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None of the men Charlotte Brontë had encountered in her limited social circle had come close to Constantin Heger. Was she aware of anything wrong in what she felt for this married man, her employer’s husband? We must look for clues to her emotions in the letters she wrote to him after leaving Brussels, in Villette – while remembering that it is ﬁction and not autobiography – and in an experience she had in the lonely summer of her lonely second year.
One day in that summer, when her mood was at its lowest, she had an odd impulse that furnished her with one of the most memorable scenes in Villette and was one of the most extraordinary in her life.
As we have seen, the Gothic Church of St Gudule was important in the history of Rue d’Isabelle, since the street’s raison d’être was to provide the royal household with a route to it. And it was a church that came to be important in Charlotte’s history, too.
From the Pensionnat garden she could hear its bells, but of course she worshipped not at the Catholic St Gudule but at the Protestant chapel in Place du Musée. Until 1 September 1843 she could never have imagined that she, a staunch Protestant and the daughter of a Protestant clergyman, would ever enter this Catholic church as anything other than a tourist. Her frequent references to Catholicism while abroad had been anything but complimentary. To cite one example in a letter to Ellen Nussey the previous summer:
On that ﬁrst day of September 1843 Charlotte had been practically alone at the Pensionnat – alone in Brussels, in fact – since the school broke up for the summer holidays on 15 August. The other pupils and teachers were on holiday with their families. The Hegers were in Blankenberge, today still a popular Belgian seaside resort.
Why did she not go home for the holidays? Aunt Branwell had left the three sisters some money, and she could surely have afforded the expense. Was she paralysed by inertia and depression, perhaps by reluctance to leave a place associated with M. Heger? Whatever the reason, she stayed on in the school, seeking an escape from its empty classrooms by walking all day in the streets and boulevards of Brussels and the roads leading into the countryside.
One day, after a trek to the Protestant cemetery and the ﬁelds beyond, she could not face returning to the deserted Pensionnat. To put off the evil hour she walked around for some time in the streets near the school.
She found herself in front of St Gudule’s. The bell was tolling for the evening service. After hesitating for a moment she went slowly up the steps. We know exactly what happened next because we have her account in a letter to Emily written the next day (as well as the rather different version given by Lucy Snowe in Villette). She stayed for the service, and when it was over she still felt she could not face going back to the school:
What we do not know, of course, is what she confessed. Years before, in her ﬁrst teaching post when she was just out of her teens, she had gone through a similar period of depression and had told her friend Ellen that she had dark thoughts she could not confess to anyone. They related to the desires that found expression in her lurid juvenile love stories dominated by excitingly saturnine Byronic heroes.
In Villette Lucy tells Graham Bretton that what she confessed to Père Silas, the priest, was not any speciﬁc wrongdoing but merely a ‘dreary, desperate complaint’. She was depressed and just needed to talk to someone. But even if Charlotte had no speciﬁc sin on her conscience, in view of the tortured letters she later wrote to Heger it seems likely her confession was prompted by more than just a wish for human contact and some variety in the monotony of her life. Whatever she actually told the priest, we can be fairly sure that her feelings for Heger had something to do with the depression that drove her to the confessional. Was she tormented by the kind of desires she had once hinted at to Ellen? If so, did she hint at them to the priest?
According to one tradition, the confessional at which Charlotte Brontë knelt is the second one on the left. We can go into the Cathedral and stand for a moment musing on what led her there and what she may have said. That kindly priest may have been the only person – unless she at any time made a confession to Emily or Ellen Nussey or Mary Taylor – to hear from her own lips what Frederika MacDonald, writing in 1914, was to call ‘the secret of Charlotte Brontë’: the real nature of her feelings for Constantin Heger.
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