Monday 4 May 2015

Brontë weekend talks on 25 April with Claire Harman and Bonnie Greer

Claire Harman

Claire Harman, whose biography of Charlotte Brontë is due to be published in October, was our first
speaker at our Brontë weekend this year. Her talk on Saturday, April 25, was very special for the Brussels Brontë Group because Claire focused on the wrenching letters that Charlotte sent to her teacher, M. Heger, after she left Brussels and the importance of her Belgian experience in her life and art.

The feelings of unrequited affection and desperate anguish that Charlotte shows in these letters coloured all of her subsequent writing after she went back to Haworth at the start of 1844, Claire said. The four letters are now at the British Library in London, where they have been since being donated by the Heger family in 1913.

Claire, the author of several biographies including one of Robert Louis Stevenson, also provided interesting insights into the biographer's craft. She has also written Jane's Fame on the legacy of Jane Austen, in the vein of Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth. In writing her forthcoming book on Charlotte Brontë, Claire said she refrained from reading other biographies of the writer, though she heavily consulted Juliet Barker's The Brontës as a reference, saying she wanted her biography to contain her ``own very personal take'' on the letters and other material, such as the devoirs written in Brussels.

Claire said she came to the subject of Charlotte already as a devotee of the Brontës, with a special interest in the story of Charlotte and M. Heger and the significance of that episode in her life and in her works. She said the chapter on the letters to Heger in Lyndall Gordon's book Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life is ``a brilliant set piece'', but she didn't want to be influenced by that work either.
She started her talk with a wonderful anecdote about when she was researching Charlotte's letters, some of which are in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection. Claire said she was in Brooklyn, New York, reading in Margaret Smith's three-volume compilation of Charlotte's letters. It was Nov. 5, 2013, and she noticed that the letter she was reading -- from Charlotte to W.S. Williams at her publishers -- was dated Nov. 5, 1848. What serendipity -- she was reading the text of this letter exactly 165 years after it was written. The citation said the original of the letter was in the Berg Collection -- so just across the East River from where she was. Claire hopped on the metro, popped up at 42nd St. and requested the letter at the library -- and soon was holding the original. ``I love this job,'' she said.

Claire explained how seeing the original of any letter or manuscript gives one additional insights into its composition -- you can see the nature of the handwriting, you can turn the page over. ``When you see it physically, it completes a picture,'' Claire said. This is especially true of the four letters from Charlotte to M. Heger, some of which have the additional element of having been torn up and put back together. The four Brontë-Heger letters are kept in a custom-made box at the British Library, each letter preserved in a glass frame that lets you see both sides of the document.

Each of these ``miserable letters'' is a masterpiece of composition in trying to get M. Heger to write back, Claire said as she discussed two of them in detail. They are some of the most poignant letters ever written by an author because they are so personal and so revealing, she said. Claire showed an image of the one dated 8 Jan. 1845, explaining that the ragged hole near the center is where the sealing wax ripped the paper, as she demonstrated how the single sheet of paper was written on in a certain way to enable it to be folded and addressed. In this letter, Charlotte is trying to be compelling ``but not scary,'' Claire said, adding that ``she doesn't succeed in that one.'' She quoted a bit of the letter:

But when one does not complain, and when one wants to master oneself with a tyrant’s grip -– one’s faculties rise in revolt -– and one pays for outward calm by an almost unbearable inward struggle.

This is one of the torn-up letters; it's in nine sections, sewn back together with thread. Claire called it a little like Frankenstein's creature. She said the tearing seems relatively casual, not necessarily aggressive; while the mending is incredibly deliberate, very careful -- one of the letters is glued and two are sewn.

In the letter dated 18 Nov. 1845, Claire said Charlotte ``begins very pathetically'' with a rather formal sentence about her agreement to write only once every six months, then she tries to chat normally about what she's been doing, and then she loses it in the middle of the letter and becomes extremely upset:

Your last letter has sustained me -– has nourished me for six months – now I need another and you will give it me -– not because you have any friendship for me -– you cannot have much -– but because you have a compassionate soul and because you would not condemn anyone to undergo long suffering in order to spare yourself a few moments of tedium.

``That's very cutting, very harsh, but also very desperate,'' Claire said. This letter also includes ``an extraordinary piece of marginalia'' as M. Heger has noted down a tradesman's address next to one of the ``incredibly heart-broken'' passages, she said. Intriguingly, this letter seems to have been folded in three and also folded in quarters, something the original sender is unlikely to have done, Claire said. In addition, some of the dirt marks and wear marks suggest it has been folded and kept, perhaps in a pocket, suggesting its history is more complicated than initially perceived, she said.

Claire described some more of the history of the letters after Charlotte's death, including Mrs. Gaskell getting information about them when she visited Brussels while writing her biography of Charlotte. While Gaskell doesn't appear to have actually seen the letters, M. Heger provided her with some excerpts, though he left out Charlotte's pain and heart-ache. Gaskell nonetheless perceived that there was too much ardour on Charlotte's part, Claire said, but she left this out of the biography, though she included controversial bits on Cowan Bridge School and Branwell's affair with Mrs. Robinson.

Claire recounted the interesting story that M. Heger's daughter Louise gave about the letters in the 1890s -- prompted by a lecture in Brussels on Villette. According to Louise, Madame Heger had kept the letters in a jewellery box and had told Louise about them in 1868. In Louise's story, her father tore the letters up and her mother retrieved them from the waste-paper basket; but it's not clear when they were torn up or who mended them. According to Louise, she showed the letters to her father in the 1890s, after Madame's death, and he threw them away again, with Louise rescuing them this time. ``The more you find out about the letters, the more peculiar their history seems to be,'' Claire said.

One theory about the letters is that M. Heger tore them up after Gaskell's book was printed, thinking that the important parts had been printed so the originals weren't needed any longer; and possibly Madame disagreed with that, Claire said. From the audience, Jolien Janzing, author of the novel De Meester about Charlotte's time in Brussels, asked if Madame Heger couldn't have torn up the letters, which Claire called ``an ingenious suggestion.'' The mystery remains.

Adding to the intrigue, Claire recounted the story of a British man who claimed to have been shown the Brontë-Heger letters in 1869, which Eric Ruijssenaars includes in his book The Pensionnat Revisited. This man, Thomas Westwood, a Brit working in Brussels for the Belgian railway, told an unknown correspondent that M. Heger had shown the letters to his wife’s cousin, a former pupil at the school, and told her the whole story of his relationship with Charlotte. Westwood said that Villette was truer than Gaskell's biography and that the only love in Charlotte's life was M. Paul Emanuel (a.k.a. M. Heger).

This idea of Charlotte using her relationship with Heger in her novels is one of the main things that motivated Claire to write her biography. She said she wanted ``to get some sense of that very moving story of communicating with Heger'' -- or trying to communicate with him after she left Brussels. The whole of her subsequent writing after Brussels was coloured by her suffering, her unrequited love and her desperate desire to communicate, Claire said. Going back to Haworth and writing The Professor was a concentrated effort by Charlotte to publish a book, with one of her main motivations for getting into print being ``to show M. Heger that she had been serious,'' Claire said. When she was writing the novel, The Professor represented for Charlotte ``a way of actually communicating with Heger, which the letters singly failed to do,'' she said.

Though the letters didn't succeed in getting Heger to respond, their composition was ``a testing ground for the sort of writing she did later,'' Claire said. ``Later when she went to write -- which she always did from her own soul, from her own spirit -- she had this appalling apprenticeship at her back.''

Bonnie Greer in Brussels

Our second speaker, playwright and critic Bonnie Greer, is a familiar face to those of us who have seen her addressing Brontë Society members at events in the UK (she has been the Society’s President since 2011). To British members she is also familiar from her frequent appearances as a panellist on TV programmes such as Newsnight Review and Question Time. Speaking without notes and with her usual dynamism, Bonnie gave an informal talk about the Society – what it is and what it might be in the future – and what she is doing for it as President, a role she sees as being an ambassador promoting its work. Her main theme was her drive to increase and diversify the membership of the Society during the bicentenary period by making the Brontës more widely known.
Bonnie would be the first to class herself among Brontë enthusiasts rather than scholars. Like many people she came to their novels via film adaptations, in particular the 1939 Wuthering Heights, and did not read the books until decades later. As a teenager growing up in Chicago she did not see the English classics as being for her; now she is looking at ways to get more young people to read them.
She spoke of her efforts to bring love of the Brontës and the English classics in general to the wider community - ethnic minorities as well as young people. Bonnie would like to use digital media such as Twitter more widely to draw in more Brontë enthusiasts. On Charlotte Brontë’s birthday, 21 April, she led a Jane Eyre ‘Fanfiction’ writing workshop. Bonnie told us about her interest in ‘fan fiction’ (the genre that includes the Twilight books and films) in encouraging creativity. For example, workshop participants are asked to write a missing scene in a well-known novel, as one way of getting them to read and think about that novel. The workshop was part of Bonnie’s ‘BSide’ project, a programme launched to engage young women with the Society’s work. She also touched on an idea of hers to use the life story of Branwell, whose bicentenary is coming up in 2017, as a way of engaging with troubled young men in today’s world, including the unemployed and those coming out of the armed forces.
Bonnie’s wish to draw more members of ethnic minorities into the Society is one she has often voiced in her years as President. As one aspect of this, some of us attended an event she led in Haworth in 2011 on the subject of whether the character of Heathcliff (the boy Heathcliff is of course found in the streets of Liverpool, a centre of the slave trade) could have been inspired by the theme of slavery, a suggestion explored in Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film of Wuthering Heights. Bonnie also touched on her interest in possible Brontë links in the life of the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (born 1818). Having escaped from slavery, he spent some time in Britain in 1846 and might have come to the Brontës’ notice.

Helen MacEwan

1 comment:

Anne said...

It will be interesting to see how Claire Harman will handle CB's relationship with George Smith , her publisher as that seemed a mini redo of Brussels...and there was even a Madame Beck in the person of Smith's mother...all in a much more minor key of course , yet still striking in its similarities.

Smith wasn't married, but the impediments to anything serious developing were almost as biding; Smith's youth and public London life among them.

CB was never going to live in London. Smith certainly wasn't moving to Haworth. He is also on record stating Charlotte didn't attract him! Mother Smith didn't need to worry.

I would also say it was CB's childhood writings that colored her letters to Heger as much if not more than her letters to Heger colored her later writing.

It was all of a piece begun long before. However Brussels is where CB's parallel worlds of fantasy and reality, kept separate all her life, finally collided...and with astonishing, ever lasting results