A long-lost short story written by Charlotte Brontë for a married man with whom she fell in love is to be published for the first time after being found in a Belgian museum a century after it was last heard of.
The tale, written in grammatically erratic French and entitled L'Ingratitude, is the first-known piece of homework set for Brontë by Constantin Heger, a Belgian tutor who taught both her and her sister Emily, and is believed to have inspired such ardour in the elder sibling that she drew on their relationship for her novel Villette.
Brian Bracken, a Brussels-based archivist and Brontë expert, found the manuscript in the Musée Royal de Mariemont. He said the short story had been last heard of in 1913, when it was given to a wealthy Belgian collector by Heger's son, Paul. The London Review of Books (LRB) is to publish the story in full on its website on Wednesday and in its paper edition on Thursday.
"It was finished a month after Charlotte arrived in Brussels and is the first known devoir [piece of homework] of 30 the sisters would write for Heger," writes Bracken in the LRB. "It contains a number of mistakes, mainly misspellings and incorrect tenses … he [Heger] often returned their essays drastically revised – sadly, there are no comments on this copy of L'Ingratitude."
The fable-like story is dated 16 March 1842 and is about a thoughtless young rat who escapes his father's protective care in search of adventure in the countryside and comes to a sorry end. The tale contrasts the solemn paternal devotion of the father with the reckless abandon of his "ingrate" offspring.
Bracken believes it could well have been based on the works of the celebrated French fabulist, La Fontaine.
"By all accounts a gifted and dedicated teacher, [Heger] gave Emily and Charlotte homework … based on texts by authors they had studied in class," he writes. "They were to compose essays in French that echoed these models, and could choose their own subject matter."
After her first stay in Brussels was brought to an abrupt halt in November 1842 by the death of her aunt, Brontë returned to the city the following year to become an English teacher at the boarding house run by Heger's wife, Claire Zoë Parent. She left for good in 1844, "worn out", writes Bracken, "by her infatuation with Heger, and his wife's hostility towards her."
Brontë's feelings were made public when, in 1913, Paul Heger gave permission for four letters she wrote from Yorkshire to her teacher to be published.
"I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it," she says in one. "But you showed a little interest in me 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 to life."
The Brussels period is recognised by Brontë scholars as being pivotal in the careers of both sisters – particularly for Charlotte, who was 25 when they first arrived in Belgium. "Charlotte's novel Villette, published in 1853, reworks her experiences in Brussels, with the difference that the teacher returns the heroine's love," Bracken writes. In The Professor, too, a novel written shortly after her return from Belgium but only published posthumously, she explores the dynamic between pupil and teacher. Unlike her real life infatuation, it ends happily.
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