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Analysis of Character and Identity in 'Hard Times' and 'Lady Audley’s Secret'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3845 words Published: 2nd Aug 2021

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Both Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret approach the issue of character through an interrogation of selfhood deeply embedded in a range of 19th century strategies for the construction of identity. While Dickens exploits the economic philosophies of Utilitarianism and the self-made man to explore the boundaries of public personas, Braddon endows her protagonist with agency to navigate social discourse on femininity and the home. Hence, the object of this essay is to analyse the depiction of façade in relation to one’s upbringing and the opportunity for social mobility. For this purpose, we shall concentrate on the usage of exteriority and visual representation in order to consider how concealment and exposure direct the efforts at characterization and focus the meaning of the texts.

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The active maintenance of a manufactured identity is prevalent in these narratives, especially concerning Josiah Bounderby and Lucy Audley. Both are inextricably linked with notions of social advancement, with the fundamental difference being that pretence is only a necessary enabler in the case of the latter. That is, Lucy Audley changes her name and lies about her past to improve her economic situation and access opportunities that would not be available to her otherwise. However, Bounderby’s invention of a tragically impoverished childhood only serves to make the attainment of his current position seem more meritorious without directly benefiting him in any material way.

In an ideological sense, he fashions himself following a bourgeois narrative of self-betterment as outlined by Samuel Smiles. This doctrine emphasized personal merit over inherited wealth, delineating continued hard work as the road towards success regardless of one’s background. It constituted a response to the diminishing power of the aristocracy, which allowed the middle classes to fill a power vacuum while proving their moral superiority by means of their honest labour (Simpson 1997:71-72). Thus, Bounderby’s insistence on his condition as ‘a bit of a dirty riff-raff, and a genuine scrap of tag, rag, and bobtail’, far from being a mortifying admission, presents him as a respectable individual on account of his ability to climb up the social ladder relying solely on his talent and work ethic (Dickens 1854:126).

In fact, he often strives to draw attention to this made-up past precisely to bolster this image of himself, as the narrator does not hesitate to point out by saying he is ‘a man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man… who was the Bully of humility’ (Dickens 1854:20-21). This not only reveals Bounderby’s prideful and attention-seeking personality, but it also corresponds with the paradoxical class consciousness that permeated the self-help creed. Namely, it discloses the social ambitions that governed an individual’s desire to improve himself beyond contribution to the community (Simpson 1997:72). Therefore, Bounderby’s false humility responds to an established cultural trend and does not signify by itself a deceitful concealing of the self, despite what the narrator would have us believe. It only becomes a conscious deception once it is discovered that his past hardships exist exclusively in his imagination.

Consequently, we encounter another layer of duplicity when it comes to Bounderby’s self, as the untruthfulness of the tales of his infancy necessarily implies that he is not the man of Fact that his friend Gradgrind and the text make him out to be: ‘Mr Bounderby does not do you the injustice, and does not do himself the injustice, of pretending to anything fanciful’ (Dickens 1854:97). Instead, by making such use of decorative imagery, he is succumbing to that which he so adamantly advocates against and revealing himself a character of Fancy (Pollatschek 2013:279). This contributes to his embodiment of the distortion of the ideals that conform the myth of the self-made man, as his self-improvement is accompanied by dishonesty and mistreatment of who might have been his fellow men had he failed (Simpson 1997:72).

In a way, the protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure represents much more faithfully Dickens’ idea of ethical self-improvement. Jude Fawley dreams of studying at university for his own enhancement and dedicates himself to his studies while working manually to support himself. Josiah Bounderby might be more successful in terms of financial gain, but his falsehood renders his ego dissolute. For her part, Lucy Graham attempts to access this same ideology of self-help only to find that a significant change in her status requires that she marry. Her spell as a governess under a fake name denotes an ambition not unlike Bounderby’s, but her gender makes her social standing entirely dependent on her relationship to a man, be it her father or her spouse.

As a result, she shapes her character to be as agreeable as possible so that she might find a husband of rank, as she did in first instance with George Talboys. This strategy of self-fashioning was commonplace among Victorian girls seeking to improve their prospects, as the institution of marriage could provide material comfort as well as inclusion in higher social circles (Pykett 1992:93-94). In a situation reminiscent of Bounderby’s, Lucy’s performance of self and consideration of Sir Michael’s proposal as an economic transaction conforms to already existent social guidelines. This can be seen in the attitudes of those around her, as her employers ‘would have thought it something more than madness in a penniless girl to reject such an offer’ (Braddon 1862:14). Her fabrication of her name and marital status, not her aspirations, is what makes her behaviour truly scandalous.

And yet, Robert Audley holds an idealised view of femaleness that rejects this aspect of a woman’s limited agency. He equates her duplicitous behaviour with her alleged madness, as if her motives for marrying his uncle were proof that foreshadowed their discovery of her criminality. For him, Lady Audley’s goal represents a form of that transgressive femininity which corrupts the tranquillity of the home per the genre conventions of sensation fiction (Pykett 1992:93-94). Accordingly, he wishes to ‘banish her forever from the house which her presence has polluted’ so as to reclaim the country-house as a space devoid of the materialism of industrial society (Braddon 1862:216) (Sparks 2012:20). As with Dickens’ narrator, who condemns Bounderby’s false humility solely as a personal trait without accounting for an established public mindset, Robert is able to recognise dishonourable distortion of the self but not the social codes that enable or even compel it in the first place.

This is not the case with Braddon’s narrator, whose portrayal of Lucy and, by extension, of her duplicity of character, surpasses in complexity the Victorian dichotomy of women as either angels or demons (Felber 2007:472). Unlike with Dickens, Braddon’s narrative is explicitly one of unmasking by a male character (Pykett 1992:91). This entails a focalisation on Lucy’s looks as a doorway to the self. Hence, at the beginning, we perceive how ‘the innocence and candor of an infant beamed in Lady Audley’s fair face’ (Braddon 1862:50), even if we are aware of how she ‘was blessed with that magic power of fascination, by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile’ (Ibid.:11). Her recurring comparison to a child reinforces her conception as a vivacious and genuine young woman who perfectly embodies an ideal of virtuous female domesticity. The alertness regarding her potential power to manipulate is framed as mystical and delightful rather than alarming.

Later on, Robert’s suspicion that she might have killed his friend introduces her characterization as a siren or demon, usually associated with a fear of female sexuality and deviance (Felber 2007: 477). He underlies this perception by telling her that ‘your youth and your beauty, your grace and refinement, only make the horrible secret of your life more terrible’ (Braddon 1862:231). That is, her crime is made all the more horrifying because her exteriority offers such a contrast between expectations and reality. This reality, of course, is Robert’s version of it, since Lucy sees herself as a victim who has acted out of necessity: ‘I think I might have been a good woman for the rest of my life, if fate would have allowed me to be so’ (Braddon 1862:302) (Sparks 2012:27-28).

From this, we grasp that Robert’s unveiling of Lucy’s real self might not be the only truth, and that the excess of physical description accompanying it, as Lyn Pykett observes, transforms her into the object of the reader’s gaze just as she is of the male’s within the narrative. This means that ‘at the level of textual…representation, Lucy Graham is staged as a spectacle, just as within the narrative the character is staging herself’ (Pykett 1992:89). Her physical loveliness, then, is an advantage she knowingly exploits so that ‘she [looks] upon that beauty as a weapon’, functioning as a filter of identity that equally sways her husband and deters any other projection of herself (Braddon 1862: 287).

Similarly, she capitalises on the grandeur of her newly-acquired possessions so that they might perform her identity for her (Royal 2013:4). The display of wealth in her chambers and gowns transforms the private sphere of the home and her own person into a public space that exhibits her desirability (Ibid.:5).  This reliance on exteriority to forge a new self almost transforms her into an extension of Audley Court (Ibid.:1). Both a precious commodity and a consumer within it, she physically hides the personal items that might reveal her old identity in a locked jewellery box while displaying new ones to outperform them (Ibid.:3-5). This results in a merging of her own sense of worth with that of the house, letting the luxury provide her with the respectability that she feels her previous underprivileged life lacked (Sparks 2012:26).

Thus, both the home and the body validate and shape the self that occupies it, with the individual being subjective to physical reality (Ibid.:30). This is also relevant in the case of Louisa Bounderby and her new residence. James Harthouse describes her as ‘so constrained, and yet so careless…utterly indifferent… she baffled all penetration’ (Dickens 1854:127), while her drawing-room was ‘boastfully and doggedly rich…unrelieved by the least trace of any womanly occupation’ (Ibid.). Here, the domestic space serves as a stage for the clear expression of Bounderby’s self-aggrandizement. Given that femininity and the Victorian house are often co-dependent products of commodity culture, Louisa’s indifferent countenance and her lack of presence in the decoration speak of a concealment of the self to the point of amalgamation with the surrounding environment (Sparks 2012:19). In other words, the mansion performs her public identity as the daughter and wife of men of Fact, but it does nothing to express her own individuality.

In its condition as a realist novel, Hard Times presents a character’s subjectivity as depicted by the visible exterior, be it setting or figure (Spector 1984:367). Observation equals knowledge, and so the drawing room speaks of an absence of personality in Louisa Bounderby as anything other than a serious and complacent wife. Still, the text questions its own premises, and Harthouse’s perception of contradictory attributes when physically describing her hints at a dysfunction between her person and her home (Ibid.). This is confirmed when Louisa flees to her father’s house and reveals her passionate personality: ‘…in her face, not like itself-and in her figure…the feelings long supressed broke loose’ (Dickens 1854:211). Her face seems different because, until this moment, her father has not been partaker of her true nature.

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Contrary to her husband’s situation, the existence of Louisa’s hidden self is positively framed by the narrator as an escape from the yoke of the factual philosophy imposed on her, going to the extent of disenchanting her father with it in the process. Likewise, Clara Talboys confesses that she has ‘grown up in an atmosphere of suppression…stifled and dwarfed the natural feelings of [her] heart’, to explain her cold demeanour as a necessary disguise in her father’s household (Braddon 1862: 171). Unsurprisingly, her physical appearance shapes Robert Audley’s first impression of her in a manner that does not make justice to her whole self: ‘I took her for a stately and heartless automaton; I know now to be a noble and beautiful woman’ (Braddon 1862:175).

Although here described as beautiful, Clara’s allure has nothing to do with Lucy Audley’s. Whereas the latter utilises it for the manipulation of the people around her, Clara’s evokes the righteousness of Robert’s quest against her brother’s alleged murderer, exemplifying the epitome of the domestic ideal that Lucy is discovered to be merely impersonating (Pykett 1992:104). Accordingly, her and Louisa’s revelation of their hidden sensitivities liberates and grants the family a new clarity, even when Lucy’s own true self poses a menace to the home. This implication that appearances are not to be trusted is a common trope in sensation fiction and finds its culmination in the artistic representation of the disguised character (Sparks 2012:34).

In this light, Lucy Audley’s portrait materialises precisely the sense of foreboding and lurking danger expressed by Robert: ‘I believe that we may look into the smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty’ (Braddon 1862:124).  Taking inspiration from the Gothic, the painting constitutes the first instance of revelation of the lady’s true self, as well as Robert’s first encounter with her physicality (Felber 2007:472). Its realization by a pre-Raphaelite artist speaks to its decadent character, as does the exaggeration of her facial features, to the point of giving ‘…a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes’ and ‘…to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had…’ (Braddon 1862:65) (Felber 2007:473). Alicia Audley further guides our interpretation of the portrait by speculating that ‘sometimes a painter…is able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes’ (Ibid.:66). This statement is dismissed by Robert at first, but it functions to alert the reader of women’s dormant potentiality for crime and to frame once again the representation of the body as demonstration of character (Pykett 1992:86).

Notwithstanding this clear allegiance between body and self, the fact that the painting was presumably created by a man introduces a subtext of the voyeuristic male gaze that complicates our understanding of this equivalence (Felber 2007:480). The verbal portrait and scene may have been created by a female writer, but her emphasis on the artist’s construction of his subject and the sexual connotations of Robert and George’s trespass into her rooms suggests that the portrait comprises but one interpretation of Lady Audley (Ibid.:479-480). This version fulfils the role of femme fatale and cautionary tale, but dismisses other aspects of her character in order to highlight her erotic appeal and dangerousness (Ibid.:481). Consequently, in its condition as visual representation, the portrait simultaneously hides and reveals layers of Lucy Audley’s self.

Significantly, the verbal construction of Bounderby’s portrait lacks the physical descriptors so present in Lady Audley’s. The absence of fetishization of the male body would theoretically allow for a deeper analysis in terms of character, but the narrator neglects it in favour of criticising Bounderby’s pride. This is because the painting, and its display in the home, does betray his desire to emulate the aristocracy, but it does not disclose any new aspect of his personality. In contrast, the portrait discovers more about the spectator than the sitter: Mrs Sparsit reveals her true feelings towards her benefactor and displays a conduct that he would think improper of such a lady by calling ‘his portrait a Noodle to its face, with the greatest acrimony and contempt’ (Dickens 1854: 195). Since we have access to her consciousness at other points of the narrative, this glimpse of her character is hardly edifying, but it allows us to surmise that portraiture in these novels reveals more about the perception of one’s façade by others than about the subject it is depicting.

In a similar manner, the portrayal of the working class in Hard Times is dominated by bourgeois class consciousness and the oversimplification of Utilitarian thought (Spector 1984:375). Bounderby’s remarks that all factory workers aspire to ‘be set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on a turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon’ reveal more about his own suspiciousness and desires than those of his employees (Dickens 1854:72). He proves himself committed to self-help ideology by considering poverty an active choice resulting from idleness, therefore distancing himself from proletarianism by virtue of his alleged determination to rise himself above it (Simpson 1997: 72). Not only does his attitude reinforce our principled dislike of him, but it also feeds into the statisticians’ inability to acknowledge the individuality of members of the working class: ‘…people equally like one another…the relations between master and man were all fact…and what you couldn’t state in figures was not, and never should be…’ (Dickens 1854:28) (Spector 1984: 369).

The industrial inhabitants of Coketown must construct themselves according to these rules of abstraction. In their case, inscrutability of character is not the product of concealment of the self, nor is revelation really possible, as the novel is pervaded by the Utilitarian assumption that what is observed is all there is (Malone 1989:16-19). Stephen Blackpool is afforded a deeper characterization by virtue of embodying a countermodel of integrity to be set against Bounderby’s, but this archetype of honest labour merely plays into the conception of the working class as a hegemonic group. Subsequently, the selves of the factory workers stay obscure both for the bourgeois characters and for the reader.

As for Lucy Audley and Josiah Bounderby, their self also remains unknowable to an extent. Both moments of unmasking are prompted by someone else and lack a concrete sense of who the characters really are. Mrs Pegler’s conviction that her son would not hesitate to defend her from Gradgrind’s accusations suggests another performance of self with his mother as audience. For better or worse, the potential of this relationship is left unexplored, as the Dickensian narrator’s flat characterisation of Bounderby relies on an imaginative antipathy that impedes the possibility of a clear motivation or redeeming quality in him (Sonstroem 1969:527). For her part, Lucy appropriates confession as a means of articulating her own truth (Dunbar 2014:103). Her claim that she is mad would imply that she has been concealing her true self her whole life, even before changing her legal name. The antecedents, however, suggest that she is merely ensuring that she is not processed by criminal law, which shows her cunning intelligence and willingness to exploit the system. Either way, the ambiguity of madness and her successive changes of identity with each ascend in the social scale deny us access to a clear appreciation of her innermost self (Royal 2013: 9).

In an ironic twist, Lucy is forced to live out her last days under yet another fake name, Madame Taylor, and conceal her identity. Suggestively, this is the only one that, either by marriage or invention, she did not choose herself (Felber 2007:483). Both her portrait and Bounderby’s, signifying their ambition, fulfil their ominous portent and endure as their only surviving legacy. Their status as visual signifiers of the concealed character indicates how, in these novels, concealment of the self for the sake of social progress is conceived as a corruption of the bourgeois ideal of self-advancement, whereas emotion is rewarded with familial acceptance. The focus on bodily representation and the home constitute them as frameworks for the construction of personality, simultaneously contributing to its disguise and its eventual unveiling. In all, both texts recur to Victorian ideological discourses of class and gender to negotiate selfhood in an increasingly industrial economic context. The truth is always finally revealed, but the possibility of attaining full knowledge of the self persists to be dubious for characters and readers alike. 


  • Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. [1862] 2012. Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. by Lyn Pykett (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Dickens, Charles. [1854] 1995. Hard Times For These Times, ed. by Kate Flint (London: Penguin Classics)
  • Dunbar, Ann-Marie. 2014. ‘Making the Case: Detection and Confession in Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White’ in Victorian Review, 40.1: 97-116
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  • Northcutt Malone, Cynthia. 1989. ‘The Fixed Eye and the Rolling Eye: Surveillance and Discipline in Hard Times’ in Studies in the Novel, 21.1: 14-26
  • Pykett, Lyn. 1992. ‘Mary Elizabeth Braddon: the secret histories of women’ in The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (Routledge), pp. 83-113
  • Royal, Anna. 2013. ‘Wax Dolls: Shaping a New Identity in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret’ in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, 9.3: 11 pages
  • Simpson, Margaret. 1997. The Companion to Hard Times (Great Britain: Helm Information Ltd.)
  • Sonstroem, David. 1969. ‘Fettered Fancy in Hard Times’ in PMLA, 84.3: 520-529
  • Sparks, Tabitha. 2012. ‘To the Mad-House Born: The Ethics of Exteriority in Lady Audley’s Secret’ in DQR Studies in Literature, 50: 19-35
  • Spector, Stephen J. 1984. ‘Monsters of Metonymy: Hard Times and Knowing the Working Class’ in ELH, 51.2: 365-384


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