“The Secret” by Charlotte Brontë
The Secret is a collection of some of Brontë’s juvenilia published by Hesperus Press. Selections include “The Secret,” “Lily Hart,” “Albion and Marina,” “The Rivals,” “The Bridal” and “A Peep into a Picture Book.” This review discusses only “The Secret.”
Summary: The Marchioness Marian is living happily with her husband until her former governess, Miss Foxley, arrives in Verdopolis. Knowing the woman’s negative effects on his wife’s emotions, the Marquis forbids Marian to speak with her, but she disobeys. At their meeting, Miss Foxley dredges up secrets from Marian’s past and tells her she must leave the Marquis. Marian has a week to decide what to do, and she cannot consult her husband.
Review: Charlotte Brontë wrote remarkable works of literature, but readers looking for the same quality of writing in this story will be disappointed. “The Secret” is from her juvenilia and her talents were still developing. The tale’s value lies more in the glimpse it gives of Brontë’s literary growth than in any particular merit.
As Sally Vickers notes in her foreward, it is interesting to see that Brontë (who will adopt the pen name Currer Bell for her published works) is in her youth already experimenting with a male narrative voice; the story is told by the brother of the Marquis. Vickers, however, fails to comment on the success of this experimentation. The prose is overly ornate but does not recommend itself as either particularly masculine or feminine. The insertion of a few derogatory comments on the nature of women (which come across as somewhat forced) are the best indicators that the author might be male, but can bear little witness to the gender of the narrator since it is other characters who speak them: “Well, women are the most incomprehensible creature on earth; sometimes you seem to be possessed of considerable sense and discernment, and then again you commit acts and utter speeches which argue great weakness, if not a total deprivation, of intellect” (26).
In the end, however, the question of whether the narrator is male or female fades into the background because his identity is nonsensical enough that it becomes irritating to the reader. The Marquis’s brother never appears in the story, so his knowledge of the events is somewhat problematic. One may assume that the primary characters each related their parts of the tale to him eventually and then he pieced them together—but the most logical character for this role would actually be the Marquis’s father who enters the story at the end and hears parts of the tale from both the Marquis and the Marchioness. It would not be a stretch to imagine they filled him in on the rest of the details later. Also, it comes across as bizarre and unbelievable that a man present at none of the events, who must have heard of the events from the lead actors, has such an intimate knowledge of their facial expressions and other minutia as the story played out. Perhaps the Marquis’s brother narrates all the stories of Verdopolis, and his telling of “The Secret” is only keeping with Brontë’s convention. There is no editorial note asserting this, however, so his presence remains baffling.
The editor has also omitted many other notes that would have been useful to readers first encountering Brontë’s juvenilia, including ones identifying characters who are mentioned as though already familiar to the audience. The implied knowledge makes reading the story a little confusing. None of these minor characters turn out to be very important (which may be why the editor says nothing about them), but Brontë’s assumption that the reader knows who they are has him/her on edge throughout the tale as he/she waits for them to do something more significant than walk down the street. On the other hand, the main plot is rather straightforward and Brontë gives away the ending within the first few pages, so the feeling that the random gentleman will soon become important may be the closest the reader gets to a feeling of suspense.
“The Secret” is not by any means Brontë’s greatest work—and no one is claiming it is—but it does exhibit style and structure that demonstrate Brontë can develop into a very good writer. It features elements that will evolve into her later works, such as the male narrator and a governess, and even gives a taste of the unexpected and fanciful events that crop up and give color to her stories (Saying more would be a spoiler!). Fans of Brontë will certainly be interested in reading this volume of short stories or The Green Dwarf, another piece of juvenilia which is closer in length to a novella.