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 the pensionnat on New Year’s Day 1844 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 to Constantin Heger are increasingly unguarded expressions of her torment as she waited for replies that dwindled and then halted altogether.
What language are the letters written in?
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’. Biographer Lyndall Gordon and scholar Sara Dudley Edwards have speculated that writing in a foreign language allowed Brontë the licence to express feelings that she mightn’t have voiced in her native English.
Why were the letters torn up and repaired?
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. Critics have speculated that Monsieur Heger tore up the letters, only for Madame Heger to retrieve them from his wastepaper bin and piece them together again.