Before there had been any publishers or a George Smith, Brontë had known a Frenchman named Constantin Heger. Part of the plot of Villette involves the lead character, Lucy Snowe, falling in love with two men: Graham Bretton and Paul Emanuel. In reality, George Smith and her former French professor from the Pensionnat Heger were both sober intellectuals with sensitive natures and good hearts, and whose minds recognized and appreciated talent. Monsieur Heger was the first man who had taken an interest in Brontë’s mind. He was married, but Charlotte still felt a strong attraction to this passionate mentor who was unlike any man she had ever met before. His forceful personality and sharp mind would have stimulated her young woman’s fervent imagination, and generated thoughts of a more intimate quality that in the end proved more harmful to her than to him.
After she left Brussels in 1844, he wrote a few letters to her, but soon stopped corresponding. She continued to write in the hopes that they could retain their connection until she could one day visit Brussels and see him. They never did meet again, but Charlotte always hoped they would; consequently, she kept up her French study and her letters. She spoke and wrote fluent French and naively yearned for his continued friendship through those letters, but he was a busy man; she no longer was part of life at the rue d’Isabelle; and he and his wife felt that further contact would be inappropriate.
The Brussels school for young women had herb gardens and orchards which would provide Charlotte with a quiet retreat from the other students. In chapter twenty-two of Villette, Lucy Snowe finds solitude in the “garden thicket” where rumours of a ghost still linger, but she dispenses with these thoughts: “Independently of romantic rubbish, however, that old garden had its charms.” During summer nights, Lucy likes “to keep tryste with the rising moon, or taste one kiss of the evening breeze, or fancy rather than feel the freshness of dew descending.” Among the “doddered orchard giants,” “verdant” ground, and gravelled white walks was a bower, “above which spread the shade of an acacia; there was a smaller, more sequestered bower, nestled in the vines which ran all along a high and gray wall, and gathered their tendrils in a knot of beauty, and hung their clusters in loving profusion about the favoured spot where jasmine and ivy met, and married them.”
Brontë’s propensity for dropping clues into her writing may be at work in this paragraph. Certain words stand out and, when placed together, suggest a secret meeting place for two lovers. The words “romantic,” “charms,” “tryste,” “kiss,” “verdant,” “white,” “sequestered,” “bower,” “nestled,” “gathered,” “knot,” “loving profusion,” “the favoured spot,” and “married” could allude to two lovers meeting in their special area of the garden where their union constitutes a kind of marriage. The word “romance” begins the image.
A person with charm can excite love or have an indefinable power of delighting. A tryst can be a lovers’ appointed time for their meeting, and in this case is spelled with an ‘e’ on the end, which sounds and looks like the French word for sad—triste. The echo of the word triste in “tryste” suggests that Brontë’s memory of this special spot comes attached with a certain melancholy.
“Verdant” can mean covered in plants, but it can also refer to someone who is unsophisticated, unripe in knowledge or judgment, and the colour white immediately following “verdant” can suggest purity, so the two words together could allude to an inexperienced person secretly meeting her charming lover.
If the image is continued, they meet “sequestered,” apart from everyone, in a “bower,” or small room, where they “kiss” and nestle, and settle comfortably while “gathered” together in their lovers’ “knot of beauty.” They stay entwined in a “loving profusion,” which could suggest the exuberant abundance of loving expression through words or affection. They nestle together in their “favoured spot,” where the flower and the vine experience a marriage or union in this bower thicket.
Was this a place where she and Heger had met secretly? Had they engaged in a love affair or was this simply more “romantic rubbish”?