I too have been meaning to read Lady Audley's Secret since picking up a copy at a thrift store. The book jumped out at me from the shelves because I remembered the pivotal role that it played in another book, one of my childhood favourites, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.
Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the fourth instalment in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series, begins in 1904. Betsy Ray, twelve-years-old and a budding writer, has fallen under the spell of the dime novels that she surreptitiously borrows from her family's "hired girl" Rena, and passes on to her best friend Tacy Kelly. As the book opens, disaster has struck. Tacy's father found Rena's copy of Lady Audley's Secret hidden under Tacy's bed, and was so horrified at the idea of a child of his reading such trash that he flung it into the kitchen stove where it perished in the flames. Ever resourceful, Betsy and Tacy find a way to earn the funds to buy Rena a replacement—Mr. Cook of Cook's Books remarks that it's "a strange book for ... little girls to be buying"—but the impact of the incident extends beyond this adventure. After mulling over the fact that Mr. Kelly has pronounced the very sort of books she plans to write "trash," Betsy finds herself reluctant to share her latest stories with her mother. When she finally does, this is how the scene unfolds:
Mrs. Ray gathered up the tablets. The titles flashed past. Lady Gwendolyn's Sin. The Tall Dark Stranger, Hardly More Than a Child.
For quite a while she did not say a word. She did not open the books. She just stacked them into a pile which she shaped with her hands, thoughtfully.
Betsy stole a glance at her mother's profile, fine and straight like George Washington's. It did not look angry, but it looked serious, grave.
"I think," said Mrs. Ray at last, "that Rena must have been sharing her dime novels with you."
Betsy did not answer.
"Betsy, it's a mistake for you to read that stuff. There's no great harm in it, but if you're going to be a writer you need to read good books. They train you to write, build up your mind. We have good books in the bookcase downstairs. Why don't you read them?"
"I've read them all," said Betsy.
"Of course," said her mother. "I never thought of that."
The happy outcome of this exchange is that Betsy is given permission to go downtown by herself on alternate Saturdays to borrow books from the newly opened Carnegie Library. So begins her love affair with the classics.
With this build up, I can't help but have some preconceptions about Lady Audley's Secret. But more than a century has passed since Rena's copy of it was consigned to the flames by Tacy's irate father. How do yesterday's dime novels read today? Might Mr. Kelly's "trash" be my treasure? I am curious to find out.