Bedlam: The Further Secret Adventures of Charlotte Brontë
by Laura Joh Rowland
Before I left my bed in the morning, little Adele came running to tell me that the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away.
Reader, that sentence is from a novel I wrote. It ends the scene in which Mr. Rochester proposes marriage to Jane Eyre, she accepts, and a fierce storm rages over Thornfield Manor. The lightning symbolized the earth-shattering event in Jane's life; the split chestnut tree, the lovers soon to be torn asunder. When I wrote the sentence, little did I suspect that I had prophesized my own future.
In the summer of 1848, lightning struck me when I was plunged into an adventure the like of which I had never believed possible. I journeyed far beyond my wildest imaginings; I experienced momentous events now cloaked in secrecy. If I now say that my actions influenced the fate of nations, please forgive me the appearance of immodesty: I only speak the truth.
During my adventures, I found the man of my dreams. His name is John Slade; he is a spy for the British Crown. We shared the love that I had hoped for all my life but despaired of ever knowing. But we were too soon torn apart. My heart was rent as severely as the poor chestnut tree. The similarity between my situation and Jane's did not escape me; nor did the fact that the division between fantasy and life is sometimes akin to a line drawn in sand blown by the wind. While I mourned the loss of adventure as well as love, I had no intimation that what happens once can happen again.
In 1851, adventure came calling once more. The circumstances were different, but the second adventure had an important aspect in common with the first. Both involved John Slade. The first adventure led me to him, then took him away. The second brought him back.
Nearly three years had passed, time during which many changes transformed my life. But I never ceased to remember those events of 1848, nor to yearn for the happiness that had departed when he left. And I never suspected that far away, in the country to which he had gone, events were building into a tide of peril that would sweep me along in its current.
These events I did not witness, but the mind of an author can travel to places where she cannot. Her imagination substitutes for actual experience. Fiction built upon facts creates a semblance of the truth. I will now, to the best of my ability, reconstruct the events in question.
1851 January. The city of Moscow lay beneath a heavy fall of snow. Its rooftops glittered white in the light of the moon and stars that sparkled in a sky as dark as obsidian. Near the city gate loomed Butyrka, the dreaded prison built in the eighteenth century during the reign of Catherine the Great. Snow frosted the crenellated towers, blanketed the tops of the high stone walls, and covered the prison compound. The scene was as bright as day, but devoid of color, painted in stark shades of white and black.
The ironclad portals opened, and three men stumbled out. Blindfolds hid their eyes. Ropes bound their wrists behind their backs. They wore only shirts and trousers; their feet were bare. Prodded by three guards armed with rifles, they limped and staggered. Cuts, bruises, and gashes marked their faces and bodies. They shivered in the bitter cold as the guards, joking among themselves, lined them up against the wall. Their breath crystallized in the air. They trembled so hard they could barely stand as the guards aimed the rifles at them, but they were too weak to protest. Without ceremony, the guards fired.
The men uttered agonized cries; their bodies jerked. Blood spattered the wall and flooded the snow, wet and black and steaming. Gunshots blared until the prisoners fell. Three corpses lay on the ground. Cruel justice was served.
The echoes of the gunshots faded as they reached the heart of town. There, bonfires burned on the banks of the frozen Moscow River. Skaters glided over the ice, in rhythm to gay music from an orchestra. High above the river rose the Kremlin. The turrets, domes, and spires of its palaces and cathedrals soared to the heavens. The Grand Kremlin Palace was a magnificent Byzantine structure of white stone, lavishly gilded. Tiers of arched windows shone, the rooms within lit by crystal chandeliers. From one window, a man gazed down at the skating party. A high, intelligent forehead crowned his eyes, which drooped at the corners. His mustache curled up at the ends, but his mouth did not. His posture was proud, his expression humorless and calculating.
He was Nicholas Pavlovich, Tsar of Russia.
In the chamber where he stood, a lofty, vaulted ceiling arched from carved columns encrusted with gold. An entourage of soldiers, courtiers, and servants awaited his orders. Footsteps rang on the mosaic floor, and a man joined the tsar. He was a Prussian, whose face had a Germanic cast laid upon pale eyes with heavily hooded lids and a long nose whose end overlapped the upper lip of a cruel, sensual mouth. His close-cropped silver hair gleamed. The tsar waved his hand, dismissing his attendants. They discreetly faded away.
The only person who remained was a man who had secreted himself behind a column, from where the faintest word spoken in the chamber could be heard.
"What have you to report?" the tsar asked.
"The agents from England have been put to death," the Prussian said.
"All of them?"
" . . . Yes, Your Highness." The tsar didn't notice that a heartbeat had passed before the Prussian answered.
Troubles weighed visibly upon Tsar Nicholas. "More will come. The British are determined to extend their control over the world and diminish mine. They have allied with France, Spain, and Portugal for the sole purpose of keeping me in check. But they are not content to stop at mere political maneuvering. They send their agents to spy on my regime, to foment insurrection among my people, to weaken my empire from within." His eyes burned with the reflections of the bonfires on the river. "It is just a matter of time before our hostilities culminate in war. If only there were a way to guarantee a victory for Russia."
"There may be."
The tsar turned to his companion. "Oh?" His eyes narrowed. His court was full of men who placated him with false assurances. "Have you a new idea?"
"I do. It arose from a message I've just received from our agents in London." The Prussian related the contents of the message and told the tsar how the information could be used to Russia's advantage.
The hidden listener overheard everything. He knew he should make his escape before the men discovered him, but he lingered, rapt with horror. The details provided in the message were sketchy, but the Prussian built upon them a scenario of a battlefield that spread east as far as China, west over Europe and across the English Channel, of countries laid to waste and carnage on a scale greater than ever known in history. Yet the listener had more immediate, personal concerns: his own days were numbered.
All of this I learned about much later. By then I was already embroiled in the adventure, and it was too late to turn back. By then I had learned a lesson.
Lightning does strike twice.
Reader, I am proof.
Herein is my story.
Haworth, England, 1852 June
When I was young, I wished for adventure and romance, for travel to exciting locales far from Haworth, the tiny village where I have lived most of my life. I wished for success as an author, to be famous and sought after, to leave my mark on the world. Outrageous ambitions these were for the daughter of a Yorkshire parson! Little did I realize that when I achieved my ambitions, the reality would bear scant resemblance to the dream. Nor did I realize that I should have been careful what I wished for because I might get it.
These thoughts were much on my mind on the Thursday evening of 29 May 1851.
Arm in arm with my publisher, George Smith, I strolled into Almack's Assembly Rooms in London. We entered the salon, where a chattering crowd of society folk occupied rows of damask-covered benches. Light from gas chandeliers gleamed on the women's silk gowns, upswept hair, white bosoms, and glittering jewelry. The scene dazzled my nearsighted eyes as I peered through my spectacles. Miserably destitute of self-possession, I hesitated.
"Have courage, my dear Charlotte," George Smith said. Tall and youthful, he had brown eyes and smooth brown hair; he looked elegant in formal evening dress. He was as perceptive as he was handsome, and he knew about my shyness. "Everyone is positively dying to meet you."
"That's what I'm afraid of." This was my fourth trip to London, but my dread of appearing in public had never diminished. Before leaving home I'd been so plagued by nerves that I had suffered one of my bilious attacks. I was still weak, my stomach still queasy.
George Smith laughed and patted my hand. "Fear not. I'll protect you."
Four years ago, I'd sent the manuscript of my novel to him. Smith, Elder and Company had published Jane Eyre, and it had become a famous bestseller. When we had first met in 1848, I had become briefly infatuated with George. We had since become friends--indeed, very intimate friends. Flirtation pervaded our letters and our talk. Three years ago I could not have anticipated such a turn of events. Nor would I have believed that if one of us fell in love with the other, it would not be me.
As we walked through the salon, faces turned in my direction. I felt dowdy in my black silk frock. Having a bestselling novel to my name did not quell my lifelong fear of what other people thought of how I looked. When I'd dared to imagine myself famous, I'd always imagined myself transformed into a beauty. Would that all dreams could come true! Yet, even though I remained as small and plain as ever, excited murmurs arose. Before the publication of Jane Eyre, no one had ever heard of Charlotte Brontė. Now, it seemed everybody had. Once I could have walked as if invisible among these folk, but no more: I was an object of curiosity and speculation. That I had never expected.
George's mother, walking on my other side, said, "Miss Brontė, if you're uncomfortable, we'll be glad to send you home."
Mrs. Smith was a portly, dark-haired woman, still attractive despite her age, and she did not like me any more than I liked her. Despite her solicitous tone, I knew she wished I would go back to the Smith family house, where I was staying, so she could enjoy the evening with her son. That was something else about fame that I hadn't expected--that I would make enemies.
When George had first introduced her to me three years ago, he had not told her that I was the author of Jane Eyre; for reasons I will not detail here, it had been published under my pseudonym, Currer Bell, and I had wanted my true identity kept confidential. When my identity was finally revealed, Mrs. Smith was furious at the deception. She was also mortified that I--whom she'd treated as a poor, dull nobody--was responsible for earning a fortune for her son's publishing company. And she feared that I had designs of a matrimonial nature on George.
Mrs. Smith didn't know that my heart belonged to another man, whom I would most probably never see again this side of heaven.
"Thank you, but I don't want to go home," I said, hiding my antipathy behind politeness. "I would not want to miss hearing Mr. Thackeray."
The great author William Makepeace Thackeray had lately embarked upon a series of lectures, The English Humorists of the 18th Century, which were all the rage with the fashionable literary set. This was the kind of event I had once dreamed of attending.
"Be careful not to steal his thunder," George said playfully.
"I could never," I said, aghast at the idea.
At the front of the room, surrounded by fawning ladies and gentlemen, stood the author of the famous novel, Vanity Fair. He was above six feet tall, with a mane of gray hair, and quite ugly, his expression at once stern and satirical. His sharp gaze homed in on me through the spectacles perched on his nose. He smiled, and I smiled back. I was proud to count him among the friends I'd made since the publication of Jane Eyre. I was glad he had noticed me, but the glint in his eyes should have warned me to expect mischief.
He left his admirers, drawing one of the women with him, a fine old lady with snow-white hair. They approached me, and Mr. Thackeray said loudly to her, "Mother, allow me to introduce you to Jane Eyre."
The room fell silent. Everyone stared at me. Mr. Thackeray smiled as if he'd done me a favor by identifying me as the heroine of my novel and making me the center of attention. But I was mortified. Blushing furiously, I wished a hole would open in the floor and swallow me. Mr. Thackeray was waiting for my reply, but I was so upset, and so angry at him, that I could think of none.
Mrs. Smith said, "Come, Miss Brontė." She drew me away to a vacant bench near the wall. I knew she resented any attention paid to me, but I was thankful that she'd separated me from Mr. Thackeray before I did something regrettable. As she and George sat on either side of me, I heard murmurs in the crowd.
"Miss Brontė dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to Mr. Thackeray, didn't she?"
"Do you know that his wife is mad and she had to be put in an insane asylum?"
"They say that his wife was the model for the madwoman in Jane Eyre."
"Yes, and I heard that Miss Brontė was once a governess in Mr. Thackeray's house. I wouldn't be surprised if they'd had inappropriate intimacies. Remember, Becky Sharp and Jane Eyre were both governesses who married their employers."
What a scandal had my innocent gesture of admiration caused! Alas, no one had told me about Mr. Thackeray's insane wife until too late. Many readers now thought my novel was autobiographical and Mr. Thackeray and I were the hero and heroine, even though it was patently untrue: Although I had been a governess, I had never worked for Mr. Thackeray. We had not met until after I became a published authoress. Mr. Thackeray had been kind about my blunder, and if his prank were his only retribution, I should be glad.
More whispers reached my ears: "Miss Brontė and her publisher seem on very intimate terms." "Yes, even though she is his elder." George Smith was twenty-nine years of age, a most eligible bachelor, and I thirty-five, a spinster long past my prime. "I wonder if we'll soon hear wedding bells."
George smiled and pretended nothing had happened. His mother fumed. By this time I should have gotten accustomed to being the subject of rumors, but I had not.
At long last, the audience was seated. The room quieted as Mr. Thackeray took his place behind the lectern. He spoke with simplicity and ease. Humor and force enlivened everything he said. The audience responded with laughter and approval. I would have enjoyed it completely, had I not felt the glances upon me, as intrusive as the unwanted touch of hands. The evening had just begun, and there was worse to come.
When the lecture ended, the people in the audience arranged themselves in two lines along the aisle. Mr. Thackeray walked down the aisle, shaking hands, accepting compliments, exchanging quips. When he reached the door, the people did not follow him out; they remained.
"They're waiting for you," George gently informed me.
Shrinking between him and his mother, I walked the gauntlet. It was an endless tunnel of faces that smiled too close to me, warm, moist hands that pressed mine, and cultured voices making enthusiastic remarks. I smiled, murmured polite replies, and tried not to faint from embarrassment. When we entered another room, in which refreshments were served, I became separated from the Smiths and cornered by a formidable group of my admirers.
"I simply loved Jane Eyre," exclaimed the Duchess of Sutherland. "When will your next book be published?"
"I'm afraid I can't say," I replied unhappily.
It had been nearly four years since the publication of Jane Eyre, and going on two since my second novel, Shirley, had appeared. The second had not been received as well as the first. Hence, I felt considerable pressure to produce a new work that would live up toJane Eyre.
"At least tell us what the book is about," came the outcry.
I only wished I knew. I had been unable to settle upon a subject for my next book. Thus far my publisher had been understanding and patient, but I couldn't expect him--or the public--to wait forever. "I'm sorry," was all I could think to say.
I escaped, only to be accosted by other folk asking the same questions. Once I would have given my life for such avid interest in my literary works. Now I only wanted to hide. Once I could have comforted myself with the knowledge that when I went home I would describe this evening to those I loved most. But they were gone.
My brother Branwell had died first, in 1848 September, of consumption. Too soon afterward, in December, did my sister Emily die of the same disease. I prayed to God that He would spare my youngest sister, Anne, but in the New Year she became ill with consumption. By 1849 May, she, too, was dead.
In our youth my siblings and I had encouraged one another in our artistic pursuits, and I'd believed that we would share a brilliant future together. My prediction came partially true when Emily and Anne and I all published novels. But Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were not favored by the critics or the public. And never did I suspect that I would be the only one of us to achieve any fame and financial success, or that I would be left to experience it alone. Their deaths still haunt me; my grief is still raw. I am thankful that I still have my father, but the one other person who could have alleviated my sorrow is far away.
That person is, of course, John Slade, the spy with whom I fell in love during my adventures in 1848. He asked me to marry him, but I refused because he was due to leave for an assignment in Russia, and we could not count on seeing each other again. I love him yet, even though I have not heard from him in all these years and do not know whether he still loves me--or even if he is still alive.
The matter of what to call John Slade, in my mind as well as in this narrative, has required some thought. "Mr. Slade" would be most proper, but in view of our relations it seems too formal. "John" seems too familiar because we didn't know each other long enough to progress to first names. Therefore, I think of him as "Slade," a compromise. But no matter how I refer to him, he is always in my heart. I miss him daily, keenly.
My longing for my lost loved ones still overcomes me at unpredictable, inconvenient times. Now, in the midst of gay society, I felt tears sting my eyes. Groping toward the door, I bumped smack into a gentleman.
"Miss Brontė," he said. "May I be of service?"
His voice had a calming quality; it soothed my nerves so unexpectedly that I looked up at him instead of continuing on my way. He was not above average height, with not more than average good looks. His graying hair receded from his high forehead, and his somber air made him seem less superficial than the rest of the crowd. Concern showed in his hazel eyes. He procured a glass of wine from a nearby table and gave it to me.
"Drink this," he said with a quiet authority hard to resist.
I drank, and my spirits rose somewhat. I felt oddly safer, as if the crowds around us would not trouble me while I was in his presence. "Thank you, Mr. . . . ?"
"Dr. John Forbes," he said. "We've never met, but we've corresponded. Perhaps you remember?"
"Yes, of course. I wrote to you concerning my sister's illness." Dr. Forbes was one of Britain's foremost experts on consumptive disease. He was also a personal friend of George Smith, who had suggested I consult him about Anne during her illness. "Please allow me to thank you in person for replying so quickly."
"You're quite welcome." Dr. Forbes's somber air deepened. "I was sorry to hear that your sister did not recover. Please accept my condolences."
I did, with heartfelt gratitude. Usually, when someone mentions my sisters, I break down, but his presence was so steadying that this time I remained composed.
"How are you?" he said. "I hope that your writing has been a comfort to you?"
I told him that I had not been able to write. "If only I could manage to find a subject that was fascinating enough." Then I inquired about his work.
"I have been treating consumptive patients at Bedlam," Dr. Forbes said.
Bedlam. Hearing the popular name for the Bethlem Royal Hospital caused me a shiver of morbid curiosity: London's insane asylum was notorious. But I had more than a prurient interest in madness. I had firsthand experience with it, and I eagerly questioned Dr. Forbes about the patients he treated.
"They suffer from delusions, paranoia, mania, and dementia, among other things," he said, and described a few cases.
I recognized symptoms exhibited by my brother Branwell, and by a murderous villain I'd encountered during my adventures of 1848. "What causes these conditions?"
"Most experts say they're a result of physical defects or spiritual disturbances," Dr. Forbes said. "But there is a new school of thought which suggests that madness originates from experiences in early life."
I expressed such fascination that he said, "Would you like to visit Bedlam? I'd be glad to escort you. Perhaps it would furnish a subject for your new book."
"Yes, I would like that very much," I said, so eager that I forgot to be shy.
George Smith and his mother came hurrying up to us. "Ah, Charlotte," he said. "I see you've met my friend Forbes." He and the doctor greeted one another.
"We were just leaving," Mrs. Smith said, tired of having so much fuss made over me in public. She turned to me and said, "It's time to go home."
"I've just invited Miss Brontė to visit Bedlam with me," said Dr. Forbes, "and she has accepted."
"Visit Bedlam?" As George looked from Dr. Forbes to me, concern flickered over his smooth features. "But you might see disturbing things."
"Miss Brontė has a taste for disturbing things," Mrs. Smith said. "Her novels are full of them." She smiled kindly at me.
I seethed, but I could not retort: she was my hostess, and I owed her courtesy even if she didn't deserve it. "I daresay I can cope."
"I won't show Miss Brontė the parts of the asylum that an outsider shouldn't see," Dr. Forbes promised.
"I still think it's unwise," George said with a frown.
"I agree," his mother said. "Miss Brontė, it might be construed as unseemly for a lady to visit such a place." Her tone hinted that I was no lady. Her smile remained bright and kind.
"Ladies visit Bedlam every day," Dr. Forbes said. "The public is always welcome."
Mrs. Smith pretended not to hear. "If you don't care about yourself, at least have a thought for my poor son. What if it were to distress you so much that you became unable to write your next book?"
She wanted me to think that my next book, and not me, was all George cared about. George exclaimed, "Never mind the book, Charlotte." His mother winced. She disliked that he and I were on first-name terms. "My fear is that you'll be attacked by a lunatic."
"That might please some people," I couldn't resist saying.
Before his mother could think of a rejoinder, Dr. Forbes assured George, "Patients who are dangerous are kept away from the public. And I promise to protect Miss Brontė. But of course," he said to me, "if you would like to change your mind . . . ?"
Once I would have bowed to the will of the people to whom I felt obligated. But I am stubborn by nature, and another unexpected thing that my fame had brought me was the backbone to resist coercion.
"I am determined to visit Bedlam," I said. "Shall I meet you there at ten o'clock tomorrow morning?"
"That would be fine," Dr. Forbes said.
George Smith looked resigned, his mother distinctly put out. None of us knew at the time that my innocent trip to the insane asylum would ultimately bring peril to us all.
BEDLAM: THE FURTHER SECRET ADVENTURES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTË
a novel by Laura Joh Rowland
Overlook Press, May 2010