September 09, 2008

‘Charlotte Brontë’s Letters to M. Heger’ by Linda S. Kauffman

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Letter to M. Heger

In beginning her exploration of Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger, Kauffman suggests that the letters reveal Charlotte Brontë’s transformation ‘from Heger’s correspondent into the novelist of Jane Eyre’ (Kauffman 1986: 160). Kauffman intends to connect the rhetorical strategies of the letters and of Jane Eyre to map ‘the metamorphosis of the rhetoric of passion from an authentic to a fictional discourse’ (p. 160).

To begin, Kauffman maps out the narrative of Brontë’s and Heger’s encounter including:
• Charlotte’s and Emily’s trip to Brussels in 1842 to learn languages;
• their return to England at the death of their aunt;
• Charlotte Brontë’s return to Brussels alone – without Emily – in 1843;
• and her final journey back to England in 1844.

Brontë began writing to Heger after her return and there is evidence to suggest that there were more letters than survive today. In the letters that do remain, Kauffman notes a variety of characteristics that fit the ‘amorous epistolary discourse’ on which her study focuses. These include:
• ‘the denial of the reality of separation’;
• ‘the desire for contact’;
• ‘despair at the master’s silence’;
• and ‘resigned desolation’ (p. 161).
In initial letters, Brontë is ‘submissive’ and puts ‘emphasis on having been given the authority to write’ (p. 161). When Heger writes back though with a firm, stern tone providing instruction as to how she must write, Brontë rebels and does the opposite; ‘she becomes more outspoken, more indignant, less submissive’ (p. 161-162). Kauffman notes that ‘[l]ike all amorous epistolary discourses, Charlotte’s letters are demands, pleas, threats, and confrontations, filled with the same marks of internal tension, contradiction, self-division, and torment’ (p. 163).

Like Mary Jacobus in ‘The Buried Letter’, Kauffman confirms that the figure of student-governess-teacher is an ambiguous one in nineteenth-century British society. She describes Brontë as ‘simultaneously a family intimate and a family employee; the boundaries between belonging to and being excluded from the family are constantly shifting ones’ (p. 163). In Jane Eyre, Blanche Ingram tries to humiliate the governess-heroine and in her letters, Brontë expresses anguish at her humiliation in being a governess. In her letters to Heger, Brontë seems unsure as to whether to situate herself as governess or pupil, but she tries to reconcile Heger’s mixed signals: his warmth in past encounters and the coldness of his response to her letters.

Gaskell and others have tried to suggest that the romance between Heger and Brontë was imagined, but Kauffman provides much evidence that suggests that Heger exploited teacher-pupil relationships on a regular basis with his charismatic personality. Brontë’s letters are always a work of persuasion to try to goad him into breaking his silence and writing to her again, which he never does. Silence is of course an obsession of Brontë’s novels too: ‘[i]h her letters, poems and novels Charlotte continued all her life to portray the intense misery of loneliness, exile and unrequited love’ (p. 170).

Kauffman, L. 1986, Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre and Epistolary Fictions, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Further Reading
Eagleton, T. 1975, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, London: Macmillan.
Gerin, W. 1967, Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius, Oxford: OUP.
Moglen, H. 1976, Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived, New York: Norton.
Winnifrith, T. 1973, The Brontës and their Background: Romance and Reality, New York: Barnes and Noble.

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