Sunday 6 March 2016

Ola Podstawska and Jolien Janzing on M. Heger

Brussels Bronte Group members were treated to two delightful talks on Saturday, February 20, 2016 -- Ola Podstawka on the influence of Constantin Heger on the heroes in Charlotte Brontë's novels, and Jolien Janzing on her historical novel Charlotte Brontë's Secret Love.

Ola Podstawka

In her talk, ``Conjuring up Monsieur Heger'', Ola explained how the professor Charlotte found in Brussels had such a profound impact on her life and her art, illustrating how elements of M. Heger's personality are present in all the main heroes of Charlotte's novels.

Ola started by examining the heroes and heroines in ``the infernal world of Angria'' -- the juvenilia written by Charlotte and her brother Branwell before Charlotte came to Brussels in 1842. Most of the heroines are vapid beauties and the heroes cruel, handsome rakes, and the narrators male. Eventually, Charlotte develops a new heroine with hidden depths -- Elizabeth Hastings. But she remains single for want of a suitable man.

Charlotte needs a new type of hero to go with her new heroine, and she finds the prototype in Brussels in the person on M. Heger. Heger recognized Charlotte's talent and taught her how to hone her craft through discipline. But at the same time, he provided the model for a new kind of hero, a new idea of manhood. Heger is slightly older than Charlotte, short and broad, with a square face. He is irritable but inspirational, and Charlotte emerged from Brussels a better writer and a more experienced woman. An important part of that experience can be glimpsed in the letters that Charlotte sent to M. Heger after she left. Biographers have given several possible interpretations to these letters. Ola focused on them as an exercise in self-dramatization for Charlotte as she developed the character of a new type of hero.

That new hero starts to emerge in The Professor, in which William Crimsworth is not the handsome rake of the Angria stories, but a sentimental narrator who discovers passion in a plain heroine. He is of slight build with irregular features, a tell-tale sign of most of the intellectual male characters in Charlotte's novels. Then in Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester has many of M. Heger's physical characteristics -- dark hair, broad forehead, sharp features, broad and square figure -- but he is really one of the old Angrian rakes put into a new context. Rochester needed a stripping of power before there could be a true union of souls with Jane.

In Shirley, Charlotte was inspired by Thackeray to try to be unsentimental, using a third-person narrator. Robert Moore is the handsome industrialist, while Louis Moore is the not-so-handsome intellectual (with those tell-tale ``irregular features''). Robert needs a stripping of power, like Rochester, before a happy ending can happen; while Louis, grave and retiring, is the surprising true protagonist of the story. In Villette, Charlotte's last novel, Graham Bretton is based on George Smith (Charlotte's publisher), while Paul Emmanuel is based on M. Heger. Graham Bretton (a.k.a. Dr. John) -- blue eyes, symmetrical features, cleft chin (``the epitome of male beauty for Charlotte'') -- is the focus of attention in the first part of the book, written as Charlotte was considering George Smith as a potential marriage prospect despite her wariness of handsome men. M. Paul is on the sidelines in the first part of the novel, but becomes the ultimate hero, as Charlotte's eventual real-life disappointment in George Smith confirmed that he was not a man for her new kind of heroine and prompted Charlotte to return to Heger as the prototype hero.

M. Heger proved the key for Charlotte as her writing evolved from Angria to her mature novels and she searched for her own distinctive voice. Her plain, passionate heroines required an equally original male hero, and Heger provided the blueprint -- passionate but discerning. Only this hero would understand the tumult of Charlotte's heroine's feelings. Heger -- the heroine's hero.

Jolien Janzing agreed that M. Heger had a huge influence on Charlotte Brontë. Jolien's historical fiction, Charlotte Brontë's Secret Love, describes the relationship between Charlotte and her teacher, focusing more on the personal aspects of the connection than the impact on Charlotte's writing. The novel, which was published originally in Dutch under the title De Meester (The Master), also features a parallel relationship -- the romance between King Leopold I and his mistress Arcadie Claret.

Jolien Janzing

Jolien, who is Dutch and has lived in Flanders for a long time, was able to give the perspective from the European side of the Channel on Charlotte's time in Brussels. Using excerpts from letters and her novel, Jolien gave us a vivid picture of nineteenth-century Brussels and what might have been going on between Charlotte and her teacher.

Noting that the manners of continental gentlemen such as M. Heger were not as reserved as their English counterparts at this time, Jolien said she ``cannot imagine'' that Charlotte ``would fall in love with him without any encouragement on his part.'' Her conclusion on M. Heger: ``He was not only an excellent teacher but also a terrible flirt.''

Jones Hayden

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