Thursday, 29 March 2007

Piecing together the story of the Brontë-Heger letters

Jennifer O'Grady is confused by certain discrepancies between different accounts of what happened to Charlotte's letters to M. Heger. She has sent the following queries in the hope that someone may be able to throw light on the aspects she finds puzzling.

"I am not a Brontë scholar; I am a poet, and for a piece of writing I am contemplating, I am trying to understand exactly what happened to the Brontë-Heger letters. Specifically, when were they thrown away by M. Heger and when preserved by Madame. Heger obviously had them in his possession when he met with Mrs. Gaskell in 1856; had they already been torn up and repaired then or did this happen after that meeting?"

Eric Ruijssenaars directed Jennifer to M. H. Spielmann's 1919 article "The inner history of the Brontë Heger letters" (included in the bibliography on our website). However, Jennifer wasn't wholly convinced by Spielmann's account:

"Heger provided Mrs. Gaskell with extracts from two of CB's letters to him, for the Life. Gaskell, it seems, also either saw or read the letters when she met with Heger in 1856. Does that mean that Heger saved these letters for some years, and only tore them up after he met with Gaskell? Spielmann was apparently told by Heger's daughter Louise that Heger tore each one up at once after reading it (except for the first), and that Madame repaired them and kept them in secret. Were the letters already repaired by 1856? I realize it must seem like a small point (and there is probably some simple answer that I have missed or have not yet come across) but understanding this would help me very much.

"Margaret Smith, in Volume I of her Letters of Charlotte Brontë, says that the first three letters were torn and sewn back together. She (Smith) attributes the repairing of the first two letters to Madame Heger, but the third one was also repaired. The first two were the letters from which Heger extracted for Mrs. Gaskell. If this is right, then it all seems rather mysterious to me.

"I suppose the general belief is that Heger tore the letters up after reading them and Madame patched them - and must have somehow convinced M. Heger to keep them, since he had some or all of them for Gaskell? However, acceptance of that seems to pose more questions for me. For instance--isn't it odd to think of Gaskell or anyone looking at letters that had been sewn together? How would that have been explained? What would she have made of such an explanation? And how did the letters later wind up with Madame and why was it apparently kept a secret from M. Heger, as Louise/Spielmann indicates? (After Madame dies, when Louise shows M. Heger the letters, she says he looked at them with astonishment. ) For me, unless I'm missing something, fewer questions are posed by imagining that the letters were retained whole by Heger until 1856. Is it possible that Louise Heger was not remembering correctly or was remembering what was convenient to remember? These are rhetorical questions, and perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but if anyone has any thoughts I would greatly like to hear them.

"On a related note, I was reading Clement Shorter's Charlotte Brontë and her Circle. He claims that CB ran into Laetitia Wheelwright in London, after CB was famous. According to Shorter, L. Wheelwright asked CB if she still corresponded with M. Heger. CB told her that Heger mentioned in one letter that his wife did not like the correspondence, and he asked her to address her letters to the Royal Athénée. "I stopped writing at once," said CB. "I would not have dreamt of writing to him when I found it was disagreeable to his wife; certainly I would not write unknown to her." (Quotes are Shorter's, of course). I thought this was interesting, especially because the last surviving letter from CB to Heger (the one that was not torn up according to Margaret Smith) was addressed to the Athénée. Perhaps this early account has since been discredited, but I did think it was odd and interesting!"

Jennifer O'Grady

Would any of our readers like to comment on this?


M. said...

I think Rebecca Fraser in her bio of Charlotte mentions some of these discrepancies but I can't remember now if she gives any answers. I will have to re-read it.

Helen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne said...

Clement Shorter was heavily invested in the idea there was only friendship for M. Heger within CB's heart and Shorter vigorously fought down the notion there was anything else.He was an able writer and can half convince one even today. I can't imagine what is was like for him to open his copy of the London Times and see Charlotte's love letters, among the world's greatest, put the speculation to rest for all time and to find he was on the wrong side of history.

What is remarkable about CB's reported statements to Laetitia is they make it sound as if it M. Heger was the one going to extraordinary lengths to keep up the correspondence when we know it was CB. They also made it seem it was CB who stopped writing when we know it was M. Heger. Perhaps CB was not sure what Laetitia had heard and covered her tracks so to speak. The statements ascribed to her sound too elaborate and detailed for LW to have made up imo.

A. H. McCormick said...

I agree with Anne. I believe that Shorter printed his story about Letitia Wheelwright and Charlotte Bronte after both of the women were dead, which of course made it impossible for anyone to ask Wheelwright whether this had actually happened. I doubt that it did, frankly. Yes, Shorter must have been chagrined to see those letters to M. Heger in the Times; they made it fairly clear that he'd been very wrong in his pronouncements about Charlotte's feelings for Heger, and his for her.

I believe that in Vol. 1 of Margaret Smith's "Letters of Charlotte Bronte" Smith prints statements by one of the Hegers' children about the letters she wrote M. Heger, saying that initially Bronte wrote more than once a week and that at some point she sent him a letter or letters at the address of the boys' school where he taught. Bronte seems to have suspected that M. Heger wasn't responding to her letters because Madame Heger was intercepting and destroying them. Presumably she must have thought writing to the boys' school was a way of avoiding interception. If that's so, she can't have been happy to find that he didn't respond to those letters: it wasn't that Madame Heger was stopping him. He just wasn't willing to reply.