Charlotte Brontë And Dr. William MacTurk

In today’s post we look at someone who was called upon by Charlotte Brontë in this week 1855, and who played a sad part in her story. Tragedy was never far away from the life of a doctor in the first half of the nineteenth century, as Dr. William MacTurk (or Macturk or McTurk) must have known well.

By the 30th of January 1855 Charlotte Brontë had been ill for some time, and her sickness and lethargy seemed to be growing worse. A Haworth doctor had already examined Charlotte and pronounced that there was little to worry about, but a worried Arthur Bell Nicholls, by then the husband of Charlotte, insisted that they call in William MacTurk for a second opinion.

St. Paul and St. Jude’s church, Manningham, was built thanks to Dr. MacTurk

We can see, then, that Dr. MacTurk must have been a very well respected physician, for his practice was based in the centre of Bradford, around nine miles distance from Haworth. He was also renowned for his philanthropic enterprises, having campaigned to lower the number of hours that children could work in factories, establishing a new church in Manningham, Bradford and being closely connected to Bradford Grammar School.

Born to Scottish parents in 1795 in South Cave, 14 miles west of Hull, he continued to practice until 1869, making him ‘one of the oldest members of the medical profession in the West Riding of Yorkshire’ as reported in a glowing obituary in an 1872 edition of the British Medical Journal. The journal also noted that MacTurk was ‘a man of upright character’, although he had ‘made no contributions to the literature of his profession’.

British Medical Journal, 29th June 1872

We can imagine how anxious Arthur Bell Nicholls and Patrick Brontë must have been on that January day 1855 as they awaited the doctor’s verdict. What it was Elizabeth Gaskell alluded to in her biography of her friend, couched in the modesty the century demanded:

‘She yielded to Mr. Nicholls’ wish that a doctor should be sent for. He came, and assigned a natural cause for her miserable indisposition; a little patience, and all would go right.’

Later the natural cause is explained more simply, ‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad some time,” she would say; “but I am so ill—so weary—”’

It was 166 years and a day ago, then, that Dr. MacTurk confirmed that Charlotte Brontë was pregnant. We get further evidence of this in a letter Charlotte wrote to her closest friend Ellen Nussey on 21st February 1855, in which she asks:

‘Write and tell me about Mrs. Hewitt’s case, how long she was ill and in what way.’

Mary Hewitt was a friend of Ellen, and had suffered severe sickness during her pregancy in the previous year, before giving birth to a son in December 1854. It seems clear then that Charlotte’s friends knew that she was pregnant, as further shown by the baby bonnet knitted by Charlotte’s friend, and former teacher and employer, Margaret Wooler, one of the most moving exhibits of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Charlotte Bronte baby bonnet
The baby bonnet made for Charlotte Bronte’s child by Margaret Wooler

William MacTurk had diagnosed Charlotte’s pregancy but had failed to diagnose hyperemesis gravidarum, an excessive morning sickness. Today it would be treated rapidly and successfully, as in the case of the Duchess of Cambridge, but alas such knowledge and treatment was then unavailable, and Charlotte was nearing her end – who knows what a Brontë child could have achieved in their life, or if the line would still be continuing to this day.

Dr. MacTurk continued to visit Charlotte throughout her final illness, and it seems that he had also treated Branwell Brontë for the effects of his alcoholism. It could be this service which first brought him to the attention of Charlotte Brontë, leading to him featuring in her novel Shirley as the surgeon who is called upon to administer to Robert Moore:

‘”We must have Dr. Rile again, ma’am; or better still, MacTurk. He’s less of a humbug. Thomas must saddle the pony and go for him.”… Doubtless they executed the trust to the best of their ability; but something got wrong. The bandages were displaced or tampered with; great loss of blood followed. MacTurk, being summoned, came with steed afoam. He was one of those surgeons whom it is dangerous to vex – abrupt in his best moods, in his worst savage. On seeing Moore’s state he relieved his feelings by a little flowery language, with which it is not necessary to strew the present page.’

Bradford Observer, 20th October 1859

Dr. William MacTurk was much loved across Bradford and beyond, as shown by a grand testimonial thrown for him in 1859 in which he was presented with an elaborate silver bowl and stand costing over two hundred guineas, a five figure sum in today’s terms. Perhaps the greatest testimony he received, however, was being featured in a Charlotte Brontë novel. I hope you are all in good health, and I’ll see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë And William Makepeace Thackeray

Whilst Anne and Emily Brontë didn’t live to see the success their huge talents deserved and earned, Charlotte Brontë did encounter the trappings of fame in the final years of her life, including fans arriving in Haworth to seek out ‘Currer Bell’. Charlotte also met a number of writers, and she has become particularly associated with Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau. Charlotte also became acquainted with one of her literary heroes and it’s he that we’re going to look at today – William Makepeace Thackeray.

William Makepeace Thackery by Eyre Crowe, 1845
William Makepeace Thackery by Eyre Crowe, 1845

Thackeray is one of the great figures of nineteenth century English literature, and he’s most famous today for his masterpiece Vanity Fair. Charlotte Brontë was a great fan of this novel, and it was for this reason that she chose to dedicate the second edition of Jane Eyre to its author. This second edition was published on this week in 1848, and it was certainly effusive in its praise of Thackeray:

‘There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital-a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of “Vanity Fair” admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time-they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Rimoth-Gilead.

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day-as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humour, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him – if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger – I have dedicated this second edition of “JANE EYRE.”’

Thackeray dedication
Thackeray’s dedication in Jane Eyre

This dedication was obviously heartfelt, especially as he was, as Charlotte said, a total stranger. Unfortunately she was therefore unaware of a fact which meant that her dedication set literary tongues wagging: Thackeray, like the male protagonist of the novel now dedicated to him, had a wife who was locked away, suffering from mental illness.

Isabella Thackeray’s depression grew after the birth of their third child Harriet, and as her condition worsened she spent time in two asylums near Paris. Thackeray later brought Isabella back to London but found himself unable to provide the care she needed, and so she was placed into a private care home in Camberwell, under the auspices of a Mrs. Baker. Incidentally, Harriet Thackeray married Leslie Stephen the father of Virginia Woolf, although it was Stephen’s second wife who was mother to the Brontë loving novelist.

It was the superficial similarity between the marital situation of both Rochester and Thackeray, coupled with Charlotte’s dedication in the second edition of Jane Eyre, which led many to believe that Thackeray must be known to Currer Bell.

Thackeray by Frank Stone
Thackeray by Frank Stone

Charlotte famously met her literary idol in June 1850, as she revealed in a letter to Ellen Nussey. Charlotte’s letter boils this meeting down to its basics, ‘and, last not least, an interview with Mr. Thackeray’. In fact, there was rather more than an interview, for her publisher George Smith had arranged for Charlotte to be guest of honour at a dinner party thrown by the Thackerays. For a woman as painfully shy as Charlotte (a characteristic she shared with Anne and Emily Brontë) it was an ordeal to be endured, often in silence. We have a much more fulsome description of this evening in the book Chapters From Some Memoirs by Lady Ritchie. On that 1850 evening, Lady Ritchie was the 13 year old Anne Thackeray, daughter of the novelist who was hosting for the event (until he managed to escape to his club):

‘One of the most notable persons who ever came into our bow-windowed drawing-room in Young Street is a guest never to be forgotten by me – a tiny, delicate, little person, whose small hand nevertheless grasped a mighty lever which set all the literary world of that day vibrating. I can still see the scene quite plainly – the hot summer evening, the open windows, the carriage driving to the door as we all sat silent and expectant; my father, who rarely waited, waiting with us; our governess and my sister and I all in a row, and prepared for the great event. We saw the carriage stop, and out of it sprang the active well-knit figure of young Mr. George Smith, who was bringing Miss Brontë to see our father. My father, who had been walking up and down the room, goes out into the hall to meet his guests, and then, after a moment’s delay, the door opens wide, and the two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, pale little lady. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress, with a pattern of blue flowers. She enters in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This, then, is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. To say that we little girls had been given Jane Eyre to read scarcely represents the facts of the case; to say that we had taken it without leave, read bits here and read bits there, been carried away by an undreamed-of and hitherto unimagined whirlwind into things, times, places, all utterly absorbing, and at the same time absolutely unintelligible to us, would more accurately describe our state of mind on that summer’s evening as we look at Jane Eyre – the great Jane Eyre – the tiny little lady. The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, though genius she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, especially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. She sat gazing at our father with kindling eyes of interest, lighting up with a sort of illumination every now and then as she answered him. I can see her bending forward over the table, not eating, but listening to what he said as he ate.

It was on this very occasion that my father invited some of his friends in the evening to meet Miss Brontë – for everybody was interested and anxious to see her. Mrs. Catherine Crowe, the reciter of ghost-stories, was there. Mrs. Brookfield, the Carlyles, Mrs. Jane Elliott and her sister Miss Kate Perry, Mrs. Procter and her daughter Adelaide, John Everett Millais, most of my father’s habitual friends and companions. It was a gloomy and a silent evening. Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess, Miss Truelock. The room looked very dark, the lamp began to smoke a little, the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all. Mrs. Brookfield, who was in the doorway by the study, near the corner in which Miss Brontë was sitting, leant forward with a little commonplace, since brilliance was not to be the order of the evening. ‘Do you like London, Miss Brontë?’ she said; another silence, a pause, then Miss Brontë answers, ‘Yes and No,’ very gravely. My sister and I were much too young to be bored in those days; alarmed, impressed we might be, but not yet bored. A party was a party, a lioness was a lioness; and – shall I confess it? – at that time an extra dish of biscuits was enough to mark the evening. We felt all the importance of the occasion: tea spread in the dining-room, ladies in the drawing-room. We roamed about inconveniently, no doubt, and excitedly, and in one of my incursions crossing the hall, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him. When I went back to the drawing-room again, the ladies asked me where he was. I vaguely answered that I thought he was coming back. I was puzzled at the time, nor was it all made clear to me till long years afterwards, when one day Mrs. Procter asked me if I knew what had happened once when my father had invited a party to meet Jane Eyre at his house. It was one of the dullest evenings she had ever spent in her life, she said. And then with a good deal of humour she described the situation – the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how, finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club. The ladies waited, wondered, and finally departed also; and as we were going up to bed with our candles after everybody was gone, I remember two more guests, in shiny silk dresses, arriving, full of expectation.’

Charlotte Bronte dress, New York
It is this dress that Charlotte Bronte wore to Thackeray’s house in 1850

This was obviously a difficult night for Charlotte Brontë, she never enjoyed being in the limelight; nevertheless, Anne Thackeray has given a fascinating portrait of her, and she also alludes to the fact that some people in literary circles had been suggesting that William Makepeace Thackeray himself was the author of the novels by the mysterious Bell brothers.

Lady Ritchie
Lady Ritchie, Anne Isabella Thackeray, who met and remembered Charlotte Bronte

Another rumour was that Currer Bell was either a maid servant in the employ of Thackeray, or his mistress! (Despite the male-sounding pen name chosen by Charlotte many believed, correctly of course, that Jane Eyre was written by a woman). In November 1848, J. G. Lockhart wrote to the vituperative critic Elizabeth Rigby, stating: ‘The common rumour is that they [Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell] are brothers of the weaving order in some Lancashire town. At first it was generally said Currer was a lady, and Mayfair circumstantialised by making her the chére amie of Mr. Thackeray.’ Rigby herself wrote that, ‘Jane Eyre is sentimentally assumed to have proceeded from the pen of Mr. Thackeray’s governess.’

The 1850 dinner party was not the first encounter between Charlotte and Thackeray, and the meeting of these great novelists is commemorated forever on a door panel in Cornhill, London. This beautifully carved panel also shows Anne Brontë meeting Thackeray, but in fact the two never met. Charlotte’s very first meeting with the author of Vanity Fair was in December 1849, and once more it was brought about my George Smith. Charlotte wrote to her father after the event:

Bronte door panel
Bronte and Thackeray door panel in Cornhill

‘Yesterday I saw Mr. Thackeray. He dined here with some other gentlemen. He is a very tall man, above six feet high, with a peculiar face – not handsome – very ugly indeed – generally somewhat satirical and stern in expression, but capable also of a kind look. He was not told who I was – he was not introduced to me – but I soon saw him looking at me through his spectacles and when we all rose to go down to dinner he just stept quietly up and said “Shake hands” so I shook hands. He spoke very few words to me, but when he went away he shook hands again in a very kind way. It is better I should think to have him for a friend than an enemy, for he is a most formidable looking personage. I listened to him as he conversed with the other gentlemen – all he says is most simple but often cynical, harsh and contradictory.’

Thackeray in 1855
Thackeray in 1855

Four days later, on the 9th December 1849, this encounter was still weighing heavily on Charlotte’s mind, for she revisited it again in a letter to Ellen Nussey:

‘I suffer acute pain sometimes – mental pain, I mean. At the moment Mr. Thackeray presented himself I was thoroughly faint from inanition, having eaten nothing since a very slight breakfast, and it was then seven o’clock in the evening. Excitement and exhaustion together made savage work of me that evening – what he thought of me I cannot tell.’

We cannot tell what Charlotte’s reaction would have been when she discovered that Thackeray had a secret akin to Rochester’s, nor when she discovered the rumours that circulated about Thackeray and Currer Bell, but we can guess. Nevertheless, Charlotte continued to hold William Makepeace Thackeray in the utmost admiration, and she even purchased a portrait of him which is sometimes displayed in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Thackeray portrait Charlotte Bronte
Thackeray portrait belonging to Charlotte Bronte

Brutish in appearance, yet capable of kindness, a wealthy man with a family secret, and the host of grand society dinners that he escapes from at first opportunity – William Makepeace Thackeray was like Edward Rochester in many ways, even though Charlotte had never met him when she created the character. It also has to said that some of Thackeray’s attitudes towards Irish people, although of their time, were cruel and unenlightened, but perhaps Charlotte didn’t know that Thackeray wrote a series of anti-Irish diatribes for ‘Punch’ magazine under the pseudonym Hibernis Hibernior? What is undisputed is that Vanity Fair is indeed a masterpiece, satirical, thrilling and moving by turns, and it helped to inspire another genius, Charlotte Brontë, to become a novelist herself. For that we can all be thankful. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

National News On The Day Anne Brontë Was Born

Today is a very special day in the Brontë calendar, for Anne Brontë was born on the 17th January 1820; that make Anne 201 years old today – Happy Birthday Anne!

Anne Bronte by Charlotte Bronte
Anne Bronte, our birthday girl, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

It’s fair to say that Anne’s big 200th birthday celebration year didn’t go as anyone expected or wanted, but hopefully we will still get the chance to celebrate Anne in a proper and fitting way once we have finally defeated this pandemic. We surely live in a very different world to just a year ago, so how different is it from the one that Anne was born into by the fireside of Thornton Parsonage near Bradford?

Some people like to buy newspapers from the day they were born, or receive cards bearing news from that natal date. In that spirit I’ve delved into the archives to find newspapers published on that exact date, 17th January 1820, and curated stories from them. Before we take a look at them, let’s turn to a news source a little closer to the Brontë home. Elizabeth Firth lived in Kipping House in Thornton; she became a firm friend of the Brontës, and was eventually made godmother to Anne. It is in her diary that we get our very first glimpse of Anne Brontë, and confirmation of the day she was born. Elizabeth’s diary entry for 17th January 1820 reads: ‘Anne Brontë born, the other children spent the day here.’

Anne Brontë's birthplace
Emily’s, once Thornton Parsonage, where Anne Bronte was born 201 years ago

We can picture the five young Brontës making their way to Kipping House through the snow on this momentous day. How do we know it was snowing? It’s in the papers, of course, and in fact the country as a whole had been suffering from unusually cold weather:

The Statesman

The temperature has been recorded at two and a half degrees, that’s Fahrenheit of course, which equates to -16 degrees Celsius or Centigrade (why does it have two names?). It had been like that since the start of the year, and rivers and canals had frozen, causing great disruption to trade. In those days before central heating and modern clothing, it can’t have been pleasant.

Morning Chronicle

The weather report in The Statesman noted especial concern for the poor of the nation at this ferociously cold time, and this was picked up by many papers. There was a large demand for food and relief to be given to the poor, but the government, and some of the richer people of the country, seemed less than willing to help. This correspondent who signed his name “Homo Sum” (meaning “I am a man”) declared that ‘there is nothing so disgraceful as a good excuse to withhold charity’. He also takes direct aim at those in positions of authority who say that some of the claimants may be fraudulent or undeserving, or that they should be covered by the Poor Rate.

The Sun

For the poor, this harsh winter was a thing of terror, but the upper classes were having a grand old time, skating on the frozen Serpentine lake within London’s Hyde Park. It’s reported that a hundred thousand people were on the ice, led by the dashing Frederick Byng.

The Honourable Frederick Byng, AKA Poodle

Byng was the fifth son of Viscount Torrington and had become a favourite of the scandal sheets of the time. He was nicknamed ‘Poodle’ and was said to have had many conquests, mainly by himself. I wonder what Lady Whistledown of ‘Bridgerton’ would have made of him? With so many people on the Serpentine ice it’s little wonder that the ice gave way in two places, but thankfully it’s reported that no fatalities took place, and the skating carried on uninterrupted.

The Sun

Falling through ice was far from the only threat in January 1820, as this advert shows. Poignantly for an ad published on the day of Anne Brontë’s birth it reveals that 40,000 die annually of consumption (tuberculosis), with a quarter of the fatalities coming in London. The figures for both are likely to have been much higher in reality, and it’s also likely that Anne’s visit to London in the summer of 1848 at least partially influenced her own death from consumption less than a year later.

Caledonian Mercury

Reading newspapers from the early decades of the nineteenth century provides a never ending supply of strange ways in which people met their end. This man was particularly unlucky, the pig rather less so.

The British Press

The time of Anne’s birth and life was one that saw huge change and technological advances throughout the country, but Londoners were left disheartened by the failure to repair the main Thames crossing at London Bridge. Plus ça change, as last year London Bridge was again closed for six months, and Hammersmith Bridge is in such a state of disrepair that it has remained closed to traffic and pedestrians since August of last year.

Bristol Mercury

The birth of a sixth child brought joy and hope to the Brontë family of Thornton, but where could others find hope? If they could afford a ticket they could enter the ‘Golden Lottery’ and dream of changing their life. The eventual winner, if indeed there was one, has not been recorded.

Caledonian Mercury

Another distraction could be found in that most timeless form of entertainment, performing dogs! The Caledonian Mercury makes this sound like a delightful treat which would surely take our ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ by storm, and who in any era could fail to be astounded by a fire dog and a rope dancing dog? I particularly like the sound of the ‘learned dog’ who defeats human opposition at dominos – beat that, Simon Cowell!

Finally, we turn to a newspaper from Anne’s birth county, the West Riding of Yorkshire. We find a poem in praise of the winter and ‘the gloomy genius of the storm and flood’. Perhaps fittingly for a poem published on the day that the future author of Agnes Grey was born, the poet gives their name simply as ‘Agnes’.

Leeds Intelligencer

All of these pieces were published on that special day, 17th January 2020. We find performing dogs as popular entertainment, the threat of infectious disease, London bridges closed, a government that won’t feed the poor, a lottery that’s impossible to win, and dancing on ice drawing large audiences. Perhaps things aren’t that different 201 years later after all?

One thing that will never change is the brilliance of Anne Brontë’s writing. It’s there whenever we need it, so let’s raise a glass of something pleasant and say ‘Happy birthday Anne Brontë!’

Isabelle Huppert as Anne Bronte

Claire Heger, Madame Beck and Charlotte Brontë

Many people made a lasting impression on Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë – people such as Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor, George Smith and Margaret Wooler. This week marks the anniversary of the passing of a woman who certainly made a lasting impression upon Charlotte Brontë and influenced her work, but they weren’t necessarily the best of friends. In today’s post we’re going to look at Madame Claire Heger, the prototype of Madame Beck in Villette.

Claire Heger-Parent

Claire Zoë Parent was born in 1804 in Belgium to a French father, but perhaps the most significant relative, for our story, was her aunt. This aunt was a nun who ran boarding schools in Brussels, with a girl’s school and boy’s school adjacent to each other. It may be supposed that Clare worked as a teacher in that school for in 1830 she inherited the establishment, known as a Pensionnat. By 1842, at the time that two new English pupils arrived at the school on the city’s Rue d’Isabelle (Charlotte and Emily Brontë of course) it bore a plaque outside hailing it as the ‘Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent.’

Charlotte would always remember the moment she arrived at the school, and recreated it in the guise of English born teacher William Crimsworth in her first-written novel The Professor:

‘I saw what a fine street was the Rue Royale, and, walking leisurely along its broad pavement, I continued to survey its stately hotels, till the palisades, the gates, and trees of the park appearing in sight, offered to my eye a new attraction. I remember, before entering the park, I stood awhile to contemplate the statue of General Belliard, and then I advanced to the top of the great staircase just beyond, and I looked down into a narrow back street, which I afterwards learnt was called the Rue d’Isabelle. I well recollect that my eye rested on the green door of a rather large house opposite, where, on a brass plate, was inscribed, “Pensionnat de Demoiselles.” Pensionnat! The word excited an uneasy sensation in my mind; it seemed to speak of restraint. Some of the demoiselles, externats no doubt, were at that moment issuing from the door – I looked for a pretty face amongst them, but their close, little French bonnets hid their features; in a moment they were gone.’

Pensionnat Heger
The Pensionnat Heger, attended by Charlotte and Emily Bronte

Let’s head back to see how Claire Parent is doing as Directrice of her own school. In 1833 she hired a new Professor for the boy’s school which was named the Athenee Royal. Constantin Georges Heger was 24 but had already experienced tragedy in his life. He came from a wealthy family but the fortune had been lost and the young Constantin moved to Paris to seek his own way in life as a lawyer. In 1830 he married Marie Josephine Noyer but she, along with their son, died in 1833 and Constantin returned to his home city of Brussels. It was in the direct aftermath of this double tragedy that he was hired by Claire Parent to teach at the Athenee Royal. She must have helped to heal his broken heart, for three years later they were married and Claire became Madame Heger.

Within ten years of their marriage they had (like Patrick and Maria Brontë) six children: Marie, Louise, Claire, Prospere (born in the year the Brontës arrived in Brussels), Julie and Paul. That’s the happy Heger family at the top of the post, painted by Ange Francois. Claire is centre stage, although her husband Constantin is looking on rather furtively from the left as if he’s about to sneak off whilst his wife’s back is turned.

The story is well known of how Charlotte Brontë spent time as both a pupil and then teacher in Brussels, and of how she came to fall in love with Professor Constantin Heger. We only need to look at the despairing letters that Charlotte sent back to Brussels after her return to Haworth at the commencement of 1844 to see this, including one sent on 8th January 1845 in which she writes: ‘Pardonnez-moi donc Monsieur si je prends le partie de vous ecrire encore – Comment puis-je supporter la vie si je ne fais pas un effort pour en alleger les suffrances?’

Constantin Heger
Constantin Heger in old age

Let’s have it in English, and see just what suffering the departure from Constantin caused Charlotte:

This letter and others sent from Charlotte to Constantin were first published in 1913 by ‘The Times’ newspaper, and they caused an uproar. Up until then the prevailing orthodoxy was that Charlotte had not been in love with Constantin at all, but these letters proved otherwise and challenged the Victorian attitudes of propriety which were still holding firm among the chattering classes. The general opinion in 1913 was that the letters should have been destroyed rather than published, but thank goodness that they were brought to life for it allows us to see a passionate, human side of Charlotte Brontë that we can surely all sympathise with, and it gives us a first hand insight into the events and emotions that shaped The Professor and Villette and which influenced the character of Rochester.

We can have no doubt that poor Charlotte fell head over heels for Monsieur Heger, although you might not guess that from her first mention of him in a May 1842 letter to Ellen Nussey:

‘There is one individual of whom I have not yet spoken: Monsieur Heger the husband of Madame. He is professor of Rhetoric, a man of power as to mind but very choleric and irritable in temperament – a little, black, ugly 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 not above a hundred degrees removed from what you would call mild and gentleman-like.’

Could the ghost nun of Villette have been influenced by Claire’s aunt?

In this same letter Charlotte also introduced Claire Heger:

‘Madame Heger the head is a lady of precisely the same cast of mind, degree of cultivation & quality of character as Miss Catherine Wooler [this sister of Margaret Wooler had taught Charlotte at Roe Head and was renowned for her aloofness and severity]. I think the severe points are a little softened because she has not been disappointed & consequently soured – in a word she is a married instead of a maiden lady.’

By the following year, Charlotte’s views on Claire had hardened, as she expressed in a letter to her sister Emily dated 29th May 1843:

‘Of late days, Mr and Mde Heger rarely speak to me, and I really don’t pretend to care a fig for anybody else in that establishment. You are not to suppose by that expression that I am under the influence of warm affection for Mde Heger. I am convinced that she does not like me – why, I can’t tell.’

Perhaps the clearest indication of Charlotte’s feelings towards Claire Heger (although once again hidden by another name) is given via the depiction of Madame Beck in Villette – clearly a depiction of Madame Heger herself.

Madame Modeste Beck is the cool and calculating head of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles; she is not averse to spying on pupils and staff alike, and ruling them with a rod of iron. She is the antagonist of Lucy Snowe, doing all she can to keep Lucy from Monsieur Paul, and Charlotte Brontë is unsparing in her description of her:

‘About noon, I was summoned to dress Madame. (It appeared my place was to be a hybrid between gouvernante and lady’s-maid.) Till noon, she haunted the house in her wrapping-gown, shawl, and soundless slippers. How would the lady-chief of an English school approve this custom?

The dressing of her hair puzzled me; she had plenty of it: auburn, unmixed with grey: though she was forty years old. Seeing my embarrassment, she said, “You have not been a femme-de-chambre in your own country?” And taking the brush from my hand, and setting me aside, not ungently or disrespectfully, she arranged it herself. In performing other offices of the toilet, she half-directed, half-aided me, without the least display of temper or impatience. N.B.—That was the first and last time I was required to dress her. Henceforth, on Rosine, the portress, devolved that duty.

When attired, Madame Beck appeared a personage of a figure rather short and stout, yet still graceful in its own peculiar way; that is, with the grace resulting from proportion of parts. Her complexion was fresh and sanguine, not too rubicund; her eye, blue and serene; her dark silk dress fitted her as a French sempstress alone can make a dress fit; she looked well, though a little bourgeoise; as bourgeoise, indeed, she was. I know not what of harmony pervaded her whole person; and yet her face offered contrast, too: its features were by no means such as are usually seen in conjunction with a complexion of such blended freshness and repose: their outline was stern: her forehead was high but narrow; it expressed capacity and some benevolence, but no expanse; nor did her peaceful yet watchful eye ever know the fire which is kindled in the heart or the softness which flows thence. Her mouth was hard: it could be a little grim; her lips were thin. For sensibility and genius, with all their tenderness and temerity, I felt somehow that Madame would be the right sort of Minos in petticoats… “Surveillance,” “espionage,” – these were her watchwords.’

There can be no doubt that Lucy didn’t get on with Madame Beck, nor did Charlotte get on with Madame Heger, but why? The answer clearly lies in Charlotte’s affections for Claire’s husband Constantin. He never replied to Charlotte’s letters after her return to England, and they grow ever more desparate. Indeed, they have been torn into pieces and then stitched back together again. Perhaps Constantin meant to destroy the evidence of this unrequited love, but his wife, being an expert spy around her kingdom, found them and pieced them back together again?

Charlotte and Heger
Charlotte and Monsieur Heger emerge from the tunnel of mystery in ‘Devotion’ – possibly not the most accurate portrayal

We all love Charlotte Brontë of course, and we all love her masterly novel Villette, but in Belgium a very different view of the novel tended to be held. Claire Heger was a pillar of the Brussels commnunity and well loved for her lifelong services to education and for her charitable works. It was she, in the minds of her countrymen, who had been wronged.

Claire Heger died in 1890, and her husband survived her by six years. On 3rd June 1896 ‘The Sketch’ carried an extraordinary obituary of Constantin Heger written by Albert Colin, editor of ‘L’Etoile Belge’. In it, Monsieur Colin writes:

‘At the end of two years [after Charlotte Brontë’s entrance into the Pensionnat], the future English novelist spoke and wrote correctly the language of Bossuet, Racine and Voltaire. Once this had been achieved, Madame Heger, considering that her part of the contract morally entered into between herself and Charlotte had been completely fulfilled, refused to receive Miss Brontë a third year in her school. According to the statements of her own schoolfellows, the daughter of the English clergyman [sic] was anything but popular… Madame Heger was, therefore, not sorry to put an end to the connection.

The humiliating refusal to which she had been exposed sorely wounded Charlotte Brontë, who was not happy in her father’s house… She warned Madame Heger that she would take her revenge, and this threat was soon carried out.’

Clearly the Heger family in Brussels, maybe the city as a whole, felt slighted by Villette, although they could not help but acknowledge its genius. These wounds were healed, however, in 1953 by the visit to Haworth of a woman with a very appropriate name: Madame Beck(ers).

Madame Beckers was a guest of honour at the Brontë Parsonage, for she was in fact the granddaughter of Claire and Constantin Heger. After being given a tour of the museum, she pronounced that she forgave Charlotte for her portrayal of her grandmother as Madame Beck. What Charlotte’s response would have been we do not know, although a faint rumbling noise may have been heard coming from the nearby church.

Heger granddaughter BronteParsonage Museum
Madame Beckers in Haworth, Yorkshire Post, 27 August 1953

Perhaps we too, in a spirit of reconciliation, should put aside any ill feelings we may have towards Madame Heger. At the time Charlotte knew her, Claire was successfully running two schools and raising her family, and she was also pregnant in both of the years that Charlotte was in Brussels – with Prospere in 1842 and with Julie in 1843. She may also have been understandably suspicious of Charlotte’s growing infatuation with her husband, and she may have witnessed similar things in previous years with other pupils.

What we can say for certain is that Claire Heger was a good mother and a good headmistress, and that without the advent of herself and Constantin Heger in Charlotte’s life the world of literature would be very different today. For that we can all be grateful. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post; have a slice of cake ready for we’ll be saying happy 201st birthday to Anne Brontë!

Brontë Lessons And Motivation For The New Year

A new year has dawned and I suppose that most of us will be glad to wave goodbye to the pestilent 2020. Many people see the turn of the year as a time to make resolutions, or a time to take a blank canvas and finally put into action the plans we’ve long thought of.

Happy New Year card
The Victorians didn’t just make odd Christmas cards!

I’m generally an optimistic sort of chap, and there is definitely light and hope at the end of this tunnel, thanks to the vaccines that are just starting to be delivered. Maybe this year will see Anne Brontë 200th birthday events that should have taken place last year finally spring into life? I also believe that we may see some new Brontë television this year too, although I don’t know how Covid has affected the plans I heard about. Certainly the pandemic has delayed the release of my Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey book, but I’m confident that it too will see the light of day in the months ahead.

One thing which is beyond doubt is that we will still have the Brontë books to turn to, so whatever’s happening in the world without the world within can be a happy place. There’s lots of new year motivation and January wisdom to be found in the words of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.

“I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward. This is not the time to regret, dread or weep.”

Letter to Ellen Nussey, January 15, 1849


These very wise words from Charlotte Brontë were part of a doleful letter written at a very distressing time, but they show that even in moments of darkness Charlotte was always clinging onto that Pandoran gift – hope. Charlotte also wrote of the powerful force of forgiveness:

“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs”

Jane Eyre

I received a Jane Eyre word search at Christmas – each chapter has its own puzzle. Can you solve these first two?

Charlotte Brontë was not a person who suffered fools gladly; she had high standards and could be cutting about those who failed to match up to them. Nevertheless, she was at heart a very kind woman and she was always ready to forgive and forget. Emily Brontë was feted for her kindness by all who knew her, yet her writing is often dark and brilliantly challenging. Nevertheless in her masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Emily reveals how the pleasures of the natural world brought brightness and joy into her life – a lesson we can all learn from:

“He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy.”

Wuthering Heights

The climax of the novel sees old wrongs righted, and the feuds of the past laid to rest forever. This is Emily’s lesson for the new year, one repeated in the following lines of poetry written when she was 18: forget the painful past, and move on to a better future:


“But this is past and why return
O’er such a past to brood and mourn?
Shake off the fetters and break the chain
And live and love and smile again
The waste of youth the waste of years
Departed in that dungeon’s thrall
The gnawing grief the hopeless tears
Forget them – O forget them all -.”

One reason that Anne Brontë’s novels are both so powerful is that they are optimistic in nature. Anne was determined to depict the perils of life with truth and honesty, yet she also showed her innate belief in redemption and the pursuit of happiness. Both Agnes and Helen (especially) have much to endure, and yet their novels end with them marrying the man they love and settling down to a much brighter future. They have been kind in the face of horrific provocation and misfortune, and have reaped the rewards, and I think that the following line sums up succinctly Anne’s attitude to life:

“The more happiness we bestow, the more we shall receive, even here.”

Agnes Grey

Charlie Murphy as Anne Bronte in To Walk Invisible
Charlie Murphy as Anne Bronte in To Walk Invisible

I’ll close today’s post with the final lines of Anne’s poem ‘The Consolation’. One consolation that we can all embrace is that 2020 is behind us, and we all have lots to look forward to, including spending lots more time with those we love most. Happy New Year to you all, and I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

“When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.
Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.
The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.
Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.”