Advice from the lovelorn

Painting, Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (née Braddon), 1865, William Powell Frith, public domain
William Powell Frith, "Mary Elizabeth Maxwell (née Braddon)," 1865.

As a rule, literary lovesickness creates extravagant emotions. It ignites passion, instills sorrow, and provokes fury, pushing men and women past reason. In 19th-century sensation fiction, lovelorn characters throw one another down wells, get locked up in asylums, or throw themselves into the sea. Now and then, however, characters break these stereotypes, remaining stable and self-possessed as they languish in unrequited love.

It’s easy to overlook these quieter characters. In Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret, for example, lovelorn Alicia Audley is overshadowed by her charismatic and enigmatic young stepmother, Lady Lucy Audley. (Indeed, the outlandishness of Lady Audley drove one 1862 reviewer to claim, “She is a creation which stands alone in the boldness and in the depth of its depravity.”) Louisa May Alcott published her novella Behind a Mask in 1866, at the peak of Lady Audley’s Secret’s success, and she, too, put a dangerous woman at the center of the plot: Jean Muir, the scheming, captivating governess of the Coventry family. Only at the periphery of the novel do we find Lucia Beaufort, who pines away for the eldest Coventry brother, Gerald.

Lady Audley and Jean Muir are fascinating women. Propelling the plots of their respective narratives, they seduce, tamper, deceive, and generally wreak havoc on two seemingly peaceful estates in the English countryside. Lady Audley attempts murder; Jean Muir seduces not only Gerald, but his wealthy uncle. As Robert and Gerald direct their attentions toward these femme fatales, little room is left in the plots for Alicia and Lucia, the two wistful, almost forgettable women who love our hapless heroes.

Readers of Lady Audley’s Secret are privy to the wrenching pain of sudden rejection when the narrator voices Robert’s uninterest in Alicia: “Alas, my pretty Alicia, your cousin did not love you!.” But rather than respond to rejection with violence or hysterics, Alicia looks to her own emotional and social safety. No longer relevant to the love stories that complicate the plot, she escapes unharmed by drama or scandal, able to marry a lesser, but stable, man.

Lucia, too, watches from her narrative’s periphery, a witness to the fallout from Gerald’s misguided ardor for Jean. When an intercepted letter by Jean reveals her plot to seduce Gerald, marry his aging uncle, and preside over the family estate, it also reveals Lucia’s good fortune in having been forcibly removed from the story’s romance plot. Jean has written that Lucia “will feel [a] pang when I tell her that I scorn her recreant lover, and give him back to her, to deal with as she will.” The insult is humiliating to both Gerald and Lucia, yet it also throws Lucia’s luck into stark relief. Having originally planned to marry Lucia, Gerald has shown himself to be flighty, disloyal, and easily manipulated. Jean’s decision to “give him back to [Lucia]” comes as ironic, as we suspect that Lucia now knows better than to take Gerald back.

These stories present a contradiction at the heart of 19th-century gender dynamics. Women who failed to make a match were flawed and humiliated, and yet they were also seen to have escaped the potential perils of romantic union. Braddon and Alcott depict men who are weak and capricious, embroiling themselves in catastrophe and only sparing their admirers accidentally. Lucia and Alicia are at once collateral damage and the most fortunate characters to emerge from their tales.

When we look at who is responsible for their ultimate good fortune, another complexity emerges. Lady Audley’s sorry end is well-earned and well-deserved, as she inadvertently orchestrates her own demise. Jean, you might be surprised to learn, comes out victorious: through her devious efforts, she marries the owner of the Coventry estate, and as long as she can keep him convinced of her innocence, she retains that high social standing.

Conversely, the peace and serenity that await Alicia and Lucia are forced upon them. Their good fortune is at odds with their own wishes, as they fail to woo Robert and Gerald in spite of their efforts. Neither woman is able to determine or orchestrate a life that will make her happy. Instead, Alcott and Braddon suggest that Lucia’s and Alicia’s security is likewise an accidental byproduct of the selfish whims of men.

Alicia and Lucia both accept lovesickness passively, but their stories leave the reader with a lively unanswered question: is prudence the most advantageous course for a woman seeking a husband? This question lies at the crux of Victorian attitudes toward single women. Alicia and Lucia mark the undefined space in Victorian culture between the ruined woman and the married woman, secure in a solitude that they did not choose.

Emma Calabrese

Emma Calabrese is a doctoral student in the English program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her research interests include gender and women’s studies, as well as 19th-century material culture within a transatlantic context.

Share this