Madness in Lady Audley’s Secret and Rebecca
Q: ‘What use does the text make of ‘madness,’ or mental disturbance?’
The two texts I am going to be focusing on are Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Within these texts and with the use of other critical works I will be exploring how the texts use ‘madness’ and/or ‘mental disturbance’ in a thematic, characteristic and analytical approach It is evident that the mental disturbances and the references of madness are used solely on the women. In Rebecca the actual character of Rebecca is portrayed as the mental one as she has an incestuous relationship with her cousin and shows pleasure in hurting her husband by seducing his friends alongside other men. In Lady Audley’s Secret, Lady Audley is deemed as insane for committing bigamy and murder and is sent away to a secret asylum. Although the novelists are women who generate these novels the ‘mental characters’ so to speak are confined to the female protagonists throughout the novels and not the male. Use of deception is clear throughout both novels as deception and the ‘madness’ seem to be in a mutual partnership. I believe it is evident that in both novel’s the reason the main female protagonists are considered mad, is in order to hide the economical, class and gender matters; the madness in the novels are merely a façade to veil the other upper class protagonists. These issues are revealed through Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship and Lady Audley generally as a protagonist.
In Lady Audley’s Secret we have the main female protagonist as originally Helen Maldon. Throughout the novel with her duplicitous ways her name changes also to Helen Talboys, Lucy Graham and then ultimately Lady Audley. To shed light on Lady Audley’s motives to madness we must analyse her actions. As a young poor woman she decides to marry the dragoon George Talboys however during their one year of extremely luxurious life all of Talboy’s money runs out. Helen Talboys is now spun back into her old life of poverty which Helen was no longer used to – she gets angry at George and becomes depressed. All this leads George to leave for Australia in search of gold and wealth so he can once again return to his state of luxury and provide for his wife and new-born baby. Left alone with her father and baby, Helen Talboy’s decides she can no longer lead such a boring and poverty stricken life. Helen sees an opportunity to have a new life and changes her name to Lucy Graham, leaves her child with her father and assumes the role of a governess. The now Miss Lucy Graham receives another life changing proposal when the well known and extremely prosperous Sir Michael Audley proposes to her. So of course Miss Graham accepts and changes her role from that of a governess to the role of a Lady – Lady Audley that is. We are consequently introduced to a new Lady Audley who becomes a woman that is determined in having her own ways regardless – and won’t let anyone get in her way. Her acts which she embarks on are called the ‘acts of a madwoman.’
To analyse how the text makes use of madness in Lady Audley’s Secret, it is beneficial for us to first understand the context of the book. We must see what beliefs and ideas the Victorians had regarding insanity. Initially women were believed to have more chances of obtaining insanity as compared to the men. It was hotly debated by the doctors and psychologists as to why, however a wide spread view was that men were not as vulnerable to insanity as women because women had the “instability of their reproductive system” (Showalter, pg. 55); this was believed to have interference with their emotional control and was “somehow connected with the action of the reproductive organs in an unstable nervous system.” (Matus, pg.8) A link was established that the biological predicament of the female life sequence such as childbirth, pregnancy, puberty and menopause was intrinsically linked to insanity – during which the female mind weakened and out of it would emerge the symptoms of insanity. (Showalter, pg. 55) We must keep in mind that medical professions were reserved entirely for men that these theories were made by men who had neither experiences in childbirth, menstruation or pregnancy. Another thing the Victorians believed apart from insanity being susceptible to women was that also poverty could be a cause of insanity. Braddon also managed to explore what interested Victorian psychologists the most, lunacy and the boundaries between madness and sanity. The genre of the novel is the sensational, “Madness is a crucial means of challenging the boundaries of realism without abandoning them altogether precisely because it is made both mysterious and ‘probable’ in Lady Audley’s Secret.”(Braddon: Intro: pg. xvi ) Braddon manages to explore madness in her novel in a sensationalist approach which highlights the predicament in a fictional yet realist technique.
Victorian women were expected to act and behave in very stringent ways, if they digressed from their idealised behaviour it was deemed eccentric. The impractical and conventional Victorian female was a striking, loving woman who was; timorous, tender, above suspicion and full of love for her loved ones and friends. This female had only to inquire about dinner parties and what dress should be worn. These women had to know their place and not meddle in manly dealings. Lady Audley in the novel seems to personify all of this, yet she remains able to be a perfidious, bigamist and killer. In the first volume, chapter eight of the novel, we are informed that Lady Audley has more to offer than at face value. She keeps a pre-Raphaelite portrait hidden away in her chamber’s which “shows sinister aspects of Lady Audley’s personality that are not visible to those who meet her in person” (Grost) At this point there is already the sense of lies, cover up and deception incorporated into Lady Audley’s character. There is an importance in the method of reading what the portrait represents via Lady Audley’s beauty, “Physiognomy, the ‘science’ of reading the inner self through the outward expressions of the face, formed a flexible and varied discourse which was used in an infinite variety of ways by painters and novelist through the nineteenth century.” (Braddon, Intro: pg xxii) The portrait represents Lady Audley and it elicits numerous interpretations as it is a portrait of a ‘beautiful fiend’ it can show us the sinister truth about her like photographic evidence.
In the way that the novel makes use of madness Lady Audley can be seen as a poor victim of society in the Victorian era. She was entirely dependant upon her husband as were most Victorian women for their financial support, she looses that support and is expected to rot in poverty yet “Braddon brilliantly turns this around: Helen Maldon, the abandoned wife, manipulates her own image to become Lucy Graham and then ‘Lady Audley’ and substitutes another body for her own place in the grave to sustain her social position; it is she who is finally placed in an asylum to protect the upper-class family…”(Braddon, pg. xix) So the then Helen Talboy’s turns to criminality in order to change her deteriorating life of deficiency into her once former state of luxury. Determination drives her to do only what she knows best, marry a wealthy man in order to achieve financial stability and luxury. The foremost reason she is driven to such duplicitous and treacherous ways is because she finds out from early on in her life that “my ultimate fate in life depended upon my marriage” (Braddon, pg. 345) Thus highlighting the archetypal dependence of a woman upon a man in the Victorian Era.
Madness is explicitly represented in the novel. The general belief of madness, being principally inherited from mother to daughter (the daughter’s disease) is expressed in the novel. Lady Audley realised she would eventually go mad and as a result carried drove her to extremes. There is the maternal sense of insanity and heritance and by finding out that her mother went mad by giving birth to her, Lady Audley assumes she has also acquired insanity herself since she is hormonally maternal after having her child “the hidden taint I had sucked in with my mother’s milk” (Braddon, pg. 386) and “the only inheritance I had to expect from my mother was – insanity!” (Braddon, pg. 345) Doctor Mosgrave’s opinion on Lady Audley is alternating since he believes that she is not mad originally and refuses to declare that she is. He sees her actions as calculated and immoral however not due to insanity “She committed the crime of bigamy … There is no madness in there…She employed intelligent means, and she carried out a conspiracy which required coolness and deliberation in its execution. There is no madness in that.” (Braddon, pg. 370) Lady Audley is merely used as a medium in Braddon’s novel to emphasize how economic, gender and class issues can be easily covered up by using madness as a scapegoat. I do not concede that there are occasions of madness or mental disturbances in the novel; I do maintain that madness is made use of in the text because evidently Lady Audley’s acts of extreme anxiety are only done to hide her secrets from her husband and protect the one thing she truly cares about, her luxurious life, money and status.
In general the ‘madness’ portrayed in the novel is used as a veil for criminality per regarding the Victorian context. The protagonist could have been easily imprisoned but instead is sent away to an asylum but because of the “rules for behaviour” Lady Audley was condemned as psychologically unwell. As stated “radical women who challenged the norms of feminine conduct were actually committed to lunatic asylums.” (Showalter, pg. 146) Therefore characters like Lady Audley who tried for economical change in the extremist of strategies, posed a threat to the men of the Victorian era; and such threats had to be gotten rid of. The novel served as an allegorical text for the women of the Victorian society that they couldn’t and shouldn’t dare rebel against their class infrastructures, such incidents would result in their taking away and placement in an asylum. As discussed in Matus’ critical essay Lady Audley’s untimely end creates an even more overt confusion because instead of the end creating a resolution to her madness we are plunged into a complication “in terms of immoral behaviour, and punishing deviant behaviour by means of the institutions set up to deal with madness.” (Matus, pg.24) The one important factor remains that the only reason Lady Audley is sent to an asylum, is for the reason that Sir Robert Audley can protect his family honour ie: his name. “I ask you to save our stainless name from degradation and shame” and “I assure you, my dear sir,’ he said, ‘that my greatest fear is the necessity of any exposure – any disgrace.” (Braddon, pg. 371) His ultimate motive for proving her mad is to protect his family name without any scandal therefore Lady Audley’s motives were for own selfish materialistic needs and for Robert Audley his desire for a young and beautiful wife, then to protect his aristocratic name. However, only Lady Audley in the end is ever declared crazy in the novel and is punished.
In comparison to Braddon’s novel, Du Maurier’s Rebecca employs a dissimilar form of madness and mental disturbance in the novel. It is not a sensation novel but a gothic one; with the distinctive characteristics of the unknown author, the past overshadowing with the future, hauntings and ghosts, incest and the innocent, naïve heroine. The main protagonists are the widower Maxim De Winter, the new Mrs. De Winter and the former Mrs De Winter who has a haunting presence throughout the novel. The new De Winter suddenly ends up meeting an amazingly handsome older man (Maxim De Winter) and agrees to marry him. She does not initially know she has a previous and dead Mrs De Winter to match up to and this is the journey of hers in the novel. There, she discovers that she’s haunted by mementos of Rebecca, his first wife who had passed away in a tragic boating accident the year before. In this case, the haunting in not necessarily a physical presence, the haunting is more psychological. Even though Rebecca does not once appear as an apparition or a phantom in the novel, her spirit manages to effectively influence everything that comes to pass at Manderley, “Instinctively I thought, ‘She is comparing me to Rebecca’; and sharp as a sword the shadow came between us…” (Braddon, pg. 12) Our new bride feels the omnipotence presence of Rebecca no matter where she goes or what she does.
The theme of deception and confusion is the pivotal driving force of the novel, since nearly all the protagonists are wrong about something. We are presented with a nameless narrator who usually lands upon wrong assumptions. The new bride has a lot to live up to as many people comment on how different she and Rebecca are, even Maxim’s close friend and proprietor Frank Crawley tells the narrator, “. . . I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.” (Du Maurier, pg. 142) Not shockingly, the more our new bride knows, the more the narrator/ new bride needs to know about Rebecca – the former wife in which she feel she can never substitute in the broody and irritable affection’s of Maxim De Winter. The housemaid Mrs Danvers expresses her steadfast love for Rebecca which makes it all the more difficult for the new bride to compete with her not just with her husband but with the maids, family and towns people. I believe there are implicit sexual overtones between Mrs Danvers and Rebecca’s relationship, “She had all the courage and spirit of a boy, had my Mrs. de Winter. She ought to have been a boy, I often told her that.”(Du Maurier, pg. 254) She evens hangs on tightly to Rebecca’s old bedroom suite and her disparaging view of men.
Albeit the reader should question as to why Maxim marries a new bride who is completely the opposite of Rebecca, maybe it is because something lies beneath the surface of the narration which the narrator and the new bride do not realise. Madness is concealed in this novel, given that Mrs Danvers and Rebecca are the ‘mentally disturbed’ duo and not Maxim, Favell or the new bride. We could say that Maxim was mentally disturbed to an extent since he kills Rebecca because she wasn’t a female subordinate; this was a huge crisis in their marriage. Maybe his love or infatuation with a ravishingly beautiful woman who had ‘breeding; brains and beauty’ got out of hand since she was an incestuous, evil and manipulative woman. “Darwinian psychiatry undoubtedly intimidated many feminists with its prophecies of hysterical breakdown for women who transgressed their destined roles” (Showalter, pg. 147) Rebecca according to Darwinian psychiatry was not an obedient woman and was therefore affected with hysteria and mental disturbance. This was evident in her incestuous relationship with Favell, her cousin. We can see how Du Maurier later justifies the murder of Rebecca as she is declared sick with cancer and wanted to die. So Rebecca goes from the immoral wife to an angelic martyr.
As for Mrs Danvers, she goes out of her way to ruin the new bride’s relationship with Maxim, she creates an uncanny double which is another characteristic of gothic novels, when she advises the new bride to wear the same costume as Rebecca did at the fancy dress party, and it enrages Maxim. We see the mental and sinister side of Mrs. Danvers with a sinful smile on her face. After her degradation at the costume ball, the new bride finds Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s room. What Mrs. Danvers attempts to do to the new bride shows us that she really is mentally disturbed. She tells her bluntly that she should have never embarked on arriving at Manderley, and, by sassing out the new brides wretchedness, urges the new bride to jump and kill herself, while she stands by her at the window. Our heroine has a lack of awareness as she constantly fights for her husband’s attention. The new bride is of a subordinate character which seems to be the complete opposite of what we find out about Rebecca and her personality, “She would take them bathing from the boat … They made love to her of course; who would not? She laughed; she would come back and tell me what they had said and what they’d done. She did not mind it was like a game to her. Like a game.” (Braddon, pg. 257) Mrs Danvers mysteriously burns down Manderley (suspiciously disappearing and with it taking her haunting insanity), and all that Manderley represents, has become an anachronism for Mr and Mrs Maxim De Winter. As a piece of evidence, you could dispute that by Manderley being entirely decimated at the end of the novel, Du Maurier was symbolising a possible affirmation against the benefits of the aristocracy. You could argue that the privilege granted to the nobility could only breed evil and madness. And Mrs De Winter learns this at the very end of the novel.
In culmination I have been able to decipher how the texts Lady Audley’s Secret and Rebecca make use of ‘madness’ and ‘mental disturbance.’ In both novels the female protagonists Lady Audley, Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers are all seen as mentally ill. I have come to assimilate that they are not unerringly mental but they are a form of female who demand too much, are too independent and are unmoral in their actions. These women were used as potential scapegoats to undermine the real connotation of class, economical and gender issues. According to Showalter the “Hysterics also expressed ‘unnatural’ desires for privacy and independence… Darwinian psychiatry generally held that ‘asociability,’ the avoidance of company and withdrawal from society … was the most distinguishing feature of the insane.” (Showalter, pg. 134) So women like our female characters were considered hysteric while the male protagonists like Sir Robert Audley and Maxim De Winter who are both upper class characters are able to be sympathised with and almost be forgiven for their roles in both novels. Ironically ‘madness’ is used as a asylum in these novels in which the females who are morally tainted are locked away and the men who are from the nobility can escape from the ‘insane women’ to later on find subordinate female companions like the new Mrs. De Winter for example. Female independence is not promoted in these novels; they serve as allegories in general to illustrate how defiant women who do not conform to the gender roles handed down to them may end up. Either in an asylum or in Rebecca’s case murdered.
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