Charlotte Bronte’s lost love letters to married professor were preserved by his wife
Charlotte Bronte's love letters reveal a relationship mirrored in her novel Villette – a sad tale of a young woman's obsession for a Belgian teacher
It was a tale of unrequited love that could have been plucked straight from one of her novels.
Charlotte Bronte’s infatuation with her Belgian professor might never have come to light if it were not for the salvaging of her secret love letters.
The papers, written in 1844 when the author was 28, were torn up in shock by the older man, who was married and had children. But perversely, they were later found by his wife in a rubbish bin and sewn back together – possibly to preserve evidence of an indiscretion.
Three of the letters, addressed to Professor Constantin Heger, were composed entirely in French, one saying: ‘If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely, I shall be absolutely without hope.’
One further letter had a postscript written in English, which is now to be published by the British Library in an anthology of love letters written by historical figures.
It reads: ‘I must say one word to you in English – I wish I would write to you more cheerful letters, for when I read this over, I find it to be somewhat gloomy – but forgive me my dear master – do not be irritated at my sadness – according to the words of the Bible: “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaketh” and truly I find it difficult to be cheerful so long as I think I shall never see you more.’
Bronte's love letters were ripped apart by her Belgian professor but painstakingly stitched back together by his wife
This letter was written on November 18, 1844, while Miss Bronte was living at the family parsonage at Haworth, Yorkshire.
It was two years after she first met Professor Heger and three years before the publication of her first major novel, Jane Eyre.
She had stayed with the academic and his wife in Brussels while she studied languages. He spotted her talent for writing and strongly encouraged it, but it is believed she misinterpreted his attentions.
The story mirrors her novel Villette, published in 1853, a sad tale of a young woman’s obsession for a Belgian teacher.
The letters still have the marks where their horrified recipient tore them up or tried to burn them.
A painting of the Bronte sisters, who were all authors, from left to right, shows Anne, Emily and Charlotte
Even after his wife had rescued them, Professor Heger tried to dispose of them again when his daughter showed them to him as he lay on his death bed in 1896.
But by this time, Miss Bronte – who had died aged 38 in 1855 – was already seen as an important writer and it was decided they should be preserved.
Rachel Foss, of the British Library, said: ‘Having been burnt, sold, cut up and destroyed, it is remarkable that these letters have survived.
‘Seeing the torn-up letters with the careful stitches holding them together is remarkably evocative and moving; you get a really vivid sense that they have a story to tell.’
After Bronte’s death, her friend Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her biography, attempting to bury the story of unrequited love to preserve her honour. The young woman’s reputation would have been ruined had it been well-known that she pursued a man so aggressively.
Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance, is the first ever anthology to reproduce original love letters in each of the writers’ own hand.