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  • Making the Case:Detection and Confession in Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White
  • Ann-Marie Dunbar (bio)

Mary elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley solidifies her status as one of Victorian fiction’s most notorious figures in her startling confession to her nephew by marriage, Robert Audley. Following the disappearance of his friend George Talboys, Robert assumes the mantle of amateur detective and forges a “chain of evidence” (Braddon 52) that allows him to construct an unflattering account of his aunt: Lucy Audley was formerly Helen Talboys, George’s wife, and she has bigamously married Sir Michael (Robert’s uncle) after deserting her son and reinventing herself as unmarried governess. She has also faked her own death, murdered (or so Robert thinks) George, and tampered with evidence. It is with this narrative that Robert confronts Lady Audley, but her confession is hardly what he expects:

“Bring Sir Michael!” she cried; “bring him here, and I will confess anything—everything! What do I care? God knows I have struggled hard enough against you, and fought the battle patiently enough; but you have conquered, Mr. Robert Audley. It is a great triumph, is it not? a wonderful victory! You have used your cool, calculating, frigid, luminous intellect to a noble purpose. You have conquered—a madwoman!”

“A madwoman!” cried Mr. Audley.

“Yes, a madwoman. When you say that I killed George Talboys, you say the truth. When you say that I murdered him treacherously and foully, you lie. I killed him because I am mad! Because my intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that narrow boundary-line between sanity and insanity; because when George Talboys goaded me, as you have goaded me; and reproached me, and threatened me; my mind, never properly balanced, utterly lost its balance; and I was mad! Bring Sir Michael; and bring him quickly. If he is to be told one thing, let him be told everything; let him hear the secret of my life!”


This claim of madness is puzzling because it seems so patently false: Robert’s investigation has uncovered no evidence of madness, and, throughout the [End Page 97] novel, Lady Audley has appeared a cool-headed, rational character. Readers have come to see Lady Audley as a worthy opponent of the amateur detective who seeks to expose her; Robert, who has himself wondered whether this mystery and his chain of evidence might not be just figments of his imagination (“the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor” [254]), worries about her shrewd use of power. Robert is shocked by her claim of madness, but he quickly seizes on it as an expeditious way of erasing Lady Audley from the family history. But the tidy disposal of Lady Audley in a Belgian asylum hardly resolves the epistemological and narrative questions raised by her perplexing confession: how are we to account for such an unexpected confession at this crucial point in the narrative? Why does a novel so clearly fascinated by the narrative uses of circumstantial evidence turn at its climactic moment to confession, a very different kind of narrative form?

A similar phenomenon can be seen in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), which, like Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), taps into mid-century enthusiasm for circumstantial evidence as a means of discovering truth and producing knowledge. But circumstantial evidence proves insufficient in Walter Hartright’s efforts to restore the identity and fortune of Laura Fairlie, as he is forced to seek a confession from criminal mastermind Count Fosco to complete his own case. In both novels, the turn to confession reveals the inadequacy of their dominant epistemological frameworks in uncovering the truth. Curiously, very few critics of detective fiction mention the role of confession in any substantial way; rather, they tend to focus on the detective’s reconstruction of the crime story. Those critics who do briefly address confession, such as Ronald Thomas and Franco Moretti, see it as mere confirmation of the detective’s case, as something elicited by the detective to buttress his own narrative. But in Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White, which can be considered both early...


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pp. 97-116
Launched on MUSE
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