Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret" and "Aurora Floyd" in the Context of Victorian Femininity

Term Paper, 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. The Victorian Era and Victorian Femininity
2.1. Historical Background
2.2 Victorian Femininity:
2.2.1 The Domestic Sphere
2.2.2 The Public Sphere
2.2.3 Work and Education
2.3 “The Girl of the Period”

3. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Life and Work

4. “Lady Audley’s Secret”
4.1 The Construction of the Plot
4.2. Helen Maldon

5. “Aurora Floyd”
5.1 The Construction of the Plot
5.2 Aurora Floyd

6. Aurora Floyd and Lady Audley in the Context of Victorian Femininity

7. Summary

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In the context of the Hauptseminar “19th century sensation novels” we looked – among other texts – at two different sensation novels, one of them being Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret”, a sensation novel published in 1862. The sensation novel is a phenomenon originating in the 1860s and was mostly written for a great public. The aim was to evoke an intense as well as rather shocking response and strong feelings by dealing with subjects like mystery inside the domestic sphere. The sensation novel also went against common standards and taboos concerning class boundaries and the gender roles with actually no moral or didactic purpose.[1]

This term paper does not only deal with the novel “Lady Audley’s Secret” as a sensation novel but examines it - together with Braddon’s other novel “Aurora Floyd” - in the context of Victorian Femininity. Firstly, I will give a short overview of the historical background of the so-called “Victorian Era” and a more detailed view of “Victorian Femininity”. Since the focus of this term paper is on femininity and the role of women, I will not go further into economics and expansion during the “Victorian Era”, but portray political events which were important for women at that time. This is followed by a description of the role of 19th century women in the domestic and public sphere, as well as an insight into education and work. Subsequently, the development of this gender role throughout this time is brought up in relation to an essay by Eliza Lynn Linton called “The Girl of the Period”.

Secondly, a short overview over Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s life and work is presented and reflected for it is rather uncommon for the Victorian Era in which she lived. Afterwards the plots of the two novels “Lady Audley’s Secret” and “Aurora Floyd” are presented and analysed in regard to traditional features of the detective novel and the idea of mystery in the novel. The summary of the two novels also serves as a background for further examination of the main protagonists, which, on the one hand, takes place later on in chapter 4.2 and 5.2 and, on the other hand, in chapter 6 where the characters will be compared and reflected in the context of Victorian Femininity. The term paper is concluded by a summary and a bibliography.

2. The Victorian Era and Victorian Femininity

2.1. Historical Background

The term “Victorian Era” derives from the time of regency of Queen Victoria, namely from 1837 to 1901. Queen Victoria, born in 1819 as the grand-daughter of King George III., was only 18 years old when becoming the Queen of England.[2] During the 64 years of her reign, Great Britain enjoyed the greatest manufacturing growth, a successful development in trade and industry and, above all, the greatest extension of its territory. Queen Victoria herself was considered to be rather introverted and focused on her family – her husband Prince Albert and her nine children – though she did not ignore her government businesses in which she was supported by several Prime Ministers.[3]

For women in Great Britain, the “Victorian Era” was characterized by their fight for the right to vote. Different so-called “Societies” were founded to support this fight of women to influence politics, but their petitions, for example the modification in the “Reform Act” of 1868, failed several times because of being defeated in the House of Commons.[4] It was then not until 1928 when in Great Britain all women were granted the right to vote. The women’s involvement and the role they played in politics in the Victorian times will be portrayed shortly in chapter 2.2.3.

2.2 Victorian Femininity

In this chapter, the role of the woman in Victorian times is described and analysed. Looking at women belonging to all classes, here, the different spheres[5] - the domestic and the public one - serve as a basis for this analysis. The picture of those different spheres and the description of the woman as being the “The Angel in the House” were brought up in 1854 by the poet Coventry Patmore in his poem with the same title.[6] The concept of these specific gender roles was very much supported by the church as well as by society. However, the keeping of those assigned roles has not always been accomplished, not only because wife and unmarried daughters often earned a living for the family but also because not all women at that time embodied the ideal Victorian woman – intentionally and not-intentionally. This will also be portrayed, firstly in a general overview in this chapter, above all describing “The Girl of the Period” as a phenomenon of the 1860s, and later in the analysis of the two novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose main characters serve as good examples for the violation of rules at that time.

2.2.1 The Domestic Sphere

The domestic sphere in a Victorian woman’s life describes the home territory where the woman is demanded in her role as a mother and loving housewife. However, this engagement inside the house depends greatly on the class the woman belongs to. Whereas women belonging to the upper- and middle-class spent much more time in their domestic domain, women from the working-class mostly had to work outside the house to help earning a living for the family. For a Victorian girl it was the most important thing in her life to get married and have children. Nevertheless, this was not correlated to gaining any freedom but instead to move from the parents’ protection to the husband’s protection, leaving all their possessions and, later on, the right to decide on their children to him. It was not until 1882, when women were granted some financial independence in the “Married Woman’s Property Act”[7] which enabled them to own a little amount of money for themselves.

Nevertheless, women were still discriminated when it came to the issue of divorce. This was always connected to a big scandal and the social discrimination of the woman. Whereas a husband could get divorced from his wife accusing her of infidelity, the wife could not do that of their own accord, even if the infidelity was not the only violation against her.[8]

After getting married, getting pregnant and raising the children was the second important goal to be fulfilled by women. In all classes, raising and educating their children belonged to the responsibility of the mothers, excluding the father’s intervention. However, while women belonging to the upper-class did not face many difficulties in reconciling motherhood and survival, because most often they were helped by governesses or nannies, women belonging to the working-class had to give their children away for a great part of the day to be able to hold down a job.[9]

In case of the decease of the husband, there were also strict rules for a Victorian woman to follow. Here, Queen Victoria herself was portrayed as the ideal woman in the act of mourning for not only keeping to black dresses after her husband’s death but also honouring his memory by placing a picture of him next to her while sleeping.[10] For a woman belonging to the middle- or working-class, the death of the head of the family did not only mean an emotional loss but also a financial catastrophe, because of the missing of the bread-winner. Still, as Queen Victoria exemplified how a mourning woman should, for example, dress, even women with bounded financial funds tried to imitate her and other women in society by colouring their dresses black and re-colouring them after the mourning period.[11]

Another duty to be fulfilled by the Victorian woman, besides taking care of children and of the husband once he got home, was to decorate the home to make it lovelier. This decoration did not only concern the home but also to the woman herself, obliging her to always look beautiful and nice. This was seen as an ideal for all Victorian women; however, because of financial problems, only women belonging to the upper-class were able to fulfil this requirement properly.[12]

2.2.2 The Public Sphere

The life of the ideal Victorian woman had to take place inside the house and therefore in the domestic sphere. On rare occasions, when being outside the house she had to accomplish her duty as the perfect and loving wife, always supporting her husband, who was in charge inside the public sphere. She had to be the ideal hostess when receiving guests and the devoted and caring wife and mother when moving around outside the house. Here, as well the Queen herself served as an ideal to all women because, most of the time, she did not show up in public but was a loving mother to her children and a faithful wife to her husband.[13]

Another time when Victorian women left their houses was when fulfilling the duty of helping other women who belonged to rather poor classes. Through this “women’s mission to women”[14] they did not only support them with money and material goods but also with advice about child care and hygiene. This devotion to helping the poor was mostly influenced by religious beliefs but was also an obligation to comply with as it was imposed by Victorian society.

2.2.3 Work and Education

For women who had to work to support the family, all-day life looked different as of the ones who stayed most of the time inside their domestic sphere. Working was not only a necessity to support a family, for many women it also meant their only chance to act somewhat independently and oversee their own financial issues.[15] However, most of the times, women were not allowed to perform any job they wanted to, but had to keep to rather feminine work, such as being a governess. This work was given predominantly to childless single-women to recompense them for not having children themselves. An ideal governess had to be educated in ancient languages such as Greek and Latin, and in other female aspects such as drawing and vocals. Here, women from the middle- and the working-class shared the same problem of unemployment, due to a limited demand of governesses within the country.[16]

Other women working in factories got involved in unions where they tried to gain more rights of participation. Additionally, some women gathered in societies and clubs to fight for their right to vote and with it to participate in politics. This movement started in the “Victorian Era” and went on to the following “Edwardian Era” where the movement finally succeeded when in 1918 women could be elected into Parliament, and in 1928 all women were allowed to vote.[17]

When it comes to education, in the beginning of the “Victorian Era” there had been only a few schools for girls which were connected to immense costs. Therefore, only girls of the upper- or higher middle-class could receive an education which nevertheless mostly did not exceed the secondary education, meaning that there were only few colleges or universities for girls. Children of the labour-class were taught either in churches or in schools which were supported by charity projects. But since children were not obliged to attend an elementary school at that time, most of them did not receive any professional education at all. The development throughout the reign of Queen Victoria led towards establishing more schools for girls, so that more girls were given the opportunity of higher education.[18] Still, a lot of them did not receive any high qualification, but were instead prepared for living and ruling in their domestic sphere after marriage, and, as we will see later on in the example of Aurora Floyd, to be somewhat calmed down and put back into the ideal female role.


[1] Cvetkovich, Ann. Mixed feelings: feminism, mass culture, and Victorian sensationalism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992, p. 13f.

[2] (12/27/2006).

[3] Ibid.

[4] (12/12/2006).

[5] Levine, Philippa. Victorian Feminism 1850 - 1900. Tallahassee: The Florida State University Press, 1987, p. 12.

[6] Cooper, Suzanne Fagence. The Victorian Woman. London: V & A Publications, 2001, p. 10.

[7] Reynolds, Kimberley and Humble, Nicola. Victorian Heroines: Representations of femininity in nineteenth-century literature and art. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, p. 5.

[8] Cooper, p. 20.

[9] Cooper, p. 16.

[10] Cooper, p. 22.

[11] (12/27/2006).

[12] Cooper, p. 42.

[13] (12/28/2006).

[14] Cooper, p. 84.

[15] Levine, p. 82.

[16] Levine, p. 85.

[17] Cooper, p. 87f.

[18] Levine, p. 27.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret" and "Aurora Floyd" in the Context of Victorian Femininity
University of Paderborn
19th century sensation novels
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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509 KB
Mary, Elizabeth, Braddon, Lady, Audley, Secret, Aurora, Floyd, Context, Victorian, Femininity
Quote paper
Eveline Podgorski (Author), 2006, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "Lady Audley's Secret" and "Aurora Floyd" in the Context of Victorian Femininity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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