class in which he was far and away the most mature (i.e., oldest) student.

[1] That film is, sadly, lost to posterity.

[2] Elizabeth Langland, Enclosure Acts: Framing Women’s Bodies in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, in BEYOND SENSATION: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context, 3-16 (Marlene Tromp, et al. eds. State U of New York P, 2000).

[3] E.g. Herbert G. Klein, Strong Women and Feeble Men: Upsetting Gender Stereotypes in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s SecretAtenea 28.1 (2008): 161-74.

[4] E.g. Pamela K. Gilbert, Madness and Opposition: Generic Opposition in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Essays in Literature 23.2 (1996): 218-33.

[5] E.g. Richard Nemesvari, Robert Audley’s Secret: Male Homosocial Desire and “Going Straight” in Lady Audley’s Secret, Ed. Calvin Thomas. U of Illinois P, 2000. 109-121.

[6] E.g. Katherine Montwieler, Marketing Sensation: Lady Audley’s Secret and Consumer Culture, in BEYOND SENSATION: Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Context, 43-61 (Marlene Tromp, et al. eds. State U of New York P, 2000).

[7] Okay, I checked on WestLaw and Lexis.

[8] The horror!

[9] Regina v. Jane Brawn and Thomas Webb (1843) 1 Carrington and Kirwan 144, 174 E.R. 751.

[10] Regina v. John Smith, (1866) 4 Foster and Finlason 1099, 176 E.R. 923.


[11] See, e.g., Regina v. Pringle (1840) 9 Carrington and Payne 408, 173 E.R. 889.

[12] The dubious honor of being buried as Helen Talboys belonged to poor consumptive Matilda Plowson, age four-and-twenty.

[13] There is also a suggestion that Lady A may have administered poison to Sir Michael, but the reader never gets to real goods on this one, and, in any event, two counts of attempted murder ought be enough.

[14] Guyora Binder, The Origins of American Felony Murder Rules, 57 Stanford L. Rev. 59 (2004).

[15]  Regina v. Horsey (1862) 3 Foster and Finlason 287, 176 E.R. 129.

[16] M’Naghten’s Case, HL, (1843) X Clark & Finnelly 200, 8 E.R. 718.

[17] Also unavailable to Lady A would have been the common law “year and a day” rule (abolished by Parliament in 1966), which required the death of the victim to occur within a year and a day of the act in order to constitute murder. Lord Coke wrote that an essential ingredient of the crime of murder was that “the party wounded, or hurt, etc., die of the wound, or hurt, etc., within a year and a day after the same.” Coke’s Institutes (1809) Part I11 p 47. Whilst we are not provided the exact time period between Lady A’s arson and Luke’s demise, it appears to have been fairly short.

[18] Shed not a tear over Luke, a wife-beater as well as blackmailer.

[19] Since Matilda Plowson was buried as Helen Talboys (see supra, note 12), may we now expect Helen Talboys to be buried as Madam Taylor? Why not?

[20] Quoting King David in Psalm 37:25. Near the end of the Victorian Era, Oscar Wilde had Miss Prism repeat this theme in describing her own famously lost three-volume novel in Act Two of The Importance of Being Earnest, explaining, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”