The "marriage thriller" is taking over the world, sprawling across bookshop tables and muscling into the multiplex. But maybe our new-found love of "chick noir" is not so new after all. The darker side of matrimony has been fuelling powerful plots of passion and betrayal since the dawn of time – from Othello to Bluebeard and from Medea to Ford Madox Ford's modernist masterpiece The Good Soldier – but in this era of austerity the new wave of domestic thrillers looks back to the golden age of marriage noir: the 19th century.
Sensation fiction exploded on to the mid-Victorian literary scene after the huge success of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1859), credited by Henry James with "having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors". The Victorians were fascinated by the notion of hypocrisy amongst the new middle class, a fascination which sensation fiction answered by domesticating the conventions of 18-century Gothic and the Newgate novel of the 1830s – murder, insanity, the doppelganger – while subtly shifting the site of criminality to the elegant facades of the new boulevards and squares across London.
Of course, The Woman in White has a happy ending, with the drawing master turned amateur detective Walter Hartright free to marry Laura after solving the mystery. But its focus on the fundamental unknowability of marriage, and in particular on the plight of the wife, set the pattern for a decade in which novels put marriage under scrutiny as never before.
Novels of the 1860s are full of dangerously deceptive and desiring women: Magdalen Vanstone in Collins's No Name (1862), Lydia Gwilt in Armadale (1866), and Lady Isabel Carlyle in Ellen Wood's bestselling East Lynne (1861), to name the most obvious. The ultimate femme fatale, however, must be the eponymous heroine of Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Mary Elizabeth Braddon's murderess broke new fictional ground: pushing husband number one down a well, almost poisoning husband number two and attempting to incinerate her son-in-law, Lucy is almost pathologically evil and yet she somehow remains sympathetic.
An 1863 article on "our sensation novelists" in the Living Age called it "one of the most noxious books of modern times", protesting that "Lady Audley is at once the heroine and the monstrosity of the novel." Her greatest threat is her anonymity, her fundamental unknowability, both for the characters and the reader. As she passes through that "great chaos of humanity", the burgeoning metropolis of imperial London, shedding Helen Talboys to become Lucy Graham, she incarnates the ultimate "woman with a past" – a past that turns out to be horrifyingly present. We never quite know what to make of her; behind Helen Talboys lurks Helen Maldon, and the question of "who she really is" dissolves into whether there is any intrinsic identity behind her shifting social surface. Like the thrillers of today, the act of betrayal or transgression is of less significance than the fear that the "other" in a relationship must, regardless of proximity or familiarity, always remain separate and incomprehensible; that even in our most private and intimate spaces we may still project a public persona.
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