To celebrate the centenary of Mary Braddon’s death, the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers are inviting entrants to submit a witness statement based on any aspect of Braddon’s best known text, Lady Audley’s Secret. The competition will be judged by the ICVWW and the MEBA – who are hosting a round table on Braddon at this year’s annual conference.
These can take any form, so, for example, they could be a section from a police officer’s notebook, a newspaper cutting or a calling card etc. They can also take the form of a tweet about a specific event in the story.
Entries should be a maximum of 200 words and the competition is open to all – undergraduate, postgraduate students and staff, as well as external senior-school aged entrants.
All entries will be published on this blog, the ladyaudelysecret website, and will also be previewed the ICVWW Facebook page and Twitter (@ICVWW).
The closing date for entries is April 30th.
The eight winning entries will be hand-typeset and letterpress printed into a booklet, of a similar style to the Sissinghurst poem booklets created as part of the Letterpress Reimagined project, last year. If you haven’t seen these, there are photos here: https://letterpressreimagined.com/2014/11/01/sissinghurst-by-vita-sackville-west-available-now/
My dear sister,
I write to inquire if there is a chance of my being employed as household help in York. Audley Court is to be abandoned immediately – following news of the scandal that even in the north you have no doubt heard. My Lady has been sent to the Continent to live out her days in an asylum – a most gracious courtesy extended to her by Mr. Robert Audley. Sir Michael is rightly too distraught to remain in his home, it having been tainted by that unholy woman.
And her son! I can only trust that the Good Lord will treat her with the judgment she deserves forher treatment of that young boy. I know it silly to believe in witches and evil, yet no better case for its existence have I ever seen than in that horrid wretch. I cared for her rooms, of course, and I often found strange herbs thrown about as if she were performing hexes. I am sure she laid spell upon good Sir Michael. I pray for her soul.
As for me, I pray to the good Lord to provide me with new employment.
If only I could have told you, Robert, then the whole mystery would have been solved months ago. But, alas, I could not speak. Neglected and overlooked, my usefulness seemingly at an end I have had to keep my secret until now.
I have listened, I have heard every word spoken and unspoken. I alone was party to that evil woman’s secrets and misdeeds. Only I knew of her plots and schemes: of the depths of her perfidious soul.
How often have I heard her tell her lies, cajoling, pretending, deceiving her poor husband as they walked together along the lime walk. And when she walked alone, plotting and weaving her lying tales – laughing at the simple people she convinced of her innocence? Shaking those blonde ringlets that so charmed rich and poor alike.
It was I that heard every word that passed between them that dark night. I heard the reasoned voice of a man in torment, and then her voice, driven finally to madness by fear and guilt. I heard her drive the ruined spike into his shoulder and push him with the strength of the devil she had become down, down down, into my dark cavernous mouth.
I stared at the painting in horror and disgust. It was like seeing a ghost or looking into a past that you never believed in, like finding out Santa doesn’t care if you get toys because he isn’t real, or discovering your parents have been hoarding your lost teeth like dirty rats to preserve some revolting part of your past. My dear little wife stared back at me from the painting, challenging my distress with the look I had always feared but never imagined.
The painter had preserved her beauty, but instead of the soft, caring features that got me through the long, blistering-hot days in Australia, there was a look of hatred and wickedness that caused my soul to quake. It was the look I feared she might have given if she did not forgive me for leaving.
I trembled in the stool, not knowing whether I should be afraid, happy, surprised, or guilty. Or maybe I should be skeptical. How is it my little wife was in this picture? How is it that she was giving me this look? How did she know—
“Why, George, I thought you had gone to sleep!”
“I had almost,” I lied—guilty.
In the Hôtel Le Meurice in Paris, a handsome young couple were taking tea. The man was in his early thirties, tall and dark, with a complexion that spoke of robust health. This was Mr. Albert Riche, a practitioner of medical science, who had already made a name, not to mention a fortune, for himself in the diagnosis and treatment of female maladies. Albert took a sip of tea and, over the rim of the china, allowed himself to admire his new wife for what must have been the hundredth time that day. It would be impossible, he thought, to find a sweeter, more loving creature than his Constance. She had golden hair that fell in delicate curls around her face, bright blue eyes that could bewitch the surliest of bachelors, and the slim, lithe figure of a dancer. Once more, Albert found himself marveling at the twist of fate that had brought Constance into his life. To think that such a beauty was to be found drudging away as a companion to a patient at a Belgium asylum! What had a man like him done to deserve such a stroke of fortune!
‘In the Lime Walk’
“You are mad, Mr Audley! What if this Helen Talboys ran away from her home upon one day, and I entered my employer’s house upon the next, what does that prove?”
“By itself, very little,” replied Robert Audley; “but with the help of other evidence –“
“The evidence of three labels, pasted one over another, upon a box left by you in the possession of Mrs Vincent, the upper label bearing the name of Miss Graham, the middle one that of Mrs George Talboys, and the lower one that of Mrs Bertha Rochester’
‘My Lady Tells the Truth’
“I left school at sixteen, and travelled to the West Indies with my father. At last the rich suitor came. I married Edward Rochester three months after my seventeenth birthday. At first, we were happy, but he tired of me. He declared me mad, and took me back to England where he kept me prisoner. I managed to escape, and he put about a story claiming I had died. When he married again, I thought I too would claim my right to a second chance, and that chance arose when I met George Talboys.”
As usual, I faithfully convey the events of each day, and today is no different. A most strange matter has transpired, and I still can’t quite make sense of it. This afternoon I took one of Lady Audley’s things to be mended, and placed myself near the window to gain the most favorable light. Whilst there, I noted Lady Audley conversing on the grounds with the stranger lately arrived, a Mr. George Talboys. Suddenly Lady Audley pushed said Talboys roughly, and he collapsed into the well! I was stunned. Given Lady Audley’s frantic looking about her after he fell and desperate departure of the scene, I knew she wanted this action revealed to no one. I became keenly aware that I was the sole witness. I conveyed to her, later, that I had seen everything from the window. She understood my meaning immediately, and now is beholden to keep me in her favors to ensure I never reveal her act. Though I feel I have reached a favorable position, I am frightened to be keeping back such a secret, and have pondered upon telling Luke the whole of it.
End this entry, your ever faithful,
From the journal of Monsieur Val, proprietor of Villebrumeuse:
Last week, we admitted a pretty young woman from England, who goes by the name of Taylor. I anticipated some inconvenience in her adjustment period, but what just transpired has left me completely convinced that this woman is indeed mad, and her case is far more dire than my friend Dr. Mosgrave intimated.
Having done what I could to make her living arrangements comfortable, I went to visit her and ask how she was adjusting. At first, she received me with smiles and good manners, so pleasant and composed that I found myself completely charmed by her and confused at how any label of madness could be used to describe such a beautiful creature. But as the conversation wore on, the lady came and sat next to me, inappropriately close. I thought nothing of it, seeing as she had had little human interaction in some time. But once she put her hand on my knee and started to whisper improper invitations in my ear, I could no longer excuse her behavior and the spell was broken. To think, she tried to seduce her way out of a madhouse! I would not have believed it had I not experienced it myself.
Dr Mosgrave’s Notes
Having received Mr Robert Audley’s urgent instructions to attend his aunt, I left London swiftly and was soon face-to-face with Mr Audley. He informed me of his concerns regarding Lady Audley’s sanity. After hearing of Lady Audley’s second marriage to Sir Michael whilst her first was still intact, my opinion was not that this woman required my diagnosis but that she needed either a policeman, or to be sent back to her true husband, if he’d take her back. However, I then met with the bewitchingly beautiful sorceress who told me of her mother’s delusions and her mania after the birth of her child. She spoke to me like a coiled up snake. She seemed ready to strike at my neck like a viper and claw the life out of me with her highly polished talons as the words that comprised the story of her life slithered out of her cherry round mouth. She did not seem deranged as such, but different to all other women I have encountered and that’s what makes her dangerous. Her readily undertaken transgressions from the behaviour befitting a real lady is why she needs to be sent to a maison santé.
While hastening along Anne Street this morning, I took a sharp right onto William Street when I ran into a man who had stopped to admire a church. As we collided, the man dropped his belongings, which spilled out over the street. I bent down to assist the gentleman gather his things. He apologized and I noticed he had a peculiar way of speaking. I asked his country of origin and he replied England. I responded by telling him that his accent was not the typical British accent that I had heard previously. He responded affirmatively and said he had spent the past several years in Australia.
Although I was pressed for time, I inquired about his purpose for visiting New York, supposing that he was a shipman whose vessel had docked in the harbor. He stated that this was not his reason at all. Rather, he responded that he was visiting “attempting to clear his head of some personal matters.” As he said this, his eyes became distant and contemplative. I did not pursue the matter further, but wished him the best of luck and hurried my way to the bank. It was a most strange encounter.
From the journal of Miss Morley:
I spoke with Mr. Talboys today as we stood on the deck of the Argus and watched the sun sink behind the waves. I do feel that perhaps I was too harsh with him. He was so exuberant before we conversed, but I simply do not share his optimism. I fear that my betrothed has abandoned me. My eyes were once as beautiful as the very ocean that we sail upon, but uncountable years in the colony has extinguished their light. If my love is even upon the docks when we disembark, he will surely look into my eyes and see the dulled blue of the sea on an overcast day. For years he has remembered me as a beautiful young girl, and my present appearance shall only disappoint him. I confided my fears in Talboys, and he promptly lost his composure, panicking over his wife and child. I tried to reassure him. I told him that a woman would wait for a man, but I do not truly believe that. I hope to be proven wrong, but I somehow know that we shall both face grave disappointment in England. We are both abandoned.
I had been the lady’s personal attendant for only two days when she left us. One does not become employed at the maison without knowing you will witness odd happenings. I remember that Monsieur Val took Madame Taylor’s satin-gloved hand as she stepped gingerly into the waiting chaise. I had never seen so beautiful a lady as she.
“I know that I should have abandoned all hope if not for your assistance Monsieur.”
Monsieur Val hustled us as we fastened the Lady’s possessions to the chaise. “Have no concern, my lady.” He stepped up to the door and although he lowered his voice, I could clearly hear him say, “Dr. Mosgrave and I are quite capable of shielding you from the wiles of your criminal relations and not to worry, I have dispensed with that prescription you paid Dr. Mosgrave to fabricate. None in the world shall ever know you feigned madness to your cruel husband. They shall think you have expired here from a maladie de langueur.”
The chaise jolted into motion and the lady took one last look at the maision de santé before muttering to herself “I shall hope they believe I am dead this time.”
Monsieur Val sat at his desk, idly tapping a letter against its polished wood. Sanded, polished, smooth—no rough surfaces or sharp corners here. Far too dangerous…
The letter was from an English doctor he was familiar with, one with a wide practice and a reputable name. It was not the first such letter he had received.
Alwyn Mosgrave, Doctor, to his Colleague, Monsieur Val
I commend to your care a patient that I thoroughly believe to be dangerous. The situation, however, is somewhat unusual…
Another high-profile socialite to sweep under the rug. Those British doctors seemed to think that he was their own personal rubbish bin.
He does say that price is no object, though… he felt himself capitulating.
It wasn’t why he had gotten into this business. He had wanted to help those poor, wayward souls who could no longer help themselves. He had wanted to change things, focus on rehabilitation.
That was ancient history now, though. Patient care had led to nothing but more patients, and he had finally recognized this house of healing for the prison it was.
Price is no object…
The best he could do was make it a comfortable one.
Excerpt from clinical notebook of Monsieur Val, Villebrumeuse, Belgium.
Patient died at eight o’clock this morning. Nurse, Vivienne Brun, in attendance throughout illness, and at the last.
Patient had been suffering fits of hysteria for preceding week, during which episodes she insisted upon wearing the muslin gown and Indian shawl she wore upon admission. Repeatedly requested writing materials. Mlle. Brun refused request on my instruction.
Opium tincture administered orally to allay symptoms, to some effect.
Yesterday evening, patient’s condition worsened. Alarmingly, found to have ink stains on hands and gown. Spoke feverishly of Luke, a letter and her jewel box. Brandy and opium administered to induce sleep.
Mlle. Brun advised that patient had a lucid interval at the last. Her final words, as reported by Brun: “a duel to the death, Mr. Audley. You think yourself victor. But never once did I drop my weapon”.
Scrap of muslin crossed with writing found in her hand. Ink was quite run; reading it almost impossible.
Mr. Robert Audley notified of patient’s death by telegram.
Return telegram advised that patient be interred in Villebrumeuse under the name Madame Taylor. No epitaph.
Nota bene; All patient’s personal effects to be destroyed.
Evidence of Rev. Mr Lane
‘When I visited Mr Robert Audley, I found him drinking brandy with Mr George Talboys. I noticed his limbs seemed a little stiff but I thought nothing of it. After collecting funds for the church, I left the two men together. Unfortunately, I dropped my collection box outside the window and I spent some time retrieving the contents. I overheard Mr Talboys saying, as near as I can remember: “You told me Helen was being treated for a nervous collapse, Bob, but you lied to me. After her death, I made my own enquiries and I discovered that she had been incarcerated in a mental asylum because you falsely accused her of my murder. You used to be my best friend but I loved Helen, despite everything, and I will never forgive you.” Then I saw him pick up Mr Audley’s glass and put it in his pocket.’
‘Did that not seem strange to you?’ asked Superintendent Clarke.
‘It was not my place to conjecture. But when I returned an hour later and saw Mr Audley still sitting in the same stiff position, I became concerned. On entering the house, I found he was dead.’
Corey Lee Hayes
Letter from Phoebe Marks.
Dear Mr. Audley,
As I have never forgotten your kindness to my late husband, and know that you are to thank for my present comfortable position, I thought it right to send you some news of myself so that you might know your influence was not exercised in vain. I am now lady’s maid to the eldest Miss Emerson, whose father is member for Manchester. She is a kind and sensible lady, and I am content with my new duties. I have also been recently married to a Mr. Harris, valet to Miss Emerson’s father. He is a very religious man, and knows all about my past life in Essex, though not, of course, about my former mistress. I do sometimes think about poor Lady Audley, and wish for news of her, but I understand that secrecy is essential. Whatever else she may have been, she was a kind mistress to me, and I hope that she is treated kindly despite her past actions. As my husband says, we must hate the sin but show charity to the sinner. Please give my respects to Mrs. Audley and the children, and believe me to be –
Phoebe Harris, née Marks
Dames. If she’s not crazy, she drives a guy crazy. Life was so simple in Fig Tree
Court, but he’d had it with dames.
Alicia. All the squires loved her. She could have her pick. But what did she do? She
had to want him, and he didn’t want her. Crazy.
Phoebe. Ideas all right, but tied to that lunkhead Luke. Best left to pick at each
other. That way nobody else gets hurt.
Mrs Vincent. Cool, thinks she still has it, but hopeless with the moola. You couldn’t
hang on to a dime with her around to spend it.
Miss Tonks. She wasn’t getting any fun, but that was okay so long as she could make
damn sure nobody else would either. At least she came through with the evidence
when it mattered.
Mrs Barkamb. The one lady in the whole shebang who had life figured out. Get hold
of solid property and sweat it. Let the weak go to the wall.
Lucy – or was it Helen? What a dame that was. You didn’t dare turn your back, but
you were never bored.
Thank God for Clara and a happy ending.
To my reaper Robert Audley,
I cannot handle this confinement anymore. The constant questioning of my mental health; people asking me why I did the things I did. It is all too much, I was denied a peaceful life.
I managed to save pieces of my clothing without anyone noticing. Learning to tie the knot was easy enough. Everything will be pleasant. Just remember you did this.