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‘Day and night I find neither rest nor peace’; Charlotte Brontë’s beautiful letters on unrequited love

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We've all experienced the pain of falling in love with somebody that can't be ours. Even legendary author Charlotte Brontë felt that all-consuming anguish from unrequited love, which she expressed in a number of candid letters to the man of her affections. 

It was in 1843 at 28 years old (before she became a literary star) that Brontë fell madly in love with Monsieur Héger, the founder of a school in Brussels where she and her sister Emily taught English and music in exchange for accommodation and tuition.

The budding writer developed a deep connection to the Belgium man when he gave her personal French lessons. But her affections would never lead to anything more because he was a married man with children.

Brontë continued to be besotted with him when she returned to her family home in Haworth a year later and began writing frequent letters to him in French, sometimes twice a week.

Her notes, which are published on the British Library's online collections, capture her sense of infatuation and heartbreak. 

"I said to myself, what I would say to someone else in such a case: “You will have to resign yourself to the fact, and above all, not distress yourself about a misfortune that you have not deserved.” I did my utmost not to cry not to complain — 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 with an almost unbearable inner struggle. Day and night I find neither rest nor peace — if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me — Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing you again — How can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its suffering?"

Héger barely responded and instead let his wife Madame Héger take over the situation. She wrote to Brontë telling her that she may write once every six months at most. But that didn't stop Brontë from sharing her affections to the man who won her heart...

One of four love letters Charlotte Brontë wrote to Constantin Heger (click to enlarge)

One of four love letters Charlotte Brontë wrote to Constantin Heger (click to enlarge)

"Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on — they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich man’s table — but if they are refused these crumbs — they die of hunger — No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love — I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship — I am not accustomed to it — but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels — and I cling to the preservation of this little interest — I cling to it as I would cling on to life."

Another extract from her letters reads:

"I don’t want to reread this letter — I am sending it as I have written it — Nevertheless I am as it were dimly aware that there are some cold and rational people who would say on reading it — “she is raving” — My sole revenge is to wish these people — a single day of the torments that I have suffered for eight months — then we should see whether they wouldn’t be raving too.

"One suffers in silence so long as one has the strength and when that strength fails one speaks without measuring one’s words much."

Critics believe Héger tore up Brontë’s letters, only for his only for his wife to retrieve them from his wastepaper bin and piece them together again for preservation purposes.

Charlotte wrote her last ever love letter to the Belgian teacher in English. In her parting words, she said the French language is "most precious to me because it reminds me of you – I love French for your sake with all my heart and soul". Biographer Lyndall Gordon and scholar Sara Dudley Edwards have speculated that writing in a foreign language allowed Brontë the licence to express feelings that she might not have voiced in her native English.

Nine years later, Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls, a poor Irish pastor who her father disapproved of at the time, and the newlyweds honeymooned in Ireland for a month. Their happy marriage was tragically cut short when Brontë developed chronic sickness and died in March 1855 in the early stages of pregnancy.

However, it was her connection to Heger that was considered to have the most influence on her most famous work Jane Eyre, published in 1847. In the novel, unlike in Brontë’s own life, the heroine Jane professes her love for Mr Rochester who forsakes his clandestine marriage to a woman ravaged by mental illness and eventually proposes to her.

Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Jane in the most recent 'Jane Eyre' adaptation

Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Jane in the most recent 'Jane Eyre' adaptation

Next April will mark 200 years since the acclaimed author's birth. Celebratory plans include an exhibition on Charlotte's work in her literary family's home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, and a collection of short stories by writers including Helen Dunmore, Susan Hill, Emma Donoghue, Audrey Niffenegger and Jane Gardam who have been influenced by Charlotte's writing.

Images: bl.uk

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