Lady Audley’s Secret on the UK A-Level Syllabus

by Janine Hatter on July 27, 2015

The UK exam board, Edexcel, is about to launch the new A-Level specification in September. The section on novels is taught as a comparative unit, one option for which is ‘Crime and Detection’. Under this option you can compare Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. In the final exam, the students will have an hour to write one essay from a choice of two titles and they can have a blank text with them.

As an A-Lever teacher I think this is a brilliant option for my students and I will be teaching it as of September. I want to start with Braddon’s novel and then draw The Moonstone in once the context has been established. So far, I’ve been annotating and working on the novel using the 4 titles suggested by the board. These are:

  1. Compare the ways in which your two texts present suspicious behaviour.
  2. Compare the way your two texts present the methods of investigating crime.
  3. Compare the ways your two texts use dialogue.
  4. Compare the way texts present motive, or lack of it, for committing a crime.

The three big areas of focus will be writers’ methods, links between the texts and contextual factors. I think the context will be really interesting and I would be really grateful if MEBA members could suggest avenues (or lime walks – sorry, couldn’t resist!) I could follow up. I think that there is a lot of material to do with railway time, Victorian science and technology, as well as gender. I also wondered about chance and coincidence too and I’d particularly like to think about using art as a way into issues like the marriage market. Based on my pondering the specific questions I have in mind are:

  1. Why is there so much railway travel in Lady Audley’s Secret? Having read the MEBA blog post on the ICVWW conference which had an overview of Andrew Humphries’s presentation, I do not understand the whole idea of why railway travel is equated with a feminised body – so any help there would be fab. I read somewhere that contemporary reviews said Lady Audley as a character is full of movement and is defeated when she is made immobile – does anyone have any thoughts on this?
  2. How can I link commodity culture and femininity to the novel? What are best sections to use?
  3. What art works would serve as a good way in and frame the novel? I am going to use Edward Longsden Long’s Babylonian Marriage Market but I know this is 1870 and I’d like something contemporaneous with the novel. What good angel of the house images can I use? I want to use the Augustus Egg triptych to support section three when Lady Audley confesses.
  4. How does Lady Audley fit into the sweep of detective fiction? What good titles can I access from Newgate Fiction to support our study? Are there any contemporary reviews that deal specifically with the novel as Detective Fiction rather than Sensation Fiction?

We are incredibly lucky and have access to JSTOR so if anyone has any fabulous articles or books to help us we’d be appreciative! Any and all suggestions would be welcome. Thanks in advance for all your help and time – I think studying these texts at A Level is very important and that my students are going to love them!  It’s going to be slightly niche and there are no study notes to help them along which is going to make the whole experience really invigorating!

Joanne Holt 

Guildford High School

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan Hall July 27, 2015 at 11:31 am

I did a blogpost arguing that LAS is in fact the *first* true English detective story: http://susanhall.shoesforindustry.net/articles/lady-audley-secretly-the-first-english-detective-story

With respect to rail travel, I have heard suggestions (specifically with regard to Daniel Deronda, and Gwendolyn Harleth’s trip back from the German spa to her family, when her family lose their money) that the spread of the railways, or, more specifically, the use of “Ladies Only” carriages and waiting rooms for rail travel hugely increased the freedom of women to travel without chaperonage but without compromising their respectability.

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Joanne Holt July 27, 2015 at 6:30 pm

Thanks so much for linking to your article – it’s opened up so many ideas for me and I really appreciate your help! I’ve been quietly thinking about Daniel Deronda whilst reading Lady Audley – probably because of the gambling motif so I was interested to read your comments on the railway and Gewndolyn. Gwendolyn seems rather similar to Helen/Lucy though Eliot’s treatment of beautiful blondes is always more vitriolic!

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Anna Brecke July 29, 2015 at 2:49 pm

In terms of commodity culture, the classic passage to use would be the description of Lucy’s rooms at Audley Court. Her love of excess and collection of objects in those passages is a good inroad to talking about commodity culture in general and a way to read Lucy’s behavior as commodifiying herself. I’ve taught LAS recently and my students responded very well to contextual readings about marriage and property law. Most of them- undergrads at an American university- didn’t have any understanding of how difficult it was for women to sue for divorce or the historic stigma attached to divorced women.

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Joanne July 30, 2015 at 6:31 am

Can you recommend a good place for me to find some contextual work – sadly, I have no access to a university library! I thought I could try Sesames and Lillies and Silly novels by Eliot talking about women writers ( though she never mentions Braddon), but divorce would be such an interesting angle. Thanks!

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Janine Hatter July 30, 2015 at 8:55 am

There are a few sources I use when teaching Braddon and LAS: I start with the context of the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857), then I look at the ‘Angel of the House’ image using Coventry Patmore’s poem of the same name (or just sections of it), and Ruskin’s Sesames and Lilies (1865) as you state – usually the ‘On Queen’s Gardens’ section. This usually gives a good grounding in traditional female roles and expectations. Then, as you were asking about art, I look at Pre-Raphaelite portraits and discuss the femme fatale. This helps students to understand the portrait of Lady A that is painted in the Pre-Raphaelite style and I like to do a close reading of this passage so they can examine Lady A’s dual nature. The other context to look at would be some more contemporary articles. The ones that discuss LAS are by Fraser Rae in the North British Review in 1865, and Margret Oliphant’s Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article of 1867. Lots of reading for you there!

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Anna Brecke July 30, 2015 at 9:54 am

There is a good collection called Criminals Idiots Women and Minors edited by Susan Hamilton that has a strong grouping of nineteenth century works from the discussion on women’s legal rights. You can preview some of it on Amazon. The essay by Frances Cobbe that the collection takes its name from is free on google books. I’ll keep thinking about resources.

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Joanne Holt July 30, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Thanks – will research all your suggestions. Lovely to have such supportive advice.

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Joanne July 31, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Hi, just to say I have ordered the Cobbe and am tracking down the reviews. I’ve found a lovely picture by Thomas Hall that has the image I wanted of the blue eyed, blonde heroine (on the front of Victorian Babylon) but I’m struggling to find any others – googling ‘Victorian angel’ is a bit of a hoot!

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Anna Brecke July 31, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Thank you for reporting back! Please let us know how the project progresses. I don’t have an image to offer, but in text the first 50 pages or so of Braddon’s Aurora Floyd has several descriptions of Lucy Floyd as the “fair-haired ideal” who is also “exactly the sort of woman to make a good wife.” This Lucy is similar in appearance to Lucy Audley, but she is the embodiment of the angel in the house.

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