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Charlotte Brontë in Brussels
The recent discovery of an original manuscript by the author of Jane Eyre is exciting interest in the time she spent in Belgium. For one Brussels reading group, this chapter of the novelist’s life is the most fascinating of all
“Belgium! name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce. Belgium!”
This is the exuberant sentiment of William Crimsworth, the hero of Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, The Professor. The romantic story was inspired by her experience in Brussels first as a student of French and later as a teacher of English. Although Charlotte failed to accomplish what she and her sister Emily came over for – to acquire language skills and academic qualifications so they could open a school of their own in England – she learned valuable lessons in what she called “the study of real life”.
Very little remains of the mid-19th-century Brussels that the Brontës knew. Barely legible above and to the left of the entrance to Bozar on Rue Ravenstein is a dingy bronze plaque which tells us that “Near this site formerly stood the Pensionnat Heger where the writers Charlotte and Emily Bronte studied in 1842-43.” The school and greater part of the neighbourhood had been demolished by 1910.
If you take the long flight of stairs that goes down to Rue Terarken from the opposite side of Bozar, you’ll find a second plaque, a white on blue medallion, which commemorates “the old Quartier Isabelle” where the sisters would have passed over these same cobblestones on their way to and from the pensionnat where they worked and studied. “The memory of this area lives on in the vivid image Charlotte Bronte portrays in her novel Villette,” reads the inscription. Vivid indeed, even violent in its expression of the feelings of a young woman with a rare strength of character and sensitive response to injustice in any form, be it personal or social.
Charlotte Brontë recently turned up as a news item on the BBC, a story in the daily papers and on the front page of The London Review of Books when a researcher discovered one of her devoirs, the homework assignments she did for her Belgian teacher, Constantin Heger. Working on a biography of Heger, Brian Bracken found the manuscript – a charming fable called L’Ingratitude, about an ungrateful young rat who ran away from home and came to a bad end – in the library of the Musée royal de Mariemont near Charleroi. The first of nearly 30 essays in French that Charlotte composed for her exacting teacher, this newest sample contains surprisingly few grammatical errors.
Obviously, these assignments carried out by two obscure foreign students in Brussels would never have been published in a scholarly edition (The Belgian Essays, edited and translated by Sue Lonoff) had the authors’ names not been Charlotte and Emily Brontë. The lives they led and the books they wrote together with a third sister, Anne, have cast a spell over fiction readers ever since they emerged from their male disguise as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell ready at last to admit to the Victorian world that the authors of such powerful and passionate novels as Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1848) and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) were women, not men.
Among the English-speaking expat community in Brussels, enthusiasts of the Brontës were a scattered and introspective lot until the day in 2006 when Helen MacEwan came to town and began to gather readers – of which Bracken is one – into the Brussels Brontë Group. Since then they have grown to an eager circle of more than 100 readers and arguers about not only the sisters’ books but 19th-century literature in general (Dickens, Thackeray, Gaskell, George Eliot, Hardy). When not reading for pleasure, MacEwan is a translator from Spanish, French and Romanian at the European Commission. She admits she had not really cared that much for Villette until she came to live in Brussels in 2004. “Then I reread it and could see the city through her eyes. She was an expatriate just as I was and I could understand some of her feelings about the here.”
Some but by no means all; Charlotte’s prejudices about the manners and opinions of the Belgians she met could at times be quite brutal. Brought up in a strict Protestant family, she was scathing about Catholics (or “Papists”), especially among the rowdy girls in the pensionnat in Villette that Lucy Snow, the stand-in for Charlotte, learns to tame when she comes to teach here. “And yet it’s important to remember,” says MacEwan, “that Charlotte suffered from her isolation, especially when she returned to Brussels later without Emily. After all, she deliberately named her character Snow because she wanted to stress the coldness of her temperament.”
Yet not so cold that she could stop herself falling in love with Heger, who was not only her teacher but the husband of the woman who ran the pensionnat. In The Professor, Charlotte allowed Crimsworth to live happily ever after with a poor lace-mender; in Villette she was not so merciful. The ending is left ambiguous, with the strong suggestion that Lucy’s love dies in a shipwreck. Perhaps nothing expresses Lucy’s, and Charlotte’s, spirit better than her curt remark: “If life be a war, it seemed my destiny to conduct it single-handed.”
MacEwan wants it to be known that the Brussels Brontë Group does more than just read and discuss books. They walk through the city in the sisters’ footsteps, leading visitors to the places where Charlotte and Emily experienced the fascination and irritations of their new life in a foreign city. The two-hour guided tour provides a complete itinerary of the Brontës’ Brussels from the Royal Park to the Cathedral. In The Professor, the city and several of the streets are mentioned by name (“... I had crossed the Place Royale, and got into the Rue Royale, then I had diverged into the Rue du Louvain – an old and quiet street”), while in the later novel, she gives the name Villette to Brussels and the uncomplimentary Labassecour (meaning farmyard) to the nation, though many landmarks are still easily recognisable: the cathedral, La Monnaie, the Royal Park and much of the surrounding countryside.
Her portrait of the King and Queen (not otherwise named but clearly Leopold I and Louise-Marie) as Lucy sees them in their box at the Conservatoire during a concert shows a penetrating sympathy on Charlotte’s part. She sees him, “a man of fifty, a little bowed, a little grey”, and concludes: “There sat a silent sufferer – a nervous, melancholy man.” And melancholy – what today we would call depression – she defines as “that darkest foe of humanity”. It was a feeling with which she was only too intimately acquainted. No one has written works of fiction that give a more convincing picture of 19th-century Brussels and a broad cross-section of its people than Charlotte Brontë.
THE BRUSSELS BRONTË GROUP
The reading and tour group’s annual Brontë Weekend is held around the date of Charlotte Brontë’s birthday on April 21. This year’s event falls on April 21 and 22. To register for this or any other of the group’s activities, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.thebrusselsbrontegroup.org
Pictured: Written in Brussels as one of Brontë’s French homework assignments, this fable was discovered recently in Belgium’s Musée royal de Mariemont