Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis

It is early 1863. Despite the heat that is shimmering in the streets of the fast-growing city of Melbourne, you hurry up Collins Street to Mullen’s, anxious to acquire the book everyone is talking about. A smiling assistant comes to your aid, and almost as soon as you have the first volume in your hand you cut the pages, open to the first page and start to read:

“Audley Court lay low down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxurian pastures. You came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thoroughfare, and unless you were going to the Court, you could have no business in that sheltered roadway. At the end of the avenue there was an old arch and a clocktower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand. Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.”

When Mary Elizabeth Braddon penned this description of Audley Court, as the setting for her tale of bigamy and murder, she staked a claim for herself within an emerging sub-genre of popular writing that was to span the globe in the nineteenth century. The reach of her novel encompassed London and English villages and towns, as well as Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields, connecting these foreign fields in a web of print. The opening scene of English solidity and ease was wholly familiar to British and colonial readers, like our imagined customer in Mullen’s (although they necessarily had differing relationships to the narrated landscape) and yet an uncanny sensibility haunts the conventions. The reader senses the disquiet within the quietness of this dream-like scene: the way is sheltered, but there is also no road out. Like a clock with one hand, something is not right at Audley Court. And so the sensation begins.

The impact of Lady Audley’s Secret, and its genre, was played out in the shops, streets and homes of colonial Melbourne, as in the Australian colonies more generally. It is not difficult to see why this story thrilled readers across the Victorian world: it not only has a racy complex plot and fascinating characters, it is laced with contemporary references to textuality, materiality and modernity. The plot rests on ultra-modern elements: fashions, fast trains and shipping timetables. Telegrams are sent, shopping is done, newspapers and novels are read, and individuals cross geographical distances with modern speed. Lady Audley, in Australia, was a truly modern consumer event, suited to an environment in which rapid economic and social change was fuelled by the discovery of gold, and advances in technology and communication.

Other cultural traits and social conditions ensured an enthusiastic, if nuanced, reception of Lady Audley’s Secret in the colonies. Sensational tropes of concealment, secrets and deception, reflecting fears of a destabilisation of social relations amongst the increasingly mobile population of Victorian Britain, resonated even more strongly in the colonies. Mobility to and within colonial outposts like Australia rendered the fraying social guarantees of family connections and community memory even more tenuous. British and colonial literature from the nineteenth century abounds with examples of identities stolen, lost and found within Australian shores. Similarly, the anxieties surrounding social mobility that were written into sensation fiction were magnified in the colonies, where it was feared that even the most entrenched class boundaries could be traversed, through the necessities of daily interaction and with the aid of newly-acquired money and capital.

England may have been the world of the novel, but Lady Audley’s Secret made its way to the wider world of Empire as it was exported across the globe to colonial ports and cities. When it arrived in Melbourne – that marvelously bookish city of which a contemporary boasted that ‘the facility of obtaining new books either for perusal or purchase, is not perceptibly less in Collins-street than in Paternoster-row’ [Argus, 21 February 1874, 4] – it was enfolded into specifically colonial patterns of reading, writing, and identity-formation.

The ‘sensation’ model diffused through Braddon’s work not only enabled Australians to situate themselves in global patterns of consumption, it also transformed and informed their sense of the local. Through developing forms of news reportage, novels and original series appearing in The Australian Journal, the colonies were re-imagined in the mid decades of the nineteenth century as the site, and stuff, of sensational narrative. A writer in the Brisbane Courier in 1868, for example, commented in reference to the convict origins of the windmill at the Brisbane Observatory, that ‘if Miss Braddon would only take a trip to Brisbane, and spend a couple of months each with Mr. Petrie, senr., Mr. Warner, and one or two other of our oldest inhabitants, they could furnish her with pabulum for any number of new and thrilling scenes for future novels of the “Lady Audley” type.’ [30 March, 2].

Despite Australia’s usefulness in Victorian fiction (and in Lady Audley’s Secret) as a non-place from which characters conveniently emerge with identities transformed and lives changed, nineteenth-century Melbourne was itself a self-consciously literary city, which not only avidly took up Mary Braddon’s novel, but made it its own.

This is a revised and edited extract from Susan K. Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi, Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011). Available at:


One Reply to “Sensational Melbourne: Reading, Sensation Fiction and Lady Audley’s Secret in the Victorian Metropolis”

  1. Ah! Thank you for giving me the frisson of thrill I felt when I opened LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET for the first time, back in the 1990s. I’d been researching the Victorian period, and when I heard about MEB, I was determined to get my hands on the book, but it took me a while to find it. Reading it was unforgettable and truly visceral experience. Thank you for providing such a rich POV from which this reader (from one of the other former colonies) can deepen that experience. At the moment, I’m reading THE DOCTOR’S WIFE. MEB’s wit and glorious language reminds me of everything I love about Dickens – but without any of his cloying sentimentality. I’m grateful to you and to everyone else who is rescuing her from undeserved obscurity.

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