Monday 5 March 2012

Charlotte Brontë’s French in ‘L’Ingratitude’

Sue Lonoff, translator and editor of Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s Belgian essays, writes about the level of French displayed by Charlotte in her essay ‘L’Ingratitude’, written shortly after her arrival in Brussels and recently discovered in a Belgian museum by Brussels-based archivist Brian Bracken.

How good was Charlotte Brontë’s French in ‘L’Ingratitude’? As we know, it is a very early devoir, written a month and a day after Charlotte and Emily arrived at the Pensionnat Heger. In this text of fifty-eight lines, Brian Bracken has identified fourteen errors. However, eight of the fourteen are the same error: Charlotte used the imperfect tense rather than the passé simple. For example, she wrote ‘mangeait’, ‘he was eating’ rather than ‘mangea’, ‘he ate’. She made one mistake in gender (‘un’ rather than ‘une’ odeur) and one in pronoun case (‘le faisait’ rather than ‘lui faisait). She hyphenated a word incorrectly; she forgot to make ‘grand’ plural before ‘seigneurs’; she put an adjective before instead of after its noun; and she used one plural verb rather than a singular. Errors of this kind are commonly made by English people writing in French. Still, ‘L’Ingratitude’ shows that Charlotte came to Brussels with a fairly solid grammar base and an extensive vocabulary. Her French was not yet supple. ‘L’Ingratitude’ is stiffer than the essays she would write subsequently. Its punctuation is also erratic, but that is an issue in all of her writing, English or French. Nevertheless, she shows her teacher that she can write with imagination and charm

Sue Lonoff

Link to article in London Review of Books with text of the essay in French and English (you can also listen to a podcast of Gillian Anderson reading the tale):