This story obviously goes together with Villette as being Charlotte’s revenge. It’s a great story, but can it be possibly true? Here we present what is known, for the reader to judge.
To be clear, there are two separate stories, firstly “the two women traveling together to Ostend” story, and secondly, the “declaration of revenge” story. Harman is the first biographer of Charlotte to combine the two stories. But it appears that Jolien Janzing has the somewhat dubious honour of being the very first in her novel Charlotte Brontë’s secret love, first published in Dutch in 2013 as De meester. The revenge theory goes back to the 19th century, while the origin of the Charlotte and Madame Heger traveling together to Ostend story dates from 1951. These sources do not combine the two stories.
The idea that Madame Heger and Charlotte traveled together to Ostend, after her final farewell to Brussels, comes from Mme. Beckers, née Simone Heger. She was a daughter of Madame Heger’s son, Paul. It is found in the Brontë Society Transactions of 1951 (volume 12, nr. 1), in an article called ‘The Hegers. A Brontë luncheon in Brussels for Dr. Phyllis Bentley.’ It says that “Mme. Beckers mentioned that when Charlotte left the Pensionnat Heger finally, Mme. Heger accompanied her to the boat at Ostend.” Mme. Beckers gave more Heger family information, but sadly, much of it is untrue.
Why would Madame Heger accompany her all the way? It has been said she wanted to make sure Charlotte really did leave, but she could be certain that Charlotte wouldn’t go hanging around in Brussels. The journey would be very painful for both, and probably cost her a night in an Ostend hotel.
We don’t believe this story is true. Madame though may well have escorted her to the coach, or the train, in Brussels. As you see from the quote it doesn’t say which means of transport would have been used. It doesn’t hinder a Charlotte biographer like Rebecca Fraser from stating that they traveled in a “diligence.” It could have been a train too, in which Charlotte at least made her journey to Ostend. We don’t know.
It is interesting of course that Harman and all biographers since Margot Peters in 1975 accept this traveling story as a truth, while Harman says she doesn’t believe the theory that Charlotte uttered words of revenge. The others, like Peters, Rebecca Fraser and Lyndall Gordon don’t mention it. And yet, this is at least a more likely story. If true, the only original source can be Madame Heger of course, through one of her daughters probably. It wasn’t Charlotte.
The oldest reference dates from 1896. The article was written by A. Colin and was an obituary of Monsieur Heger. It was translated and published in The Sketch, from which comes this quote: “The thought of [going back to Haworth] caused her keen distress. She warned Madame Heger that she would take her revenge, and this threat was soon carried out.” Unfortunately Colin, an editor of the journal l’Etoile Belge, is an unreliable witness. A lot of things in his article are untrue, but that doesn’t mean this was untrue.
The second source is Marion Spielmann’s The inner history of the Brontë-Heger letters (1919). He writes that Madame Heger “became convinced of the justice of her view when Charlotte Brontë was leaving Brussels and let loose the burning valedictory words (as I am assured)-“Je me vengerai!””
Brian Bracken has demonstrated how unreliable Spielmann is in his article (Marion Spielmann’s Brontë-Heger Letters History: Fact or Fiction?, in Brontë Studies 38/1 Jan 2013). One very much wonders by whom he ‘was assured.’ We would think Louise Heger is the best candidate.
So there are two independent sources for the revenge story. Together they make up a good point. It’s easy to dismiss one, but both is less easy.
It is at any rate no wonder that Ellis Chadwick (in 1914, in In the footsteps of the Brontës), spoke of “the vindictive nature of Villette.” And Rebecca Harding-Davis (in 1906) stated that “Villette, in which Charlotte Brontë laid bare her heart to the public, and took deliberate revenge on the wife of the man whom she loved, was undoubtedly a work of genius. But surely the exposure and the revenge were ignoble and paltry” (in my The Pensionnat revisited (PR), p. 58). Charlotte’s portrayal of Madame Beck in the novel can easily be seen in the light of revenge. She knew that before too long the book would get known in Brussels, and that Madame Heger would be deeply hurt by it.
I asked my friend Sue Lonoff, the Brontë Brussels scholar who published a critical edition of Charlotte and Emily’s Belgian essays, whether she thinks it could be true. Here’s her answer:
“Did Charlotte actually utter these words? I wasn't there so cannot say. Would she have been capable of uttering those words, in her desperate departure from Belgium? Absolutely. Could she have carried a grudge against Madame Heger forever? Yes, well within her character. Charlotte Brontë was a physically unattractive woman in an era when beauty mattered hugely. Zoë Parent-Heger had so much that Charlotte lacked: social poise, sagesse, a rewarding career and marriage -- and, of course, Heger. Charlotte saw herself as a morally righteous person, but when she came to Belgium and despite all her reading, she was encased in her own narrowly Protestant culture. Madame Heger gradually became, for her, the fount of the frustration she could scarcely admit, and the lasting target of her outrage. So yes, "Je me vengerai," whether or not she said it out loud.”
Four plausible options
We will most probably never find anything more on whether Charlotte said these words, so we must base our opinion on what has been presented here. The possibilities therefore are four-fold; firstly that it’s not true, secondly that Charlotte indeed said these words, and thirdly that she only thought them. A fourth option is that she only had revenge in mind later on, when writing her Brussels novels.
The no revenge theory
I also asked Helen MacEwan, the BBG president and author of The Brontës in Brussels. She thinks it’s not true: “It sounds to me like an apocryphal story handed down through the generations of the Heger family, something invented after the publication of Villette. Whatever Charlotte felt at the time she took leave, I can’t imagine her actually uttering such crude words to Mme Heger. I think there would have been outward chilliness but also politeness. Furthermore, I’m not convinced that ‘revenge’ was in her mind at the time of leave-taking, or indeed at any time.”
Charlotte herself seems to support this theory, obviously. In a letter to Ellen Nussey (who received it on 22 November 1852) she wrote that Villette, “I think, will not be considered pretentious – nor is it of a character to excite hostility” (Smith, vol 3, p. 85). It implies apparently that she deliberately made Madame Beck unlike Madame Heger. And it’s true of course that Madame Heger was much nicer than the novel figure. Frederika Macdonald indeed, in 1894, wrote about “the true Madame Heger, whom I find it impossible to believe the author of Villette ever meant it to be supposed could have sat for the portrait of Madame Beck” (in my Charlotte Brontë’s Promised land (PL), p. 73). She acknowledges though that there was “actual antipathy” in Charlotte’s feelings towards Madame Heger (p. 74).
Still, it would also seem then that Charlotte just didn’t think about any hostility the novel would stir in Belgium. She insults the whole country. It’s not easy to believe Charlotte was entirely honest to Ellen. But it may be seen as an argument that she didn’t have revenge in mind. Hostility is something else anyway.
The anonymous author of the 1890 article in The World argued that “Charlotte Brontë’s fund of descriptive subjects was necessarily small, and the temptation to make capital out of the Rue d’Isabelle was too strong to be resisted. After taking the first step the rest was easy. The pensionnat, like everything else, had its weak sides, and the more Charlotte Brontë wrote, the more she forgot her ‘undying obligaton’ to her ‘dear friends’ the Hegers. It ended by putting them and all their surroundings into a literary pillory, which will last far longer than the Burgundian dog-kennels or the fame of the crossbowmen“ (PL, p. 68).
The thought theory
Brian Bracken, who has been helping me very much with these articles, is inclined to believe that she would have at least thought the words. Claire Harman as we saw also thinks Charlotte thought the words.
“Bearing in mind,” Brian writes, “that she already had negative feelings about Zoé Heger, it's well possible she felt, then, that she would get revenge on her sometime - in the future… [and] given that Villette's Mme Beck is a pretty nasty woman, and that in many ways she appears to be based on Zoé - then it would seem that Charlotte Brontë is getting some sort of revenge on Zoé through writing Villette.”
It would be too crude to say the words indeed, in this theory. That’s what the first two options have in common.
The saying the words theory
I support the idea that Charlotte really said the words. I think Sue Lonoff is right in believing that she either thought or said the words. We have two independent sources for her saying the words, which makes it a credible story. Therefore I can’t really believe in the thought theory.
Charlotte on that day felt very depressed. She knew she would never see Monsieur Heger again. In such (I’d say divorce-like) circumstances people can quite easily say crude things. And she hated Madame. Apart from this, women can be that crude to one another when there’s some sort of rivalry. Charlotte’s pen was her weapon. She first tried it by Zoraïde Reuter in The Professor, but that attempt failed, as it didn’t get published. Both she and Madame Beck are “scathing portraits” of Madame Heger, as Clement Shorter (who otherwise staunchly defended Charlotte in everything) put it, in the second chapter of this series.
One can find many variations in Brontë literature on these words on the scale of scathing and vindictive. Charlotte will at least have had revenge in her mind when she wrote Villette. She must have been very aware of, as Monsieur put it, “the pain their contents would cause in Brussels.” He is said to have called it “bien vilain de Charlotte” (PL, p. 88). “Mais, c’est le meilleur vin qui fait le vinaigre le plus acide,” he added. By all accounts it is clear that he did refer to how Madame Heger was depicted, as Madame Beck. That was what hurt the family, and Madame herself most. “He remembers her with affection, Madame Beck with wrath,” one observer wrote (Thomas Westwood, PR 47)
And we all have to admire her revenge, Villette, Charlotte’s masterpiece. Sadly Madame Heger had to be sacrificed for it.
The fourth option
It is also possible that Charlotte only felt thoughts of revenge when writing Villette, and not earlier. She may after all well have had no such an idea in mind almost ten years earlier. This theory is quite closely related to the first option, in that it does not believe that Charlotte thought such things, let alone uttered them, when the two women parted. Her feelings of vengeance may only have developed when she began to see the hopelessness of her correspondence with Monsieur Heger. She will have blamed Madame for not receiving a letter anymore, from him. And presumably quite rightly so. Zoë Heger will have discouraged her husband from writing. When it really became clear that he would never write anymore Charlotte started writing The Professor. In this novel the Isabella Quarter is not disguised at all. The portrait of Madame Heger as Zoraïde Reuter can be seen as vindictive, and surely her later creation too, Madame Beck.
This last theory is also related to the second and third option of course. Both too accept the idea that Villette was a novel of revenge. The main question probably is whether or not to accept it was. The next choice is if she had such an idea when the two women parted, and then whether or not she may have said those words, or only thought them.
What do you, the reader, think? We are very interested in that.
You can cast your vote below.
These articles also go to show how difficult it is to find real concrete evidence for things claimed by past Brontë historians, and that quite often what they claim is found to be untrue, on closer inspection.
In the next article we will have a look at the Brussels Villettes that are thought to have brought Charlotte’s (supposed) revenge to Madame Heger,
What do you think? Vote for one of the four alternatives below by leaving a comment at the end of this blog post. If you wish, you can also contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org
0 no revenge
0 revenge thoughts at parting
0 revenge words at parting
0 revenge thoughts later