The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte
Laura Joh Rowland
The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
I hardly know what swelled in my throat… such a vehement impatience of restraint and steady work… such a strong wish for wings…
There are certain events that have the power to ravage lives and alter the fate of nations, yet they transpire unnoticed by the general public and leave no record, because their history is a secret locked within the souls and memories of the few mortals involved. Such were the events that I, Charlotte Bronte, witnessed in the year 1848.
I have sworn to take the secret to my grave, and to speak any word of it would bring censure, scandal, and disgrace upon myself and betray a sacred trust. Still, my knowledge burns inside me like a fire, a pressure that must find release or shatter the fragile vessel of my being. I cannot bear that the most singular episode of my own history should go untold.
It occurred at a time when my life held meaning and promise, and I had the companionship of persons most beloved to me. But now, as I write, a year has since passed, and my companions are gone. Thus stripped and bereaved, I spend night after night in terrible solitude, haunted by memories. I have decided that I must record the events of that summer-come what may-and although I know not whether anyone will ever read these words, they shall be my tribute to the valor of those whose loss I mourn. Let these pages survive them, that they shall not fade into obscurity as their mortal remains disintegrate into dust. The fantastic narrative which I am about to commence is the truth as I know it, and I shall be as candid as the truth requires. God is my ultimate witness, and I beg His forgiveness if I say anything to offend.
My story does not begin with me, nor at the moment when I stumbled into these events that would transform my life. It begins on the other side of the world, in Canton, the port of foreign trade in southern China. The date was 14 May 1841. Imagine a twilight sky swollen with storm clouds hovering above British warships on the river outside Canton. Their tall, square sails heave like dragon wings in the tropical wind; cannons and guns on the decks thunder, bombarding the waterfront. The Chinese Imperial Army returns fire from war junks and from forts and watchtowers on the river-bank. Flames consume docks and warehouses on shore. The turbulent water reflects the blaze, gleaming crimson as if layered with blood. Smoke drifts towards the wall surrounding Canton’s Old City, inside which crowds of Chinese stampede through alleys in desperate flight. Ruffians loot abandoned shops; renegade soldiers brawl in the street outside an estate belonging to a high imperial official.
The incident that precipitated everything which befell me occurred within this estate, a complex of courtyards and gardens surrounding a mansion. Precisely what happened there that evening is known only to persons who are no longer able to speak, but I shall recreate the terrible drama and hope that speculation based on facts will not compromise the truth.
Inside the mansion, a woman named Beautiful Jade huddles in her chamber on a carved bed draped with satin curtains. She wears multicolored silk robes; tinsel ornaments sparkle in her black hair. Her slim arms encircle her two daughters, small versions of herself. Their delicate faces pinched with fright, the three listen to the gunfire and the rioting in the streets. The bitter fumes of gunpowder mingle with the scent of jasmine from the garden.
Beautiful Jade fears that the battle will rage until Canton lies in ruins and everyone inside it is dead. The estate’s guards and servants have all fled. She longs to follow suit and remove herself and her beloved children from danger, but her husband has insisted that they remain inside until he returns.
A loud crash outside startles Beautiful Jade. She looks through the window. The night glows with the ruddy, fitful light of a sky reflecting fire. Beautiful Jade hears rapid footsteps in the courtyard; erelong, she sees shadows moving in the garden, where palm trees rustle. The footsteps mount the stairs to the veranda, and the door creaks open. An icy terror spreads through Beautiful Jade. The barbarians have invaded Canton. They have entered her house!
She scrambles off the bed, dragging her daughters with her. Five men burst through the doorway, one bearing a torch that splays flame light onto the chamber walls. They are not foreigners but Chinese ruffians dressed in ragged clothes and straw hats. Each carries a long knife. As her daughters scream in fright, she asks the men who they are and what they want. They command her to tell them where her husband is. When she replies that she doesn’t know, they rampage around the chamber, hurling vases to the floor, overturning tables, smashing chairs, and ripping down tapestries. The terrified children cling to their mother. Again, the men demand to know her husband’s whereabouts. Even had she known, Beautiful Jade could not have betrayed him.
Now two ruffians grab the girls. Aghast, Beautiful Jade holds tight to them, but the men drag the children away. The girls sob while she begs the men not to hurt her daughters. Another ruffian lashes out at her with his knife-she screams. The blade cuts through her robe. Faint with horror, mouth agape, she clasps her hands over the blood welling from her bosom. The knife slashes again. Beautiful Jade flings up her arms and feels the blade slicing open her flesh. Desperate, she tries to stumble away from her tormentor. Beyond him she sees her daughters helplessly flailing in their captors’ grasp. They shrill in a high-pitched chorus that pierces her heart. She falls to her knees, bleeding from countless cuts, weeping in pain and terror, crying in vain for help.
Were the last sounds she heard the thunder of cannons from the attacking ships and her daughters’ screams?
I shall never know the anguished last thoughts of these three innocent victims, but I do know that they were found with their throats cut, their bodies mutilated. As to why they were slain, and the consequences of their murder, those facts became apparent during my own part of the story, which begins seven years thence.
– CHARLOTTE BRONTE, July 1849
With a tale spinner’s sleight of hand I advance the calendar-the date is now Friday, 7 July 1848. I rotate the globe and sight upon my home village of Haworth, in the North of England. Reader, I present for you a picture of Haworth on the morning of that fateful day when my adventures began. The sun, glinting from between cloud masses in the vast, cerulean Yorkshire sky, illuminates the ancient stone houses that line the steep, stone-paved main street. Shopkeepers scrub their doorsteps, a farmer herds a flock of sheep, and village women carry baskets past a horse-drawn cart piled high with raw wool. At the top of Church Lane, isolated at the highest point in the village, stands the parsonage, a two-storied house built of grey-brick, roofed with stone flags, and flanked by