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103 Critical Masculinities in Lady Audley’s Secret R achel Hein r ichs • Recent work on gender in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) generally neglects the novel’s dynamic portrayal of mid-Victorian masculinities, emphasizing either the characterization of LadyAudley or that of RobertAudley. Critics preoccupied with LadyAudley highlight the limitations of mid-nineteenth-century patriarchal conceptions of femininity.1 More recently, queer theorists have examined Robert Audley’s sexuality and relationship to George Talboys while considering masculinity only as a point of reference against which to measure Robert’s effeminacy and homosexuality.2 Critical inquiry thus calls attention to the novel’s masculine identities frequently but only tangentially. However, recent studies of nineteenth-century masculinities, in particular James Eli Adams’s Dandies and Desert Saints (1995), enable a reassessment of Robert Audley as well as his much-overlooked double, Luke Marks, in relation to mid-Victorian ideals of manliness, namely the dandy and the gentleman. Braddon articulates the tensions of this transitional moment in the formation of Victorian masculinity through a variety of male characters, including RobertAudley and Luke Marks.At mid-century“the passing of the‘old ideal of manhood’ marked the loss of identity and social reference for large numbers of men across the class spectrum” (Adams, Dandies 6).This “old ideal of manhood ,” which had been established by the ruling aristocratic classes, was based on abstract concepts such as honour and inheritance. Consequently, dominant ideology held that manhood was a natural and exclusive trait of society’s upper echelons. By the 1860s industrialization and the “embourgoisement” (Sussman 3) of society disrupted this“system of caste” (Tocqueville 152) that was so integral for defining masculinity in England. In“Characteristics” (1831) Thomas Carlyle describes the resulting crisis of masculinity:“The old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that” (216). Carlyle’s declaration aptly describes the ruling elite, represented in Braddon’s novel by Sir Michael and Robert Audley and Harcourt and GeorgeTalboys. As the oldest generation represented, Sir Michael and Harcourt Talboys most clearly belong to this elite class of landed gentry that adhere to a fading honour-based model of masculinity. Sir Michael bears the inherited honour of the title“baron” and spends his time riding and hunting, while Harcourt cares for the agricultural land he lives on“insomuch as involved the hazard of certain rents which he received for the farms upon his estate” (204). Entrenched in victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 104 a value system grounded in birth, money, and leisure, both men are deeply concerned with the continuance and purity of their family name, so much so that Harcourt would rather disown George than allow the transgressive marriage between his son and Helen Maldon to debase the family name and class status.Yet, as George’s transgression suggests, the next generation threatens the continuance of this value system.3As Robert and George mature, emerging middle-class values of work and professionalism contest their elite upbringing. Thus, they occupy liminal class positions. Unlike his father, George forgoes class status in favour of love when he marries Helen and, consequently, he defines his value as husband, father, and man by his ability to provide for his family through work, not inherited wealth or name. Most importantly for my purposes, Robert Audley enjoys the luxuries afforded by inheritance and indulges in all the theatricality and idleness conventionally condoned by a lifestyle of leisure. However, he is also “supposed to be a barrister”—a professional defender of middle-class law (71).4Therefore, Robert inhabits the interstices of conflicting ideology, where his dandyish performances are contested by the ideal of an unselfconscious middle-class gentleman. His position illustrates the emergence of the newly defined gentleman who, according to Adams, pushed the dandy into a marginal “social space thatVictorian discourse typically reserv[ed] for the feminine” (Adams, Dandies 186). However, in her characterization of RobertAudley, Braddon points out that the mid-Victorian gentleman is a systemically sustained ideal that relies on social others for the maintenance of its supremacy. By virtue of this conscious maintenance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 103-120
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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