View Full Version : Charlotte and Hager

04-26-2009, 08:44 PM
Ksotikoula is always causing trouble - “What do you think happened there? How do see their story? There are people that blame Charlotte and others the Hegers.“ She's not to let sleeping dogs lie, but her questions sometimes provoke unexpected insights.
“In Charlotte Bronte's letters to Constantin Heger, the Belgian schoolmaster whom she loved hopelessly, amorous epistolary discourse resurfaces with all the passionate intensity of unrequited love.” [1] That would seem to answer the question. But simple answers sometimes hide more than they reveal.

“The extent of Charlotte Brontė's feelings for Heger were not fully realised until 1913, when her letters to him were published for the first time. Heger had first shown them to Mrs. Gaskell when she visited him in 1856 while researching her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontė, but she concealed their true significance. These letters, referred to as the 'Heger Letters', had been ripped up at some stage by Heger, but his wife had retrieved the pieces from the wastepaper bin and had meticulously glued or sewn them back together. Paul Heger, Constantin's son, and his sisters, gave these letters to the British Museum, and they were shortly after printed in The Times newspaper.[2]”

In the letter to Ellen Nussey, 14 Oct. 1846, Charlotte wrote that she returned to Brussels in 1842, “prompted by what then seemed an irresistible impulse”, and in 1844 when she left the Heger pensionnat, Charlotte wrote “the biggest single experience of her life .... over.” [3]. And her departure was not quite harmonious, as she uttered “XXX”. However she continued to write to C. Hager well into 1845.
Charlotte's portrayal of the temperamental M. Heger as she first saw him in 1842 describes a striking man: “He is professor of rhetoric, a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperament; a little black being, with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane tom-cat, sometimes those of a delirious hyena; occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air nor above 100 degrees removed form mild and gentlemanlike…[4]. The language is emotionally charged, already indicating a hold on her imagination.
“if my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be altogether without hope; if he gives me little – just a little – I shall be satisfied – happy; i shall have reason for living on, for working .... Nor do I, either, need much affections from those I love .... But you showed me of yore a little interest, when I was your pupil in Brussels, and I hold on to the maintenance of that little interest – I hold on to it as I would hold on to life...”[5].

The following is interesting in that it gives a first person account of Charlotte as well as an assessment of Mr. Smith concurrently with his assessment of Charlotte Bronte.
Mr. Smith recounts the first meeting of Charlotte and Anne Bronte. “Two rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale faced and anxious looking, walked into my room; one of them came forward and presented me with a letter addressed, in my own handwriting, to “Currer Bell, Esq.” I noticed that the letter had been opened, and said, with some sharpness, “Where did you get this from?” “From the Post Office” was the reply, “It was addressed to me. We have both come that you might have ocular proof that there are at least two of us.” This then was “Currer Bell” in person. I need hardly say that I was at once keenly interested, not to say exited.”
Mr. Williams was called down and presented, and plans were made for the entertainment of the sisters. The most interesting account of this first visit will be found to be the personal impression made upon Mr. Smith by the two sisters:
“This was the only occasion on which I saw Anne Bronte. She was gentle, quiet, rather subdued person, by no means pretty, yet of a pleasant appearance. Her manner was curiously expressive of a wish for protection and encouragement, a kind of constant appeal which invites sympathy. I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Bronte's personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive. She was very small and had a quaint, old-fashioned look. Her head seemed too large for her body. She had fine eyes, but her face was marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion. There was but little feminine charm about her; and of this fact she herself was uneasy and perpetually conscious. It may seem strange that the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstances that she was not pretty.”[6]
This, by Mr. Smith, is an astonishingly incisive evaluation on first appearances and level-headedness on his part. While he recognized Charlotte's genius, he was not attracted to her as a woman. Charlotte on the other hand developed an infatuation about him. Less intense that with Heger but strong enough to feel betrayed when she learned of his engagement and deeply hurt that he had not informed her of it.
The common element in Charlotte's infatuation, is the love for an authoritarian figure. Even in her engagement to Mr. Nicholls the patter holds; here the authoritarian figure is not man but God. Charlotte announced her engagement to Ellen as “"Providence offers me this destiny. Doubtless then it is the best for me",
For Charlotte the lover is the supplicant, the beloved the master. The emotional experience is always this master/supplicant relationship in all her infatuations and has to be distinguished from mature love between equals. In fiction, Charlotte could imagine a relationship where Jane says “Because I am comfortable here.”, but in life, in love Charlotte was not comfortable.
Charlotte rejected four marriage proposals:
1)March 1839, Henry Nussey.
2)1839, Mr. Pierce.
3)1851, James Taylor, literary manager of Smith, Elder.
4)1853, first refusal of Mr. Nicholls
The common element in the rejections was that the men were not the authoritarian figures of Charlotte's imagination. Only when Charlotte's emotional underpinnings, with the deaths of her siblings and the disappointment with Mr. Smith's engagement, does she break with the previous pattern. Insecurity of a home was a major factor. Charlotte was 38 and the father 77. Their home was only theirs as long as Patric Bronte was the pastor at Hawthorne, on his death Charlotte would have been homeless. Marriage promised a degree of security, but the results were not happy, instead of embracing life, she embraced death.
“The Rev. A. B. Nicholls, curate of Haworth since 1845, proposed marriage to Charlotte in 1852. The Rev. Mr. Brontė objected violently, and Charlotte, who, though she may have pitied him, was in any case not in love with him, refused him. Nicholls left Haworth in the following year, the same in which Charlotte's Villette was published. By 1854, however, Mr. Brontė's opposition to the proposed marriage had weakened, and Charlotte and Nicholls became engaged. Nicholls returned as curate at Haworth, and they were married, though it seems clear that Charlotte, though she admired him, still did not love him. “[7]

Regret, a poem by Charlotte, published in 1846

Life and marriage I have known.
Things once deemed so bright;
Now, how utterly is flown
Every ray of light!
'Mid the unknown sea, of life
I no blest isle have found;
At last, through all its wild wave's strife,
My bark is homeward bound.

Charlotte was six years old when her mother died. She grew up without the nurturing affection that a mother provides and the confidence that a mother's security provides, as the child experiences the world around her. The emotional scar is forcefully sketched in the opening chapters of Jane Eyre and its permanence is attested by Jane's reaction when she discovers family in Diana, Mary and St. John. Charlotte was masterful in tracing the complexity of evolving love, in fiction. In life she was unable to attain a mature love of a woman.

In beginning her exploration of Brontė’s letters to Constantin Heger, Kauffman suggests that the letters reveal Charlotte Brontė’s transformation ‘from Heger’s correspondent into the novelist of Jane Eyre’ (Kauffman 1986: 160). Kauffman intends to connect the rhetorical strategies of the letters and of Jane Eyre to map ‘the metamorphosis of the rhetoric of passion from an authentic to a fictional discourse’ (p. 160).

To start with, Kauffman maps out the narrative of Brontė’s and Heger’s encounter including:
• Charlotte’s and Emily’s trip to Brussels in 1842 to learn languages;
• their return to England at the death of their aunt;
• Charlotte Brontė’s return to Brussels alone in 1843;
• and her final return to England in 1844.
Brontė began writing to Heger after her return and there is evidence to suggest that there were more letters
than survive today. In the letters that do remain, Kauffman notes a variety of characteristics that fit the ‘amorous epistolary discourse’ on which her study focuses. These include:
• ‘the denial of the reality of separation’;
• ‘the desire for contact’;
• ‘despair at the master’s silence’;
• and ‘resigned desolation’ (p. 161).

In initial letters, Brontė is ‘submissive’ and puts ‘emphasis on having been given the authority to write’ (p. 161). However, when Heger write back with a firm, stern tone providing instruction as to how she must write, Brontė rebels and does the opposite; ‘she becomes more outspoken, more indignant, less submissive’ (p. 161-162). Kauffman notes that ‘[l]ike all amorous epistolary discourses, Charlotte’s letters are demands, pleas, threats, and confrontations, filled with the same marks of internal tension, contradiction, self-division, and torment’ (p. 163).
She describes Brontė as ‘simultaneously a family intimate and a family employee; the boundaries between belonging to and being excluded from the family are constantly shifting ones’ (p. 163). In Jane Eyre, Blanche Ingram tries to humiliate the governess-heroine and in her letters, Brontė expresses anguish at her humiliation in being a governess. In her letters to Heger, Brontė seems unsure as to whether to situate herself as governess or pupil as she tries to reconcile Heger’s warmth in past encounters and the coldness of his silence. Gaskell and others have tried to suggest that the romance between Heger and Brontė was imagined, but Kauffman provides much evidence that suggests that Heger exploited teacher-pupil relationships on a regular basis with his charismatic personality. Brontė’s letters are always a work of persuasion for him to break his silence and write to her again, which he never does. Silence is of course an obsession of Brontė’s novels too: ‘in her letters, poems and novels Charlotte continued all her life to portray the intense misery of loneliness, exile and unrequited love’ (p. 170).[4]


1. Discourses of Desire by Linda Kaufman, Cornell Univ. Press, 1986
2.Winfred Gerin, Charlotte Bronte: The Evolution of Genius. Oxford University Press 1967.
3.‘Charlotte Brontė’s Letters to M. Heger’ by Linda S. Kauffman
5.T.J. Wise and J.A. Symington,The Brontes:Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, Oxford i932
6.Charlotte Bronte and her Publishers, New York Times, January 1901.
7.Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/brontbio.html.
8.The Brontes:Life and Letters by Clement Shorter, Holder Press 1908.

05-02-2009, 02:55 PM
The Secret of Charlotte Bronte
by Frederika MacDonald, London,1914

Part 1 - Introduction

In Charlotte and Hager I attempted with the introduction of the Hager Letters, to broaden the perspective that we have of Charlotte as a person and as a writer. While the correspondence lessens some misconceptions, they do not eliminate them. The problem is of completeness of information as much as of objectivity. In ‘Charlotte Brontė’s Letters to M. Heger’ , L. Kauffman takes a perspective 150 years from the events in question and of a profound change in psychological perspective. F. Macdonald's evaluation of the Heger Letters is of a view closer to that of the Victorian era and of first person knowledge of the Hegers.

F. MacDonald begins The Secret of Charlotte Bronte provocatively “We live in an epoch when impressionist methods of criticism, admissible, and often illuminative, in the domains of art and of
imaginative literature, have invaded the once jealously guarded paths of historical criticism, to the detriment of correct standards of judgment.” ..... “But what has to be remembered (and what is constantly forgotten) is, that if these psychological interpretations of people who once really existed are to be accorded any
authority as historical judgments, they must have been preceded by an attentive enquiry, enabling the future interpreter, before he begins to employ psychology, to feel perfectly certain that he has clearly in view the particular Soul he is undertaking to penetrate, with its own special qualities, and placed amongst, and acted upon by, the real circumstances of its earthly career. Where the preliminary precaution of this enquiry, into the true facts that have to be penetrated, and explained, has been neglected, no psychological subtlety, no pathological science, no sympathetic insight, can protect the most accomplished literary impressionist from forming, and fostering, false opinions about the historical personages he is judging
from a standpoint of assumptions that do not allow him to exercise the true function of criticism, defined by Matthew Arnold as : ' an impartial endeavour to see the thing as in itself it really is.' “ [1]
Such a certitude, that she is able to avoid the subjective judgment of 'historical facts', would be hubris for the contemporary reader. However “Frederika MacDonald, in 1859, was herself a pupil at the Pensionnat Heger where 17 years earlier Charlotte had been a student, and later a teacher. She knew from first-hand experience what life was like at the school, and even more interesting, what M. Heger and his wife Madame Heger were like in real life. “[1]
Primarily my interest is that first hand impression have a value beyond the question of historical objectivity. “The first of these impressions is that Charlotte Bronte has painted, not only her own emotions, but her own actual experiences, in Villette ; and that Lucy Snowe, Paul Emanuel, and Madame Beck, are pseudonyms, under which we ought to recognise Charlotte herself, and the Director and Directress of the Pensionnat in the Rue d'Isabelle.” [1]
Second, is that F. MacDonald raises the the connection to Villette - “The period in Charlotte's life that I am speaking of is, of course, the interval of two years (from Feb. 1842 to Jan. 1844) that she spent at Bruxelles, in the school in the Rue d'Isabelle, whose Director and Directress, Monsieur and Madame Heger, are supposed to have been painted in the characters of ' Paul Emanuel ' and of c Madame Beck,' in the famous novel of Villette.”....How far that supposition is justified, and to what extent Villette is an autobiographical reminiscence, thinly disguised as a novel, can be now, but has never been up to this date, satisfactorily decided, by an attentive historical enquiry.” [1]

I strongly disagree with both points. First, that it is possible to draw a linear relationship from Charlotte's experiences to the theme and especially the characters in Jane Eyre and Villette. This is not to contest that the Brussels experience profoundly influenced Charlotte, the Heger Letters are proof of that, rather that the novels are thinly disguised autobiographical narratives of Charlotte's emotions. Example, “that Lucy Snowe, Paul Emanuel, and Madame Beck, are pseudonyms, under which we ought to recognise Charlotte herself, and the Director and Directress of the Pensionnat in the Rue d'Isabelle.” The transformational aspect of memory, of experience, is the genius of Charlotte and the novels stand by themselves, should be read for themselves, and not as an expose of Charlotte. The transformation of experience into art, is not a linear process. That is where the mystery of genius lies.
The second point of disagreement is with F. Macdonald's characterization of Charlotte in the following: “What is established securely to-day, and cannot be removed from the foundation of documentary evidence that serves as the basis upon which all future theories must rest, is, that it is in this period that Charlotte Bronte not as an enthusiastic and half-formed school-girl, as some reckless modern impressionist critics, careless of the evidence of facts, would have us believe, but as a woman, profoundly sincere, impassioned, exalted, unstained, and unstainable, who, between twenty-six and twenty-eight years of age, had long left girlish extravagance behind her underwent experiences and emotions, that were not transient feelings, nor sensational excitements. “[1]
An emotionally mature woman, ' between twenty-six and twenty-eight years of age, had long left girlish extravagance ' would not have have written the Hager Letters. Nor would she have continued writing for XX years after C. Hager had unambiguously indicated that her tone was inappropriate and had terminated the correspondence.
F. Macdonald's characterization of Charlotte as “ profoundly sincere, impassioned, exalted, unstained, and unstainable” bears an uncomfortable resemblance to “Although Mrs. Gaskell refers to “poor Charlotte”, as if her passion for Hager had absolutely no basis in reality, the real situation was far more ambiguous, for she is a “threshold figure” whose very role as a student-governess-teacher makes her status ambiguous sexually, economically, and emotionally.”[3]
“Mrs. Gaskell's method of dealing with this momentous period could not satisfy an attentive student who compared her account with Charlotte's correspondence : and also with eloquent impassioned passages
in Villette and the Professor^ where the authoress is plainly painting emotions and impressions she has herself undergone.
And the effect that was left upon thoughtful readers of the Life of Charlotte Bronte was that the biographer was, not negligently, but deliberately, altering the true significance, by underrating the importance, of Charlotte's experiences in Bruxelles, and of her relationships with Monsieur and Madame
A preview into The Secret of Charlotte Bronte. [2] will give a flavor into the two parts of F. Macdonalds critique. I hope to cover the sections in separate postings.

(These Letters supply the Key to the Secret of Charlotte Brontė)
She ends this part by quoting Charlotte’s last desperate letter to Constantin Heger. She writes:
“ The Letter obtained no answer.
And thus the end was reached. We now know
where in Charlotte Bronte's life lay her
experiences that formed her genius and
made her the great Romantic whose
quality was that she saw all events and
personages through the medium of one
passion: the passion of a predestined tragical
and unrequited love.”

Frederika MacDonald gives us a marvellous insight into her life at the Pensionnat and her own personal view of the teacher she and Charlotte both shared. She writes:
“ But Monsieur Heger had one really beauti-
ful feature, that I remember often watching
with extreme pleasure when he recited fine
poetry or read noble prose : - his mouth,
when uttering words that moved him, had
a delightful smile, not in the least tender to-
wards ordinary mortals, but almost tender
in its homage to the excellence of writers
of genius.

In brief, what M. Heger 's face revealed
when studied as the index of his natural
qualities, was intellectual superiority, an
imperious temper, a good deal of impatience
against stupidity, and very little patience
with his fellow-creatures generally ; it
revealed too a good deal of humour ; and a
very little kind-heartedness, to be weighed
against any amount of irritability. It was
a sort of face bound to interest one ; but
not, so it seems to me, to conquer affection.”


1. The The Secret of Charlotte Bronte, by Frederika MacDonald, London,1914
2.The Brussels Bronte Blog,
3.Discourse of Desire by Lind S. Kaufman.