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Bront Studies, Vol.

33, November 2008

The Bront Society 2008 doi: 10.1179/174582208X338577
Please address correspondence to: Nicole Plyler Fisk, University of South Carolina, Department of English,
Columbia, SC 29208; email:
By Nicole Plyler Fisk
Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar all validate the idea
that the Bronts could have engaged in a literary dialogue with some of their female
predecessors, thereby contributing to early feminist discourse. Reading Charlotte
Bronts Jane Eyre (1847) as a companion text to Eliza Fenwicks Secresy [sic] (1795)
offers a new perspective on various elements in the novel, including female friendship
and Berthas laugh. Ultimately, this author suggests that, in the featured texts, there is
both a narrator and a listener, with the greater responsibility being on the latter. In Jane
Eyre and Secresy, Jane and Caroline must decode the language of women imprisoned
by the patriarchy and attempt to free them. Caroline is more successful than Jane, not
simply because Sibellas narrative is more coherent than Berthas, but because Caroline
is more willing than Jane to challenge the prevailing practice of male domination and
female repression.
Keywords: Charlotte Bront, Eliza Fenwick, Jane Eyre, Secresy
Published in London in 1795, Eliza Fenwicks Secresy appeared in at least four editions.
Fenwick was responsible for the production costs of the first. The second and third
editions were printed in Boston and Philadelphia, with the fourth edition following
within months. Reviews appeared in the 1795 editions of Critical Review, English
Review, Analytical Review, British Critic, and Monthly Review. Of the five, only the
reviewer for the British Critic is disparaging, calling the novel one of the wildest
romances we have met with and trust[ing] that the morality, though worthy enough
of modern France is far removed [. . .] from the approbation of Englishmen.1 The
notice in the English Review, though brief, praises the uncommon and also interesting2
character of Sibella, the Analytical Review applauds the amusing and interesting
story and the easy, animated, and varied3 language, and the Monthly Review finds
great strength in the characters and the naturally and forcibly expressed
passions, concluding that the production deserves a place of some distinction in the list
of interesting novels.4
The reviewer for the Critical Review, probably Mary Hays, is especially encouraging
and quotes three lengthy passages of the novel, admitting that she has exceeded the
limits usually allotted to works of this nature but insisting that she cannot forbear
219 I Heard Her Murmurs
subjoining such beautifully descriptive extracts.5 She praises the novel incidents
and situations, the animated and forcible language, and the fact that the characters,
sentiments, and reflections, bespeak a more philosophic attention to the phenomena of
the human mind than is generally either sought for, or discovered.6 As a personal friend
of Fenwicks, Hays encouraged her privately as well as publicly. In their correspondence,
they discussed writing as a profession for women, and in Fenwicks earliest surviving
letter to Hays, the former anticipates Woolf by articulating the need for a room of ones
own: I cannot write perpetually surrounded with my family even were I assured that I
have talents to make writing profitable.7 Despite her doubts, she continued to write and
made a name for herself as an author of childrens literature. Her most popular book,
The Class Book; or Three Hundred and Sixty-five Reading Lessons Adapted to the Use
of Schools, had reached thirteen editions by 1858.
Eliza Fenwicks Secresy is a valuable text as a thematic precursor to Jane Eyre and
as a way of understanding the female literary tradition within which Charlotte
Bront was writing. Secresy and Jane Eyre offer parallel representations of male
anxiety about the gendered other and about female madness.8 While Charlotte
Bronts Bertha has received much attention as the madwoman in the attic and has
even inspired such revisitings of Jane Eyre as Jean Rhyss Wide Sargasso Sea, Fenwicks
Sibella remains overlooked. Examining Sibella as an early Bertha reveals Fenwicks and
Bronts similar criticism of male domination and female repression. In the course of the
novels, both Sibella and Bertha are mad in their imprisonment, both evince a desperation
to escape (Bertha leaps from a roof, whereas Sibella leaps from a park wall), and both,
eventually, die under tragic circumstances. When read as complementary texts, Secresy
and Jane Eyre shed new light on the value of sympathetic female companionship in
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British society, suggesting that, without the
friendship of Caroline Ashburn, Sibella would have appeared in the image of Bertha
Mason, fifty years before Charlotte Bront published her most famous novel.
In both novels, a female narrator first describes the sexual females physical
appearance. Of Sibella Valmont, Caroline says, I beheld a female form, cloathed in
white, seated at the foot of a large oak. Her hair, unrestrained by either hat or cap,
entirely shaded her face [. . .] There was something wild in [her] air.9 Jane describes
Bertha Mason as a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down
her back; she adds, I know not what dress she had on; it was white and straight; but
whether gown, sheet, or shroud, I cannot tell (JE, p. 242).10 Although the white gowns
suggest purity, Sibellas and Berthas unbound hair suggests a highly sexualized female;
and, as the novels progress, the references become more overt. Sibella lives a secluded
life with her uncle, Valmont, and his son, Clement Montgomery, at Valmont castle;* she
describes, however, how her passion for Clement progresses from shyness to familiarity,
from familiarity to kindness, from kindness to love, all powerful, all potent (Secresy,
p. 58). At sixteen, she rest[s] in [Clements] arms, and fold[s] [her] arms around [her]
lover when Valmont bids him depart for a two-year Grand Tour (Secresy, p. 58).
Upon his return, Clement brags that nothing can describe Sibellas joy a joy so
* Although the majority of Secresy is set in England (Fenwick mentions Bath, London and the English countryside),
Valmont Castle (the fictional ancestral home of the villain, Mr Valmont) is located fifteen miles from Croom,
Ireland (Fenwick, p. 308).
220 Nicole Plyler Fisk
unrestrained, so exquisitely soft and tender, exquisitely delicate in all its effusions
(Secresy, p. 120). When Valmont bids Clement depart again, Sibella propositions her
beloved, believing that a verbal contract and consummation are the sole requirements of
a marital union (as was the case until Lord Hardwickes Marriage Act in 1753). Clement,
delighted, conveniently neglects to correct her mistake.
In Jane Eyre, Bertha has no narrative; instead, Rochester describes her early
passionate nature. His account is validated by her sexually charged behaviour at
Thornfield Hall. In her youth, Bertha is tall, dark, and majestic, and, in retrospect,
Rochester confesses that his attraction for her was solely physical: I was dazzled,
stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I
thought I loved her (JE, p. 260). Upon his marriage, he upbraids himself for failing to
notice her lack of modesty (JE, p. 260), and insists that he consistently repudiated the
contamination of her crimes (JE, p. 262), including the crime associated with her
unchaste nature (JE, p. 261). Diane Hoeveler explains, Berthas crime apparently has
been to enjoy the sexual aspects of marriage a bit too much for her husbands tastes.11
Rochester transports his wife from the hot, tropical climate of the West Indies to the
frigidity of England, deprives her of society (including his own) for ten years (JE,
p. 264), and, thus, forces her into chastity; her response is to express her sexual nature
symbolically using fire and her own physicality. When Bertha first escapes her solitude,
her impulse is to visit Rochesters bedchamber at night; she sets the bed afire just to
make her point.12 Before Jane quenches the fire, she describes the tongues of flame
dart[ing] round the bed and Rochester, who lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep
(JE, p. 127), symbolically oblivious to his wifes sexual needs. She later describes
Rochester and Berthas sole confrontation in the novel, a passionate and physical
The lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled. She
was a big woman, in stature almost equalling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile
force in the contest more than once she almost throttled him, athletic as he was [. . .] he would not
strike: he would only wrestle. At last he mastered her arms. (JE, p. 250)
Berthas virility, which can be read as sexual potency, is almost equal to Rochesters
desire to repress it; although he eventually gains mastery, he is both figuratively and
literally tainted, bearing the marks (tooth-marks) of the struggle.
Rochesters anxiety about the sexual other explains his attraction for Jane, the
sexually inexperienced heroine of the novel. He has many pet names for her, including
girl-bride (JE, p. 220), good little girl (JE, p. 224), bonny wee thing (JE, p. 231),
childish [. . .] creature (JE, p. 266), and little Jane (JE, p. 267). Mrs Fairfax, the
housekeeper, warns Jane to try and keep Mr. Rochester at a distance (JE, p. 226);
although he delights in Janes sexual inexperience, he confesses his own sexual desire
and frequently approaches her with his face all kindled [. . .] his full falcon-eye flashing,
and tenderness and passion in every lineament (JE, p. 233). During such encounters,
Jane rallie[s] and whet[s] her tongue for a harangue, before [slipping] out by [a]
side-door and [getting] away (JE, p. 233). She remains as slippery as an eel [. . .] and as
thorny as a briar-rose (JE, p. 237) throughout their engagement and analyzes the effect
on Rochester:
221 I Heard Her Murmurs
He was kept, to be sure, rather cross and crusty: but on the whole I could see he was excellently
entertained; and that a lamb-like submission and turtle-dove sensibility, while fostering his despotism
more, would have pleased his judgement, satisfied his common-sense, and even suited his taste, less.
(JE, p. 234)
After being exposed as an intended bigamist, Rochester urges Jane to live as his
mistress, an offer which Jane, who has witnessed his disdain for former mistresses (the French Cline,
the Italian Giacinta, and the German Clara), refuses, reasoning If I were [. . .] to become the successor
of these poor girls, he would one day regard me with the same feeling which now in his mind des-
ecrated their memory (JE, p. 266). Rochester and Jane can only have a successful marriage at the end
of the novel, when Rochester is blind and maimed. Much has been written about Rochesters injuries as
a symbolic castration.13 Gilbert and Gubar suggest that his emasculation makes marital success pos-
sible because Jane becomes an equal of the world [he] represents, and, as equals, he and Jane can
afford to depend upon each other with no fear of one exploiting the other.14 Yet Rochesters blindness
serves an additional function. He becomes unable to see Jane as a physical, sexual being, an inability
that effectively quells his anxiety about the gendered other.
In Secresy, Valmonts anxiety about the gendered other explains his fascination with
Sibella, a strange unformed child (Secresy, p. 55). He exults in the role of father/Creator
and fashions his own garden of Eden with a second Adam [Clement] and Eve [Sibella]
(Secresy, p. 60). Although he restricts Sibella to the castle and grounds, denies her an
education, and demands the obedience of a fettered slave (Secresy, p. 73), he expresses
surprise at her defiance by saying, You are not the docile and grateful creature I
expected to find you (Secresy, p. 42). Sibellas defiance evinced by such statements as
Mr. Valmonts power [may] constrain the forces of this body [. . .] but where [. . .] is
the tyrant that could ever chain thought, or put fetters on the fancy? (Secresy, p. 73)
evolves throughout the novel until she, finally, asserts mastery of her own body and
becomes pregnant. When confronted with Sibellas expanding, sexualized body,
Valmont is wounded [. . .] almost to madness (Secresy, p. 206). He retaliates by rest-
ricting her domain even further; no longer able to visit the wood and all her beloved
haunts, Sibella must, instead, traverse her own small apartment in extreme agitation
(Secresy, p. 306).
Sibella evinces early symptoms of madness, which worsen as Valmont revokes each
small liberty. Caroline affirm[s] that [Sibella] is unhappy after their first meeting,
and attributes her sudden wanderings in conversation, and that apparent restlessness of
dissatisfaction in her to being confined in the same place because all places alike are
irksome (Secresy, p. 40). Even Carolines mother, the self-absorbed Mrs Ashburn, calls
Sibella half insane (Secresy, p. 92), though she angers her daughter by doing so. The
servants at Valmont castle fear Sibella and insist that she is deranged in intellectrs; her
habit of roam[ing] [. . .] in defiance of storm or tempest, in the woods [. . .] even in
the echoing galleries of the terrific castle, at and after midnight only increases their
supposition (Secresy, p. 207). When Valmont tightens her domain (from the castle and
grounds to her own small apartment), she, first, throw[s] herself into the moat in
desperation (Secresy, p. 305), and, then, merely droops under her uncles cruelty,
eat[ing] little, sigh[ing] deeply, but weep[ing] seldom (Secresy, p. 306); her inability
to weep reveals a dangerous tendency to internalize violent emotion, which may be
conducive to mental instability.
Although Caroline sends her friend, Arthur Murden (who is nearly insane, himself,
with love for Sibella), to liberate the prisoner of Valmont castle (Secresy, p. 294), their
222 Nicole Plyler Fisk
assistance comes too late. Murden and Sibella seek repose at a pretty little white-
washed inn (Secresy, p. 327), where the waiter notices that the latter is much too pale
and has the disturbing habit of walk[ing] about the room, muttering to herself (Secresy,
p. 328). Lord Filmar, a fortune hunter who has long planned to abduct and force a
marriage on Sibella, an heiress, steals her away from Murden, only to confirm the
waiters diagnosis of her: She, [all] the while, [is] clasping her hands and muttering
[. . .] She is excessively pale; and strangely[,] strangely altered (Secresy, pp. 33233). In
a moment of lucidity, Sibella reasons with Filmar and her wisdom, coupled with
her unexpected condition (pregnancy) (Secresy, p. 332), convinces the latter to carry
her [. . .] to Miss Ashburn (Secresy, p. 340). Sadly, however, Sibellas lucid interval is
short-lived. Upon arriving at the Ashburns residence, she encounters not only Caroline,
but also Clement, newly wedded to Carolines mother. Filmar describes her reaction:
She shrieked. Miss Ashburn would have embraced her, but she would not suffer it. She sunk upon the
floor. She crossed her arms upon her bosom, with a violent pressure, as if to bind the agony; her teeth
grated against each other; and every limb shuddered. (Secresy, p. 346)
After the shock, she begs to be returned to a dungeon in Valmont castle where [she]
can die (Secresy, p. 346); she slips in and out of consciousness sometimes recognizing
Caroline and sometimes not (Secresy, p. 347); and, at last, she gives birth to a dead
child (Secresy, p. 347) and expire[s] in [Carolines] arms (Secresy, p. 359).
Unlike Sibella, Bertha is hidden from both Jane and the reader throughout most of
the novel. Yet she makes her presence known by verbal outbursts; the most memorable
are laughs, similar to Sibellas mutters. When Jane first hears the laugh, she describes
it as distinct, formal, mirthless and tragic (JE, p. 91); upon hearing it a second time,
she is more disconcerted, calling it low, suppressed, and deep, a demoniac laugh, and
goblin-laughter (JE, p. 128). In her youth, Bertha is the boast of Spanish Town for her
beauty (JE, p. 260); however, at Thornfield Hall, she is compared to the foul German
spectre the Vampyre (JE, p. 242). After Rochesters secret is exposed, Jane is ushered
into the attic and describes her formal introduction to Bertha:
In the deep shade, at the further end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was,
whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell; it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it
snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity
of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. (JE, p. 250)
The face, when exposed, is purple and bloated (JE, p. 250); the eyes are red balls,
and the once graceful form has become bulk (JE, p. 251). Although Jane reprimands
Rochester for referring to his wife with hate and vindictive antipathy, saying It is
cruel she cannot help being mad (JE, p. 257), she seems less concerned about Bertha
than herself. Rochester, intuiting her real anxiety, asks If you were mad, do you think I
should hate you? to which she promptly replies, I do indeed, sir (JE, p. 257). As
soon as he assures her of the contrary (that he would hang over [her] with untiring
tenderness (JE, p. 257)), she dismisses the subject (Bertha) altogether. She never
questions Rochesters oppressive methods further, even after he admits that Bertha has
lucid intervals of days sometimes weeks (JE, p. 264). He adds, [and] she [fills] up
[these intervals] with abuse of me (JE, p. 264); like Valmont, Rochester seems surprised
that Bertha is not the docile and grateful creature [he] expected to find (Secresy, p. 42).
Like Sibella, Berthas madness is not unremitting.
223 I Heard Her Murmurs
Yet Bertha and Sibella represent different types of madwomen. Sibellas madness is of
a gentler, distracted nature; she is only violent to herself, and seldom even then. Berthas
madness is marked by both violence and cunning; in the course of the novel, she tries to
burn her husband in his bed, she bites and stabs her brother, Mason, and she grapples
with Rochester in the attic. Allan Ingram and Michelle Faubert explore the differences,
relying on Elaine Showalters definition of the typical mad heroine as either sentimental
and suicidal

15 or aggressive and brutish.16 Ingram and Faubert conclude: In the
eighteenth century, the link between the concept of madness and ideals of femininity
such as those outlined in the realm of sentiment were so strong that definitions of
female madness rarely strayed from definitions of femininity.17 While Sibella, a product
of the eighteenth century, is called a nymph and inspires her observers either to fall
at [her] feet or clasp [her] in [their] arms (Secresy, p. 54), Bertha, a product of the
nineteenth century, is called it (JE, p. 250). She is desexualized and inspires her
observers with horror.18 When discussing the root of each type of madness, Ingram and
Faubert assert that the eighteenth centurys victimized mad woman almost a cult
figure for the Romantics is usually driven to [her state] by disappointment in love,
whereas the violent mad woman is unprovoked by amorous misfortune.19 When read
in this light, Sibellas madness is the product of Clements rejection whereas Berthas
madness is the product of innate depravity.
I would argue that the root of Sibellas and Berthas madness is their imprisonment
by men in positions of domestic authority (Valmont and Rochester, respectively).
Both Eliza Fenwick and Charlotte Bront had personal reasons to be aware of female
disadvantage in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Fenwicks husband, John
often absent20 and often drunk submerged his family in debt, and Eliza struggled in
an unfriendly [read patriarchal] job market to support herself and her two children, and
to get them launched on careers of their own.21 The mid- to late- eighteenth century saw
a dramatic, unparalleled surge in womens novel-writing;22 still, Secresy remains
Fenwicks only novel. In the most laudatory review of Secresy, the reviewer reveals a
slightly uneasy tone when considering the impassioned style of reasoning in which
truth itself, losing its chaste sobriety, becomes impregnated with inebriating qualities.23
So, while eighteenth-century women novelists could make a career out of writing,
they were expected to promote the values of a male-dominated, male-identified, and
male-centred society.24 Charlotte Bront, who was averse to the idea of teaching or,
worse, working as a governess struggled to gain a reputation as a writer in a time that
was far more conservative than Fenwicks. An increased use of pen names reflects the
nineteenth-centurys more conservative stance towards women writers; Currer, Ellis and
Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bront) and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) are
only the best known examples. The Bronts decision to use pen names was validated
when James Lorimer published a review of their novels, asserting, if they are the
productions of a woman, she must be a woman pretty nearly unsexed,25 and Charlotte
seems to have been summarizing several reviews when she wrote to W. S. Williams in
August 1849, complaining that Jane Eyre is praised [. . .] if written by a man and
pronounced odious if the work of a woman.26
Fenwicks and Bronts feminism permeates their novels. Fenwick was a close friend
of Wollstonecraft, and, as Isobel Grundy asserts, Wollstonecrafts rebuttal of Rousseau
224 Nicole Plyler Fisk
in her Vindication is a major influence on Secresy.27 Although Charlotte Bront was not
particularly associated with feminism in the middle years of the twentieth century, she
was redefined as a feminist in the 1970s, most famously by Gilbert and Gubar.28
Lucasta Miller is one critic who reads Janes acknowledgement of female desire as an
acknowledgment of womens need for self-exploration, for intellectual or professional
fulfilment, both of which, it is implied, are conventionally considered the preserve of
men.29 Fenwicks and Charlotte Bronts heroines are able to thrive, because both
develop friendships with other women. Lillian Faderman notes that the institution of
female romantic friendship was pervasive in France and England during the eighteenth
century, perhaps because women of ambition, in particular, [felt] alienated from men
because [they] took [themselves] seriously while most men usually didnt.30 Faderman
adds, With such a lack of sympathy towards their pursuits, intellectual women
discovered that if they were to receive any encouragement at all, it generally had to come
from among themselves.31
Both Fenwick and Charlotte Bront benefited from sympathetic female com-
panionship in their own lives. Although Fenwick was writing after the time of the
Bluestockings, a group of intellectual, literary women, she formed her own intellectual
and literary circle with Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. Fenwick was
Wollstonecrafts first nurse during her birthing of the future Mary Shelley, and, after
Wollstonecrafts death, Fenwick took care of the infant Mary until Godwin (her father)
sent for her. When Fenwick moved to Barbados and, later, to New Haven, Connecticut,
she urged Hays to join her. Upon the death of her son, Orlando, she wrote a few brief
lines to Henry Crabb Robinson and a lengthy letter to Hays, imploring: Oh Mary, dear
long loved Friend! Write to me.32 This appeal for sympathetic female correspondence is
echoed in a letter to Fenwicks friend, Jane Porter, sent sixteen years later: My dear
Miss Porter, I fear we shall never meet again, but we may commune in spirit, and to hear
from you would afford me a sin[cerer?] pleasure than I can well describe.33
Like Fenwick, Charlotte Bront relied on close ties with women. In Female Friend-
ships and Communities, Pauline Nestor examines Charlotte Bronts friendships with
Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. Of her correspondence with Nussey, Nestor writes,
Charlotte Bronts correspondence [. . .] has the freedom and ease of expression that
[. . .] was frequently a feature of homosocial relationships [. . .]. In fact, like many other
literary women [. . .] Charlotte Bront entertained the fancy of living in self-sufficient
isolation with Ellen.34 Of her friendship with Taylor, Nestor writes, Mary Taylor
provided a much more radical influence in Charlotte Bronts life [. . .] Taylors effect
was consistently challenging.35 While Charlotte Bront valued Ellen Nussey as a good
moral example (Charlotte called her a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred
Yorkshire girl),36 she valued Mary Taylor for her feminism and for her own literary
aspirations.37 In Miss Miles, Mary Taylor emphasizes the value of sympathetic female
companionship: One approving friend will sometimes keep the mind steady, when on
the borders of insanity, from the sheer darkness surrounding it.38 Nestor points to the
threat of madness felt by Charlotte Bront in the face of isolation, and concludes, Mary
Taylors expression of the importance of friendship in Miss Miles might have stood as
an epigraph for Charlotte Bront.39
Sympathetic female companionship (or, in Berthas case, the lack of it) is the most
obvious difference in the mad characters situations. Separated from any type of
225 I Heard Her Murmurs
companionship in the castle after Clements departure, Sibella is attended by silent
Andrew and his deaf daughter (Secresy, p. 206) and forbidden to speak to any of the
other servants. Mrs Valmont, who seems to be the most logical companion for Sibella,
has become so buried [. . .] amidst obscurity and horror at Valmont castle that she is
quite mad herself, degenerating daily into a droop[ing] hypochondriac (Secresy, p. 64).
Sibellas attempts at conversation with her aunt only increase the latters agitation.
Either her aunt dubs her a barbarian and bids her be gone (Secresy, p. 78) or she
grasp[s] her hand and talk[s] in a strange way, revealing a true disorder of intellect
(Secresy, p. 119). Because her presence so agitates Mrs Valmont, Sibella keeps away.
Fortunately, an accidental meeting in the wood with Caroline supplies the void in
Sibellas life. Although Valmont refuses to let the newfound friends see each other, he
allows them to correspond. Considering Valmonts philosophy of female child-rearing,
which insists upon the females seclusion [. . .] from the world (Secresy, p. 39), even this
allowance seems surprising, until Faderman explains: It was reasoned [. . .] that young
women could practise [sensibility, faithfulness, and devotion] on each other so that
when they were ready for marriage they would have perfected themselves in those
areas.40 Because Sibellas romantic friendship with Caroline serves mens self-interest,
it is permitted and even socially encouraged.41
Peter Logan explains the significance of a correspondent for Sibella: In the nervous
narrative, the speaker [Sibella] narrates her own sufferings, describing in the first person
the events in the past that produced her nervous condition; this process of eliciting a
listeners sympathy will, more often than not, be therapeutic.42 Caroline, aware of both
Sibellas need and Valmonts strictness, wisely downplays the power of letter-writing:
A letter, Sir, cannot waft down your drawbridges; the spirit of my affection breathed therein cannot
disenchant her from the all-powerful spell of your authority. No. And you surely will not forbid an
indulgence so endearing to us, while unimportant to yourself. Already I feel assured of your consent:
and, with my thanks, dismiss the subject. (Secresy, p. 39)
In another letter, however, Caroline expresses her desire of being admitted to [Sibellas]
utmost confidence, to the full participation of [her] remembrances, whether of joy or of
sorrow (Secresy, p. 46). Sibella extols her friend for cast[ing] a ray of cheering light
upon [her] dungeon (Secresy, p. 41) and bids her, Speak to me often [. . .] Bring
the varieties of your life before me. Awaken my feelings with yours [sic], and let my
judgement strengthen in your experience (Secresy, p. 80). Sibellas correspondence is not
only therapeutic, but also liberating; she finds her own voice, finds an ally in Caroline,
and is able to experience a world beyond Valmont castle via her friends descriptions.
Her mental faculties seem to strengthen; with each letter she becomes less distracted in
tone. It is only when Valmont punishes Sibellas sexual deviance by intercepting and
returning Carolines letters, unopened (Secresy, p. 294), that his niece experiences a
mental breakdown.
Unlike Sibella, Bertha is completely isolated from sympathetic female companionship.
Grace Poole attends her, but she offers a hard, plain face and few words (JE, pp. 91,
94). Berthas fascination with Jane is reminiscent of Sibellas fascination with Caroline.
In Secresy, Sibella admits to quit[ting] [her] rest, amidst the darkness of the night, to
hover near [Carolines] chamber (Secresy, p. 41); she adds, I have waited hours in that
forlorn gallery that I might catch the whisper of your breathings, that the consciousness
226 Nicole Plyler Fisk
of being near a friend might restore me to hope, to hilarity, to confidence (Secresy,
p. 42). Bertha similarly visits Jane; the latter says:
A dream had scarcely approached my ear, when it fled affrighted [. . .] This was a [. . .] laugh [. . .]
uttered as it seemed, at the very key-hole of my chamber-door. The head of my bed was near the door,
and I thought at first the goblin-laughter stood at my bedside or rather, crouched by my pillow. (JE,
p. 126)
Reading Secresy and Jane Eyre as complementary texts offers a new perspective on
Berthas laugh, which Virginia Woolf, in A Room of Ones Own, interpreted as a lament
of female repression,43 and which was read, in other texts, as a bitter refrain to the tale
Janes imagination creates44 or a [mocking of] Janes aspirations.45 This confusion is
understandable; even Jane is unable to read Berthas laugh, calling it mirthless and
tragic at one moment, and demonic and goblin-like the next. However, Sibellas
observation, that being in the vicinity of a sympathetic female presence fosters supreme
happiness (hilarity even), suggests that Berthas inscrutable laugh might express
her hope that Janes arrival at Thornfield Hall marks the arrival of her own female
companion or even saviour.
A re-examination of the various times Bertha laughs supports such a reading. Jane
first hears her while linger[ing] on the third story and mentally comparing the corridor
to one in Bluebeards castle (JE, p. 91). The allusion is significant; according to Charles
Perraults fairy tale, Bluebeards chamber contains the bodies of his former wives. She
hears the laugh again as she walk[s] along the corridor of the third story, backwards
and forwards; interestingly, Bertha mirrors Janes movement by running backwards
and forwards in her own chamber and laughs just as Jane is confessing her
disappointment in the female companionship at Thornfield Hall and ruminating about
the restraints placed upon women (JE, p. 93). Of Mrs Fairfax and her pupil, Adle, Jane
says, I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adle; but I
believed in the existence of the other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I
believed in I wished to behold (JE, p. 93). Of male domination and female repression,
Jane famously observes:
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity [. . .] Millions are condemned to
a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot [. . .] Women are supposed
to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a
field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a
stagnation, precisely as men would suffer. (JE, p. 93)
Jane notes that when thus alone, she frequently hears the mysterious laugh (JE, p. 93).
Woolf, who fails to recognize that Janes ruminations and Berthas outbursts represent
an unconscious conversation between the two women, calls the laughter an awkward
break, concludes that Charlotte Bront wrote in a rage and foolishly where she
should have written calmly and wisely, and asks, How could she help but die young,
cramped and thwarted?.46 Yet, the laugh is often accompanied by an eccentric
murmur[ing] (JE, p. 93), which is, perhaps, as Logan suggests, Berthas attempt to
narrate her nervous body to a sympathetic listener.47 During these ruminations, Jane
feels sympathy for Berthas plight, although she does so unknowingly. Bertha, seeming
to intuit this sympathy, expresses gaiety at the prospect of gaining Jane as an ally, and
begins to visit her, whenever she gets the opportunity.
227 I Heard Her Murmurs
In Secresy, Caroline understands Sibella and is, thus, able to protect her, at least up to
a point. When Valmont puts an end to their correspondence, she tells Murden, Sibella
is so really a prisoner even my letters are denied her (Secresy, p. 294). She understands
the impact this restriction will have on her friend, and she responds as valiantly as any
romantic hero: Tomorrow morning, I set out for Valmont castle (Secresy, p. 296).
Because Valmont denies Caroline access to Sibella, she is forced to entrust the rescue to
Murden, who is aware of secret passages into the castle and, who, like Rochester, has
costumes on hand (a hermits cap and gown (Secresy, p. 301) compared with
Rochesters gypsy guise). Caroline equips him with a letter (Secresy, p. 301), which urges
Sibella to commit [herself] wholly to [Murdens] direction (Secresy, p. 308); she
promises, He will bring you, my Sibella, with all convenient dispatch to a little village
called Croom, fifteen miles from your uncles castle. There your Carolines arms will
receive you; and my affection tells me we shall never again be separated (Secresy,
p. 308). Sibella refuses to open her door until she hears Miss Ashburn, it is a letter from
Miss Ashburn; then she snatch[es] it, shut[s] the door hastily, burst[s] into sobs,
bless[es] her friend, and, finally, commits herself to Murden (Secresy, p. 321).
Within this logic, Jane misinterprets both Berthas laugh and her visits. She knows
that the Thornfield Hall arsonist passed by her room on the night Rochesters bed was
set afire, and, that she is, therefore, not the object of Berthas wrath. Yet, when Bertha
enters Janes chamber a second time and stop[s] at [her] bedside, Jane is horrified and
[loses] consciousness (JE, p. 242). During this visit, Bertha places Janes wedding veil
on her own head and [rends] it in two parts (JE, p. 242); this is a warning, masked in
a game of charades, but as at Rochesters party, Jane refuses to participate. Her unwill-
ingness to listen to Bertha causes personal misfortune (in the form of an interrupted
wedding ceremony) and renders her an inadequate protector. She is not there to calm
Bertha when Mason, who is as benevolent towards his sister as Murden is towards
Sibella (Secresy, p. 308), enters her prison. She fails to recognize the incongruity in
Rochesters description of Berthas apartment (safe and comfortable (JE, p. 263)) and the
reality of it (a windowless room with a fire, guarded by a high and strong fender, and
a lamp suspended from the ceiling by a chain (JE, p. 250)). And, finally, she flees
Thornfield Hall without even attempting to ease the suffering of one who is condemned
to a stiller doom than [her own] and is in revolt against [her] lot (JE, p. 93).
Although Jane suffers different forms of deprivation (absence of parental guidance
and affection, poverty, and so forth) throughout the novel, she benefits from sympa-
thetic female companionship in every residence except two Gateshead and Thornfield
Hall. She befriends Helen Burns and Maria Temple at Lowood Academy, Diana and
Mary Rivers at Moor House, and, once removed to Ferndean, she notices that a
sound English education [has] corrected [. . .] [Adles] French defects, rendering her a
pleasing and obliging companion: docile, good-tempered, and well-principled (JE,
p. 383). Most importantly, Jane recognizes the value of sympathetic female com-
panionship. Upon discovering that Bessie is fonder of [her] than of all the others, she is
rather sorry to leave Gateshead (JE, p. 33); in contrast, as soon as Maria Temple leaves
Lowood Academy, she admits, From the day she left I was no longer the same [. . .] I
walked about the chamber most of the time [. . .] I tired of the routine of eight years in
one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer
(JE, pp. 712). Disqualifying Bertha, she laments the lack of sympathetic female
228 Nicole Plyler Fisk
companionship at Thornfield Hall, and rejoices in her subsequent relationships with
Diana, Mary, and the improved Adle.
If Jane errs in the novel, it is in her failure to aid Bertha, as Caroline aids Sibella.
While it is true that the prisoners of Valmont castle and Thornfield Hall die at the end
of their respective novels, Sibella has an existence beyond herself, one that is rooted in
Carolines sympathy; the latter writes Remembrances of [. . .] Sibella [. . .] will live with
me, will be the cherished, tender [companion] of many hours (Secresy, p. 357). A mere
two months after Janes departure, Bertha sets fire to the mansion and, amidst shouts
and yells (rather than laughter), leaps from the roof (JE, p. 364). A local innkeeper
describes the event: She set fire first to the hangings of the room next to her own; and
then she [. . .] made her way to the chamber that had been the governesss [. . .] and she
kindled the bed in there (JE, p. 364). The significance of Berthas action is lost on the
innkeeper, who assumes that the mad lady must have had a spite at [the governess]
(JE, p. 364). Unable to torch her own windowless chamber, Bertha torches the one
closest to it and then torches Janes. Setting fire to these two rooms may well have been
her final attempt to express a desired connection with Jane a desire for sympathetic
female companionship; ironically, an unnamed, minor character finishes Berthas story
and leaves the reader with the image of a woman waving her arms, above the
battlements one minute and lying smashed on the pavement [the next] [. . .] dead as the
stones on which her brains and blood were scattered (JE, p. 365).
Although one could argue that Sibellas narrative of female desire is more coherent
than Berthas, the fact remains that Jane, who admits to hearing Berthas eccentric
murmurs (which are stranger than her laugh), does not even attempt to decode them
(JE, p. 93). Gilbert and Gubars interpretation of Bertha as Janes avatar, her truest
and darkest double, her criminal self is, though essentialist, significant in its recog-
nition of the hunger, rebellion, and rage that both Jane and Bertha feel.48 Throughout
Janes early life, she is taught to repress her passion. At Gateshead she is locked in the
red room, and at Lowood she is taught, by Maria Temple (a shrine of ladylike virtues)
and Helen Burns (the embodiment of self-renunciation and all-consuming [. . .]
spirituality),49 to become, at least in appearance, a disciplined and subdued character
(JE, p. 71). At Thornfield, listening to Berthas narrative would force her not only to
unlearn everything she has been taught since girlhood but also to echo Berthas
rebellion against Rochester.
As Gilbert and Gubar explain, Janes early passionate outbursts are in response to
oppressive patriarchal figures, namely John Reed and Mr Brocklehurst. Rochester, the
patriarchal figure at Thornfield, recognizes Jane as an equal and, for this reason, she
agrees to marry him. She plans to retain her position as governess after marriage, which
will enable her to earn enough for board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides
(JE, p. 230), and she is never more disconcerted than when her fianc forgets his promise
of equality and plays the part of a sultan (JE, p. 229) who Jane imagines will [hurry
her] away in a suttee (JE, p. 233). Yet her eagerness to be in the position of power trans-
forms her into something of a sultan herself, especially with regard to Bertha, whom she
sees through Rochesters disapproving eyes and, thus, approves his remedy (imprison-
ment). Caroline is never so blind-sided and consistently condemns Valmonts attempts
to tame Sibella into compliance with patriarchal ideas. Anne Close explains, Caroline,
who has extensive worldly experience (in the form of travel and exposure to society), is
229 I Heard Her Murmurs
able to recognize Valmont as a misogynist who does not have his nieces best interests at
heart and she does not judge Sibella, as Jane judges Bertha, for her sexual activities.50
Janes awakening occurs not when she discovers that Bertha is Rochesters wife, but
when she realizes that his mistresses, poor Cline, Giacinta and Clara, have been
misused (JE, p. 266). This enables her to break free from Rochester and from the
patriarchal power she had claimed as his equal. She leaves Thornfield, having been
advised to do so by a female, rather than male, deity; to the invocation flee temptation,
Jane responds Mother, I will (JE, p. 272). Yet, her willingness to sympathize with
Rochesters past and foreign mistresses rather than his present and local wife is proble-
matic and due, perhaps, to her awareness of Bertha as female competition. Caroline,
significantly, faces and overcomes this problem; although she is in love with Murden,
she does not consider Sibella a rival. Nevertheless, Janes refusal to grant Rochesters
request and live as his mistress lowers his status as patriarch. He becomes, like Bertha,
an inmate of the mansion who [walks] restlessly from wall to wall (JE, p. 273) and it
is to this diminished patriarch that Jane returns. Berthas death enables Jane to marry
Rochester and to set up a different kind of equality, one in which she will be in no
danger of losing her feminist vision as the nearly blind Rochester will be compelled to
see the world through her feminine gaze.
The parallels between Eliza Fenwicks Secresy and Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre are
striking, and make Secresy a useful text for understanding Jane Eyre. Both Sibella and
Bertha are highly sexualized females and both Valmont and Rochester are fearful of
female sexuality. The difference is that Caroline is sympathetic towards Sibella, with
whom she becomes friends, whereas Jane is unsympathetic towards Bertha, leaving her
in her attic-prison. Miller explores the history of reading Bertha sympathetically and
concludes that the feminists of the 1970s tended to overstate Charlottes sympathy for
the madwoman, that post-colonial critics saw Bertha as the novels true heroine, and
that recent critics have tended to reject the idea that the text sets up the madwoman as
a sympathetic figure.51 Whatever may have been Charlotte Bronts thoughts when
writing Jane Eyre, she later confessed, [Berthas] character is shocking [. . .] [but]
profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation,
and equally true is it that I have not sufficiently dwelt on that feeling; I have erred
in making horror too predominant.52 This is, perhaps, the best reason to return to a
sympathetic reading of Bertha and to fault Jane for not letting her out of the attic in the
first place.
1 Review of Secresy, British Critic, 6 (1795), p. 545.
2 Review of Secresy, English Review, 25 (1795), p. 473.
3 Review of Secresy, Analytical Review, 22 (1795), pp. 6061.
4 Review of Secresy, Monthly Review, 18 (1795), p. 110.
5 Review of Secresy, Critical Review, 14 (1795), p. 350. Isobel Grundy lists Mary Hays as the probable reviewer.
See introduction to Secresy, by Eliza Fenwick, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Broadview, 1998), p. 9.
6 Review of Secresy, Critical Review, p. 351.
7 A. F. Wedd, ed., The Fate of the Fenwicks, Letters to Mary Hays, 17981828 (London: Methuen, 1927), p. 1.
8 Although Sibellas, and even Berthas, madness may be questionable to twenty-first-century readers, it would not
have been so to contemporary readers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, definitions of madness at the
time included imprudence, delusion, or (wild) foolishness and wild excitement or enthusiasm; ecstasy; exuberance,
230 Nicole Plyler Fisk
or lack of restraint, both of which are applicable to Sibella, and uncontrollable anger, rage, fury, which is
applicable to Bertha. In the Critical Review, the reviewer refers to Sibellas odd notions and practices, supporting
Mrs Ashburns assertion that she is half-insane. Review of Secresy, Critical Review 14 (1795), p. 350.
9 Eliza Fenwick, Secresy, ed. Isobel Grundy, 2nd ed. (1795; Toronto: Broadview, 1998), p. 54. Subsequent references
are to this edition.
10 Charlotte Bront, Jane Eyre, ed. by Richard Dunn, 3rd ed. (1847; New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001);
hereafter JE. All citations are from this edition and page numbers are given parenthetically in the text.
11 Diane Hoeveler, The Triumph of the Civilizing Process: the Bronts and Romantic Feminism, in Gothic
Feminism: the Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Bronts (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1997), p. 216.
12 Hoeveler, The Triumph of the Civilizing Process, p. 216.
13 Richard Chase first likened Rochesters injuries to castration. See The Bronts, or Myth Domesticated,
published in Richard Dunns first Norton Critical Edition (1971) of Jane Eyre. Originally published in KR 9, no. 1
(Autumn 1947), pp. 487506.
14 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Janes Progress, in The Madwoman in the
Attic, 2nd ed. (1979; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 368.
15 Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 18301980 (New York: Pantheon,
1985), p. 10.
16 Allan Ingram and Michelle Faubert, A Gendered Affliction: Women, Writing, Madness, Cultural Constructions
of Madness in Eighteenth Century Writing (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), p. 162.
17 Ingram and Faubert, A Gendered Affliction, p. 164.
18 Ingram and Faubert, A Gendered Affliction, pp. 16162. There were, of course, accounts earlier than the
nineteenth century that linked female madness and monstrosity. Ingram and Faubert cite A Narrative of Gods
Gracious Dealings with that Choice Christian, Mrs. Hannah Allen (1683) as an early example. Fenwicks depiction
of Sibella, however, is typical of the eighteenth centurys romanticized interpretation of female madness that was
followed by a return to more negative portrayals in the nineteenth century.
19 Ingram and Faubert, A Gendered Affliction, pp. 15063.
20 John Fenwick, a political idealist and Irish patriot, was frequently in danger of being arrested for either debt
or his works of protest (such as Observations on the Trial of James Coigly, for High Treason: Together with an
Account of his Death, 1798). See Isobel Grundys introduction, published in her edition (1998) of Secresy.
21 Grundy, introduction, p. 7.
22 Cheryl Turner, Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 39.
23 Grundy, introduction, p. 9. The excerpted review is from Critical Review, p. 351.
24 Allan Johnson categorizes the type of patriarchy, in which the focus of attention is primarily on men and what
they do, as male-centered. Johnson, The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy (Philadelphia: Temple
University Press, 1997), p. 8.
25 Review of Jane Eyre, North British Review II (1849), p. 487.
26 Margaret Smith, ed., The Letters of Charlotte Bront (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), vol. 2, p. 235. Although
Charlotte attributes this review to The Economist, no such statement appears. Similar statements appear in The
Christian Remembrancer of January 1848 and The Quarterly Review of December 1848.
27 Grundy, introduction, p. 26.
28 Lucasta Miller, The Bront Myth (2001; New York: Anchor Books, 2005), pp. 16869.
29 Miller, The Bront Myth, p. 169.
30 Lillian Faderman, The Fashion of Romantic Friendship in the Eighteenth Century, and The Battle of the
Sexes, in Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the
Present, pp. 7786 (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1981).
31 Faderman, The Battle of the Sexes, p. 88.
32 Eliza Fenwick, Letters, in Secresy, ed. by Isobel Grundy (Toronto: Broadview, 1998), p. 373.
33 Fenwick, Letters, p. 375.
34 Pauline Nestor, Charlotte Bronts Ambivalence towards Solitude and Society, in Female Friendships and
Communities: Charlotte Bront, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 93.
35 Nestor, Charlotte Bronts Ambivalence, p. 94.
36 T.J. Wise and J.A. Symington, eds. The Bronts: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence (Oxford:
Shakespeare Head, 1932), vol. 3, p. 63.
37 Mary Taylors works include The First Duty of Women: a Series of Articles Reprinted from the Victoria
Magazine 1865 to 1870 (London: Emily Faithfull, 1870) and Miss Miles or a Tale of Yorkshire Life 60 Years ago
(London: Remington & Co., 1890).
38 Nestor, Charlotte Bronts Ambivalence, p. 97.
39 Taylor, Miss Miles, p. 53.
40 Faderman, The Fashion of Romantic Friendship, p. 75.
41 Faderman, The Fashion of Romantic Friendship, p. 75.
231 I Heard Her Murmurs
42 Peter Melville Logan, The Narrative of Nervous Bodies in 1800: Thomas Trotters A View of the Nervous
Temperament, in Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century British Prose
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 29.
43 Virginia Woolf, A Room of Ones Own (1929; repr., New York: Harvest, 1989), p. 69.
44 Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Janes Progress, chap. 11 in The
Madwoman in the Attic, 2nd ed. (1979; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 349.
45 Karen Stein, Monsters and Madwomen: Changing Female Gothic, in The Female Gothic, ed. Juliann Fleenor,
p. 128 (London: Eden Press, 1983).
46 Woolf, A Room of Ones Own, pp. 6970.
47 Logan, The Narrative of Nervous Bodies in 1800, p. 29.
48 Gilbert and Gubar, A Dialogue of Self and Soul, pp. 35960.
49 Gilbert and Gubar, A Dialogue of Self and Soul, pp. 34446.
50 Anne Close, Into the Public: The Sexual Heroine in Eliza Fenwicks Secresy and Mary Robinsons The Natural
Daughter, Eighteenth Century Fiction, 17, no. 1 (2004): pp. 4345. Close identifies Fenwick and Robinson as
friends who worked towards mutual objectives and has lobbied for incorporating Secresy and The Natural Daugh-
ter into a teaching curriculum, noting that the texts may re-engage in the dialogues about the Gothic, womens
education, and female sexuality [. . .] and, ultimately, deepen our understanding of how women writers used each
others work in the service of a common political agenda (p. 52). Unfortunately, The Natural Daughter is as obscure
as Secresy.
51 Miller, The Bront Myth, pp. 17879.
52 To W.S. Williams, 4 January 1848, in Smith, Letters, vol. 2, p. 3.
Biographical note
Nicole P. Fisk recently received her PhD in English at the University of South Carolina. Her dissertation, entitled
Bront Novels and their Early Feminist Companion Texts, shows how the Bronts fit into a tradition of female
novelists, focusing particularly on their affinity with not only Eliza Fenwick but also Mary Hays and Charlotte
Smith. Dr Fisk is Associate Director of First-Year English at the University of South Carolina.