Monday, May 6, 2013

Insanity! No, really: prepare the padded room

Lady Audley's Secret: it's no Woman in White.

Penguin knows that we cannot resist Coralie Bickford-Smith's beautiful clothbound designs, and so they've introduced (in the UK anyway; have these made to America yet? can't remember) the Penguin English Library. The fiends. I mean, look at this cover:

These are paperback editions with a slightly rubbery matte finish, and very reasonably priced; this one is £6. I noticed that this series started with the usual suspects, Austen, Dickens, etc, and you can tell it's been successful because they're digging pretty deeply into the classics catalog now. Coralie Bickford-Smith: cover design crack. (Side note: I was relieved when I saw her name credited on the back of these volumes; at first I was concerned that Penguin had genuinely ripped themselves off, so I'm glad that it's rather a case of a good designer getting more work.)

This was not an especially notable book; it takes far sterner insaner stuff than this to impress a veteran of Alice's Woman in White Readalong.

There are a couple of notable things about it, though. I did like Robert Audley, who's a sort of lovable layabout who nevertheless gets sucked into Mysterious Doings when he can't just let his friend's mysterious disappearance go. It's a sort of Code-of-the-Woosters thing. Braddon doesn't recognize the good thing she has here though, and like a true killjoy Victorian sensationalist, she seems to think we'll actually dislike Audley for being a nominal barrister who doesn't really care about making a legal career but is happy to lounge around leading a mildly dissolute, unstriving bachelor life. In the final analysis, Audley is only an embryonic awesome character; Braddon sort of leads him through a conversion to being serious-minded and diligent and booooo-ring.

Granted, it's been many, many weeks since I finished this book and therefore stopped actively thinking about it, but is it even slightly possible to see Audley as a predecessor for Bertie Wooster? Maybe through several other literary degrees of separation that I can't think of? Alternatively, I'm reading the fully developed awesomeness of a character like Bertie onto the unlikely-hero lead of a fairly unpretentious popular thriller. (Yeah, okay, I'm seeing it.) Still.

Audley is embryonically awesome in another way: he's clearly (that is, clumsily) presented as a man qualified to become, for the purposes of the story, the Detective. As someone with legal training, Audley knows about evidence and reasoning and so can investigate the case. In our modern post-post-post-conventional genre world, Audley could carry a whole series of increasingly tenuous mystery novels. Dame Crawley's Enigma. Viscountess Grande's Private Affair. Comtesse L'Enfant's Confidence (the foreign installment). Princess Edwina's Riddle: The Stunning Conclusion of the Robert Audley Chronicles.

As I flip through my dogeared pages, I'm reminded that there's a lot of entertaining wackiness in this book of both the intentional and unintentional variety. For instance, I'm pretty sure Braddon's having a larf when she puts this reflection into Robert Audley's mouth (or brain) (you get it):
The Eastern potentate who declared that women were at the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. They don't know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramides, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arcs, Queen Elizabeths and Catharine the Seconds, and they riot in battle and murder and clamour and desperation. [sic] If they can't agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they'll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills; and social storms in household teacups.
Suddenly I don't really care to give this blog post an ending. My first sentence stands as my final verdict.


  1. Hm, I haven't seen those covers in a store anywhere, so I don't think they've made it to the US yet... Hopefully they will soon, because I love that cover art!

    At least Audley sounds more interesting than Hartright from Woman in White! Although without the magic of Marian, it's hard to compete.

  2. It's a fine cover for some other book. Although I read it many ages ago, I remember it as being very good for a sensation novel and not at all about cups of tea. Viewing Audley as a precursor to Bertie Wooster is an intriguing idea and makes me curious to reread it, though I may never get around to that.