The Secret Life of a Love Letter

A creative exploration of Charlotte Brontë’s unrequited love notes

In 1913, 58 years after her death, Charlotte Brontë caused a scholarly field day with the discovery of a series of love letters written by her to the married tutor, Prof. Constantin Heger. The letters revealed a whole new side to Brontë, whose inner, personal life – in relation to love – was relatively unknown.

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Up until this point, Charlotte Brontë’s life was best understood through Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which omitted the details of her infatuation with Heger due to the moral codes of the time. This contributed to, as the Guardian puts it, the eventual “sanitisation” of Charlotte as a “dull, Gothic drudge”. Gaskell, the article claims “transformed her into a sexless, death-stalked saint”.

But just like that, a handful of letters changed it all, significantly altering Charlotte Brontë’s identity. Here was a woman who suddenly lived and breathed the fierce passions of her fiction. Who herself suffered in love.

As the British Library explains:

In 1842 Charlotte and Emily Brontë travelled to Brussels to study at the Pensionnat Heger, a school for young ladies run by Madame Zoë Heger. There the sisters studied French literature under the instruction of Madame’s husband, Constantin Heger. This connection with the dynamic and rigorous Monsieur Heger had the most profound influence on Charlotte Brontë’s life and work.

After Charlotte left …she was unable to forget Monsieur Heger. At first she wrote to him every fortnight and then, on Madame Heger’s insistence, she attempted to limit herself to a letter every six months. These letters… are increasingly unguarded expressions of her torment as she waited for replies that dwindled and then halted altogether.

All four surviving letters to Heger are written in French – the language in which he tutored Charlotte – though the post script to the last letter she ever sent him is in English. In her parting words to Heger, she declares that the French language is ‘most precious to me because it reminds me of you – I love French for your sake with all my heart and soul’.

Of the four remaining letters, three were torn up. The first has been mended with strips of paper; the second and third have been sewn back together; the fourth is intact, though the name and address of a Brussels shoemaker has been scribbled in the margin.”

The accepted story from the Heger family, who donated these letters to the British Library, is that Heger immediately tore them up in (typically Victorian) horror, and fear for his reputation. They were then retrieved from the rubbish bin by his wife who sewed them back together and preserved them (Ref). However as discussed here, no-one knows the real circumstances and upon closer scrutiny, the presence of crease marks in the letters indicate that, rather than being immediately torn up, they were folded up for some time. Furthermore, critics have also noted that the scribble in the margin suggests that it must have been left open at some point on Heger’s desk, within arm’s reach.

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There are no records of if Charlotte had reason to believe he loved her, but her feelings are generally thought of as being unfounded and unrequited.

I thought it would be an interesting creative exercise to explore the use or function of a letter, and ways of looking at or summoning the story/stories in the gaps and silences in and around them. What did Heger really feel about it? What did his wife really think? Who really was responsible for their destruction, and who was responsible for their recovery? Who do these letters really ‘belong’ to, and, whilst they were written to Heger, what role did he play as Charlotte’s recipient?

Meanwhile, Heger’s ‘domestic’ scribble in the margin points to the afterlife of a love letter, not only in its poignancy (Brontë’s words of love and anguish were used merely as ‘scrap paper’ by the addressee) but in its physicality. The ability to carry more than one meaning or message that changes its story and its purpose. This conjures the notion of the palimpsest  – a manuscript that is written over and across, and layered over time.

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With these themes in mind, my piece below is a creative visualisation of a kind of literary palimpsest of Charlotte Brontë’s unrequited love letters, and the different hands that may have held them.

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