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Lady Audley’s Secret - Is Lady Audley Mad?

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Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret" - Is Lady Audley Mad?

Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret" was published in 1861 and was a big success: a best-seller that sold over one million copies in book form. The protagonist, Helen Maldon - also known as Helen Talboys, Lucy Graham and Lady Audley - is a poor young beautiful woman when she marries the dragoon George Talboys, but his money only lasts for one year of luxury. When he no longer is able to offer her the life she always wanted - and now has got used to - she becomes angry and depressed, and George Talboys leaves the country to dig for gold in order to make his young wife with her new-born baby happy again. Not long after her husband has sailed for Australia, Helen Talboys decides she has had enough of the boring life she leads with her father and child and wants to try to find for herself the things she lacks. She sees an opportunity to start over and she grabs it: she leaves her child, changes her name and goes out as a governess. When the wealthy Sir Michael Audley proposes, she accepts and goes from the life as governess to the life of a Lady. The Lady Audley that we get to know is a woman who is sure of what she wants and will not let anyone stop her, which in the book is described as the acts of a madwoman. But is Lady Audley really insane or simply too ambitious and sure of herself for the Victorian era? Was "insanity" simply the label society attached to female assertion, ambition, self-interest and outrage?

In order to discuss the question of Lady Audley's madness, we must first understand the Victorian ideas and beliefs regarding insanity. Insanity was believed more common among women than among men and doctors and psychiatrists debated the reason for this. A common view was that women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because of the "instability of their reproductive system" (Showalter, p 55), which interfered with their emotional control. That female insanity was linked with the biological crises of the female life cycle - puberty, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause - during which the female mind was weakened and the symptoms of insanity could emerge, was a common belief (Showalter, p 55). It should be noted that the medical professions were strictly for men and no doubt were all these theories made up by men, with little experience of menstruation, pregnancy or menopause.
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