Thursday, June 21, 2012

Charlotte Bronte and the Tale of Unrequited Love

I am delighted to invite Kimberly Eve as a guest blogger this month.  Kimberly has her own very interesting blog at  Her especial expertise is the sixteenth and nineteenth century in general but the Pre-Raphaelites are also of deep interest to her.

Thank you very much, Kimberly,  for this fascinating article on Charlotte Bronte and her letters to Constantin Heger. Some of these photos are new to me and I thought I knew most of the Bronte story!

Charlotte Bronte and the Tale of Unrequited Love

In February of 1842, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to enroll as students in the Rue d’Isabelle boarding school that was run by Madame and Monsieur Heger. The Bronte sisters were hoping to improve their skills in languages. Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music in return for board and tuition.
In January 1843 Charlotte Bronte started a teaching post at Rue d’Isabelle.  However, her stay there was not a happy one; she was homesick, lonely and became what could be termed a deep ‘attachment’ for Monsieur Heger.  Madame Heger thought that Charlotte had fallen in love with her husband, and therefore became very cold and distant towards her. Monsieur Heger taught her German, but otherwise, had little to do with her.  Early in 1844, Charlotte came home, but continued to write to Monsieur Heger, even though he allowed her to write to him only twice a year.  It was in May 1843 that Charlotte wrote to Emily complaining of Madame Heger, “Of late days, M. and Madame Heger rarely speak to me; and I really don’t pretend to care a fig for anybody else in the establishment. I am convinced she (Madame Heger) does not like me; why, I can’t tell. (O Charlotte!) Nor do I think she herself has any definite reason for this aversion.  (!)  M. Heger is wondrously influenced by Madame. He has already given me a brief lecture on universal bienveillance; and perceiving that I don’t improve in consequence, I fancy he has taken to considering me as a person to be let alone, left to the error of her ways, and consequently he has, in a great measure, withdrawn the light of his countenance; and I get on from day to day, in a Robinson Crusoe like condition, very lonely.”

In March 1843, writing to her friend Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Bronte complains of loneliness in the school, missing her sister Emily, she references the Heger’s kindess , “ As I told you before, M and Madame Heger are the only two persons in the house for whom I really experience regard and esteem; and of course I cannot be always with them, nor even very often. They told me, when I first returned, I was told to consider their sitting-room my sitting-room, and to go there whenever I was not engaged in the schoolroom. This, however, I cannot do. In the daytime it is a public room, where music-masters and mistresses are constantly passing in and out; and in the evening I will not, and ought not, to intrude on M.  And Madame Heger and their children. Thus I am a good deal by myself; but that does not signify. I now regularly give English lessons to M. Heger and his brother-in-law.”
In January 1844 Charlotte finally returned home to the Parsonage at Haworth. Of course, it is believed that she based some parts and characters of The Professor and Villette on her reminiscences of her years at Rue d’Isabelle.  It was in her novel Villette that the character of Paul Emanuel was based on Monsieur Heger and Madame Beck was Heger’s wife, Madame Heger.  In Villette, Bronte describes the feelings of protagonist, Lucy Snowe upon leaving, “Anguish of suspense; heart-sickness of hope deferred; despair, following on repeated disappointment; rage and indignation at the cruelty and injustice of this outrage done to a Love , that has wronged no one, robbed no one, that has no desire to inflict injury on others.”

The extent of Charlotte Brontë's feelings for Héger  were not fully understood until 1913, when her letters to him were published for the first time. Héger had first shown them to Mrs. Gaskell when she visited him in 1856 while researching her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë, but she concealed their true significance. These letters, referred to as the 'Héger Letters', had been ripped up at some stage by Héger, but his wife had retrieved the pieces from the wastepaper bin and had meticulously sewn them back together. Paul Héger, Monsieur Heger’s son, and his sisters, gave these letters to the British Museum, and they were shortly after printed in The Times newspaper.
The first letter to Monsieur Heger Charlotte Bronte wrote on November 18th,
“I may, then, write to you, without breaking my promise. The summer and winter have seemed very long to me; in truth, it has cost me painful efforts to endure up to now the privation I have imposed upon myself. You, for your part, cannot understand this! But, Monsieur, try to imagine, for one moment, that one of your children is a hundred and sixty leagues away from you; and that you are condemned to remain for six months, without writing to him; without receiving any news from him; without hearing anything about him; without knowing how he is; well, then you may be able to understand, perhaps, how hard is such an obligation imposed upon me.”
Monsieur Heger had not answered her November letter. She waited for a reply but when none came she wrote a second letter where she apologizes for it and tries to keep a temperate tone,
“Ah, Monsieur! I know I once wrote you a letter that was not a reasonable one, because my heart was chocked with grief; but I will not do it again! I will try not to be selfish; although I cannot but feel your letters the greatest happiness I know. I will wait patiently to receive one, until it pleases you, and it is convenient to write one. At the same time, I may write you a little letter from time to time; you authorized me to do that.”

No reply letters arrive to Charlotte Bronte but still in October she writes to him again convinced that his wife, Madame Heger will not allow him to receive her letters,
“October 24-Monsieur-I am quite joyous to-day. A thing that has not often happened during the last two years. The reason is that a gentleman amongst my friends is passing through Bruxelles, and he has offered to take charge of a letter for you, and to give this same letter into your hands; or else his sister will do this, so that I shall be quite certain that you receive it.”
Charlotte Bronte writes again, a longer final letter to Monsieur Heger on January 8, 1845 in an attempt to recapture the loss of his friendship,
“I  submit to all the reproaches you may make against me; if my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely, I shall remain without hope; if he keeps a little for me (never mind though it be very little) I shall have some motive for living, for working.
Monsieur, the poor do not need much to keep them alive; they ask only for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, but if these crumbs are refused them, then they die of hunger! For me too, I make no claim either to great affection from those I love; I should hardly know how to understand an exclusive and perfect friendship, I have so little experience of it! But once upon a time, at Bruxelles, when I was your pupil, you did show me a little interest: and just this small amount of interest you gave me then, I hold to and I care for and prize, as I hold to and care for life itself . . .
. . . I will not re-read this letter, I must send it as it is written. And yet I know, by some secret instinct, that certain absolutely reasonable and cool-headed people reading it through will say: ‘She appears to have gone mad.’ By way of revenge on such judges, all I would wish them is that they too might endure, for one day only, the sufferings I have borne for eight months-then, one  would see, if they too did not ‘appear to have gone mad.’
One endures in silence whilst one has his strength to do it. But when this strength fails one, one speaks without weighing one’s words. I wish Monsieur all happiness and prosperity. “
8th January.

Charlotte Bronte’s letter went unanswered and no other letters were sent that we know about! What we do know for certain, is that when it came to writing novels, Charlotte Bronte’s life experiences and those she knew, were incorporated into her works.

The Secret of Charlotte Bronte by Federika MacDonald, London, TC &EC, Jack, 1914
The Brontes Life and Letters by Clement Shorter, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1908

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Pull of the Bronte Myth

Reading a book about the Brontes always has the effect of taking me out of a writer's block. Something about the life of this unusual and fated family has fascinated us all and has a hold on our imagination and feeling.  It was a family of highly intelligent and thoughtful people, shaped by intense passion, pain and tragedy.  Each member is a fascinating study in his or herself.

Currently, I'm reading a recent biography by Lyndall Gordon called The Passionate Life in which she examines Charlotte Bronte from the angle of her strong, fiery nature.  Popular ideas have for many years created a myth mainly based on the biography of Elisabeth Gaskell,  whose Life of Charlotte Bronte was published in 1857.   Gaskell painted a picture of  Charlotte and her sisters as prim, sober women, the product of their dreary environment, living as they did in the Rector's house, surrounded by a graveyard, in a small town where illness was rife due to insanitation and poverty and where few lived to old age.  The countryside, which inspired Emily with mystical reverence for Nature, was to her bleak and inhospitable, the wild Yorkshire moors. 

 Gaskell put a deal of blame upon the shoulders of their self -absorbed and difficult father, Patrick Bronte and one has to agree with this.  He seldom ate with the family, kept himself immured in his study when not about his parish business, leaving the children in the care of their aunt and later the servants.  He tried to get his daughters an education, knowing they would only ever be socially fit to work as governesses but failed to see his elder daughters dying of starvation and consumption at the terrible school at Cowan Bridge where he sent them.  And he had no idea that they were writing novels until Charlotte rather diffidently presented him with 'Jane Eyre' and said she hope he might read the book. 
'I can't be troubled to read manuscripts,'
'But it is printed.'
'I hope you have not been involving yourself in any such silly expense.'
'I rather think I shall gain money by it', she replied. 
He did read it and later at tea, the one meal he occasionally condescended to share with them, he announced, 'Children, Charlotte has been writing a book - and I think it is a better one than I expected.'  However, when his wastrel, alchoholic, opium-ridden son died, he was bereft.  He shared the prevailing belief that the boy was the important member of the family. But Branwell Bronte proved incapable of living up to his father and his sister's hopeful expectations.  He had talent and might have done well if he had submitted to training, but he had neither will, nor moral discipline as the girls did.                
Lyndall Gordon explores the 'home' Charlotte, the real, inner character that she was when in her own environment or with those few friends she really trusted.  Her public image was totally different, silent, mousy, disliking to be noticed.   In other words, Charlotte cultivated a demure, protective persona and hid her passionate, angry, strong nature behind this.  It was a necessity.  Women were meant to be doll-like, biddable, sweet, angelic and considered brazen and bold if they attempted to enter public life. Charlotte's pride forbade being regarded in this light or being misunderstood.  The sisters all chose to publish their books under ambiguous pseudonyms that could be male or female, Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell.   Even then their books, especially 'Wuthering Heights', were deemed 'coarse' and 'insensitive'; brilliant if written by a man, scandalous if written by a woman. 

My daughter and I joined the Bronte Society many years ago and our first visit with them was to Brussels to see the places where Charlotte had studied French and met her destiny in the shape of her imperious master,  Monsieur Heger.  Reading between the lines, one feels that Heger delighted in exerting a powerful charismatic appeal over his pupils.  Perhaps it was the secret of his brilliance as a teacher. And there was much about him that conformed to Charlotte's own inner image of 'the dark lover'.  She found in him a mentor and a person who truly noticed her, recognised her talents and fostered them. He expressed her own anger, passion, vehemence and intellectual strength; qualities she was not allowed to express as a woman.  Her feelings grew too much for her but her real need was not so much about love as for this recognition by someone that was her equal. She expressed this in 'Jane Eyre' when she confronts Rochester.  'I speak to you as an equal.' Jane declares.  When Heger withdrew his letters to her in the face of her increasing anguish and need, the resultant sense of pain, rather than felling her, as Branwell was felled by the loss of his love, spurred Charlotte to sublimate the experience through her writings.  This is the true stuff of greatness.  To delve into the depths of one's own soul, to take one's bitter loss and rage and pain, and create rather than destroy or be destroyed.

Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.