A lovely and compelling Victorian sensational novel, published in 1862. This isn’t a light read, as it contains a lot of mid-19th-century angst as the aristocratic protagonist agonizes over the disappearance of his best friend and what he should do about it. But this is no soap opera, and themes include deceit, murder, betrayal, familial and fraternal love, the marriage market, the advantages of beauty, and class struggle.
The plot is classic and almost perfect, although the purple prose of the era might turn off some modern readers. However, you might be surprised by the strength of some of the women in the book; Braddon obviously wanted to encourage her female readers to better themselves, but with a moral caveat (wink).
The book contains some wonderful bits of Victorian humor, too, which British readers may relate to more, but which I enjoyed immensely. In that respect, it reminded me of Jane Austen, who didn’t take her stories too seriously and tamped down the drama with some fun Regency self-aggrandizement.
Robert Audley makes a good character because his personality grows throughout the book. I didn’t think much of him at the beginning; he’s lazy and devil-may-care, thanks to his wealth and station. But this changes as he investigates the mystery; he realizes how, on the one hand, people can be very cruel and evil, and on the other hand, how much his friends and family mean to him.
Bandwagon Warning: Although modern readers might jump to conclusions about romantic or sexual issues between the protagonist and his bff, don’t fall for this. Relationships between (at least) aristocrats of the same sex at the time of this novel were more intense and sentimental, and it doesn’t mean the characters were gay.
DO NOT give up on this book because you think you know the solution to the mystery. The author adds some twists at the end that will satisfy you.
The audiobook was narrated by Olivia Poulet, who read it at such a quick pace that some of the wit escaped notice. If you often find yourself speeding up your audiobooks, you won’t have that problem here. Her accents were excellent, and the character voices were distinctive.
Highly recommended to readers of historical novels and mysteries, and gothic thrillers.
You might also enjoy: “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield, “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins, “The Clockmaker’s Daughter” by Kate Morton