My primary sources are Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret and the 2000 film adaptation of the same title directed by Betsan Morris Evans. Lady Audley’s Secret tells the tale of a woman who changes her identity in order to marry a wealthy man after her first husband leaves her penniless and unable to care for their child. When Lady Audley’s first husband comes looking for her upon his return from sea, she sends him falling down a well to his supposed demise. As Robert Audley, Sir Michael Audley’s nephew, searches for his lost friend (who happens to be Lady Audley’s first husband), Lady Audley tries to send him off her trail, eventually attempting to set fire to the inn he was staying at. Eventually, Lady Audley’s first husband is found to be alive, Lady Audley must confess her sins to her second husband, and then she is sent to an asylum where she eventually dies, despite a refusal by Dr. Mosgrave to declare her mad. The film interpretation of the novel is similar to the book’s plot but differs in that Dr. Mosgrave is outraged at Lady Audley’s dark deeds and diagnoses her as mad, dangerous, and “unfeminine.” In addition, Lady Audley attempts to argue for her reasoning behind her crimes, stating that, as a woman, there are few options when it comes to earning a large enough income to support a family, and that marrying into wealth is by far the best way to accomplish this. Questions that these texts, when put into comparison, raise are: How does the difference between Dr. Mosgrave’s diagnosis of Lady Audley in the book and in the film speak to the stigma surrounding postpartum madness/depression during the 1800s? Given the misconception of hereditary madness from mother to daughter at the time, how does Lady Audley equate a woman’s madness and suffering to a man’s monetary inheritance? How does the direct clash between Lady Audley’s “unfeminine” madness in the film and her mother’s complacent feminine madness in the novel serve as a discourse on the connection between women and madness in the 1800s? How does Lady Audley’s blame on society as a motive for her crimes in the film compare to the blame that she places on her physical body for causing her madness in the novel?
Secondary sources that would allow me to explore my research questions include scholarly books and articles that address the novel Lady Audley’s Secret, its 2000 film interpretation, the novel and film together, or mental illness in women in the 1800s. Particularly helpful secondary sources that involve the film and/or the novel would address Lady Audley’s reasoning behind her crimes, Dr. Mosgrave’s diagnosis, or the inheritance of madness in Lady Audley’s biological family. Pamela K. Gilbert’s A Companion to Sensation Fiction directly addresses Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s double writing career, during which she wrote books for the higher classes under her own name and similar stories for the middle class anonymously. Gilbert also describes Braddon’s attempt to break from the sensation formula and create plots from her characters instead of vice versa. Jessica Cox’s article entitled “From Page to Screen: Transforming M. E. Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret” compares the novel to its 2000 film interpretation, looking into the change in plot and feminist messages, and possibly attributing it to the change in time period as well as the change from woman writer to male scriptwriter. Besides finding more scholarly articles, other sources I am considering using are The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture 1830-1980 by Elaine Showalter and The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology by Kate Ellis.
In constructing my research project, I am hoping to address the inconsistency between the novel and the film adaptation, specifically regarding Lady Audley’s madness, its connection to motherhood and poverty, and, in turn, her reasoning behind her multiple attempts at murder. It is particularly fascinating that Robert Audley references the misconception of hereditary madness amongst women to Dr. Mosgrave in both interpretations and that Dr. Mosgrave informs him in both that this does not exist, but that Lady Audley is diagnosed differently in each work, although she is also still tied to madness in both simply because of her being a woman. It may seem insignificant to examine why Lady Audley casts her blame either on her mad brain or the patriarchal society depending on the text, but analyzing the differences in these claims and their historical context can possibly reveal information that can further complicate Lady Audley as a character and expand on the novel’s plot, the plots of other contemporary novels, or on life as a woman, mother, and/or madwoman in the 1800s.