The Master and The Pupil: The Correspondence Between Charlotte Brontë and Constantin Heger

Charlotte Brontë’s universal themes of unrequited love and suffering have made her works classics. Most people can find a connection to the experiences found between the pages of her novels: the famed Jane Eyre, Villette, Shirley, and The Professor. The reason for the realism in Charlotte’s works can be attributed to her romantic obsession for a Belgian tutor named Constantin Heger. 

Many of us have been there. Many of us have believed ourselves in love to the point of obsession, and letters Charlotte Brontë wrote to Constantin Heger proves that even one of the most famed writers in English Literature wasn’t immune to this human experience. Often referred to as the “Heger Letters,” this one-sided correspondence from pupil to professor was almost lost to history a few times. Constantin tore up the letters at one point, and Elizabeth Gaskell, a friend of Charlotte’s, emitted the letters from Charlotte’s biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, but despite all this treachery, we’re fortunate to understand what inspired some of today’s most well-known classics. 

Portrait of the Brontë sisters by their brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë. From left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Charlotte first met Constantin in 1842. Charlotte and her sister, Emily, enrolled in a boarding school in Brussels in the hopes of gaining a better grasp on foreign languages to become better qualified at opening their own boarding school. In return for room, board, and tuition, Emily taught music and Charlotte taught English. This very boarding school was owned by Constantin Heger and his wife, Madame Zoë Heger. 

Constantin taught Charlotte and Emily French literature during their stay. During this time, Constantin was the first person to truly consider Charlotte an intellectual. He encouraged her writing. This connection served as the basis of a lifelong love–for Charlotte. 

Charlotte and Emily’s time at the boarding school was cut short in October of 1842 when their aunt died. Since their aunt had been looking after their younger siblings, they returned to their family home in Haworth, England to handle the family ordeal. Charlotte wouldn’t stay away long, however, returning to Brussels, alone, in January 1843.

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë (c. 1850) by George Richmond, painter and portraitist. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Despite being seven years her senior, married, and the father of several children, Charlotte, then 28 years-old, fell madly in love with Constantin during this time as he continued to personally tutor her in the French language and French literature. Charlotte later used her experiences–her homesickness, her deep attachment to Constantin–in The Professor, Villette, and of course, Jane Eyre

After returning home to Haworth in January 1844, Charlotte seemed under the impression that her attachment with Constantin would continue in a written correspondence. It’s here that the “Heger Letters” were composed as the obsessed Charlotte penned letters to the source of her love. Charlotte would sometimes write two letters a week with Constantin hardly ever replying at all. Constantin’s neglect led Charlotte to feel desperate for his attention. In a January 1845 letter, she wrote: 

“…Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on – they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men’s table – but if they are refused these crumbs – they die of hunger –  No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love – I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it – but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels – and I cling to the preservation of this little interest – I cling to it as I would cling on to life.”

Constantin Heger, the man who inspired a romantic obsession in a young Charlotte Brontë. This portrait is c. 1865. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The desperate plea in Charlotte’s letters are palpable, which might be precisely why he stopped replying to her by the end of 1845. Charlotte, however, tried to regain some relationship with her married mentor. Of four surviving letters, the last was written on November 18, 1845 with Charlotte saying:

 “…[S]o long as I think you are fairly pleased with me, so long as I still have the hope of hearing from you, I can be tranquil and not too sad, but when a dreary and prolonged silence seems to warn me that my master is becoming estranged from me – when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision – then I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.”

Constantin grew so irate with Charlotte’s correspondence that at one point he tore up her letters and threw them in the rubbish heap, but his wife collected the pieces and stitched them back together. Madame Zoë Heger likely did this to show the feelings were one-sided and to ensure her boarding school’s reputation didn’t suffer any damage. 

These letters would not surface to the public until 1913 when Heger’s family donated the correspondence to the British Library. These letters stirred a strong reaction, as this affair of the heart had been previously unknown, and by now both Charlotte and Constantin were dead. 

The title page to the first edition of Jane Eyre.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Charlotte had gone on to achieve literary acclaim with Jane Eyre, published in 1847. The relationship between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester are hauntingly similar to Charlotte and Constantin for the unrequited love for an older man chained by marriage. Other works, such as The Professor (written before Jane Eyre but published posthumously in 1857) and Villette, shared similar themes. Charlotte did eventually marry Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, who’d been in love with her for years. She died in 1855 with her unborn child.

Constantin Heger and his wife, Madame Zoë Heger, had six children together. He continued to teach at his wife’s boarding school until his retirement in 1882, and at one point served a short stint at the Athénée Royal. However, his lovestruck pupil continued to haunt him when in 1856 Elizabeth Gaskell visited him in doing research for her biography on her friend, The Life of Charlotte Brontë. He showed Gaskell the letters, but she downplayed the correspondence in the biography to protect her friend’s posthumous reputation. Constantin passed away in 1896. 

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J. H. Thompson at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The letters we do have today show a tormented, young woman addicted to a romantic obsession. It paints her as irrational and needy, but that’s because only her letters have survived to this day. Constantin’s responses to the woman who would eventually go on to become one of the most celebrated writers in English history are silent, nonexistent. If we had his letters, which is such an irresistible (and impossible) wish for a historian and writer, we’d have a better understanding of the relationship between the master and the pupil. 

It’s possible even Charlotte understood how others reading her letters might perceive her. In a way, Charlotte did have the last word. Maybe written for posterity, or maybe written to soothe her discomfort with the emotional intensity of her attachment to her mentor, Charlotte wrote in one letter: 

“I don’t want to reread this letter — I am sending it as I have written it — Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it — ‘she is raving’ — My sole revenge is to wish these people — a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months — then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too. One suffers in silence so long as one has the strength and when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words much.”

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Further Readings:

The Brontës in Brussel 

Charlotte Brontë, Britannica web entry

Charlotte Brontë: A Brief Biography by David Cody, Assistant Professor of English, Hartwick College

Charlotte Brontë’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters of Unrequited Affection by Maria Popova

Charlotte Bronte’s lost love letters to married professor were preserved by his wife by Eleanor Harding for the Daily Mail

‘I pine away’ … Charlotte Brontë’s romantic obsession by Claire Harman

The Secret of Charlotte Brontë by Frederika Macdonald (book available on Project Gutenberg)

An Unrequited Love? Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger by Joanna Norledge for the British Library

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