Lucy and Todd

To Be Precise…

In The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on October 27, 2013 at 10:24 am

Brontë scholarship has been rocked to its slate foundations (and no bad 
thing). To the astonishment of academics on both sides of the North Sea, it has transpired that the tireless Yorkshire neurotic, Charlotte Brontë, who was thought to have had one of the biggest crushes in history on Constantin Heger, an obscure Belgian teacher, was actually in love with Hergé (né Georges Remi), the worldly, sophisticated creator of the fabulously popular Adventures of Tintin. The recent discovery of certain letters and diary entries proves this incontrovertibly.

The effect these unlikely lovers had on each other’s work has yet to be 
sifted, but already certain shared ideas and trends are discernible. Fans 
agree that some of Hergé’s best panels are of dark, windswept places. He had an almost insatiable curiosity about England and the English, which prevented him from ever coming here. So what more fortunate circumstance could befall him than that of a young, passionate, rapidly-breathing live Yorkshirewoman dropping lightly into his lap? Blistering barnacles! You can practically hear Snowy barking his usual outraged Wooah! Wooah! at the unpredictability of human behaviour.

As anyone who has visited the Brontë Parsonage knows, the sisters engaged throughout their childhood in the fashioning of intricate adventures and fairytale lands, which they laboriously wrote out in their special minuscule Brontë handwriting, and illustrated with vigour on the very walls of the house, at times almost in strip-cartoon style. One can only imagine Charlotte’s deep sense of recognition, the realization that here lay her mate, her future, when a copy of Destination Moon first fell into her hands.

Hergé himself drew from babyhood. Curiously, one of his early attempts was at a graphic novel of Wuthering Heights. Strange to think that in only a few years he would be deeply in love with the author’s sister! The few panels that remain, in graphite and blue wash, show a remarkable grasp of the details of Yorkshire doorknobs and a developing ability to depict lowering skies and brooding wheat.

It seems it was Charlotte who made the first move, by writing to Hergé, the date uncertain. The letter declaring her devotion, was, of course, one of many hundreds received by Hergé every week. Though more long-winded than her lover-to-be (who always kept words to a minimum in order to fit in all the pictures), Brontë had nonetheless learnt from him how to stick to the point. After all, she had by now spent many a lonely night with a torch under the covers of her frost-laden bed, studying the few Tintin books she could afford, surrounded by her snuffling sisters.

On first learning of Charlotte’s crush, Hergé’s instinct, and that of his 
cercle intime, was naturally to ignore her, although he remarked favorably on her grammar. A silence ensued that caused her great anguish. Had he succumbed more readily to her glottal-stopping charms, we might never have had Jane Eyre, that supreme wail of the unrequited. But had he resisted her forever, we certainly would not have as much Tintin! Like Rochester, Hergé was inspired and at last impressed by her tenacity. Leaving his Brussels atelier one day, Hergé found Brontë in the garden beside an appropriately storm-blasted tree, weeping with lust and longing over the dog-eared parsonage copy of The Red Sea Sharks. This fascinating, if somewhat weedy, English fan could be denied no longer. No matter how shy she was, nor how 
puny, nor how weird her family, not to mention her inexplicable libertarian principles which failed to conform to his colonialist views, it was time to wallow in her arms.

There is no doubt but that it was a torrid affair: in the margin of one of 
Charlotte’s notebooks there is a not half-bad little sketch of Hergé smoking a cigarette, subscribed with the legend ‘my bad Belgian’. For his part, Hergé had a long period of drawing a girl he called ‘Jane’ (who had, however, the Brontë features) with her knickers down. He introduced Charlotte to all the excitements of aeroplane meals, Algeria, and cigars. It was a passionate relationship, but also a companionable one: she knitted warm socks to protect them both against the damp, while he would gently scold her about her interest in her characters’ psychology: in an undated letter to Emily, Charlotte remarks with surprising complacence that ‘H. believes good colour separations are all that matter.’ From letters and postcards it is obvious too that Snowy and Keeper became fast friends, whether fouling the beach together at Ostende or shivering under the sleet of Haworth.

Similarities and mutual influences abound in the works of the lovers. For those to whom the gradual growth of sword-fighting and exploding mummy-cases in Charlotte’s later novels was a source of bemusement, the origins of this are now clear. And Hergé’s deepening romanticism, the softer eyes of his female characters (Bianca Castafiore comes to mind), and his increasing absorption in gothic subjects had to be generated by the love he felt for his ‘little governess’, as well as his involvement with her family. One of his final projected strips seems to have been a work actually set in Yorkshire: The Scary Brother has Tintin and Snowy on the trail of a missing glass of beer which they track to a little-used railway signal box; there a deranged man confesses to downing the pint and muses (rather too long) on art and life. There are notes, too, on a Tintin adventure tentatively called The Madwoman in the Attic—clearly a direct steal.

Thanks to Hergé’s kind ministrations, Charlotte’s later work became more dynamic, more storyboarded. Filled with the spirit of adventure, she happily made plans for two novels which were to be dedicated to her dashing, cosmopolitan love: The Lost Thread Mine of Reverend Raoul, and (with Branwell again the subject) The Adventure of the Badly Soiled Chair.


Coming soon: Mute Testimony – the tempestuous love story of Johnny and Rachel Carson.

  1. Brooding wheat . . . . LOL, as we say around t’Internet

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