The name of "Monsieur Heger" (Constantin Georges Romain
Heger - Brussels, 1809-1896) comes up frequently in Brontë criticism, and
it is by reading these biographies that we can create a portrait of him. Elizabeth Gaskell, in the Life, is giving a first
characterization, after she went to Brussels
to meet him. Another important work is ‘The
Secret of Charlotte Brontë’ by Frederika MacDonald; she herself was a
student at the Pensionnat Heger and knew from first-hand experience what M.
Heger was like. She gives her own personal reminiscences of the real M. Heger
in this biography, making it an invaluable source.
Heger’s career took a
step forward when he was appointed to teach languages, mathematics, geography
and Belgian history at the veterinary college in the Rue Terarken. He continued
to teach at the Athénée when it moved in 1839 to the Rue des Douze Apôtres,
just north of the Pensionnat.
The Heger family, originally from the Palatinate in Germany, had been established in Belgium
for three generations. It appears that his father once owned a jewellery shop
at 78 Rue Royale, but was declared bankrupt in the 1815 after a friend failed
to repay a loan. By 1825, the young Constantin had to move to Paris
in search of employment. He worked as secretary to a solicitor, but was unable
to pursue a career in law, due to lack of funds.
Heger was back in Brussels in 1829,
where he became a teacher of French and mathematics at the Athénée Royale, in
the Rue de Namur. The impressive neo-classical style building is still
standing, close to Place Royale. In 1830 he married his first wife,
Marie-Josephine Noyer. Revolution broke out in the streets of Brussels that same
year. It is not known whether he was in the audience that stormed out of the
Monnaie Theatre after the performance of a patriotic Italian opera, but he was
definitely involved in the fighting that led finally to the creation of the
Belgian state. From 23-27 September he fought at the barricades as a
nationalist but his wife’s young brother was killed at his side. According to
one legend, he sniped at Dutch troops from the rooftop of the future Pensionnat
Heger. In September 1833,
Constantin’s wife and child both died during a cholera epidemic.
The Heger family
by Ange François in 1846
Heger met Mlle Claire
Zoë Parent, the directress of the neighbouring girls’ boarding school, and
began teaching at her school in the Rue Isabelle. They married in 1836 and had
six children. He was paid the same salary as the other teachers at the school
and even forced to sign for his salary in her ledger. Those who knew Heger were impressed by his
powers as a public speaker. In 1834, at the age of twenty-five, he gave a
speech at the Athénée prize ceremony giving in the town hall on Grand’Place.
‘It was remarkable,’ a newspaper wrote the following day, ‘for the originality
of its ideas, for its correct appraisal of the duties of a teacher and a
father, and for its wise and judicious views on education in general and the
education of young people in particular.’ Charlotte certainly
attended the same ceremony on 15 August 1843 to hear Heger
deliver an address on emulation. She
owned copies of both that speech and the one from 1834, when Charlotte later
returned to Haworth.
Heger had a
natural gift for teaching, and particularly liked to work with younger
children; he was especially admired by them because of his open, unasuming
approach. He was very intelligent, kind, wise, generous and religious. A devout
member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, he helped the sick and needy, and
gave evening lectures for the less well-off. He allowed Charlotte and Emily,
daughters of a Protestant clergyman of only moderate means, to have extra
special favours, lessons and terms.
MacDonald writes: ...“In brief, what M. Heger’s face revealed
when studied as the index of his natural qualities, was intellectual
superiority, an imperious temper, a good deal of impatience against stupidity,
and very little patience with his fellow-creatures generally; it revealed too a
good deal of humour; and a very little kind-heartedness, to be weighed against
any amount of irritability.” … “The funny and pleasant thing about M. Heger was
that he was so fond of teaching, and so truly in his element when he began it,
that his temper became sweet at once ; and I loved his face when it got the
look upon it that came in lesson-hours : so that, whereas we were hating each
other when we crossed the threshold of the door, we liked each other very much
when we sat down to the table ; and I had an excited feeling that he was going
to make me understand. It took him rather less than a quarter of an hour. “
Charlotte's portrayal of the temperamental M. Heger as she first saw him in 1842 again
describes a striking man: “He is professor of rhetoric, a man of power
as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperament; a little black
being, with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the
lineaments of an insane tom-cat, sometimes those of a delirious hyena;
occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and
assumes an air nor above 100 degrees removed form mild and gentlemanlike…”
observed the two English sisters and realized their exceptional talents. His
remarkable system of education and his stimulation worked as a catalyst for
Charlotte’s and Emily’s inspiration for writing. He was the first to recognize
the genius of these women and he is therefore worthy of our recognition.
Brontës’ stay at the Pensionnat, M. Heger became principal of the Athénée in
1853, but resigned again after two years because he could not accept the
utilitarian methods advocated by the General Inspectors of the school. At his
own request he resumed the teaching of the youngest class in the school. He
continued to give lessons in his wife’s pensionnat until he retired in about
died in 1896. His obituary in l’Indépendence
Belge of 9 May praised his passionate belief in the importance of education
and the dynamism and authority of his teaching.
Heger in later years
Heger in later years
He is buried with his wife along with their
daughter Marie, who died in 1886, in Watermael-Boitsfort municipal cemetery, on
the edge of the Forêt de Soignes.
was born in 1846, two years after
Charlotte Brontë left Brussels.
He studied biology and was appointed professor of physiology at the Brussels
Free University in 1873. Heger later worked with the industrial chemist
on the creation of a science park in the Leopold Park and was appointed
director of the prestigious Solvay Institute in 1895 (the building
the Leopold Park close to the European Parliament and is now occupied
European think tank). In 1913, Paul Heger presented the British Library
four letters sent by Charlotte Brontë to Constantin Heger in
1843-45. Paul Heger
died in 1925 in a car accident. A street in the university quarter
is named in his honour.
was born in 1839, 3 years before
Charlotte and Emily Brontë enrolled at the Pensionnat Heger.
She studied under the
Belgian Impressionist Alfred Stevens and painted in a studio at the
the Pensionnat Heger garden. Louise was a successful landscape artist
exhibited a Coastal Landscape and a View
of the River Ourthe at
an 1893 exhibition in Brussels.
She died in 1933.
to see some images by Louise Heger.
continue the story