June 12, 2013

You should’ve copied Charlotte Brontë’s homework


Charlotte Brontë’s homework has just sold for £50,000 (nearly $78,000), an impressive sum for a one-page assignment. Purchased by the Brontë Society, her essay will be on display in her home in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

Brontë’s devoirs, written for French class, is described as “dramatic” in tone. “It claims that the child who treats a parent unlovingly is little more than a murderer in the eyes of God,” according to Vanessa Thorpe of The Guardian, and contains corrections from her teacher. It’s titled L’Amour Filial, on the love of a child for her parents.

The routine assignment was meant to reflect the writing of authors the class had studied, including La Fontaine and J.P. Florian, but students were allowed to pick their own topics.

“I cannot tell on what subject your heart and mind have been excited. I must leave that to you,” Constantin Heger told Brontë and her sister, and he repeated this to Melville House author Elizabeth Gaskell as she was working on Brontë’s first biography. (Gaskell was enlisted by Brontë’s father to write a biography shortly after Brontë’s death.)

There’s another layer to this story: Brontë nursed a crush on this teacher. He ran the Pensionnat Heger school in Brussels with his wife, Claire, and showed no romantic interest in Brontë.

Brontë admired him while she was a student and later moved back to Brussels to woo her teacher (her love letters were mainly sent between 1844-1845). By all accounts, Heger was happily married with three children. He stopped writing back to her in 1845. Paul Heger donated four of Brontë’s letters to his father to the British Museum in 1913.

From the Yorkshire Post:

Several letters she wrote to him—now held by the British Library—were discovered in his waste-paper bin torn to pieces by his wife Claire.

The letters were painstakingly stitched back together, possibly to preserve evidence of Charlotte’s indiscretion. Charlotte wrote of Claire: “I no longer trust her. She seems a rosy sugar-plum but I know her to be coloured chalk.”

Brontë’s novel Villette, published in 1853, is based on her experiences in Brussels. The difference, of course, is that the teacher returns the heroine’s love, though it doesn’t work out so well for him in the end.

The Brontë Society was informed about L’Amour Filial by a private owner in December. The Society appealed for financial help, raising over £3,000 in contributions from the public, and £20,000 from the V&A Purchase Fund, £5,000 from the Friends of National Libraries, as well as other grants.

Brontë Society chairman Sally McDonald said, “The response was magnificent. To all donors we offer our heartfelt thanks that we can now preserve this significant manuscript for the nation as part of our unparalleled collection of Bronte manuscripts and artefacts here at the museum.”

“This exciting window on her love for her father, written at a time of great turmoil, is of incalculable value to our understanding of Charlotte’s interior life, and will form the focus of much new scholarship,” said Professor Ann Sumner, executive director of the Society.

The London Review of Books published another one of Brontë’s school essays, L’Ingratitude, in March of last year.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.