Sea, Sand and Spectres in Lady Audley’s Secret

“But I don’t want to know anything about the neighbourhood of Wildernsea.” Sea, Sand and Spectres in Lady Audley’s Secret

This comment by Robert Audley to the landlord of Withernsea’s Victoria Hotel and his description of the town as “a shabby seaport” wouldn’t impress its residents and the thousands of visitors who still remember Withernsea as a popular, accessible and very affordable seaside resort. Poor Withernsea – battered for centuries by crashing waves and then by a crashing bore who obviously preferred London’s smog to clean sea air. If he had cared to listen instead of worrying about his chop and pint of sherry the landlord could have told him some interesting facts. Withernsea (Wildernsea) is mentioned in the Domesday Book as Widfornessei and Witfornes but its history goes much further back with evidence that the area had human settlements in the Mesolithic period or Middle Stone Age and objects and burial mounds from the Bronze Age have also been found. Withernsea is also rich in fossils so I’m very surprised that Robert didn’t feel instantly at home!

Considering his running battles with Lady Audley, he might also have been interested in hearing about Fort Paull which is only a few miles away. The first of the four forts to be built on this site was commissioned during the reign of Henry VIII to protect the Humber’s ports. Ironically, the second fort commissioned by Charles I during the Civil War was an attempt to cut off supplies to Kingston-Upon-Hull. The site was then home to a third fort designed to repel any Napoleonic threat. Given that Robert is obsessed by a murder he thinks has been committed he might also have heard about the mystery of Drogo de Beuvriere who built Skipsea Castle. This Fleming was given the title of tenant in chief of Holderness by William the Conqueror as a reward for his support at the Battle of Hastings and he also married a kinswoman of William. She died mysteriously, some believe poisoned by Drogo, who then fled to Flanders, but not before an unsuspecting William gave him money for his passage!

Robert took a train to Withernsea on the Hull to Holderness railway line which was promoted by a Hull man, Anthony Bannister, who held the office of Lord Mayor of Hull twice and also became an alderman of the city. Thanks to his foresight the railway created faster links between the port of Hull, Withernsea and villages along the line. The line opened in 1854 but fell under Dr Beeching’s axe in 1964. Fortunately for Braddon and other authors, the Victorian railway network could be used to great advantage in so many novels. The Victoria Hotel where Robert stayed could be the impressive three storey Queen’s Hotel which changed names a number of times before being taken over by Hull Royal Infirmary in 1893 for use as a hospital/sanatorium. It’s of interest that the hotel reflects the class boundaries in the novel because it has a small side door which was the usual entrance for the “humbler classes of residents.” Many of these would have come from Hull but they didn’t have the pleasure of strolling along the pier until 1877 when the construction was completed. Here Braddon exercised a little artistic license because Lady Audley’s Secret was first serialised in 1861-62 and yet Robert views the “long stone pier” on which George Talboys met Helen Maldon. Braddon probably thought that every popular coastal resort should have a pier and so she built one, much as she’d probably have constructed a railway line if Bannister hadn’t beaten her to it! Braddon’s pier lives on in her book but the real pier suffered severe storm damage, even during its construction, and the battered remains were removed in 1903.

Robert could also have learned about the gradual erosion of the Holderness coast and the loss of over 30 villages to the North Sea, including Old Withernsea, which was lost in the fifteenth century. Would he have been shocked to hear that the Holderness Coast had lost an estimated three and a half miles since the Romans invaded Britain? No doubt the landlord would also have enjoyed telling him ghostly stories about the thirteenth century Church of St Mary the Virgin which lies one mile out at the bottom of the sea. He might even have mentioned the great storm of 1816 during which bodies and bones from Owthorne’s church graveyard were washed up onto the beach. While at the hotel Robert has a nightmare in which Lady Audley is a mermaid luring his uncle to destruction and he sees Audley Court uprooted from Essex and threatened by the North Sea. Had he listened to the landlord’s history of the area his nightmare might have included the sound of the submerged church bells tolling out a death knell for Audley Court and the vision of bones and bodies on the shore. He might even have seen the ghost of Drogo’s wife wandering along the beach in pursuit of justice. Enough I think to deter Robert from ever returning to Withernsea and leaving its attractions to visitors who did like to be beside the seaside!

Ann Folan

4 Replies to “Sea, Sand and Spectres in Lady Audley’s Secret

  1. always thought it was Withernsea as Miss Braddon wrote part Lady Audley’s Secret in Beverley &
    appeared on the stage in Hull
    Robert left Withernsea & continued up north on the train ( did he not ? ) but that would have been impossible then as it is today
    Passengers would have to return to Hull first
    My friend from Beverley, & Braddon fan, claims that Mary was also an accomoplished artist. As my friend is a local historian
    & researcher I am inclined to believe her

    Anyway , a most enjoyable read which I would like to read out to our local history group in Hull
    if i can ”catch the speaker’s eye”

    1. Hi Brian,

      I’m sure Ann would be honoured to have her post read out at your local history group. I shall point out your comment to her. If you would like to discuss this further, myself and Ann will be at Hull History Centre on Wednesday 25th February, 4-6pm, for the launch of a Braddon exhibition that elaborates on these points.

      1. “An express for London left Wildernsea at a quarter-past one” Lady Audley’s Secret

        Yes Brian you’re right – I don’t believe it was ever possible, except in fiction, to travel to King’s Cross from Withernsea. Here again Braddon used artistic license because Robert would have had to travel back to Hull to catch a train home. Perhaps if such a train link had existed Withernsea would have thrived and the grand three storey hotel wouldn’t have closed due to a lack of clientele. What a pity Braddon wasn’t involved in the planning of routes! Still, the hotel was put to good use thanks to the generosity of the Reckitt family.

        I do find Robert’s perception of the landscape during his train journey to Hull quite jaundiced: “the wide expanse of wintry landscape chilled him by its aspect of bare loneliness.” Surely any sensible person would take warm clothes when visiting the seaside in February? Did he expect golden cornfields at this time of the year?

        I’ve just come across a small book about Withernsea by Mave and Ben Chapman. It’s well worth looking at because it’s packed with wonderful photographs of every aspect of life there. It’s called Pocket Images – Withernsea.

        I didn’t know that Braddon was also an artist although her knowledge of Pre-Raphaelite art in Lady Audley’s Secret should be a clue. Does anyone know more about her art? Has anyone seen the portrait of her by Frith?

        Ann Folan

        1. dear Ann
          Hull History Centre , luckilly, has Pocket Images thanks for the info

          My friend Berna from Beverley, who I shall next month,
          knows about her painting & where Braddon wrote part of her
          book in Beverley
          Mary ‘acquired’ a patron early on ….John Gilby of Beverley
          who she managed to ‘loose’ or’ dump’ prior to publication of Lady Audley

          PS: I am ”into” Bulwer -Lytton at the moment & was surprised to discover that Braddon coresponded with him ( her Litery Hero!)
          Bulwer- Lytton wrote that great cliche ”It was a dark and stormy night’

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