At the 2014 North East Modern Languages conference held in Harrisburg, PA, a session on Victorian Saint and Sinners I co-chaired with my colleague from the University of Rhode Island, Rebekah Greene, spurred an unexpected but incredibly lively conversation about teaching Lady Audley’s Secret. How do students respond to this unconventional Victorian novel? What was the benefit of teaching Lady Audley’s Secret in a survey class? What are the gender and class conversations that might arise out of this text versus other novels of the 1860s? This semester I decided to put these questions to the test and add Lady Audley’s Secret to my British Literature II syllabus in lieu of Dickens or one of the Brontes. The course is the typical US university survey class beginning around 1800 and becoming as contemporary as we can manage in fifteen weeks of class sessions. As the only example of the Victorian novel I included, LAS has much to offer the undergraduate reader and I was pleased by the enthusiastic response from my class. I’m hoping that by sharing my experience teaching the novel here, I can further foster a conversation on the advantages of teaching Braddon in undergrad courses.
Although the first round of reflection essays I collected offered a few querulous voices wondering “when will the plot pick up?” this class, comprised of majors and non-majors, quickly found their way into the text and began to thoroughly enjoy it. A main benefit to bringing this text into a survey class has been the scope of characters, allowing students multiple points of entry in the narrative. They were also, as expected, piqued by the twin mysteries of Lucy’s origins and George’s untimely disappearance. Lucy’s personal history provided context for an ongoing conversation about women’s rights and suffrage while George’s movements in the text gave me an opportunity to bring questions Empire and colonization to the foreground. One of the best moments in our LAS unit came at the end of the text as we discussed Lucy’s confession scene. The debate between students who thought her genuinely mad and students who saw her ability to rationalize as evidence of sanity became so animated I was worried we would disturb the class across hall!
The most rewarding aspect of teaching this text that I’d like to share, however, is the way in which students used alternative or new media platforms to display their research. The assignment asks them to research an aspect of any text or character they’ve encountered and present their work in either a traditional essay or alternative media format. As the semester ends and their new media projects are coming in, I’m overwhelmed by the way this group engaged with Braddon’s text in a 21st century way. Students are using social media and other digital tools to create online identities for characters. Twitter and Facebook accounts were created for Robert and Lucy Audley. One student created multiple accounts and engaged in a dialogue between characters that charted the plot of the novel. Students have created tumblr blogs for Phoebe Marks – revealing she is secretly the true villain of the novel! – Lucy Audley and Helen Maldon that take advantage of tumblr’s tools to intertwine image, gif, and text posts that create 21st century voices for these characters. The student blogging as Helen Maldon writes in her justification that “it’s easy to forget Helen is just a young adult trying to figure out who she is” and tumblr is a space where many young adults do just that. Students created sites inspired by the Woman Question and contextual readings on 19th century medical practices for treating the mentally ill. There is a website for the Mount Stanning Inn, currently “closed for repairs.” I am even awaiting an original piece of digital art inspired by the theme of temptation in Lady Audley’s Secret. In reading the results of these projects, I discovered how deeply students really are thinking about the characters in this, and other, texts in ways that I don’t think would have come across in traditional essay form.
Students said they found the overall text relatable, which I think is something of an ongoing struggle in teaching a survey class. Their reflection essays towards the close of the novel revealed genuine concern for little Georgey’s future, real anger at Lucy for her betrayal of everyone in her life, and sympathy for Phoebe Marks – trapped in what many of them read as an abusive marriage. I was struck by how easily students became attached to the characters. Their emotional investment in the text had a pay off in the work they produced that I haven’t seen in another unit in this course this time around.