Wednesday, 9 March 2016

'Villette' rocks Brussels, or was there really a scandal in the city?

It has been suggested, or rumoured, that there was a sort of scandal in Brussels following the publication of Villette. The big question is of course whether this can be true, and what it would have been like. In this article I hope to get somewhat closer to answering this question. In the previous articles I wrote about the editions that would have brought the novel to Brussels. We can assess the likelihood of a scandal with the help of some of this new information. It can allow us to say more on when it might have happened, for example.

Marion Spielmann, in an article in The Times of 17 August 1933, ‘After the Brontës – Life in the Pensionnat Heger,’ stated that “the Hegers were socially prominent in Brussels, and when the French translation of “Villette” appeared there was at least the raw material of a scandal in its love-story and its recognizable portraits of professor and governess.” Albert Colin, whom we also saw in the revenge article, wrote that, nevertheless, “the calumnies of the writer had no effect on the prosperity of the house, which was guaranteed from every attack by the excellence of its instruction and its clearly established lofty moral tone.”

It is tempting to link the publication of the 1855 La maîtresse d’Anglais to the Hegers, and Brussels in general, learning about Villette, as Spielmann does. However, I would say it is likely that they had their first Villette visitors before the Revue Britannique started publishing La maîtresse in March 1855. Right from the beginning it was clear that the novel was situated in Brussels, as is shown by the review of it in The Athenaeum of 12 Feb 1853: “‘Villette’ is a narrative of the heart-affairs of the English instructress and the Belgian professor of literature in a school in Brussels.” On the same day it said in The Spectator that “Villette is Brussels, and Currer Bell might have called her new novel ‘Passages from the Life of a Teacher in a Girls’ School at Brussels, written by herself.’” Charlotte really made it very easy too to find out that the pensionnat was the Pensionnat Heger.

The Tauchnitz Villette of early 1853 was on sale at Brussels bookshops, and in Paris and many other places and countries. There was a pretty large British community in Brussels, and Charlotte was a very popular writer. Her new novel will therefore have been read by a good many people in Brussels, not only Britons. And even at that time there was a lot of tourism. There were some big steamboats, sailing regularly between Britain and Belgium. These brought thousands of English visitors to Brussels every year. And the ships also brought lots of visitors from America, where Villette was a popular novel.

In view of this it seems very likely that the Hegers had their first Villette visitors well before March 1855, when the Revue Britannique began to publish La maîtresse d’Anglais .
There is no clear link of course between (foreign) visitors and a possible scandal. Any scandal is of course related to publicity. Here though it appears there was no publicity at all. While we have seen many sources, both Brian Bracken and I have at least never found any confirmation of the scandal story.

References to the pre-La maîtresse period.
Mrs. Gaskell , in a letter to George Smith, dated 1 August 1855 (Chapple & Pollard (eds.)-The letters of Mrs. Gaskell (Manchester 1966), p. 366), wrote: “I hear Mme Hezer [sic] has lost all her pupils since the publication of Villette.“ She clearly refers here to the original 1853 English Villette. Not to the ongoing publication of La maîtresse. It’s certainly untrue that Madame Heger lost all her pupils, and doubtful if she lost any at all. We never found anything supporting this story. It’s clearly a very unreliable source she had for this story.

We also have apparently two references to the Tauchnitz Villette of 1853.
Frederika Macdonald, in 1894 (Promised Land, p 76), gives recollections of ‘Madame G’: “Several of the girls described in Villette were exactly painted physically, and as many harsh things were said about them, much indignation was felt at the time when the book was published. There had been a pupil in the school at the time Charlotte Brontë was there called Mlle. Beck. On several other occasions real names were given to different characters.”

Mrs. Chadwick has a similar story, perhaps about the same woman (in In the footsteps of the Brontës,  p 437): Villette “had not been published many months before one of her own school fellows at Brussels bought a copy, and, although she did not know that Currer Bell was her old school-mate, she recognised the scenes, and knew the author must have been at the Heger pensionnat. I handled that copy of Villette some time ago.” These are interesting glimpses of the effect of Villette in Brussels, of which we sadly have very few.

Thanks to La maîtresse d’Anglais we can now say more about the 1855 chronology. It can’t be entirely excluded that the February Anglo-Belgian copyright treaty had an influence on the publishing of La maîtresse d’Anglais. When it was ratified the publishers knew for certain there was no copyright on the novel. The translation itself however will date from before February, the first part at least, as it should be ready for the first installment in the Revue Britannique.  We don’t know when exactly the March edition was published, but the printing process must have been set in motion previously. The publishers though will have known they had nothing to fear, well before the treaty was ratified. It’s very likely therefore that there’s no connection between the treaty and the Revue Britannique Villette.

Charlotte Brontë's death as reported in
l'Indépendance belge of 7 April 1855
As stated earlier, in the La maîtresse d’Anglais chapter, publishing began in March, when Charlotte was still alive. Lucy Snowe that month did already arrive in Brussels, in the first installment of the novel.
It would seem likely that there were only a few weeks between the Hegers hearing about La maîtresse d’anglais, and them hearing about Charlotte’s death, which was published in probably every newspaper. Villette has a nice reference to Madame Beck reading a newspaper, in the garden, with a cup of coffee at hand (Chapter 26). This is surely based on a real life observation of Madame Heger.

Newspaper boys in the Rue Isabelle in 1890, with the
newly printed edition of Le Soir
In May or June they may have bought the first volume, of the Rue Villa-Hermosa Villette, with the text of the first three installments of the Revue Britannique Villette. Three months later they may have bought volume 2. It is likely though, it seems to me, that they would have bought the Revue Britannique too, not wishing to wait some months to see what Charlotte had written in the next chapters. It seems unlikely they ever bought the Tauchnitz Villette, as the Heger family never reported that they had it in their possession, Still, it would have been the easiest way to find out what she had written, and also to see what was missing from the English version. Monsieur Heger did learn some English from Charlotte, and he could probably have understood the English text quite well.

It took until the end of the year before the La maitresse story was over. The last Revue Britannique installment was in the November edition, and shortly afterwards the third volumes of the book versions were published. The agony for the Hegers went on for almost the whole year. It appears that Villette was quickly forgotten in Brussels then, but the English and American visitors wouldn’t disappear. And their numbers would only increase in the next decades.

Rebecca Harding-Davis, in 1906, in ‘The love story of Charlotte Brontë’ (Pensionnat revisited, p. 56) wrote that “the Heger family, I found, had long had a well-established and honorable position in Brussels. Their standing among their fellow-citizens was not affected by the esclandre which followed their connection with Miss Brontë, and which made them the subject of the world’s gossip.” The Hegers’ “feeling toward Charlotte was naturally extremely bitter. She had undoubtedly received constant and great kindness from their mother, and in return had held her up as “Madame Beck,” to the contempt of the world.” And, Villette “was, in fact, so accurate a description of her own life in the pensionnat that it drew the attention of the whole reading world to the little school in Brussels. Poor Madame Heger, to her amazement, was held up to universal scorn and contempt.

The novel, I learned in Brussels, produced great excitement in that community when it appeared – not because the grave conventional burghers gave a moment’s thought to Charlotte, her woes, or her brilliant powers, but because the book asserted that flirtations with outside lovers were possible to the jeunes demoiselles in the Heger pensionnat, and that audacious gallants could smuggle love-letters to their daughters under the very nose of Madame Heger. The school tottered to its foundations. But I was told “it was too securely grounded in the confidence of the court and gentry to fall. A paper was drawn up by many of the noble women in Belgium who had been educated by Madame Heger, testifying to their profound confidence and faith in her and in her institution”” (p. 58).

It is not easy to believe this account.
If Madame Heger was indeed “held up to universal scorn and contempt”, and had “the school tottered to its foundations,” we would have found more evidence of that. A paper, “drawn up by many of the noble women in Belgium” has never been found, and we have no idea to whom it would have been addressed. It would also have been rather un-Catholic. They would try to keep silent about it, and such a paper would only have drawn further attention to the novel.

Flirtations with outside lovers and smuggling love-letters are unlikely to bring down a school, let alone the renowned Pensionnat Heger-Parent. Smuggling things cannot even be prevented in prisons. It is equally impossible to prevent girls and boys from flirting. That makes it unlikely these were the causes of a scandal.  Harding-Davis wrote this more than 50 years after the supposed scandal. She doesn’t give sources. There’s almost nothing to support her view. It doesn’t make it a credible story. Still, it can’t be ruled out entirely.

It feels as if Villette only caused a ripple, in the big tide of daily events in a big European city of those days. Something will have happened, but we’ll most probably never know what exactly. It seems fair though to dismiss the idea of a big scandal.

The anonymous author of the 1890 article in The World (a London journal) said that “if her animadversions had had any substantial foundation, M. and Mme. Heger might long since have closed their shutters. As it is … the Pensionnat Heger continues to flourish like a green baytree. It has become the Mecca of American travellers” (PR, p. 68). In the next, and last article of this series there will be something more about the early popularity of Villette in America, including an article from 1858 by the first known visitor to the Pensionnat, after Mrs. Gaskell that is.

Eric Ruijssenaars

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