Wrongful Confinement in Lady Audley’s Secret


I wrote the essay adapted below for my Victorian Literature class at Grove City College. It is on the topic of wrongful confinement of individuals believed to be insane in the book Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The treatment of individuals with mental illness has been of interest to me since I began college, and I was horrified to learn of the way they were treated in Victorian England.

Warning! Spoilers ahead!


After his friend George Talboys’ disappearance, Robert Audley suspects Miss Graham, who is also known as Lady Audley. He digs into her past and finds information that seems to confirm his theory, including that George Talboys is Lady Audley’s first husband. She is indeed responsible, having pushed George Talboys down a well. Lady Audley threatens to have Robert Audley locked up in a madhouse for his wild accusations of her, but it is she that is eventually locked up for “madness.”


In 2019, the literary world was shocked by revelations that the author Charles Dickens attempted to wrongfully confine his wife Catherine to an asylum with the claim that she had “a mental disorder under which she sometimes labors,” trying to convince a doctor to diagnose her as insane (Thulin). Fortunately for Catherine, his efforts failed. This is more than just a tale of a terrible husband, however. This story provides insight into the Victorian world and how corrupt individuals could use the system of doctors and asylums for personal gain. In Victorian England, wrongful confinement was possible and likely common due to malleable definitions of insanity by doctors, immoral and unconventional behavior mistaken for insanity, corruption of doctors and family members benefitting from another’s commitment to an asylum, and insufficiency of reforms. Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon echoes the fears of the Victorian era of wrongful confinement, and reflects real ethical problems during that time with regard to insane asylums. In Braddon’s book, the character Lady Audley threatens to have Robert Audley committed to an asylum, and by the end she herself is committed to a maison de santé—a French insane asylum. From a perusal of Victorian texts, it becomes evident that it would be possible for the sane Robert Audley to be committed to an asylum (though it was more likely for women such as Lady Audley to be committed) and careful consideration of the text and Victorian sources shows that Lady Audley should not have been labeled with mental illness and forced to stay in an insane asylum.

Robert Audley became distraught after his close friend George Talboys went missing. While it may be regarded as strange that soon after George Talboys went missing, Robert Audley suspected malicious involvement, it is clear to readers that Robert Audley’s intense focus on his friend’s plight is not monomania, but instead is due to his affection and concern for his lost friend. He makes great use of circumstantial evidence, writing a list labeled “Journal of Facts Connected with the Disappearance of George Talboys, Inclusive of Facts Which Have No Apparent Relation to That Circumstance” (Braddon 133). It may seem abnormal to include facts that have “no apparent relation to that circumstance,” but Robert Audley is merely taking a broad view of the case, and nothing is added that is in fact trivial (Braddon 133). This is how the concept of circumstantial evidence works—“that wonderful fabric which is built out of straws collected at every point of the compass and which is yet strong enough to hang a man” (Braddon 152). While it is true that Robert Audley may even be called obsessed about his friend’s disappearance, it is obvious that he is acting in a logical manner and acting ethically. The fact that he is thinking clearly is shown by his own concern that he is acting out of a monomania, wondering “Why was it that I saw some strange mystery in my friend’s disappearance? Was it a monition or a monomania? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed is woven out of my own folly?” (Braddon 271).

Readers know that Robert Audley is not mad, and even Lady Audley knows it. She preys, however, on his doubts. “Are you going mad, Mr. Audley, and do you select me as the victim of your monomania?” she asks (Braddon 282). When he persists in implicating her for the death of George Talboys, she warns, “such fancies have sometimes conducted people, as apparently sane as yourself, to the life-long imprisonment of a private lunatic asylum” (Braddon 289). Her meaning is clear to Robert Audley—she is capable of using her influence with his uncle to attempt to send him to an insane asylum.

Readers may wonder in Victorian England, if that was an empty threat or if it carried real weight. To commit a person to an asylum, it is first necessary for a doctor to have some definition of insanity from which to work from. One man, William Griggs, was himself wrongfully committed to Kensington House. He wrote a letter in 1832 labeled Lunacy versus Liberty, in which he laments that:

Our learned medical men, and more especially those who make affliction of the mind their constant study, assert most positively, that almost every person afflicted with mental derangement presents a new case, but do not tell us by what means they discover a person to be of unsound mind. If it is owing to certain little eccentricities which they have, and it appears to be the only rational criterion they have to judge by, then indeed might they send to confinement half the human race, for heaven knows we are eccentric enough (3-4).

Diagnosis is problematic if each doctor is working from his own, subjective definition of insanity. According to McCandless, “the doctors themselves frequently differed sharply over the mental state of a particular individual” (368). Thus, one doctor might label a person a lunatic while another would consider him just to be eccentric. Making things worse, “many doctors seemed to be constantly trying to enlarge the boundaries of insanity, constantly adding to the symptoms that indicated mental derangement” (McCandless 368). Occasionally these symptoms bordered on the absurd. For example, the doctor “George Burrows claimed that maniacs emitted a particular smell, a ‘symptom so unerring, that if detected in any person, I should not hesitate to pronounce him insane, even though I had no other proof of it.’” (McCandless 374).

Furthermore, according to the Victorian Vaughan Thomas in 1844, in his Refutation of the Assertions Made by the Writer of the Article in the Quarterly Review, there were claims that asylums “receive large numbers of Patients, who pay very highly for their care,” and doctors “are allowed by Law to confine persons without any Certificate of Insanity, or any written Order” (Thomas 2). McCandless confirmed that “in the minds of many Victorians money was at the root of the problem of wrongful confinement” (369). This was not just a problem for the wealthy. According to George Wingrove Cooke, who wrote in 1849 in A Letter to the Right Hon. the Lord Denman, “If a person of small property goes mad and is confined, any person whether with or without a well-founded claim, may bring an action against him, obtain judgment by default, and sweep all his property away” (10). Griggs describes how this could happen:

A person is taken ill with fever; a medical gentleman is sent for; in a few days his disorder increasing, the patient, dissatisfied, complains to his doctor; he of course advises the calling in of the physician. Now here lies the danger. Well all know that fever is often attended with delirium. Suppose from interested motives a mad physician is called in, you may be immediately declared mad; your certificate signed, a keeper sent for (5).

McCandless offers a real-life example of how bribery and greed could cause a person to be wrongfully confined:

Lewis Phillips, a glass and lamp manufacturer, was committed in March 1838, to Bethnal Green Asylum. Phillip’s confinement was ordered by his brothers, his partners in the family firm. He claimed that they put him away to get his share in the enterprise and that the officers of the asylum had “assisted in this nefarious scheme” (372).

As can be seen from these examples, sane men can be committed to asylums. This does not mean that Robert Audley would assuredly be sent to an asylum. Cases of monomania that attracted medical attention were often more severe. For instance, H.S. Belcome wrote of such a case in his 1844 article “Case of Monomania, Arising Out of the Trial of Madame Lafarge.” In this case, a man became obsessed with the idea that his wife was trying to poison him. After repeatedly talking to a doctor, he was sent to a mental hospital to recover. Upon release, he seemed cured until his wife declined to drink a glass of Kirschen, and he assumed it was because it was poisoned (Belcome 169). He then murdered her and tried to commit suicide. As it seems that Robert Audley’s supposed monomania is benign, and if anything is likely to uncover harmful truths, it does not seem in any way definite that he would be committed to an insane asylum.

It is more likely, however, that Lady Audley would be committed, which is shown to be true in the novel. Some modern critics such as Elaine Showalter also found a disparity between the numbers of women and men committed to asylums, showing that there potentially were some misogynistic biases when it came to diagnosing insanity. Showalter pointed out that “According to the census of 1871, for every 1,000 male lunatics, there were 1,182 female lunatics; for every 1,000 male pauper lunatics, 1,242 females. By 1872, out of 58,640 certified lunatics in England and Wales, 31,822 were women” (160). Joan Busfield challenged Showalter’s claim that “in nineteenth-century Britain madness was first and foremost a female condition” by explaining that women had longer lifespans and men were more likely to be released from asylums, explaining the numbers (259, 265-266). This comment, however, reveals a bias toward men—if women were not released earlier, than it was almost certainly due to the prevailing sexism of the time. Such sexism undoubtedly could play a factor in committing women to asylums. Regardless, the power of women in the Victorian era was considerably less than men, so if someone wanted to wrongfully confine a woman, it would be easier than if one wanted to confine a man.

There is no question that Lady Audley was confined. Whether this was a case of wrongful confinement is another question entirely. Braddon was clearly caught up in the opinions of her time, apparently condoning Lady Audley’s imprisonment. This can be assumed because Lady Audley died unmourned at the end, leaving the other characters to enjoy their happy endings. Part of the reason that Braddon supported confinement for Lady Audley’s supposed insanity was likely that she was familiar with the concept of “moral insanity.”

In the Victorian era, “moral insanity” entered into medical terminology. As a result, doctors began to “declar[e] persons sane or insane according to the ‘rightness’ of their opinions and thoughts.” (McCandless 375). H. Lander, who wrote for The British Medical Journal in 1857, described a case of insanity in which a man “had been living an irregular life for years, drinking, smoking, dancing; boasting of his own abilities”— which are not symptoms of a mental illness and certainly would not constitute a conclusive case for insanity (542). Lander went on to describe the man’s appearance as “mean looking” and “extremely ugly,” as if it were relevant to the sanity (542). John Kitching, who wrote for the same journal in 1857, recommended education and religion to cure moral insanity, further proving that this is not actual insanity but instead immorality and ignorance (336). John Ordronaux demonstrates that all Victorians at the time were not in agreement on whether moral insanity was a legitimate mental illness. In his article “Moral Insanity,” written in 1872, he claims moral insanity is a mistaken “new revelation relating to man’s mental nature as separated from his moral responsibility” (Ordronaux 161).

There is evidence in Braddon’s text, however, that Lady Audley is not insane, but rather just intelligent and wicked. Braddon mistook immorality for insanity, like many of her fellow Victorians. Helen Talboys, also known as Lady Audley, only faked her death to start a new life after her husband had seemingly abandoned her for several years. She did not know if he would ever return to her, and when a marriage was promised to her by another man, she leapt at the opportunity. These are the actions of an ambitious person, not a madwomen—her prospects were slim up until that point, and the allure of a moneyed life was too strong to keep any loyalty to her husband after he had left her. In the Victorian era, this behavior would be considered scandalous and inexcusably immoral. By today’s standards, she would be considered to just be looking out for her own wellbeing, and perhaps even be praised for pulling herself out of poverty.

When George Talboys confronts her and promises her punishment, she is aghast. Yet it is only when he grabs her wrist and tried to detain her that she turns violent. Lady Audley mentions that to Robert Audley that “You saw the bruises that his fingers made upon my wrist” (Braddon 398). He was physically harming Lady Audley when she went on the defensive and pushed him into a well—certainly it might have been motivated by hatred, but her actions can easily be perceived as self-defense.

When Dr. Mosgrave declares her insane, his evidence is based on the fact that her mother died in an insane asylum and that she looked violently angry when he examined her. Dr. Mosgrave says that “if she could have sprung at my throat and strangled me with her little hands, as I was talking to her just now, she would have done it” (Braddon 387). There is no sign that she tried to do so, or that she did anything other than sit there looking furious, which is understandable considering her circumstances.

Braddon fell under the sway of the idea of “moral insanity” when she painted Lady Audley as a primarily unsympathetic figure with an ending she appeared to deserve. While it is true that she would have undergone a criminal trial if she hadn’t been sent to an insane asylum, a trial at least would have acknowledged her as the criminal mastermind she is. The various Victorian sources above indicate that Braddon was not mistaken when she suggested the ease with which various characters could be confined to an insane asylum, even as she labored under the mistaken assumption that immorality is a symptom of madness.

Works Cited

  • Belcombe, H. S. “Case of Monomania, Arising out of the Trial of Madame Lafarge.” Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal (1844-1852), vol. 10, no. 15, 1846, pp. 168–170. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.
  • Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret, edited by Natalie M. Houston, Broadview Press, 2003.
  • Busfield, Joan. “The Female Malady? Men, Women and Madness in Nineteenth Century Britain.” Sociology, vol. 28, no. 1, 1994, pp. 259–277. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.
  • Cooke, George Wingrove. A Letter to the Right Hon. the Lord Denman, Lord Chief Justice of England, on the Enactments Conferring Jurisdiction upon Commissions to Try Legal Rights, and the Practice upon Such Trials, and upon the Feigned Issues Resulting Therefrom, with Especial Reference to the Tithe and Inclosure Commissions. 1849. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.
  • Griggs, William. Lunacy versus Liberty. A Letter to the Lord Chancellor, on the Defective State of the Law, as Regards Insane Persons, and Private Asylums for Their Reception: with Remarks, Original and Select, Including the Author’s Own Case, and Others. 1832. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.
  • Kitching, John. “Lecture on Moral Insanity.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 17, 1857, pp. 334–336. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.
  • Landor, H. “Cases of Moral Insanity.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 26, 1857, pp. 542–543. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Apr. 2021.
  • McCandless, Peter. “Liberty and Lunacy: The Victorians and Wrongful Confinement.” Journal of Social History, vol. 11, no. 3, 1978, pp. 366–386. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Mar. 2021.
  • Ordronaux, John. “‘Moral Insanity.’” The College Courant, vol. 11, no. 14, 1872, pp. 161–162. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.
  • Showalter, Elaine. “Victorian Women and Insanity.” Victorian Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 1980, pp. 157–181. JSTOR, Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.
  • Thomas, Vaughan. Refutation of the Assertions Made by the Writer of the Article in the Quarterly Review for October, 1844, Entitled Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy, Pp. 436-441, as Far as They Relate to the Conduct and Practice of the Warneford Asylum on Headington Hill, near Oxford, and Also to an Appeal to Parliament on Behalf of the Non-Chargeable Poor When Visited by Lunacy, and for the Encouragement of Charitable Asylums for Their Reception, Relief, and Cure: Being the Substance of the Chairman’s Observations at the Weekly Meeting of the Committee of Management: Nov. 12,Nov. 19, and Nov. 26, 1844. 1844. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Mar. 2021.
  • Thulin, Lila. “Trove of Letters Reveal Charles Dickens Tried to Lock His Wife Away in an Asylum.” Smithsonian Magazine, 22 Feb. 2019, Accessed 3 April 2021.

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