Wednesday 28 August 2013

Women in the Witness Box: Lady Audley and Phoebe

‘But Lady Audley doesn’t appear in court!’ I imagine quick-witted readers of M.E. Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret protesting. She doesn't. My consideration of female witnesses in fictional Victorian courts (introduced here) continues with someone very different from Mary Barton or Esther Lyon - someone who is not only very guilty, but who is infamously kept from appearing in court.

A nineteenth-century divorce court
Lady Audley does not stand in a dock – she is sequestered in an asylum. The doctor who attends her presumes Robert Audley wishes to deny Lady Audley a court appearance ‘to save the esclandre of a Chancery suit’, casting the court as an arena of shameful display. But Robert has another fear. Lucy will not only face a divorce hearing, but be tried for murder, and she is simply too good (and too attractive) an actress for this to be allowed to happen. It is the ‘sea of eager faces’ looking at the woman he himself has fetishised which he fears – Lady Audley could excite the jury’s sympathy through her falsity, just as Esther Lyon does in Felix Holt with her sincerity, and her innocent appearance will allow her to do this.

Lucy’s 'sister' in the Braddon canon does just this – the child-killing Phoebe in the 1894 short story ‘Sweet Simplicity’. Phoebe’s closeness to Lady Audley is clear. Like Lucy, she is blonde, blue-eyed and child-like. Like Lucy, she is guilty of a heinous crime and has a history of sexual transgression. And, like Lucy, she has had a semi-servile role (she is a nursemaid, while the future Lady Audley was a governess). Phoebe’s adversary is called Roger, Lucy’s Robert, and each man is a member of the central household’s extended family, but inhabits an outside position in the home. Phoebe’s own name also conjures up the earlier novel (Braddon’s most popular from its publication to today). The name ‘Phoebe’ is shared with Lady Audley’s servant, who acts as Lucy’s double in many ways in the book (‘Do you know, Phoebe, I have heard some people say you and I are alike?’).

The Phoebe of ‘Sweet Simplicity’ finds herself appearing at the inquest of the child killed in her care and very nearly manages to act her way out of punishment:

‘There was an inquest the following day, and Phoebe repeated her story of Roger’s sending her to the house for letters, in exactly the same words as she had used in the study at the Cliff, and with the same flood of tears; and again Roger declared, this time upon oath, that Phoebe’s story was a tissue of lies; but Roger’s white angry face made a very bad impression upon the jury, as compared with the roses and lilies of Phoebe’s childlike countenance, and the simplicity of her words and manner.’

This passage is a strong contrast to the ideal of the court as an arena for truth presented in Mary Barton. Roger is innocent – but does not appear so. Phoebe is the opposite. There is a disconnect between presentation and reality – the very difficulty which makes the theatre suspect is applied to a court setting. The narration goes on to call the inquest ‘a triumph for Phoebe, her tears and her childlike prettiness having touched all hearts’, in language evoking theatrical reviews, and Phoebe’s earlier misdemeanours centre around her involvement with ‘a theatrical gentlemen in Londesborough’.

As in Lady Audley’s Secret, eventually a lawyer saves the day, but in each case he must do so by operating outside the courtroom. The realist novels we have looked at have true-hearted women reflecting the justice of the court system – in the world of sensation, women perform, and allowing them into the witness box can be very dangerous.

Who should be my next woman in the witness box? Let me know here, on Twitter (@SVictorianist) or on Facebook!

The only modern reprint of ‘Sweet Simplicity’ (to my knowledge) is from the Sensation Press in The Fatal Marriage and Other Stories.

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