Close Reading — September 26, 2013, 8:00 am

The Tutelage of Charlotte and Emily Brontë

The Brontë sisters’ devoirs on filial love, under the instruction of Constantin Heger

Charlotte Brontë wrote “L’Amour Filial” in 1842, during the first of two years she spent at the Pensionnat Heger, a boarding school for “jeunes Demoiselles” (“young ladies”) in Brussels. At twenty-five, she was an over-age student, but she and her twenty-three-year-old sister, Emily, had come to Belgium with a purpose: to improve their French and so become more qualified to open a school of their own in Haworth, the village in Yorkshire where they had been raised. This three-page essay is one of many devoirs (assignments) Charlotte wrote for her professor, Constantin Heger, but, unlike the others, this one came to light only last year when a document written in faded brown ink was found in a private library. The essay was presented to members of the Brontë Society in June this year; my translation of it in Harper’s Magazine marks its debut before a wider audience.

Filial love was an important topic for both the Brontës and the Hegers. Patrick Brontë, father of Charlotte and Emily, was the Anglican clergyman of Haworth. Widowed when his youngest child, Anne, was not yet two years old, he raised five daughters and a son alone. Before they reached their teens, the two oldest daughters died of tuberculosis. Still, the lives of the remaining siblings were far from gloomy. They had the run of their father’s library, they wrote poems and stories about mythical kingdoms, and they played on the surrounding moors. Of course, they also attended church regularly.

Constantin Heger was also a widower; his first wife and infant son died of cholera. But unlike Patrick, who never remarried, Constantin took a second wife, Zoë Parent, in 1836. By the time the Brontë sisters arrived at the school founded by Parent at which Constantin taught, the Hegers had three children; a fourth was born six weeks later. The family had its quarters in the building that housed the school, so Charlotte would have seen Heger’s wife and children there and in the spacious garden. This did not stop Charlotte, however, from falling in love with her Catholic professor, the man whom she would later call “the only master I have ever had.”

“Filial Love” is a pervasively religious exercise in far-from-perfect French about the necessity of loving one’s parents and the dire fate awaiting those who don’t. Still, set in context, the manuscript offers surprising insights into Charlotte’s life and character — particularly since, on the same day in August, Emily Brontë submitted her own “L’Amour Filial” in response to the same assignment. (This devoir has been in Haworth since 1929, as part of the Bonnell Collection.)

A page from Emily Brontë’s homework. With thanks to Sue Lonoff de Cuevas and the Brontë Society

A page from Emily Brontë’s homework. With thanks to Sue Lonoff de Cuevas and the Brontë Society

Despite the narrow guidelines evidently imposed by Heger, and despite the brevity of the sisters’ responses, the essays are by no means identical twins. While each begin with the Biblical commandment to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:12), Charlotte uses the standard King James version; Emily’s is the dire “Honor thy father and thy mother if thou wouldst live,” probably taken from a Jesuit version that Heger would have quoted. Where Charlotte sees within these words “the double stimulus of a threat and a promise,” Emily fixates on their darker implications: “It is by such a commandment that God gives us knowledge of the baseness of our race . . . it is through fear that the maniac must be forced to sanctify himself.” Charlotte’s imagery (“he who bites the hand that has fed them”) appears clichéd next to Emily’s prose (“the mother whom they kill by the cruelest of deaths, turning to poison [her] limitless love”). Charlotte’s reasoning is standard: crime will be punished. Emily’s is complex and provocative: the virtuous should “shun with horror” the monster who lives in “a moral chaos” but should still “weep for his fate — he was their brother.” (It may not be incidental that her own brother, Branwell, had become an alcoholic and a bitter disappointment to his family.)

The most obvious difference between the two manuscripts is that Emily’s is free of corrections by Heger, while his markings appear on all three pages of Charlotte’s essay, so that, between the lines, a master–pupil dynamic emerges. In 1856, he told Elizabeth Gaskell, the novelist who was writing Charlotte’s biography, that he “rated Emily’s genius as something even higher than Charlotte’s.” Still, throughout the months both sisters spent at the pensionnat, Heger paid much more attention to Charlotte’s work, possibly because, unlike her disaffected sibling, she responded with flattering compliance. The more he critiqued and corrected her writing, the more she attempted to please him. (As she later wrote in a poem, “Obedience was my heart’s free choice/ Whate’er his word severe.”)

Her only resistance to Heger arose obliquely. Charlotte, who had never met a Catholic before now, found herself immersed in a Catholic milieu; her revulsion to it is clear in her devoirs, as she brandishes her own faith and her Protestant knowledge of scripture. Heger’s corrections sometimes tone down her ardor; in “L’Amour Filial,” for example, he deletes the sentence, “It is holy because Jesus Christ himself has given us the example; in dying he thought of his mother, in his mortal agony he commended her to the protection of the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:25–27). But since this phrase takes the essay off on a tangent, his objection is probably literary. For Heger, a devout yet tolerant Catholic, respected the earnest little Protestant (“nourished on the Bible,” as he later said to Gaskell), and his concern for her improvement as a writer of his language never wavered.

Evidence of that concern appears throughout Charlotte’s “Filial Love.” While some of his corrections are grammatical — changing a verb tense here, adding a pronoun there — he ignores six missing accent marks and other minor lapses, apparently preferring to embellish her commonplace phrasing. He substitutes “a sentiment of nature” for “instinct,” “a legal prescription” for “a duty,” “scruple” for “doubt,” “existence” for “life,” and “nurtured” for “cherished.” As he works through Charlotte’s pages, his enthusiasm seems to intensify so that, by page three, he, too, is reviling the miscreant child who fails to respect his parents (“a horror to mankind!” he writes above her handwriting, “woe betide him!”).

What effect might Heger’s attention have had on Charlotte? The answer is plain to those familiar with the letters she sent him after she returned to Haworth, letters that caused a scandal when they were made public in 1913. (Until 1844, when the first of Charlotte’s four letters reached him, Heger apparently remained unaware of the feelings he had evoked.) Charlotte was coming to crave his words on her page; his criticism fed her devotion, and she could not contain the kind of emotion that underlies this text’s strangest sentence (“the child can love his mother without fear of loving too much; no doubt torments that kind of affection; it is pure, and therefore it is tranquil…”). Six years later, the author, perhaps recovered, perhaps not, would transpose that conflict onto another studious young woman whose master “stood between [her] and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun.” As Jane Eyre continues: “I could not, in those days, see God for His creature of whom I had made an idol.”

Share
Single Page

More from Sue Lonoff de Cuevas:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Joan E. Howard

    What a fascinating essay!

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2015

Come With Us If You Want to Live

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Body Politic

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Problem of Pain Management

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Game On

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love Crimes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Body Politic·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“‘He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,’ said a reporter from a wire service.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
Love Crimes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If a man rapes a woman, she might be forced to marry him, because in Afghanistan sex before marriage is dishonorable.”
Photographs © Andrew Quilty/Oculi/Agence VU
Article
Game On·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union had posed a truly existential threat.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Come With Us If You Want to Live·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I was startled that all these negative ideologies could be condensed so easily into a positive worldview.”
Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Christmas in Prison·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just so you motherfuckers know, I’ll be spending Christmas with my family, eating a good meal, and you’ll all be here, right where you belong.”
Photographer unknown. Artwork courtesy Alyse Emdur

Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:

36,000

A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.

Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today