Wednesday 13 June 2007

The Secret of Charlotte Brontë

While I was in Haworth during this year’s AGM, I finally found and bought a most precious book, which had been on my wish list for years; The Secret of Charlotte Brontë, by Frederika MacDonald, published in 1914.

Perhaps some of you already have this book, but for those who haven’t, I would like to bring it to your attention.

This is probably the first and only book which is focused solely on Charlotte Brontë and Brussels, and would therefore be of great interest to everyone interested in that period of her life.

Frederika MacDonald, in 1859, was herself a pupil at the Pensionnat Heger where 17 years earlier Charlotte had been a student, and later a teacher.
She knew from first-hand experience what life was like at the school, and even more interesting, what M. Heger and his wife Madame Heger were like in real life.

Frederika had been writing articles as an ex-pupil of the Pensionnat from 1894 onwards, but when Charlotte’s letters to Heger were made public in 1913 (when Paul Heger handed them over to the British Museum), she was the first to quote from these letters in a Brontë biography. They form a vital part of this publication, in which Frederika tries to unravel the ‘secret’ of Charlotte on the basis of these letters.

The book is separated in 2 parts:

    (These Letters supply the Key to the Secret of Charlotte Brontë)
    She ends this part by quoting Charlotte’s last desperate letter to Constantin Heger. She writes:
    “ The Letter obtained no answer.
    And thus the end was reached. We now know
    where in Charlotte Bronte's life lay her
    experiences that formed her genius and
    made her the great Romantic whose
    quality was that she saw all events and
    personages through the medium of one
    passion: the passion of a predestined tragical
    and unrequited love.”
    Frederika MacDonald gives us a marvellous insight into her life at the Pensionnat and her own personal view of the teacher she and Charlotte both shared. She writes:
    “ But Monsieur Heger had one really beauti-
    ful feature, that I remember often watching
    with extreme pleasure when he recited fine
    poetry or read noble prose : - his mouth,
    when uttering words that moved him, had
    a delightful smile, not in the least tender to-
    wards ordinary mortals, but almost tender
    in its homage to the excellence of writers
    of genius.

    In brief, what M. Heger 's face revealed
    when studied as the index of his natural
    qualities, was intellectual superiority, an
    imperious temper, a good deal of impatience
    against stupidity, and very little patience
    with his fellow-creatures generally ; it
    revealed too a good deal of humour ; and a
    very little kind-heartedness, to be weighed
    against any amount of irritability. It was
    a sort of face bound to interest one ; but
    not, so it seems to me, to conquer affection.”

There are also some interesting illustrations, which you hardly find in any other publication or biography.


I strongly recommend this book as a wonderful addition of any good Brussels/Brontë collection.
If you are able to get your hands on a copy, don’t let it slip you by.
There is however the possibilty to read the text, by clicking on this link:
To see the digitalized original edition, click on ‘FLIP BOOK’ in the left panel where it says; ‘View the book’.

Some more information on Frederika’s book in the Australian Brontë Association Newsletter:

Discover the secret....


Anonymous said...

Hello there, i have a copy of this book that has been on my shelf for years. I would like to sell it and was wondering if you know where i could take it to be valued?
Thankyou in advance
Mrs Wright

Anne said...

I can highly recommend this book. I think the writing is excellent and Frederika MacDonald was sensitive to the positions and feelings a of all involved. It's marvelous to get a different perspective of the Hegers. I was quite moved when Madame let her guard down for a moment and her emotions were shown

Lisbeth said...

Thank you Anne. I had not read this post since, but it seems to be an interesting book. Definitely a different perspective than other books about the sisters.