Charlotte Bronte's Secret Love by Jolien Janzing
|Charlotte Bronte's Secret Love by Jolien Janzing|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Charlotte and Emily Brontë's time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte's passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn't seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: October 2015|
|Publisher: World Editions|
|External links: Author's website|
This is the second novel by Jolien Janzing, a Dutch author who lives in Belgium. Originally published in Dutch as The Master in 2013, it is already being made into a film. The flawlessly translated story zeroes in on two momentous years in Charlotte Brontë's life, 1842–3, when she was a pupil and then a teacher at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels. I read this in tandem with Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Brontë; it was particularly fascinating to see that the two books open with the same climactic episode: lovesick Charlotte making a confession at a Catholic church, even though she was an Anglican parson's daughter.
Janzing then retreats into the past to survey the Brontës' daily life at Haworth parsonage before joining Charlotte, Emily, and their friend Mary Taylor on the voyage to Belgium in February 1842, chaperoned by the girls' father, Patrick Brontë. The Hegers had been married seven years and had three children. Madame Heger, the headmistress of the boarding school, wore the trousers in their relationship, as Janzing makes clear by recounting how Madame makes Constantin stand in line for his wages along with the other teachers.
The most successful aspect of the novel is the authentically Victorian omniscient narration, which is both authoritative and inviting – sometimes addressing the reader as 'you' and other times including the audience in 'us'. Thus we have scene-setting phrases like 'Cast an eye over England and look for the windy, treeless hills of West Yorkshire' and 'Let us take a little distance in order to assess the situation better.' Using the present tense to animate history is an effective choice. The narrator has full access to all the characters' thoughts, allowing for stand-out passages like this one giving Charlotte's first impression of Constantin Heger:
He comes in, and Charlotte is disappointed. Strange—did she have particular expectations then? She had assumed that monsieur Heger would be a gentleman, and that he definitely is not. He is respectably dressed, but that seems to be more thanks to his wife. There is a smudge of chalk on his coat, but the coat is taken off and thrown nonchalantly on a chair against the wall. The man looks like a farmer, a tenant farmer. Coarse nose, coarse build, and a deep groove running up between his eyebrows to the lowest wrinkle on his forehead. … This is the kind of man who beats his wife, thinks Charlotte.
He, in turn, thinks her intellectual, vain and attention-seeking, and is more impressed by Emily. As Charlotte gets to know him better during his French grammar lessons, her English tutoring, and extracurricular excursions like errands in town and a trip to the carnival, she gradually falls in love. The crucial question, though, is whether Monsieur Heger returned her affections. Janzing makes a case for a mutual romance that found limited physical expression: a few passionate embraces, Charlotte accidentally seeing Monsieur Heger naked while babysitting the children, and multiple declarations of love both oral and written.
However, the historical record doesn't seem to support this assumption; read any Brontë biography and you'll get a sense of Charlotte embarrassing herself over an unrequited crush. Certainly Madame Heger was aware of Miss Brontë harbouring inappropriate feelings for her husband, for she cancelled their English lessons together, probably having snooped among Charlotte's papers. None of Heger's letters to Charlotte survive, though, so perhaps this is where Janzing sees her opportunity to reinterpret. The novel has undoubtedly been presented as a romance, especially with the new title. I felt mildly uncomfortable with some of the liberties Janzing has taken with Charlotte's inner life, such as having her masturbate while thinking of Constantin and almost overdose on opium as she's about to leave Belgium.
My other issue with the book is a couple of subplots that only seem to have minor significance. One concerns fifteen-year-old Arcadie Claret, being groomed by her busybody mother to become King Leopold's new mistress. I imagine Janzing's intention here was to give an idea of wider Belgian history as well as a metaphorical model of masters and mistresses, but these occasional sections struck me as tedious. In the other subplot, a working-class Flemish fellow, Emile, proposes marriage to Charlotte – not historical, as far as I can tell, though Charlotte did receive at least four proposals in her lifetime.
Nevertheless, it is always pleasant to spend time with the Brontës. It's intriguing to get a glimpse of Charlotte's thoughts during an episode that may be unfamiliar to her fans. You can see the seeds of some of her future heroes – especially Mr Rochester, but also Monsieur Paul Emmanuel in Villette – in Constantin Heger. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Charlotte's birth, so there is no better time for reading books by or about her.
Further reading suggestion: Of the many Brontë biographies, we can recommend Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon and Patrick Bronte: Father of Genius by Dudley Green. For a more oblique look at Charlotte, you might try Sanctuary by Robert Edric, which is set in Haworth and focuses on her black-sheep brother Branwell.
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