Teaching Lady Audley’s Secret at A-Level

‘If Robert were as noble and she as irredeemably evil as he presumes, the novel would be both duller and less subversive’ (Rohan Maitzen)

Two years ago, I approached the Braddon Society Blog for help with my new A-Level course. The UK exam board, Edexcel, was about to launch the new A-Level specification in September and I had decided to teach the ‘Crime and Detection’ strand, comparing Braddon’s, Lady Audley’s Secret and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Following my post, I had some fabulous suggestions and remain incredibly grateful for all the tips and ideas people passed on. This post is just to update on how I have found the course – it would be fabulous to chat to anyone else who is teaching Braddon – either at A-Level or at university level.

As expected, the challenge of taking on a new book, one that is normally the preserve of university students, has been invigorating. I was very aware that there were no study notes available for Braddon and that this removed a useful layer of revision material for my students. On the flip side, it really has freed us – made us think and explore and discover together. I have had to create bespoke resources and although this has been a substantial amount of work, it has meant that I have full Victorian-obsessed control of what they use!

The task for the paper is comparative, so I chose to begin teaching Lady Audley first before moving on to The Moonstone. The novel is a joy to teach – accessible in terms of length and complexity and a good bridge for GCSE students who may have not yet negotiated studying a pre-twentieth century text for examination. As a group, what we discovered was that while the text is accessible, the ideas that it generates are complex; the sympathy we feel for Lady A is surprising and as Rohan Maitzen comments: ‘If Robert were as noble and she as irredeemably evil as he presumes, the novel would be both duller and less subversive’. The Moonstone seems to operate on an inverse scale: fiendishly difficult on first reading, it distils nicely into key ideas; the two texts are the perfect match in their subversive attitudes and refusal to accept neat categories.

As part of the new exam, my students need to link writer’s craft with a keen eye for context. Obviously we have worked on the woman question, on issues of privacy in an age of print culture, on the institution of the family, and on detectives but two things surprised us; the first was how Darwinian the novel is and how his ideas affect the volume structure of the novel. The second thing that shocked us was the political edge the book has – contemporaries may have criticised Sensation Fiction for being overly concerned with action rather than plot but there seems to be more fizzing beneath the surface: when Helen Talboys dies in 1857, the date carved on her tombstone is deliberately chosen to chime in with the public fascination for the 1857 Indian Mutiny, allowing Braddon to allude to and filter historical events set in distant India in a metaphorical way. When Lady Audley pushes George down the well it dislocates the Indian rebellion into the domestic setting of Audley Court. Thus, the crime scene of the ‘stagnant well’ in Audley embodies the Bibigarh Well in Cawnpore, in which the Indian mutineers threw the bodies of their British victims. This juxtaposes the bucolic country house setting to the violent ‘historical narrations’ of the Cawnpore Well, as Braddon demonstrates that the oppression of anyone, women or foreigners, provokes rebellion.

It has been a fascinating two years and we await the results of our first (new) A-Level cohort in August. If anyone is teaching this text, it may help to know that we have found these resources invaluable:

  • Kate Summerscale’s, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Bloomsbury, (2009)
  • The opening chapter of P. D. James, ‘An Introduction to Detective Fiction’ in Talking About Detective Fiction, Faber, (2009)
  • ‘Was the author of the first English detective story stabbed in the back?’ Susan Hall/IPTC Lawyer – a blog post suggested by this blog
  • Rohan Maitzen’s wonderful article, ‘Second Glance, Fatal Beauty’ for Open Letters Monthly
  • A (50 minute) documentary by Lucy Worsley on Victorian murder and the rise of detectives in Victorian society available online.

Please do comment/contact me if you have any questions or suggestions. Lady Audley’s Secret has worked so well for us and the students adore it! We’d love to hear from anyone else teaching it at any level.

Jo Holt,

Guilford High School


3 Replies to “Teaching Lady Audley’s Secret at A-Level

  1. I just signed up with the blog yesterday, so I am only seeing this now. I am very happy to read of the novel being used in a school. I am currently reading it for the second time. Usually, I become more critical of something I read a second time, seeing what I would consider to be flaws I might have passed over originally. I believe LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET is a better novel than I thought the first time. I think Lady Audley is a richer, more complex character than I first judged and that perhaps the story of the temptations to which she succumbs says more about the struggles we will all experience than even Braddon would have known. (I am very struck by what a remarkable achievement it was for someone to have written such a novel in her mid-twenties.)

    I will say that I am not sure I would read as much into Lady Audley pushing George into the well as you do. It seems to me that it would have been the only way she could have appeared to have killed George without having an unsolvable problem of how to dispose of his body. I don’t see that Braddon had much choice in how to deal with that. Just one of the intriguing questions raised in the novel.

    Is the Guilford high school referred to the one in Connecticut?

    1. Hi Albert,

      It’s great to hear that *Lady Audley’s Secret* improves on the second read – there is so much in here that you don’t always get first time round. I like your point that pushing George down a well means that there’s no body to deal with – quite a nifty way of avoiding a lot of other pragmatic problems, as well as allowing George to survive!

      Guildford High School is in England – near London. They may well teach it in American schools as well though…



  2. Hi Jo

    I was fascinated to read your post about teaching ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ at A Level. Here at the Royal High School in Bath, we are great fans of the novel and used to teach it as a coursework option under the previous OCR syllabus, combining it usually with Michel Faber’s 2000 novel ‘Under The Skin’ and a range of poems by John Keats (poetry was a compulsory element in the coursework unit). The comparisons sound tenuous, but actually worked well.

    Thank you for sharing the references to the Indian Mutiny. I didn’t know about those references, and they further enrich the novel. We used to focus on the idea of the ‘artifice of femininity’, looking at the ideas of self-reinvention, the way she changes her identity again and again, as captured in the image of the palimpsest (the luggage labels pasted over one another) . We also explored the novel as being situated at a ‘hyper-modern’ moment in which technology is leaping forward (references to trains and the telegraph which allow time and space to be traversed at dizzying speed) and the women are becoming associated with shopping (the rise of department stores as ‘feminine spaces’ where you could shop unchaperoned). We also used to look at the ways in which Lady Audley embodies Victorian virtue of self-reliance (in a complex way), changing her identity to become a governess, which the text may applaud but has to find ways to condemn. We also used to explore the impact of the novel when it was published, causing outrage in the way it dissolves distinctions between high and low culture (everyone was reading it, so it threatened social distinction). Masculinity is also represented in fascinating ways – somewhere in the early parts of novel is Robert as a kind of flaneur, while he also enjoys lying on sofas and reading French novels and smoking (tobacco is interesting in the novel). Robert has to discover and embrace his own masculinity which he does in his pursuit of Lady Audley in ways that alllow him to enter the social order but also limit him. Yes, the crime element is interesting too – we are close to Rode here and that strange murder – and I remember discussing how many laws do the male figures break at the end in order to incarcerate Lady Audley in her Belgian asylum as they close ranks around Sir Michael?

    It is a wonderful bridging text, as you say, Jo, between GCSE and A Level. We have moved to Edexcel but in terms of the novel paper went for other options, looking at women and society (‘Thousand Splendid Suns’ and ‘Tess’) or science and society (‘Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Frankenstein’). I think the reason was we felt looking at ‘Lady Audley’ as a crime novel seemed restrictive to us (I remember my daughter studying ‘Hamlet’ as a crime text in the AQA paper, which seemed absurd to me). So for a few years we have had a break from the novel. But is so rich and multifarious that we are itching to go back to it.

    Thanks for such an inspiring post.

    I wasn’t aware the Mary Braddon Association existed but will now subscribe.

    Nicholas Hayward
    Royal High School, Bath

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