A short story written in French by a 25-year-old Charlotte Brontë was recently found in a Belgium museum and has been published, along with a translation and audio recording, by the London Review of Books (LRB). The first of 30 writing assignments composed for a French teacher, “L’Ingratitude” reads almost like a telescoped reimagining of Samuel Johnson’s "Rasselas"; it is a parable about a young rat who, out of ennui, deserts his wise and caring father to explore the unknown world, realizes his folly too late, and is punished for his ingratitude.
Brian Bracken, an archivist, stumbled upon the short story, written in March 1842, while doing research on Constantin Heger, who taught French to both Emily and Charlotte Brontë during their stay in Brussels. Recognizing the sisters’ gift with words, Heger developed courses specifically designed to nurture their talents and encouraged them to read extensively and to imitate the style of great French writers. Bracken speculates in the LRB that "L'Ingratitude" was largely inspired by the writings of La Fontaine and J.P. Florian: “La Fontaine’s ‘Le Rat qui s’est retiré du monde’ is somewhere behind ‘L’Ingratitude’ – Charlotte even borrows some of its vocabulary. Florian’s fable ‘La Carpe et les carpillons’, about disobedient and thoughtless children, may also have come into it.”
In the Introduction to the Oxford edition of Charlotte Brontë’s "Villette," Tim Dolin writes of Constantin Heger: “His brilliance as a teacher was legendary, and he had a profound influence on Bronte’s development as a writer. His system of intensive reading, translation, and rewriting of the classics, and the enforced discipline of completing his devoirs (writing assignments, many of which still exist), laid the foundations for her later fiction by encouraging her to experiment with new forms of language and test out her own ideas and creative approaches within the constraints of set exercises.” In the LRB, Bracken notes Heger’s exacting standards as well as his dedication to helping the Brontës improve their craft: “He often returned their essays drastically revised – sadly, there are no comments on this copy of ‘L’Ingratitude.’”
News of their aunt’s death brought Emily and Charlotte back to England in November 1842. Two months later, Charlotte returned to the Brussels boarding school alone (Emily’s love for her native Haworth defeated any inclination to return to Brussels), but this time as a teacher rather than a pupil, and her infatuation with Heger, a married man with six children, deepened. By 1844, the intensity of Charlotte’s feelings for Heger had grown to such a pitch as to render her physically ill and she left Brussels for good.
Scholars generally agree that Heger was something of a prototype for M. Paul, the bilious literature professor of "Villette" and the love interest of heroine Lucy Snowe. And Heger's wife, directress of the Brussels pensionnat, is often regarded as the template for Madame Beck, who threatens to blight Lucy and M. Paul’s romance. Unlike Lucy’s love for M. Paul, however, Charlotte’s love for Heger goes unrequited and, it is believed, contributed to her depression and nervous breakdown. Yet Charlotte’s time in Brussels also inaugurated the greatest creative period of her life. One critic has called "Villette, published in 1853, the “longest love-letter in literature.” (This apparently notwithstanding the fact that M. Paul is drowned, or so we are led to believe, at the end of the novel.) "The Professor" and "Shirley," two other novels that explore pupil-teacher relationships, reflect the endurance of Charlotte’s romantic obsession with Heger.
In letters to her former instructor, Charlotte expressed her profound respect for, and devotion to, him and on several occasions, entreated him to write back (none of his replies have survived); in one letter of 1844, she wrote, “I would write a book and I would dedicate it to my literature master – to the only master that I have ever had – to you Monsieur.”
And, what is more germane to “L’Ingratitude,” a few sentences later, she relates her intention to turn down a teaching position in Manchester “because acceptance would mean having to leave my father and that cannot be."
Rhonda Feng is a contributor to the Monitor's Books section.