The heroine, Ellen Fitzjohn, was left in the hands of strangers as a newborn. Her mother was a soldier’s wife who died giving birth while travelling with her husband's regiment; the distraught husband was forced to march away to embark for the East Indies. (This soldier, everybody notes, has the air of a gentleman and not a common private.) Baby Ellen fortunately catches the eye of the local baronet, a lonely widower. He adopts her and raises her as his own daughter.
Ellen grows up to be beautiful and virtuous. One day she goes to a nearby river to go fishing with an old family retainer; the bank gives way and she is swept off to certain death by drowning but luckily, a handsome youth who lives nearby leaps in and rescues her. With such an introduction, it is inevitable that Ellen and Charles Balfour fall in love...
Ellen is devoted to her old guardian, Sir Octavius Langdale, but it’s more of a challenge for Charles to display filial piety toward his own father. His eccentric, taciturn dad is the second son of a wealthy family. The oldest son married against his father’s wishes, then joined the army, and nobody is quite sure what happened to the errant couple after that, with suspicion falling on Charles’s father, who inherited the estate.
There’s some Northanger-like speculation here: surely, an English gentleman could not commit such a dastardly crime as to do away with his sister-in-law and her child, the true heir? Could he? “In this free and happy island, the Baron’s castle no longer contains dungeons, or harbours mystery and assassination. The actions of both high and low, however vindictive may be the temper of the one, or refractory that of the other, are performed, without reserve, in the open face of day. But, according to the tenor of his accusations, here stood a man of English birth, born to the customs of freedom and the openness of honour, who had stained the character of his country, by descending to worse than Neapolitan intrigue.”
But—if Mr. Balfour didn’t kill his sister-in-law and her baby after his older brother joined the army under a fake name and disappeared, then what became of them? It’s a real mystery.
Meanwhile, there’s a newcomer to Sir Octavius’s home. Mrs. Fortescue, the daughter of his late wife’s best friend, “not yet four-and-twenty,” who is received “with paternal kindness” after she is widowed. Mrs. Fortescue sets about trying to corrupt the ideals of young Ellen, because she--gasp—is a disciple of Mary Wollstonecraft, who comes in for quite a walloping in this novel.
(A reminder that after Mary Wollstonecraft died, her husband William Godwin published her biography, which caused a scandal with its frank disclosure of her personal life, including her illegitimate daughter, her suicide attempts, and her brief but intense obsession with a married man. At the time Secrets Made Public was published, Mary Wollstonecraft was persona non grata with respectable men and women.)
“O may the day at length arrive when woman shall attain her due rank in the social compact!” [Mrs. Fortescue exclaims to Ellen] “When the writings of her who boldly stepped forward the champion of her sex—the exalted author of the Rights of Woman—when those lines of eloquence and truth shall be copied in letters of gold!—I fear, my dear, that divine work, the Rights of Woman, has never been put into your hand.” Mrs. Fortescue also refers to the opinions of the Comte de Volney on prayer, a hint that she disbelieves the Christian religion, and like Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband, she thinks the institution of marriage is a prison: “Can anything be more preposterous than the prescribing of human laws for the conduct of natural affections?... Can human laws dictate its progress to the sentiment of the heart? Is there not—now tell me candidly—something ridiculous in the modes of courtship and of union observed between the sexes? –The lady must not feel a passion before the gentleman avows his; and having once received his addresses, she must like him better than every other man in the world; while, to complete the catalogue of contradictions, the natural affection of the couple must not… attain the summit of its climax, till certain forms have told it that it may proceed!”
Luckily for her virtue, Ellen disregards this dangerous nonsense.
Charles meanwhile has been packed off to Oxford, which he enters with great enthusiasm: “'Hail!' cried he, 'ye venerable abodes of all that can dignity the mind of man, of all that purifies nature and exalts intellect! –Great treasury of human wit! Sublime depository of lettered research, all hail! –Taste, science and art, combine to embellish your retreats, and sanctify each august cloister! Spirits of Newton, of Bacon, of Locke, of Johnson! Do ye not dwell, with paternal rapture, amid these hallowed domes? –Oh, bowers consecrated by the visions of the poetical, by the reflections of the philosophic, I recognize you with aspiring pride, and triumphantly profess myself one of the most emulous of your votaries!'”
Disappointment follows, as Charles discovers every gathering of scholars is devoted to drinking and making stupid puns and dirty jokes, and everybody thinks he's a nerd.
After Sir Octavius dies, the scheming Mrs. Fortescue abandons her advocacy of Free Love in favor of becoming a baronet’s wife, and she cajoles Robert to the altar. In losing her unwanted fiancé, Ellen loses the home she grew up in, and her bequest from Sir Octavius. She then, in the manner of sentimental heroines thrown on hard times, is forced to seek shelter in the homes of objectionable people—in this case, the guardians appointed by Sir Octavius’s will. They are vulgar merchants whose vast income comes from trade. But the titled people she meets are also objectionable. Ellen spends some unpleasant few weeks in London, fending off the advances of a stuttering Marquis who is described as a Methodist but he is a lying lecher.
By way of seduction, he asks her [The stuttering, of course, is for comic effect]: “'[D]i-di-di-did you ever read the Children of the Abbey?' 'No, my Lord!' replied she, averting her face, with unqualified disdain. 'The-the-then you have a great pleasure to come,' said he, 'de-depend on it.'" Later, the Marquis ambushes our heroine in the library and assaults her, raining down kisses on her virgin lips and bosom. His Methodist servant enters and blames her, accusing her of seducing his master “like Potiphar’s wife,” but her servant Betty comes to the rescue and sees the Marquis off before the worst occurs.
Luckily, Ellen meets up with her true love Charles, who must attend the courts in London at the behest of his father because of a mysterious overseas plaintiff who is bringing a court challenge against his claim to the family estate (Hmm, whatever did become of that missing older brother? Hmmm.) Charles’s father suddenly allows him to marry the dowerless Ellen, after keeping the lovers apart for years, and at the end of the third volume the couple live happily in the countryside in Wales. But this is not the end of our tale. The author says he is "entitled to the praise of novelty" for extending the story beyond the wedding. To set up for the fourth volume, Charles and Ellen are told they must move to the environs of London because of the ongoing court troubles. Here is Charles’s speech on the occasion: “My dear Ellen!... we must cultivate in our own bosoms the germ of genuine felicity which renders the pomp of courts, or the simple quiet of the cottage, the glittering splendours of the city, or the more precious charms of rocks, vales, and woods, like these--every extraneous circumstance—objects alike of secondary moment, or only transient importance.”
The first part of the fourth volume is given over to a satirical portrayal of the vulgar citizens of the suburb of “C_____, a village of some notoriety in the modern maps of London and its environs.” The author evidently means to lampoon a real place and real people. It's interesting he comes down so hard, and at such length, on people from the mercantile classes because surely there are many novel-readers in their ranks: “Ellen soon found that the company of those persons who composed the major part of the village, was peculiarly disgusting to a mind blest with intelligence, and habituated to the society of the polished and urbane. The insolence of newly-acquired wealth among the low-born and illiterate, is too well known to need delineation; and Ellen, in this populous neighbourhood, saw it in all its various modifications…”
The lovebirds have each other, anyway, until the Methodists and Mrs. Fortescue (now Lady Langdale) team up to attack them. (Robert is busy drinking himself to death and Lady Langdale is carrying a torch for the dishy Charles.) They manage to fool Charles into thinking Ellen has been unfaithful and he treats her horribly. I thought he was a rather ridiculous windbag before, and he really lost me here: “O derogate soul of humanity! To what depths canst thou sink, when in so fair a form, in so bright a semblance of perfection, thou thus easily accomadatest thyself to the burthen of vice, to the loathsome trappings of hypocrisy!”
The misunderstanding is cleared up, Ellen is vindicated, she instantly forgives Charles--even though the shock of his cruelty almost killed her--and finally the big Secret is made Public. In fairness to the author, I will say he managed to fool me as to the real identity of an older man who shows up in the fourth volume to rescue Charles and Ellen’s child from a runaway horse. Surely, I thought, this is the long-lost father of Ellen? No, it wasn’t.
However, yes—the big Secret is that Ellen and Charles are cousins (but of course that’s not an issue). She’s the daughter of Charles's long-lost uncle, who now calls himself Colonel Vansittart, for some reason. He thought his child had died at birth. He's another example of how authors of this time sent characters to the East or West Indies to have them out of the way until they were needed for plot purposes. Looking at you, Sir Thomas.
Anti-slavery is certainly not a central theme of this novel, but James Norris Brewer (1777-1839) comes out swinging against it in a brief passage in the middle of his wrap up about who gets the Langdale estate: “five thousand acres, spread beneath the burning sun of the cane-islands, and fifteen hundred negroes, condemned to daily toil on the sanguinary plantations, shall be deposited, in the shape of a parchment title-deed, in the iron-chest of Willoughby Bronze, Esquire, and planter, of the island of Jamaica; and in the next, 'presto, begone!' the land, the negroes and every thing (except the title deed), shall be conveyed, by a single fall of the hammer, into the pocket of John Brown, stock-broker or army-agent, and esquire by courtesy of his accommodating country.”
Willoughby Bronze is not a character in the story, and appears to be a name representing all gentlemen plantation owners, who, objectionable as they are, are not as objectionable to James Brewer as upstart social climbers who acquire enough money to buy plantations.
Earlier in the story, Charles is sent by “the mandate of his father... to an estate in the western plantations, under the pretence of that part of the family property requiring the immediate inspection of a person interested in its successful regulation.” I presume this is a reference to a West Indian plantation. The author also says Charles would rather be poor than have his father's tainted West Indian money: “still he retained, in all its fervour, that glowing sentiment, which bade him prefer honourable penury to injustice coupled with the wealth of empires.” Which, after all, is more than Edmund Bertram ever says in Mansfield Park.
Secrets Made Public was not reviewed in its time. Someone offered an anonymous review to The Universal Magazine but the publishers refused, “upon the principle of never admitting any criticisms upon books without a knowledge of the writer” so we’ll never know if the anonymous reviewer was filled with praise or criticism for the work. We might note that Brewer was himself a contributor to The Universal Magazine.
Secrets Made Public might interest academics studying Mary Wollstonecraft's reputation in the decades following her death, and the way Methodists were portrayed in fiction in this time, and it is another entry in the list of novels which criticized slavery. The author's preface (which also appeared as an article in The Universal Magazine) gives advice on how to write a novel and defends novels as vehicles for moral instruction: “It would be difficult, I believe, to find one English Novel which does not endeavour to exhibit, in its catastrophe, the beauty of virtue and the deformity of vice.”
"Catastrophe" was used by some people the way we'd use "climax" or "denouement," which is kind of fun. I will say that Brewer attempts to tie his characters and episodes together and use his satiric characters in the plot, as opposed to being walk-ons for entertainment. He's trying to create a story in which all of the elements tie together, but blending a conventional sentimental novel with extended passages of social criticism made me wonder who the intended audience was.
For more examples of the critical way Methodists were portrayed in novels of this era, see my earlier blog series. Here are more examples of authors who spoke out against slavery.
The anti-novel attitudes of sentimental heroines, as famously discussed by Austen in Northanger Abbey, is a funny and recurring feature in novels of this era. James Brewer's heroine disdains to read The Children of the Abbey. Harriet Smith approvingly mentions The Children of the Abbey in Emma: [Robert Martin] “never read the Romance of the Forest, nor The Children of the Abbey. He had never heard of such books before I mentioned them, but he is determined to get them now as soon as ever he can.”
"The Children of the Abbey was one of the most enduringly popular Minerva novels; published in 1796, it had reached its tenth edition by 1825 and was still in print in 1882." (Howells, Coral Ann. Love, Mystery and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.) Brewer's plot does not rise to the Gothic heights of The Children of the Abbey. His villains are motivated by their faulty ideological beliefs, and Charles's father, while a very flawed individual, is not a murderer. Like Austen, he rejects the wilder, more fanciful conventions of the gothic.
People often talk about the parents in Austen (such as the flawed Mr. Bennet and the self absorbed Sir Walter Elliot) and how few fond mothers there are in her works. Some ask, what is it with Austen and parents? It seems to me that authors of this period simply killed off parents who weren't essential to the plot. Sometimes their death, as in the case of Ellen's mother, is the inciting event.
Here's the passage from Northanger Abbey in which Austen talks about the heroines of novels refusing to read novels. She's absolutely right, and it shows Austen's familiarity with the novel tropes of her day: