‘[H]is mind was … my disease’: Viral Affect in Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy; or, The Ruin on the Rock

This essay argues that recent criticism in affect theory emphasizing the “strictly biological portion of emotion” offers a new interpretive window into a much-neglected Gothic novel by an important though still relatively unknown writer. Its major claim is that Secresy’s emphasis on bodiliness, the extent to which characters share and absorb the same affective environment, undercuts important critical accounts of the novel—by Terry Castle, Patricia Cove, Julia Wright, and others—which claim that each of its characters occupies his or her own inalienable rhetorical or “generic” world to which the other characters have little or no access.

[H]is mind was … my disease”: Viral Affect in Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy; or, The Ruin on the Rock

1.        In the final volume of Eliza Fenwick’s 1795 novel Secresy; or, The Ruin on the Rock, Clement Montgomery, a ne’er-do-well dandy who has left his lover Sibella Valmont in the lurch, offers one morning to sell a miniature portrait of her (whose original he painted) to one of her richer, more genteel suitors, the Lord Filmar. Filmar “positively refuse[s] to accept” the gift, thanks to a “double dose of prudence” on his part. (At this point in the novel, Filmar has recently broken into Valmont Castle in a botched attempt to kidnap Sibella, an heiress expecting £6,000 a year. To keep the miniature on his person would therefore be to possess incriminating evidence.) Yet the lord recounts that, even as he “positively refuse[s]” it, his “fingers had a kind of tremulous impulse towards the picture” (Fenwick 299). By impulse Filmar means a “[s]udden or involuntary inclination or tendency to act, without premeditation or reflection” (“impulse”). In itself his comment is probably unremarkable: Filmar simply notices his lordly fingers trembling toward the portrait of a woman he knows little about save that she has a fortune and he wants it. But considered in the context of the entire novel, this tiny incident gains special significance.

2.        Characters in Secresy tend to be affected non-cognitively by intensities emanating from nearby objects and bodies. Caroline Ashburn, for instance, denied entrance to Valmont Castle, secures the permission of its proprietor, the honorable George Valmont, to correspond with his niece Sibella whom Valmont keeps secluded within his estate. Caroline rightly predicts, albeit ironically, that “the spirit of . . . affection breathed” into her letters will ultimately “waft down” the “drawbridges” of the castle and “disenchant . . . [Sibella] from the all-powerful spell” of her uncle’s “authority” (Fenwick 39). Lord Filmar declares that a “square piece of paper” on which he has written, “in large characters £6000 per annum, placed . . . exactly opposite” him, will act as “a charm of infinite value” to goad him into his kidnapping scheme (216). In one of her letters to Caroline, Sibella insists that if the truant Clement would write her a note with “only three words, ‘Bless my Sibella;’ . . . [she] will wear it next . . . [to her] heart—a charm to hold disease and foreboding at defiance” (256–57). These apparently trivial statements about “charming” letters, notes, and pictures form part of a larger pattern in the novel whereby the sensibilities of characters are directed (or described as if they are directed) by the intensities enfolded in and emanating from material bodies and objects. The physical signs of feeling—tears, sighs, faintness—and hence the psychological states they presumably indicate are effectively “caught” from physical phenomena in shared spaces. The men and women in Secresy are thus little more than bodies adrift in an atmosphere full of viral affect. It is, of course, nothing new to say that a novel published in the 1790s denies its characters the full privileges of the autonomous Enlightenment subject. But Secresy dramatizes the impersonality of emotion in ways and to extents arguably unparalleled among novels of its time. One could say that it is a text tailor-made for the application of affect theory.

3.        Secresy is a relatively slim, three-volume epistolary novel with a somewhat convoluted plot. The tyrannical gentleman George Valmont is scorned by a lady at an early age and grows to resent the prerogatives of high society. He raises his niece Sibella as his daughter and his illegitimate son Clement as the adopted son of poor laborers. Valmont secludes the two on his estate for nearly all their lives, insists that they think of one another as brother and sister, sees to their education, and exacts unflinching obedience from both. All the while, his real intention is to unite them in marriage. Sibella possesses an independent fortune and is the rightful heir to Valmont estate (though her uncle leads her to believe she is penniless). Valmont keeps her docile and tractable so that she will stay at home and fall in love with Clement, his natural son, thus securing for Clement both the estate and the independent fortune of its heiress—a veritable “economic powerhouse” (Cannon 543). Unfortunately for Valmont, all goes awry. Sibella and Clement fall in love prematurely and consummate their relationship in secret, out of wedlock (after which point Sibella fondly considers Clement her “husband”). Valmont, ignorant of the consummation, sends his nineteen-year-old son Clement out into the world as a kind of test to ensure that he is sufficiently misanthropic. But Clement becomes a dissipated rake, enamored with the very high society that Valmont intended he should hold in contempt. Angered, Valmont gives Clement £500 and tells him to earn his living in London. Since Clement has developed an aversion to work and a love of gambling, he squanders the money and ends up marrying Caroline Ashburn’s wealthy, materialistic, and pretentious mother (disregarding his unofficial “marriage” to Sibella). Meanwhile, after Valmont rejects the proposed aristocratic marriage of his niece to Lord Filmar, the latter decides to kidnap Sibella “whether her uncle pleases or not” (Fenwick 183). His first kidnapping attempt is thwarted by the presence of Arthur Murden, a gentleman sneaking about the castle disguised as a hermit. Murden, professedly in love with Sibella for reasons other than her money, manages to rescue her from Valmont castle only to lose her to Filmar at a nearby inn. Having absconded with the rescued heiress, Filmar soon realizes that she is pregnant with Clement’s child and therefore wants nothing to do with her. He returns her to her friend Caroline. Murden eventually dies in Sibella’s arms. Sibella gives birth to a stillborn child and dies herself shortly thereafter.

4.        Though having gone through four editions and received generally favorable reviews in its time, the novel was more or less relegated to the shadows of literary history until it became a Broadview Press book in 1994 edited by Isobel Grundy. Since then a wide range of articles and book chapters have been devoted to it, though the novel remains understudied and relatively unknown. Critics have studied Secresy as a gothic, Jacobin, and/or radically feminist novel concerned variously with female education, motherhood and childbirth, marriage laws, British India, female desire and sexuality, madness, and contemporary medicine. [1]  I am primarily interested in a strain of criticism that views its characters as rhetorically or psychologically hyper-compartmentalized. Julia Wright has claimed that each major character in the novel is locked in her own fictional genre and given an inflexible “perspective . . . coded as literary” (Wright 154). Caroline Ashburn, for instance, speaks in the general rhetorical mode of didactic fiction. She “cannot understand” the intense passions of someone like Arthur Murden (who is the quintessential man of feeling), and so she claims that he is excessively “romantic” in the Johnsonian senses of “wild,” “false,” “fanciful” (Wright 153; Johnson 440). According to Wright, “no one voice” in the text “stands above the rest, secure from critique, contradiction, or generic classification” (154). The “various genres” in Secresy “do not mingle, but collide to mark separations in cultural perspectives” (153). Patricia Cove likewise claims that the sensibilities of main characters are discrete and incapable of inter-assimilation. Murden is “Fenwick’s victim of excessive sensibility” and the “object of Caroline’s rational critique of sensibility” (Cove 667). Each character “adhere[s] to opposite value systems” that cannot interpenetrate (678). For Terry Castle, none of this should surprise us: early female fiction was full of examples of “psychic compartmentalization,” the “splitting up of emotional possibilities into different characters,” a sort of “schizoid reductionism” (Castle 140). Thus Wright, Cove, and Castle all agree that characters in Secresy are more or less hermetically sealed Theophrastan types who live in isolated emotional and rhetorical worlds.

5.        I want to suggest that this line of thinking, though reasonable, ignores the novel’s emphasis on bodiliness and how its characters share and absorb the same affective environment—despite what some critics have called the characters’ impermeable “generic” differences. The men and women represented in Secrecy are bodies that share spaces with other bodies and act as if according to the causal properties circulating in those spaces. These causal properties move in and out of mental and physical domains. Jonathan Kramnick has observed that eighteenth-century philosophers and literary writers were preoccupied with the possibility that material objects could cause human actions just as much as mental phenomena (like intentions) could. Perhaps “mental states . . . ultimately make their way to the social and physical environment” (6) until that environment absorbs the causal properties of the mental states—until, in other words, “material entities” acquire “some sort of consciousness,” enabling them to have an equal role in determining human behavior (10). Not that the causal properties of objects need to come strictly or directly from human minds and vice versa. Both objects and minds are subject to a shared environment. As Kevis Goodman has more recently argued, late eighteenth-century Scottish medical writing suggested that the “custom, memory, imagination, and discourse” of a given culture clung to bodies within that culture—became “archived” in them (352)—so that bodies “became . . . historical event[s],” “malleable site[s] structured by past and present history” (353). To read Secresy in light of these ideas is to emphasize the extent to which the centered subject was presumed dead long before poststructuralist theory insisted that it was dead. [2]  It is to see how the novel inherited and inflected certain ideologies operative in the eighteenth century that ran against that century’s more familiar emphasis on “inwardness or subjectivity” (Kramnick 2).

6.         Most of us are familiar with what is now called the “affective turn” in literary studies. In their 2014 collection of essays, Romanticism and the Emotions, Joel Faflak and Richard C. Sha observe that “a renewed interest in the emotions is transforming how we view history, culture, and science” (1). Though affect is closely related to emotion, the two are not one and the same. Affect refers to the “vital” or “visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing” that “drive us toward movement . . . thought and extension.” These forces operate at the level of “miniscule or molecular events,” traveling “into and out of the inorganic and non-living, the intracellular divulgences of sinew, tissue, and gut economies, and the vaporous evanescences of the incorporeal (events, atmospheres, feeling-tones)” (Gregg and Seigworth 1–2). Brian Massumi has popularized the term “intensities” within affect studies to refer to forces that are “irreducibly bodily and autonomic,” “asocial,” the stuff of “incipient action and expression” existing in the “superlinear, super-abstract realm of potential” (28, 20, 31). That is, affect is altogether beyond “linear” accounts of mental processes—accounts resembling narratives and relying on notions of cause and effect—as well as beyond the “abstract” emotional states we claim to experience as a result of what is consciously happening around us: for Massumi, when we “register” an emotional “state” we are really “re-register[ing] an already felt state” that is purely bodily and non-conscious (25). Emotions are second-order affect.

7.        A general consensus among scholars of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture is that although “[t]he romantic period and the era that precedes it often appear to us as eras in which people increasingly learned to claim their emotions as the guarantors of their individuality,” these periods simultaneously “characterize[d] feelings as transpersonal,” as “wander[ing] extravagantly from one person to another” like “viruses” (Pinch 3, 1). All supposedly private, indwelling emotions were often thought to originate, even at the turn of the nineteenth century, in shared affective atmospheres, “unformed and unstructured” “resonances independent of content or meaning” (Shouse par. 5, par. 14). And it is precisely because these “resonances” have neither form nor content that they can be transmitted between bodies and subsequently interpreted as the meaningful psychological states we recognize as personal feelings. Hence, I cannot feel precisely what it is you feel—the mental content of your feeling. But both my body and yours interact dynamically within the same affective field, within what Thomas Pfau has called “mood,” which he defines as the “horizon wherein all conscious practice . . . is being transacted, a horizon that therefore can never come into view as such.” This horizon or mood “operate[s] at a level logically anterior to the business of discrete reference, object-representation, and analytic, discrete knowledge” (Pfau 10, 12). In a word, affect comprises the infinitesimal and infinite points of contact between organic and inorganic entities within a shared environment. The work of Pinch and Pfau tends more toward the literary and the historical, whereas critics of the Massumi and Tomkins schools have emphasized the scientific and the theoretical sides of affect—what Donald L. Nathanson has called “the strictly biological portion of emotion”—in such a way as to develop the older, more literary-historical scholarship. One of the main contentions of this essay is that Secresy illuminates the more recent, physiological-theoretical work in affect theory as much as that work illuminates how characters interact in the novel.

8.        Secresy positions its characters as semi-autonomous bodies that catch, enfold, and circulate affective intensities in shared social spaces. This process is repeatedly described in terms of contagion. Clement, for instance, is mortified when Sibella learns—without his actually having told her—that he must earn his bread in London: “she sees misery in my looks. She hears it in my sighs, and the contagion has reached her” (Fenwick 126). Caroline suspects, as it happens, that Sibella should worry less about Clement’s miseries than about the temptations he will face in London, “amidst allurements such as virtue had seldom rejected, had seldom turned from without contamination” (60). Usually viewing all other characters from a conspicuous moral high ground, Caroline also fears that young English girls like the Davenport sisters are too easily “infected” with patriarchal “maxim[s],” such as that female “weakness and defect” are primarily responsible for sexual incontinence (165). The ever class-conscious George Valmont is afraid to leave his estate lest he expose his “high-born” body to the “contaminating mixture” of the middle classes (62). News, vice, maxims, class: all such abstractions in Secresy are described in terms of communicable diseases.

9.        The presence of affect in Secresy becomes clearer as it continues to dramatize “the way the sensual world greets the sensate body,” the “affective forces … generated in such meetings” (Highmore 121). At one point in the novel, Caroline, Murden, and a company of aristocrats decide to take a “rural expedition” to a spot where they can fish, eat ices, and listen to costly music (Fenwick 82). Caroline and Murden are riding along a rural road when

a pretty country girl on a horse loaded with paniers drew up to the hedge-side, while the cavalcade passed her. I was in Mr. Murden’s phaeton; and we were the last carriage but one. The girl, in making her awkward obeisance to the company, no sooner lifted her eyes to Mr. Murden, than she blushed deeper than scarlet. It was a blush of such deep shame, of such anguish, that I felt a sudden pain like a shock of electricity. (83–84)
Murden is shocked too, although he has more reason to be than Caroline, since he actually knows the girl and turns out, as we discover later in the novel, to be her protector. Caroline, for her part, is simply struck with a “sudden pain like a shock of electricity” for no demonstrable reason. On another occasion the young Henry Davenport, penniless but “related to several noble families,” pledges to marry Caroline’s mother, Mrs. Ashburn, in a misguided effort to provide for his impoverished, ostracized, consumptive childhood sweetheart Arabella and their illegitimate infant (143). Caroline requests one hour of conversation with Henry in order to talk him out of his foolish decision. She eventually settles the business by providing Davenport with a yearly income (until he can earn enough on his own) and an opportunity to study medicine, thanks to the kindness and connections of the well-to-do Murden. But at their first meeting, an “unusual softness” in Davenport’s voice, the “hectic colour” of his cheek and his melodramatic bodily attitude insinuate their way into Caroline’s otherwise unforgiving view of maudlin behavior:
He rose; and walked towards the widow. “Love is a romance; a cant; a whine; a delirium; a poison; a rankling wound that festers here, here!” he layed [sic] his hand on his heart, and leaned against the wainscot. . . . I sighed too: for the under tone of voice in which he pronounced the last few words was in[de]scribably affecting. (143–45)
Not his embittered sentiments about love, but the “under tone of voice in which he pronounce[s]” them is “in[de]scribably affecting” to Caroline, so that she has no choice but to “sig[h] too.” Thus even a woman who spends most of the novel morally critiquing the passions of others can be electrocuted by a blush, or induced to mirror one sigh with another. Caroline seems more affected in this case by the soft voice, flushed cheek, and leaning, melancholy body of Davenport than by the actual story of his misfortune that he subsequently relates. Her body enfolds affective intensities into itself in and through an environment shared with Clement. Something similar, though perhaps a bit stranger, happens between Sibella and her uncle Valmont. On one cold, windy day Sibella is alone in the woods near Valmont Castle, when a
chill, oppressive gripe seemed to fasten on my heart.—My uncle happened to pass in from the park.—He spoke, but I could not reply. I waved my hand, which he took in his; but, while he pressed it, he reproved me in an ungentle manner, for sitting on the damp stone, and exposed to the raw air.—Tears unbidden and almost unexcited, roll down my cheeks. He called Andrew; and I was borne in, and laid on a sopha in the breakfast parlour. (250–51, emphasis mine)
I find it interesting that Sibella’s description of the “chill, oppressive gripe” upon her “heart” precedes her description of Valmont’s entrance: effect precedes cause. Were the sentences reversed, or were the dash replaced with a colon, the statements might make more logical sense. But the body here seems to have anticipated or “intuited” the object of fear before the mind knew what was happening. I suppose one could argue that Sibella’s letter is just creating suspense: i.e., “Fear no sooner gripped my heart than—behold!—my uncle entered the scene.” But the dash between the sentences enables us to read the physiological response to Valmont’s presence as instantaneous, instinctual, irrelevant to whether or not Sibella actually sees or hears her uncle approaching. More striking, however, is the fact that as Sibella writes the above passage in a letter to Caroline, her tears begin to flow “unbidden and almost unexcited.” Grundy interprets the word “unexcited” to mean “[u]nprovoked” (250). The OED defines “unexcited” similarly as “[n]ot mentally stirred or moved” (“unexcited”). In this case, one could say that Sibella is calmly writing in her room and cries when she remembers the touch of her uncle’s hand, his “ungentle” reproof, his removal of her from her beloved wood into the gloomy breakfast parlor. And yet she describes her tears as “unbidden and almost unexcited.” They surface in the present moment, as she is writing her letter, but seem alienated from the memory presumed to evoke them. Their origin is strangely displaced or obscured. This is not to say that there are no alternative, sensible explanations for her reported weeping: Clement is gone at this point and Sibella is pregnant and forced to keep the secret from her tyrannical uncle. But she describes her tears less as the signifiers of an internal signified (a definable feeling with a clear “origin” or stimulus) and more as the product of unknown, mysterious forces.

10.        Perhaps the presence and operation of affect in Secresy is most pronounced, palpable, and manifest in spaces shared by three members of a central love-triangle: Caroline, Sibella, and Murden. Early in volume one, a frantic Bengali mother sells everything she owns and travels to London to be reunited with her son, who used to work for the nabob Sir Thomas Marlowe (a friend of Mrs. Ashburn and, it follows, her daughter Caroline). Unfortunately, the mother arrives in London only to learn that her son is absent. Upon hearing the news, she “falls ill of an ague and fever,” “languish[ing] in the extreme of misery and disease” for eight weeks. She then visits the country seat of Sir Thomas at Barlowe Hall, where he, Caroline, and all their mutual friends are present. Her emotions are so “wild and extravagant” when she arrives that Caroline “wonder[s] that her intellects survived.” The other guests at Barlowe Hall “expres[s] their disgust at so miserable an object” (Fenwick 85). The Indian woman “wrought a passionate flood of tears,” “wrung her hands, gnashed her teeth,” and “tore her hair” (86). Caroline compares her both to a corpse and an infant. Sir Thomas “saw himself in the utmost danger, and half his family dead or dying of the mortal disease” (which he seems to suspect is malaria) (87). Arthur Murden, who is Sir Thomas’s nephew, is the only gentleman willing to offer the woman any assistance. He accompanies her chaise in the rain to the next village and sees her to bed. Murden returns to Barlowe Hall “pale with fatigue, and want of food; his linen soiled; and his hair disordered” (88). Sir Thomas suspects that the Indian woman has infected him with something. Caroline notes that “[a]s Murden shut one door”—retiring from the drawing room—“a servant opened another,” bearing a letter to her from Sibella (89). The letter, as it turns out, places Murden in another infectious position. It excites such a “pleasurable glow of feeling,” such “visible pleasure” in Caroline that she is obliged to read it aloud that evening to her audience—which once again includes Murden—and to describe the person of Sibella in anatomical detail (90, 91). Murden freezes as she reads. He refuses to eat, which makes Sir Thomas suspect that “nothing but the fever” has seized him (96). That evening Murden whispers to Caroline: “My mind is my disease.” Caroline, in turn, observes that “his mind was also my disease” (96).

11.        What I find interesting is that by this point the novel has effectively blurred the distinction between physical and mental infection. The Bengali woman is thought to have infected Murden with malaria or hysteria or both. This happens just as Murden is introduced to the character of Sibella, whose letter to Caroline “disease[s]” his “mind.” And no sooner is he diseased than he passes his disorder on to Caroline. What does she mean when she claims that “his mind was also my disease?” Is she is struck with some fatal curiosity about Murden thanks to his charming, good-natured madness? Is it a case of love at first sight? It does turn out—much, I would say, to the surprise of most readers of this novel—that Caroline develops strong feelings for him. One is tempted to conclude, the more one learns about the universe of Secresy, that she “catches” the stuff of these feelings at this precise point; that her desire for Murden is no more than a form or reflex of his own desire for Sibella: the affective intensities having been encountered, enfolded, and subsequently privatized. [3] 

12.        Secresy features graphic symptoms of infection in the form of long dashes. [4]  Grundy observes that Fenwick uses “three different lengths of dash: short, to replace or reinforce a period . . . medium, to indicate material absent from the text . . . and very long for the inarticulacy of intense emotion” (Grundy 36). Sibella, who at various points in the novel is called “unformed,” “half insane,” “queer,” “deranged” and a “lovely lunatic,” admits that she is subject to “emotions . . . which [she] cannot describe or explain” (Fenwick 55, 92, 207, 229, 175). Her first letter to Caroline—the one that enthralled Murden—is filled with Grundy’s “very long” dashes, signifying a “heart expand[ing] with swelling emotion” (41). It is telling that the recorded speech of Murden never includes a long dash until he encounters Sibella for the first time in the wood near Valmont Castle. After that his prose is full of them. Sibella writes to Caroline of the encounter that

I stood, an instant, in surprise; and then, I again turned toward the castle. [Murden] stepped forward, and intercepted my path with outspread arms.

“Fear me not,” said he. “I——”

“No,” I answered. “I do not fear you, though I know of no guardian angels but my innocence and fortitude.”

He folded his arms, fixed his eyes upon the ground, and I passed on without further interruption. (102)

As soon as this bizarre meeting is over Murden grows more and more inarticulate and enigmatic. Both the letters that he himself writes and the letters that others write about him punctuate his speech with long dashes. In one of his subsequent letters to Caroline, for instance, he replaces the unutterable name of Sibella with a long dash: “neither prudence, honour, friendship, nor aught else could stay me in my course—not even the heavenly ——.”

13.        Murden does not run into Sibella accidentally on her uncle’s property. He had already formed and executed a plan to cloister himself within the ruins of an old monastery near Valmont Castle so as to be close to Sibella during her nocturnal walks. He surprises her twice in the guise of a hermit and then communicates with her as a celestial spirit, all the while exacerbating his “disease.” It reaches its height at the end of volume one, when Murden discovers that Sibella has consummated her relationship with Clement. When Sir Thomas arranges a “numerous and brilliant party” in the Assembly Rooms at Bath, all the alarmed guests witness Murden “rush[ing]” into the ballroom “distorted with some species of passion, his hair deranged, and the powder showered on his dress as if he had been dashing his head against some hard substance in a paroxysm of rage.” He groans, curses, flushes, and pales by turns, “gnash[es] his teeth,” “snatch[es] a crumpled letter from his pocket” only to “tea[r] it into a thousand pieces” and “das[h] the fragments on the floor,” stares at everyone “malignant[ly], “carefully gather[s] up every fragment” of paper and then “dart[s] out of the room.” Sir Thomas presumes he is “mad” and “infect[ed]” (151–52). The symptoms of his emotional breakdown—down to the very gnashing of teeth—mirror those of the Bengali woman who fell into extravagant fits upon her arrival in London. Caroline is the person who reports this wild incident in the second letter of the second volume of the novel. It turns out that the “crumpled letter” that Murden dramatically tears to pieces is a “billet” written by Sibella to Clement, which Clement enclosed in his own letter to Murden at the end of volume one. In that “billet” Sibella invites Clement to her apartment, where with “pure hearts and hands, we will plight our fervent unspotted faith. Say I am your’s [sic], and you are mine, and sorrow and jealousy will vanish as a mist. You shall go the transported confiding husband” (131). Murden seems to realize in the ballroom at Bath that he has spent more time “stalk[ing],” “prying,” and “watching” Sibella than actually courting her in any remotely appropriate fashion. He has spent his time prowling about the ruins in Valmont estate and accosting Sibella in outlandish disguises. Perhaps he was foolishly convinced, as he writes in one of his now dash-heavy letters to Caroline, that Sibella was preserving herself as the “reward of a deserving ventrous [sic] hero like myself——Oh! I have embraced a cloud, and the tormenting wheel rolls round with a rapid motion!” (133).

14.        Both Murden and Sibella are gradually destroyed by a toxic interexchange of affect. From the point of his first meeting with the “lunatic” Sibella, Murden himself becomes “lunatic-like” (229, 160). He calls himself Sibella’s “shadow,” who “sigh[s] to her sigh” (269). Eventually her body wastes away as she broods on the unfaithfulness of her ex-lover Clement, and the body of Murden follows suit. In fact, the more physical contact the two have, the more they seem to become somatic equals. When Murden and his friend Richardson steal into Sibella’s private chamber in Valmont Castle in order to rescue her, Murden can barely stand:

She opened the door. She came out to us. – “Ah! what, what is the matter?” cried she, extending her arms as if to save me from falling. . . . I recoiled from her . . . and, as I leaned on Richardson’s shoulder, I closed my dim eyes, and wished they might never more open upon recollection.

“Shame!” whispered Richardson, “you are unmanned!”

And so I am, Miss Ashburn. . . . I feel a rankling glow of satisfaction, as she walks past my chair, that I have so placed it [that] I cannot look up and behold her. (322)

After her rescuers arrive, Sibella expresses her gratitude and her continued unrequited affection for Clement. At this point, the merger of her own body with Murden’s seems to crystalize: “[a]s she spoke,” Murden writes, “I turned my eyes from her now haggard and jaundiced face to my own, reflected in the mirror by which I was standing. ‘Moving corpses!’ said I to myself—‘Why encumber ye the fair earth?’” (322). In the next few paragraphs, Murden scores his own and Sibella’s speech with long dashes.

15.        The act of sympathetic exchange in Secresy is indeed more of a death sentence than an opportunity for benevolent action, than—according to an eighteenth-century ideal—a means to “transform social distance into union, social difference into identity” (McGowen 314). As the novel winds to a close, Murden and Sibella find themselves on the verge of madness and death in a small country inn. Each is lodged in separate quarters for reasons of safety. The landlord—reluctant though desperate—suggests that Sibella finally be allowed to see Murden in the hopes that his “pity-moving countenance” may possibly “affect her” and “call forth a sympathy which must produce tears” (Fenwick 353). (Sibella has not cried for a long time; Grundy notes that “[n]ot to weep in intense sorrow was held to have damaging physical effects” [Grundy 353]). Slowly, cautiously, Murden is ushered into her room. As he “gaze[s] intently on Sibella, his countenance under[goes] a striking alteration.” He either faints or falls asleep at her knees, and his hand falls upon the bed. Sibella places his hand in hers and finds that “[s]he could not . . . separate his sufferings from her own.” She “continued to hold his hand” until “her emotions were kindling into agony.” After two “loud and dreadful groan[s]” she exclaims: “‘Give me not a name . . . . I own none! What am I? a shadow! A dream! . . . Oh! Your touch is ice!’ . . . you have chilled my blood!’” Murden explains to Sibella that his body is cold because “[he] too [is] but a shadow.” He sinks in her arms and “never . . . rise[s] again.” Sibella dies shortly afterward and both are entombed together (355–56). There is indeed something wildly odd and arresting about the role that the hand-holding plays in Sibella’s Murden-killing paroxysm of existential despair. The harder and longer she grips his soon-to-be-lifeless hand, the more her feelings seem to accumulate inside of her—until she cries aloud in what becomes both her own and Murden’s swan song.

16.        As far back as 1978, René Girard observed that “the dearest of all our illusions” is the “intimate conviction that our desires are really our own, that they are truly original and spontaneous.” For Girard, desire is not original but imitative—not to mention “eminently contagious.” One “‘catches’ a nearby desire just as one would catch the plague or cholera, simply by contact with the infected person” (Girard ix, 96, 99). One of the strangest plot twists in Secresy is that the hyper-sensible Caroline falls in love with the absurdly sentimental Murden. This is a man who Caroline claims has “refined upon romance; who can give . . . as much enthusiasm to the affections, and carve misery for himself as ingeniously, as though he had passed his days under the safeguard of Mr. Valmont’s walls and drawbridges” (Fenwick 188). The irony here is that Murden has, in fact, passed his days hiding on the Valmont estate: dressing up in various costumes to woo Sibella through enigmatic hints and notes. He first appears in the wood as an old hermit, the “tall figure of a venerable man, with a white and flowing beard,” “wrapped in a sort of loose gown” and wearing a “broad hat” (101). He identifies himself as the ghost of an old inhabitant of the ruined monastery who can “‘renovate old age’” (a power he demonstrates by removing his beard, hat and mantle to reveal “a young man of graceful form”) (102). Sibella stumbles upon Murden a second time loitering in the armory of Valmont Castle, to which he has gained access via an underground passage that connects the monastery outside to the armory within the castle. This time (still disguised as a hermit) he appears “disfigured by dust and cobwebs,” carrying a sword and speaking in “disjointed” words “with a rapidity which made him almost unintelligible” (119). Eventually Murden seems to realize that speaking to Sibella in the guise of a hermit will get him nowhere. Some time after these false starts he folds several pieces of paper into a ball, weighted with a pebble, and rolls it toward Sibella while she is walking about in the wood. In one of the enfolded notes he identifies himself as an angel or celestial spirit inhabiting a lower planetary sphere, charging Sibella to “set [her] desires” on one of the papers he has provided (i.e., to tell him if she is free to love him or if she loves someone else) and to leave it on a nearby tomb (179).

17.        The fact that Caroline falls in love with someone like Murden is completely at odds with her self-presentation throughout Secresy. She has professed to disdain all self-indulgent, blatantly irrational sentiment as any good Wollstonecraftian would. Others have called her “pedantic, inflexible, opinionated . . . severe, misjudging” (284). She accordingly refers to Murden as “a being more variable, more inexplicable, than any being within [her] knowledge,” a “baby” of “false delicacy,” “false refinement,” “ferment[ed] . . . senses,” “fevered fancy,” “burning brain,” “artificial refinements,” and so on: in short, he and Sibella, according to Caroline, are enthusiasts, romantic “victims of erroneous educations” (143, 285–86). How then could she possibly fall in love with him? One satisfying explanation is that her desires were never really her own, but his (both, at any rate, the product of the same affective “mood”). What Caroline claims to feel for Murden is a version of what he claims to feel for Sibella. At one point she even adopts Murden’s emotionalized language and extreme sensuality. In one of her letters to Sibella, Caroline reveals that she knows who the mysterious “wood-wanderer” is. She presents herself in the letter as a kind of hovering spectator in Valmont wood, spying on the disguised Murden as he, in turn, has been spying on Sibella:

I see him gliding through the paths you had trodden. The tree which screened him from your view cannot conceal him from mine. I see him listen almost breathless to your prayer. The new-born colour on his cheek hangs trembling . . . the throbbings of his agonized bosom collect themselves while restrained . . .. I see him dart the ball forward to meet your feet; and then he rushes into the thickest gloom to hide himself. . . . did symmetry ever mould a statue in finer proportions than his form can boast? His eye in its passive state is a clear grey, its shape long; and the finest eye-brow and eye lash that ever adorned mortal face . . . Hold him in conversation and you will see that eye almost emits fire. . . . Observe how his hair, bursting from confinement into natural ringlets around his temples, contrasts itself with the fairness of his complexion. . . . His colour . . . retires as you perceive it, or suffuses the whole of his fine countenance. (187–88)
And so on. As Murden was once entranced by what Caroline had spoken of the physical features of Sibella—her “face,” “form,” “attitude,” “eyes,” “forehead,” “mouth,” unset and unpowered hair “parted from the top of the head and always uncovered,” neck “one of the finest . . . that ever belonged to a human figure”—now Caroline indulges in her own blazon of Murden (92–93). The above passage may be somewhat ironically delivered, but it may also be evidence of how material bodies in shared spaces circulate the raw material of “private” feeling. Nor is this phenomenon exclusive to Caroline. One critic notes that “[a]lthough Clement accuses Murden of having “absurd dreams of romantic useless perfections” which hinder his appreciation of women, he himself is guilty of idealizing Sibella’s “lovely face” and “enchanting unresisting form” (Emsley 492). Sensual desire spreads everywhere in Secresy, in spite of what characters say or think about it.

18.        The characters in Fenwick’s novel may therefore appear to live in “polarized” emotional environments, as others have argued (Castle 140): the sentimental-Burkean-chivalric Murden meets the cool Wollstonecraftian Caroline and neither seems able to navigate outside of a generic emotional script. But to me it is seems equally evident that these mental or rhetorical “types” have a strongly corporeal presence in the novel, that the bodies to which they belong interact dynamically in a physicalized space described repeatedly in metaphors of contagion. Every character in Secresy is entitled, of course, to articulate her emotional state as she pleases. And every character may presume, according to the Enlightenment view of sympathy advanced variously by Locke, Hume, and Smith, that she can sympathize with other characters by imaginatively participating in and possessing their feelings in a personal and private capacity. But the novel makes it relatively clear that individual feelings are more like what William Reddy calls emotives—culturally codified descriptions rather than private, indwelling energies. [5]  The only real energies in Secresy are the impersonal and inarticulable ones: “the affective forces . . . generated” as “the sensual world greets . . . sensate bod[ies].”

Works Cited

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Burke, Meghan L. “Making Mother Obsolete: Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy and the Masculine Appropriation of Maternity.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 21, no. 3, 2009, pp. 357–84.

Cannon, Mercy. “Hygienic Motherhood: Domestic Medicine and Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 20, no. 4, 2008, pp. 535–59.

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Chatterjee, Ranita. “Sapphic Subjectivity and Gothic Desires in Eliza Fenwick’s ‘Secresy’ (1795).” Gothic Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2004, pp. 45–56.

Close, Anne. “Into the Public: The Sexual Heroine in Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy and Mary Robinson’s The Natural Daughter.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 17, no. 1, 2004, pp. 35–52.

Cove, Patricia. “‘The Walls of Her Prison’: Madness, Gender, and Discursive Agency in Eliza Fenwick’s Secresy and Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Wrongs of Woman.” European Romantic Review, vol. 23, no. 6, 2012, pp. 671–87.

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[1] See Bunnell; Mandell; Snow; Chatterjee; Close; Fisk; Bundock; Burke; Ledoux; and Golightly. BACK

[2] Rei Terada has implied that the death of the subject was only fully realizable through the discursive efforts of Derrida and de Man. See her Feeling in Theory. BACK

[3] The metaphor of contagion functions in a variety of ways throughout Secresy. Mercy Cannon observes that “[n]atural relationships” like the one between Sibella and Clement “undermine state power” and “are considered diseased, unhealthy, unhygienic”; that “contemporary social commentators . . . identify clandestine marriage as a ‘disease’” (550). She also notes that “disease functions in the novel as a signifier of the generally invisible progress of the damage [cultural and legal] forces can have on a victim,” but that disease is “contained in the end” when “Sibella and her infant are sacrificed to the dictates of the dominant social order that might be able to accommodate the sexual woman but has no space for the diseased mother” (561). BACK

[4] In William Preston’s Democratic Rage; or, Louis the Unfortunate. A Tragedy (1793), Marie Antoinette “breaks down, and begins to speak in a broken syntax, punctuated with the frequent dashes that in the language of sentiment signify madness or unendurable mental agony” (Barrell 60). BACK

[5] See Reddy. BACK