The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XI

I am not aware of all the circumstances which led to the relinquishment of the Lille plan. Brussels had had from the first a strong attraction for Charlotte; and the idea of going there, in preference to any other place, had only been given up in consequence of the information received of the second-rate character of its schools. In one of her letters reference has been made to Mrs. Jenkins, the wife of the chaplain of the British Embassy. At the request of his brother — a clergyman, living not many miles from Haworth, and an acquaintance of Mr. Bronte’s — she made much inquiry, and at length, after some discouragement in her search, heard of a school which seemed in every respect desirable. There was an English lady who had long lived in the Orleans family, amidst the various fluctuations of their fortunes, and who, when the Princess Louise was married to King Leopold, accompanied her to Brussels, in the capacity of reader. This lady’s granddaughter was receiving her education at the pensionnat of Madame Heger; and so satisfied was the grandmother with the kind of instruction given, that she named the establishment, with high encomiums, to Mrs. Jerkins; and, in consequence, it was decided that, if the terms suited, Miss Bronte and Emily should proceed thither. M. Heger informs me that, on receipt of a letter from Charlotte, making very particular inquiries as to the possible amount of what are usually termed “extras,” he and his wife were so much struck by the simple earnest tone of the letter, that they said to each other:— “These are the daughters of an English pastor, of moderate means, anxious to learn with an ulterior view of instructing others, and to whom the risk of additional expense is of great consequence. Let us name a specific sum, within which all expenses shall be included.”

This was accordingly done; the agreement was concluded, and the Brontes prepared to leave their native county for the first time, if we except the melancholy and memorable residence at Cowan Bridge. Mr. Bronte determined to accompany his daughters. Mary and her brother, who were experienced in foreign travelling, were also of the party. Charlotte first saw London in the day or two they now stopped there; and, from an expression in one of her subsequent letters, they all, I believe, stayed at the Chapter Coffee House, Paternoster Row — a strange, old-fashioned tavern, of which I shall have more to say hereafter.

Mary’s account of their journey is thus given.

“In passing through London, she seemed to think our business was and ought to be, to see all the pictures and statues we could. She knew the artists, and know where other productions of theirs were to be found. I don’t remember what we saw except St. Paul’s. Emily was like her in these habits of mind, but certainly never took her opinion, but always had one to offer . . . I don’t know what Charlotte thought of Brussels. We arrived in the dark, and went next morning to our respective schools to see them. We were, of course, much preoccupied, and our prospects gloomy. Charlotte used to like the country round Brussels. ‘At the top of every hill you see something.’ She took, long solitary walks on the occasional holidays.”

Mr. Bronte took his daughters to the Rue d’Isabelle, Brussels; remained one night at Mr. Jenkins’; and straight returned to his wild Yorkshire village.

What a contrast to that must the Belgian capital have presented to those two young women thus left behind! Suffering acutely from every strange and unaccustomed contact — far away from their beloved home, and the dear moors beyond — their indomitable will was their great support. Charlotte’s own words, with regard to Emily, are:-

“After the age of twenty, having meantime studied alone with diligence and perseverance, she went with me to an establishment on the continent. The same suffering and conflict ensued, heightened by the strong recoil of her upright heretic and English spirit from the gentle Jesuitry of the foreign and Romish system. Once more she seemed sinking, but this time she rallied through the mere force of resolution: with inward remorse and shame she looked back on her former failure, and resolved to conquer, but the victory cost her dear. She was never happy till she carried her hard-won knowledge back to the remote English village, the old parsonage-house, and desolate Yorkshire hills.”

They wanted learning. They came for learning. They would learn. Where they had a distinct purpose to be achieved in intercourse with their fellows, they forgot themselves; at all other times they were miserably shy. Mrs. Jenkins told me that she used to ask them to spend Sundays and holidays with her, until she found that they felt more pain than pleasure from such visits. Emily hardly ever uttered more than a monosyllable. Charlotte was sometimes excited sufficiently to speak eloquently and well — on certain subjects; but before her tongue was thus loosened, she had a habit of gradually wheeling round on her chair, so as almost to conceal her face from the person to whom she was speaking.

And yet there was much in Brussels to strike a responsive chord in her powerful imagination. At length she was seeing somewhat of that grand old world of which she had dreamed. As the gay crowds passed by her, so had gay crowds paced those streets for centuries, in all their varying costumes. Every spot told an historic tale, extending back into the fabulous ages when Jan and Jannika, the aboriginal giant and giantess, looked over the wall, forty feet high, of what is now the Rue Villa Hermosa, and peered down upon the new settlers who were to turn them out of the country in which they had lived since the deluge. The great solemn Cathedral of St. Gudule, the religious paintings, the striking forms and ceremonies of the Romish Church — all made a deep impression on the girls, fresh from the bare walls and simple worship of Haworth Church. And then they were indignant with themselves for having been susceptible of this impression, and their stout Protestant hearts arrayed themselves against the false Duessa that had thus imposed upon them.

The very building they occupied as pupils, in Madame Heger’s pensionnat, had its own ghostly train of splendid associations, marching for ever, in shadowy procession, through and through the ancient rooms, and shaded alleys of the gardens. From the splendour of to-day in the Rue Royale, if you turn aside, near the statue of the General Beliard, you look down four flights of broad stone steps upon the Rue d’Isabelle. The chimneys of the houses in it are below your feet. Opposite to the lowest flight of steps, there is a large old mansion facing you, with a spacious walled garden behind — and to the right of it. In front of this garden, on the same side as the mansion, and with great boughs of trees sweeping over their lowly roofs, is a row of small, picturesque, old-fashioned cottages, not unlike, in degree and uniformity, to the almshouses so often seen in an English country town. The Rue d’Isabelle looks as though it had been untouched by the innovations of the builder for the last three centuries; and yet any one might drop a stone into it from the back windows of the grand modern hotels in the Rue Royale, built and furnished in the newest Parisian fashion.

In the thirteenth century, the Rue d’Isabelle was called the Fosse-aux-Chiens; and the kennels for the ducal hounds occupied the place where Madame Heger’s pensionnat now stands. A hospital (in the ancient large meaning of the word) succeeded to the kennel. The houseless and the poor, perhaps the leprous, were received, by the brethren of a religious order, in a building on this sheltered site; and what had been a fosse for defence, was filled up with herb-gardens and orchards for upwards of a hundred years. Then came the aristocratic guild of the cross-bow men — that company the members whereof were required to prove their noble descent — untainted for so many generations, before they could be admitted into the guild; and, being admitted, were required to swear a solemn oath, that no other pastime or exercise should take up any part of their leisure, the whole of which was to be devoted to the practice of the noble art of shooting with the cross-bow. Once a year a grand match was held, under the patronage of some saint, to whose church-steeple was affixed the bird, or semblance of a bird, to be hit by the victor. 5 The conqueror in the game was Roi des Arbaletriers for the coming year, and received a jewelled decoration accordingly, which he was entitled to wear for twelve months; after which he restored it to the guild, to be again striven for. The family of him who died during the year that he was king, were bound to present the decoration to the church of the patron saint of the guild, and to furnish a similar prize to be contended for afresh. These noble cross-bow men of the middle ages formed a sort of armed guard to the powers in existence, and almost invariably took the aristocratic, in preference to the democratic side, in the numerous civil dissensions of the Flemish towns. Hence they were protected by the authorities, and easily obtained favourable and sheltered sites for their exercise-ground. And thus they came to occupy the old fosse, and took possession of the great orchard of the hospital, lying tranquil and sunny in the hollow below the rampart.

5 Scott describes the sport, “Shooting at the Popinjay,” “as an ancient game formerly practised with archery, but at this period (1679) with firearms. This was the figure of a bird decked with parti-coloured feathers, so as to resemble a popinjay or parrot. It was suspended to a pole, and served for a mark at which the competitors discharged their fusees and carbines in rotation, at the distance of seventy paces. He whose ball brought down the mark held the proud title of Captain of the Popinjay for the remainder of the day, and was usually escorted in triumph to the most respectable change-house in the neighbourhood, where the evening was closed with conviviality, conducted under his auspices, and if he was able to maintain it, at his expense.”— Old Mortality.

But, in the sixteenth century, it became necessary to construct a street through the exercise-ground of the “Arbaletriers du Grand Serment,” and, after much delay, the company were induced by the beloved Infanta Isabella to give up the requisite plot of ground. In recompense for this, Isabella — who herself was a member of the guild, and had even shot down the bird, and been queen in 1615 — made many presents to the arbaletriers; and, in return, the grateful city, which had long wanted a nearer road to St. Gudule, but been baffled by the noble archers, called the street after her name. She, as a sort of indemnification to the arbaletriers, caused a “great mansion” to be built for their accommodation in the new Rue d’Isabelle. This mansion was placed in front of their exercise-ground, and was of a square shape. On a remote part of the walls, may still be read —


In that mansion were held all the splendid feasts of the Grand Serment des Arbaletriers. The master-archer lived there constantly, in order to be ever at hand to render his services to the guild. The great saloon was also used for the court balls and festivals, when the archers were not admitted. The Infanta caused other and smaller houses to be built in her new street, to serve as residences for her “garde noble;” and for her “garde bourgeoise,” a small habitation each, some of which still remain, to remind us of English almshouses. The “great mansion,” with its quadrangular form; the spacious saloon — once used for the archducal balls, where the dark, grave Spaniards mixed with the blond nobility of Brabant and Flanders — now a school-room for Belgian girls; the cross-bow men’s archery-ground — all are there — the pensionnat of Madame Heger.

This lady was assisted in the work of instruction by her husband — a kindly, wise, good, and religious man — whose acquaintance I am glad to have made, and who has furnished me with some interesting details, from his wife’s recollections and his own, of the two Miss Bronte during their residence in Brussels. He had the better opportunities of watching them, from his giving lessons in the French language and literature in the school. A short extract from a letter, written to me by a French lady resident in Brussels, and well qualified to judge, will help to show the estimation in which he is held.

“Je ne connais pas personnellement M. Heger, mais je sais qu’il est peu de caracteres aussi nobles, aussi admirables que le sien. Il est un des membres les plus zeles de cette Societe de S. Vincent de Paul dont je t’ai deje parle, et ne se contente pas de servir les pauvres et les malades, mais leur consacre encore les soirees. Apres des journees absorbees tout entieres par les devoirs que sa place lui impose, il reunit les pauvres, les ouvriers, leur donne des cours gratuits, et trouve encore le moyen de les amuser en les instruisant. Ce devouement te dira assez que M. Heger est profondement et ouvertement religieux. Il a des manieres franches et avenantes; il se fait aimer de tous ceux qui l’approchent, et surtout des enfants. Il a la parole facile, et possde e un haut degre l’eloquence du bon sens et du coeur. Il n’est point auteur. Homme de zele et de conscience, il vient de se demettre des fonctions elevees et lucratives qu’il exercait e l’Athenee, celles de Prefet des Etudes, parce qu’il ne peut y realiser le bien qu’il avait espere, introduire l’enseignement religieux dans le programme des etudes. J’ai vu une fois Madame Heger, qui a quelque chose de froid et de compasse dans son maintien, et qui previent peu en sa faveur. Je la crois pourtant aimee et appreciee par ses eleves.”

There were from eighty to a hundred pupils in the pensionnat, when Charlotte and Emily Bronte entered in February 1842.

M. Heger’s account is that they knew nothing of French. I suspect they knew as much (or as little), for all conversational purposes, as any English girls do, who have never been abroad, and have only learnt the idioms and pronunciation from an Englishwoman. The two sisters clung together, and kept apart from the herd of happy, boisterous, well-befriended Belgian girls, who, in their turn, thought the new English pupils wild and scared-looking, with strange, odd, insular ideas about dress; for Emily had taken a fancy to the fashion, ugly and preposterous even during its reign, of gigot sleves, and persisted in wearing them long after they were “gone out.” Her petticoats, too, had not a curve or a wave in them, but hung down straight and long, clinging to her lank figure. The sisters spoke to no one but from necessity. They were too full of earnest thought, and of the exile’s sick yearning, to be ready for careless conversation or merry game. M. Heger, who had done little but observe, during the few first weeks of their residence in the Rue d’Isabelle, perceived that with their unusual characters, and extraordinary talents, a different mode must be adopted from that in which he generally taught French to English girls. He seems to have rated Emily’s genius as something even higher than Charlotte’s; and her estimation of their relative powers was the same. Emily had a head for logic, and a capability of argument, unusual in a man, and rare indeed in a woman, according to M. Heger. Impairing the force of this gift, was a stubborn tenacity of will, which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned. “She should have been a man — a great navigator,” said M. Heger in speaking of her. “Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life.” And yet, moreover, her faculty of imagination was such that, if she had written a history, her view of scenes and characters would have been so vivid, and so powerfully expressed, and supported by such a show of argument, that it would have dominated over the reader, whatever might have been his previous opinions, or his cooler perceptions of its truth. But she appeared egotistical and exacting compared to Charlotte, who was always unselfish (this is M. Heger’s testimony); and in the anxiety of the elder to make her younger sister contented she allowed her to exercise a kind of unconscious tyranny over her.

After consulting with his wife, M. Heger told them that he meant to dispense with the old method of grounding in grammar, vocabulary, &c., and to proceed on a new plan — something similar to what he had occasionally adopted with the elder among his French and Belgian pupils. He proposed to read to them some of the master-pieces of the most celebrated French authors (such as Casimir de la Vigne’s poem on the “Death of Joan of Arc,” parts of Bossuet, the admirable translation of the noble letter of St. Ignatius to the Roman Christians in the “Bibliotheque Choisie des Peres de l’Eglise,” &c.), and after having thus impressed the complete effect of the whole, to analyse the parts with them, pointing out in what such or such an author excelled, and where were the blemishes. He believed that he had to do with pupils capable, from their ready sympathy with the intellectual, the refined, the polished, or the noble, of catching the echo of a style, and so reproducing their own thoughts in a somewhat similar manner.

After explaining his plan to them, he awaited their reply. Emily spoke first; and said that she saw no good to be derived from it; and that, by adopting it, they should lose all originality of thought and expression. She would have entered into an argument on the subject, but for this, M. Heger had no time. Charlotte then spoke; she also doubted the success of the plan; but she would follow out M. Heger’s advice, because she was bound to obey him while she was his pupil. Before speaking of the results, it may be desirable to give an extract from one of her letters, which shows some of her first impressions of her new life.

“Brussels, 1842 (May?).

“I was twenty-six years old a week or two since; and at this ripe time of life I am a school-girl, and, on the whole, very happy in that capacity. It felt very strange at first to submit to authority instead of exercising it — to obey orders instead of giving them; but I like that state of things. I returned to it with the same avidity that a cow, that has long been kept on dry hay, returns to fresh grass. Don’t laugh at my simile. It is natural to me to submit, and very unnatural to command.

“This is a large school, in which there are about forty externes, or day pupils, and twelve pensionnaires, or boarders. Madame Heger, the head, is a lady of precisely the same cast of mind, degree of cultivation, and quality of intellect as Miss —. I think the severe points are a little softened, because she has not been disappointed, and consequently soured. In a word, she is a married instead of a maiden lady. There are three teachers in the school — Mademoiselle Blanche, Mademoiselle Sophie, and Mademoiselle Marie. The two first have no particular character. One is an old maid, and the other will be one. Mademoiselle Marie is talented and original, but of repulsive and arbitrary manners, which have made the whole school, except myself and Emily, her bitter enemies. No less than seven masters attend, to teach the different branches of education — French, Drawing, Music, Singing, Writing, Arithmetic, and German. All in the house are Catholics except ourselves, one other girl, and the gouvernante of Madame’s children, an Englishwoman, in rank something between a lady’s maid and a nursery governess. The difference in country and religion makes a broad line of demarcation between us and all the rest. We are completely isolated in the midst of numbers. Yet I think I am never unhappy; my present life is so delightful, so congenial to my own nature, compared to that of a governess. My time, constantly occupied, passes too rapidly. Hitherto both Emily and I have had good health, and therefore we have been able to work well. There is one individual of whom I have not yet spoken — M. Heger, the husband of Madame. He is professor of rhetoric, a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperament. He is very angry with me just at present, because I have written a translation which he chose to stigmatize as ‘PEU CORRECT.’ He did not tell me so, but wrote the word on the margin of my book, and asked, in brief stern phrase, how it happened that my compositions were always better than my translations? adding that the thing seemed to him inexplicable. The fact is, some weeks ago, in a high-flown humour, he forbade me to use either dictionary or grammar in translating the most difficult English compositions into French. This makes the task rather arduous, and compels me every now and then to introduce an English word, which nearly plucks the eyes out of his head when he sees it. Emily and he don’t draw well together at all. Emily works like a horse, and she has had great difficulties to contend with — far greater than I have had. Indeed, those who come to a French school for instruction ought previously to have acquired a considerable knowledge of the French language, otherwise they will lose a great deal of time, for the course of instruction is adapted to natives and not to foreigners; and in these large establishments they will not change their ordinary course for one or two strangers. The few private lessons that M. Heger has vouchsafed to give us, are, I suppose, to be considered a great favour; and I can perceive they have already excited much spite and jealousy in the school.

“You will abuse this letter for being short and dreary, and there are a hundred things which I want to tell you, but I have not time. Brussels is a beautiful city. The Belgians hate the English. Their external morality is more rigid than ours. To lace the stays without a handkerchief on the neck is considered a disgusting piece of indelicacy.”

The passage in this letter where M. Heger is represented as prohibiting the use of dictionary or grammar, refers, I imagine, to the time I have mentioned, when he determined to adopt a new method of instruction in the French language, of which they were to catch the spirit and rhythm rather from the ear and the heart, as its noblest accents fell upon them, than by over-careful and anxious study of its grammatical rules. It seems to me a daring experiment on the part of their teacher; but, doubtless, he knew his ground; and that it answered is evident in the composition of some of Charlotte’s DEVOIRS, written about this time. I am tempted, in illustration of this season of mental culture, to recur to a conversation which I had with M. Heger on the manner in which he formed his pupils’ style, and to give a proof of his success, by copying a DEVOIR of Charlotte’s with his remarks upon it.

He told me that one day this summer (when the Brontes had been for about four months receiving instruction from him) he read to them Victor Hugo’s celebrated portrait of Mirabeau, “mais, dans ma lecon je me bornais e ce qui concerne MIRABEAU ORATEUR. C’est apres l’analyse de ce morceau, considere surtout du point de vue du fond, de la disposition de ce qu’on pourrait appeler LA CHARPENTE qu’ont ete faits les deux portraits que je vous donne.” He went on to say that he had pointed out to them the fault in Victor Hugo’s style as being exaggeration in conception, and, at the same time, he had made them notice the extreme beauty of his “nuances” of expression. They were then dismissed to choose the subject of a similar kind of portrait. This selection M. Heger always left to them; for “it is necessary,” he observed, “before sitting down to write on a subject, to have thoughts and feelings about it. I cannot tell on what subject your heart and mind have been excited. I must leave that to you.” The marginal comments, I need hardly say, are M. Heger’s; the words in italics are Charlotte’s, for which he substitutes a better form of expression, which is placed between brackets. 6

6 In this edition M. Heger’s comments are given in {} at approximately the place where they occur — ED


“Le 31 Juillet, 1842.


“De temps en temps, il parait sur la terre des hommes destines e etre les instruments [predestines] {Pourquoi cette suppression?} de grands changements moraux ou politiques. Quelquefois c’est un conquerant, un Alexandre ou un Attila, qui passe comme un ouragan, et purifie l’atmosphere moral, comme l’orage purifie l’atmosphere physique; quelquefois, c’est un revolutionnaire, un Cromwell, ou un Robespierre, qui fait expier par un roi {les fautes et} les vices de toute une dynastie; quelquefois c’est un enthousiaste religieux comme Mahomet, ou Pierre l’Hermite, qui, avec le seul levier de la pensee, souleve des nations entieres, les deracine et les transplante dans des climats nouveaux, PEUPLANT L’ASIE AVEC LES HABITANTS DE L’EUROPE. Pierre l’Hermite etait gentilhomme de Picardie, en France, {Invtile, quand vous ecrivez er francais} pourquoi donc n’a-t-il passe sa vie comma les autres gentilhommes, ses contemporains, ont passe la leur, e table, e la chasse, dans son lit, sans s’inquieter de Saladin, ou de ses Sarrasins? N’est- ce pas, parce qu’il y a dans certaines natures, UNE ARDOUR [un foyer d’activite] indomptable qui ne leur permet pas de rester inactives, QUI LES FORCE E SE REMUER AFIN D’EXERCER LES FACULTES PUISSANTES, QUI MEME EN DORMANT SONT PRETES, COMME SAMPSON, E BRISER LES NOEUDS QUI LES RETIENNENT?

{Vous avez commence e parler de Pierre: vous etes entree dans le sujet: marchez au but.}

“Pierre prit la profession des armes; SI SON ARDEUR AVAIT ETE DE CETTE ESPECE [s’il n’avait eu que cette ardeur vulgaire] qui provient d’une robuste sante, IL AURAIT [c’eut] ete un brave militaire, et rien de plus; mais son ardeur etait celle de l’ame, sa flamme etait pure et elle s’elevait vers le ciel.

“SANS DOUTE [Il est vrai que] la jeunesse de Pierre ETAIT [fet] troublee par passions orageuses; les natures puissantes sont extremes en tout, elles ne connaissent la tiedeur ni dans le bien, ni dans le mal; Pierre donc chercha d’abord avidement la gloire qui se fletrit et les plaisirs qui trompent, mais IL FIT BIENTOT LA DECOUVERTE [bientot il s’apercut] que ce qu’il poursuivait n’etait qe’une illusion e laquelle il ne pourrait jamais atteindre; {Vnutile, quand vous avez dit illusion} il retourna donc sur ses pas, il recommenca le voyage de la vie, mais cette fois il evita le chemin spacieux qui mene e la perdition et il prit le chemin etroit qui mene e la vie; PUISQUE [comme] le trajet etait long et difficile il jeta la casque et les armes du soldat, et se vetit de l’habit simple du moine. A la vie militaire succeda la vie monastique, car les extremes se touchent, et CHEZ L’HOMME SINCERE la sincerite du repentir amene [necessairement e la suite] AVEC LUI la rigueur de la penitence. [Voile donc Pierre devenu moine!]

“Mais PIERRE [il] avait en lui un principe qui l’empechait de rester long-temps inactif, ses idees, sur quel sujet QU’IL SOIT [que ce fut] ne pouvaient pas etre bornees; il ne lui suffisait pas que lui-meme fut religieux, que lui-meme fut convaincu de la realite de Christianisme (sic), il fallait que toute l’Europe, que toute l’Asie, partageat sa conviction et professat la croyance de la Croix. La Piete [fervente] elevee par la Genie, nourrie par la Solitude, FIT NAITRE UNE ESPECE D’INSPIRATION [exalta son ame jusqu’e l’inspiration] DANS SON AME, et lorsqu’il quitta sa cellule et reparut dans le monde, il portait comme Moise l’empreinte de la Divinite sur son front, et TOUT [tous] reconnurent en lui la veritable apotre de la Croix.

“Mahomet n’avait jamais remue les molles nations de l’Orient comme alors Pierre remua les peuples austeres de l’Occident; il fallait que cette eloquence fut d’une force presque miraculeuse QUI POUVAIT [presqu’elle] persuadER [ait] aux rois de vendre leurs royaumes AFIN DE PROCURER [pour avoir] des armes et des soldats POUR AIDER [e offrir] e Pierre dans la guerre sainte qu’il voulait livrer aux infideles. La puissance de Pierre [l’Hermite] n’etait nullement une puissance physique, car la nature, ou pour mieux dire, Dieu est impartial dans la distribution de ses dons; il accorde e l’un de ses enfants la grace, la beaute, les perfections corporelles, e l’autre l’esprit, la grandeur morale. Pierre donc etait un homme petit, d’une physionomie peu agreable; mais il avait ce courage, cette constance, cet enthousiasme, cette energie de sentiment qui ecrase toute opposition, et qui fait que la volonte d’un seul homme devient la loi de toute une nation. Pour se former une juste idee de l’influence qu’exerca cet homme sur les CARACTERES [choses] et les idees de son temps, il faut se le representer au milieu de l’armee des croisees dans son double role de prophete et de guerrier; le pauvre hermite, vetu DU PAUVRE [de l’humble] habit gris est le plus puissant qieun roi; il est entoure D’UNE [de la] multitude [avide] une multitude qui ne voit que lui, tandis qui lui, il ne voit que le ciel; ses yeux leves semblent dire, ‘Je vois Dieu et les anges, et j’ai perdu de vue la terre!’

“DANS CE MOMENT LE [mais ce] pauvre HABIT [froc] gris est pour lui comme le manteau d’Elijah; il l’enveloppe d’inspiration; IL [Pierre] lit dans l’avenir; il voit Jerusalem delivree; [il voit] le saint sepulcre libre; il voit le Croissant argent est arrache du Temple, et l’Oriflamme et la Croix rouge sont etabli e sa place; non-seulement Pierre voit ces merveilles, mais il les fait voir e tous ceux qui l’entourent; il ravive l’esperance et le courage dans [tous ces corps epuises de fatigues et de privations]. La bataille ne sera livree que demain, mais la victoire est decidee ce soir. Pierre a promis; et les Croises se fient e sa parole, comme les Israelites se fiaient e celle de Moise et de Josue.”

As a companion portrait to this, Emily chose to depict Harold on the eve of the battle of Hastings. It appears to me that her DEVOIR is superior to Charlotte’s in power and in imagination, and fully equal to it in language; and that this, in both cases, considering how little practical knowledge of French they had when they arrived at Brussels in February, and that they wrote without the aid of dictionary or grammar, is unusual and remarkable. We shall see the progress Charlotte had made, in ease and grace of style, a year later.

In the choice of subjects left to her selection, she frequently took characters and scenes from the Old Testament, with which all her writings show that she was especially familiar. The picturesqueness and colour (if I may so express it), the grandeur and breadth of its narrations, impressed her deeply. To use M. Heger’s expression, “Elle etait nourrie de la Bible.” After he had read De la Vigne’s poem on Joan of Arc, she chose the “Vision and Death of Moses on Mount Nebo” to write about; and, in looking over this DEVOIR, I was much struck with one or two of M. Heger’s remarks. After describing, in a quiet and simple manner, the circumstances under which Moses took leave of the Israelites, her imagination becomes warmed, and she launches out into a noble strain, depicting the glorious futurity of the Chosen People, as, looking down upon the Promised Land, he sees their prosperity in prophetic vision. But, before reaching the middle of this glowing description, she interrupts herself to discuss for a moment the doubts that have been thrown on the miraculous relations of the Old Testament. M. Heger remarks, “When you are writing, place your argument first in cool, prosaic language; but when you have thrown the reins on the neck of your imagination, do not pull her up to reason.” Again, in the vision of Moses, he sees the maidens leading forth their flocks to the wells at eventide, and they are described as wearing flowery garlands. Here the writer is reminded of the necessity of preserving a certain verisimilitude: Moses might from his elevation see mountains and plains, groups of maidens and herds of cattle, but could hardly perceive the details of dress, or the ornaments of the head.

When they had made further progress, M. Heger took up a more advanced plan, that of synthetical teaching. He would read to them various accounts of the same person or event, and make them notice the points of agreement and disagreement. Where they were different, he would make them seek the origin of that difference by causing them to examine well into the character and position of each separate writer, and how they would be likely to affect his conception of truth. For instance, take Cromwell. He would read Bossuet’s description of him in the “Oraison Funebre de la Reine d’Angleterre,” and show how in this he was considered entirely from the religious point of view, as an instrument in the hands of God, preordained to His work. Then he would make them read Guizot, and see how, in this view, Cromwell was endowed with the utmost power of free-will, but governed by no higher motive than that of expediency; while Carlyle regarded him as a character regulated by a strong and conscientious desire to do the will of the Lord. Then he would desire them to remember that the Royalist and Commonwealth men had each their different opinions of the great Protector. And from these conflicting characters, he would require them to sift and collect the elements of truth, and try to unite them into a perfect whole.

This kind of exercise delighted Charlotte. It called into play her powers of analysis, which were extraordinary, and she very soon excelled in it.

Wherever the Brontes could be national they were so, with the same tenacity of attachment which made them suffer as they did whenever they left Haworth. They were Protestant to the backbone in other things beside their religion, but pre-eminently so in that. Touched as Charlotte was by the letter of St. Ignatius before alluded to, she claimed equal self-devotion, and from as high a motive, for some of the missionaries of the English Church sent out to toil and to perish on the poisonous African coast, and wrote as an “imitation,” “Lettre d’un Missionnaire, Sierra Leone, Afrique.”

Something of her feeling, too, appears in the following letter:-

“Brussels, 1842.

“I consider it doubtful whether I shall come home in September or not. Madame Heger has made a proposal for both me and Emily to stay another half-year, offering to dismiss her English master, and take me as English teacher; also to employ Emily some part of each day in teaching music to a certain number of the pupils. For these services we are to be allowed to continue our studies in French and German, and to have board, &c., without paying for it; no salaries, however, are offered. The proposal is kind, and in a great selfish city like Brussels, and a great selfish school, containing nearly ninety pupils (boarders and day pupils included), implies a degree of interest which demands gratitude in return. I am inclined to accept it. What think you? I don’t deny I sometimes wish to be in England, or that I have brief attacks of home sickness; but, on the whole, I have borne a very valiant heart so far; and I have been happy in Brussels, because I have always been fully occupied with the employments that I like. Emily is making rapid progress in French, German, music, and drawing. Monsieur and Madame Heger begin to recognise the valuable parts of her character, under her singularities.

“If the national character of the Belgians is to be measured by the character of most of the girls is this school, it in a character singularly cold, selfish, animal, and inferior. They are very mutinous and difficult for the teachers to manage; and their principles are rotten to the core. We avoid them, which it is not difficult to do, as we have the brand of Protestantism and Anglicism upon us. People talk of the danger which Protestants expose themselves to in going to reside in Catholic countries, and thereby running the chance of changing their faith. My advice to all Protestants who are tempted to do anything so besotted as turn Catholics, is, to walk over the sea on to the Continent; to attend mass sedulously for a time; to note well the mummeries thereof; also the idiotic, mercenary aspect of all the priests; and then, if they are still disposed to consider Papistry in any other light than a most feeble, childish piece of humbug, let them turn Papists at once — that’s all. I consider Methodism, Quakerism, and the extremes of High and Low Churchism foolish, but Roman Catholicism beats them all. At the same time, allow me to tell you, that there are some Catholics who are as good as any Christians can be to whom the Bible is a sealed book, and much better than many Protestants.”

When the Brontes first went to Brussels, it was with the intention of remaining there for six months, or until the GRANDES VACANCES began in September. The duties of the school were then suspended for six weeks or two months, and it seemed a desirable period for their return. But the proposal mentioned in the foregoing letter altered their plans. Besides, they were happy in the feeling that they were making progress in all the knowledge they had so long been yearning to acquire. They were happy, too, in possessing friends whose society had been for years congenial to them, and in occasional meetings with these, they could have the inexpressible solace to residents in a foreign country — and peculiarly such to the Brontes — of talking over the intelligence received from their respective homes — referring to past, or planning for future days. “Mary” and her sister, the bright, dancing, laughing Martha, were parlour-boarders in an establishment just beyond the barriers of Brussels. Again, the cousins of these friends were resident in the town; and at their house Charlotte and Emily were always welcome, though their overpowering shyness prevented their more valuable qualities from being known, and generally kept them silent. They spent their weekly holiday with this family, for many months; but at the end of the time, Emily was as impenetrable to friendly advances as at the beginning; while Charlotte was too physically weak (as “Mary” has expressed it) to “gather up her forces” sufficiently to express any difference or opposition of opinion, and had consequently an assenting and deferential manner, strangely at variance with what they knew of her remarkable talents and decided character. At this house, the T.‘s and the Brontes could look forward to meeting each other pretty frequently. There was another English family where Charlotte soon became a welcome guest, and where, I suspect, she felt herself more at her ease than either at Mrs. Jenkins’, or the friends whom I have first mentioned.

An English physician, with a large family of daughters, went to reside at Brussels, for the sake of their education. He placed them at Madame Heger’s school in July, 1842, not a month before the beginning of the GRANDES VACANCES on August 15th. In order to make the most of their time, and become accustomed to the language, these English sisters went daily, through the holidays, to the pensionnat in the Rue d’Isabelle. Six or eight boarders remained, besides the Miss Brontes. They were there during the whole time, never even having the break to their monotonous life, which passing an occasional day with a friend would have afforded them; but devoting themselves with indefatigable diligence to the different studies in which they were engaged. Their position in the school appeared, to these new comers, analogous to what is often called that of a parlour-boarder. They prepared their French, drawing, German, and literature for their various masters; and to these occupations Emily added that of music, in which she was somewhat of a proficient; so much so as to be qualified to give instruction in it to the three younger sisters of my informant.

The school was divided into three classes. In the first were from fifteen to twenty pupils; in the second, sixty was about the average number — all foreigners, excepting the two Brontes and one other; in the third, there were from twenty to thirty pupils. The first and second classes occupied a long room, divided by a wooden partition; in each division were four long ranges of desks; and at the end was the ESTRADE, or platform, for the presiding instructor. On the last row, in the quietest corner, sat Charlotte and Emily, side by side, so deeply absorbed in their studies as to be insensible to any noise or movement around them. The school-hours were from nine to twelve (the luncheon hour), when the boarders and half-boarders — perhaps two-and-thirty girls- -went to the refectoire (a room with two long tables, having an oil-lamp suspended over each), to partake of bread and fruit; the EXTERNES, or morning pupils, who had brought their own refreshment with them, adjourning to eat it in the garden. From one to two, there was fancy-work — a pupil reading aloud some light literature in each room; from two to four, lessons again. At four, the externes left; and the remaining girls dined in the refectoire, M. and Madame Heger presiding. From five to six there was recreation, from six to seven, preparation for lessons; and, after that succeeded the LECTURE PIEUSE— Charlotte’s nightmare. On rare occasions, M. Heger himself would come in, and substitute a book of a different and more interesting kind. At eight, there was a slight meal of water and PISTOLETS (the delicious little Brussels rolls), which was immediately followed by prayers, and then to bed.

The principal bedroom was over the long classe, or school-room. There were six or eight narrow beds on each side of the apartment, every one enveloped in its white draping curtain; a long drawer, beneath each, served for a wardrobe, and between each was a stand for ewer, basin, and looking-glass. The beds of the two Miss Brontes were at the extreme end of the room, almost as private and retired as if they had been in a separate apartment.

During the hours of recreation, which were always spent in the garden, they invariably walked together, and generally kept a profound silence; Emily, though so much the taller, leaning on her sister. Charlotte would always answer when spoken to, taking the lead in replying to any remark addressed to both; Emily rarely spoke to any one. Charlotte’s quiet, gentle manner never changed. She was never seen out of temper for a moment; and occasionally, when she herself had assumed the post of English teacher, and the impertinence or inattention of her pupils was most irritating, a slight increase of colour, a momentary sparkling of the eye, and more decided energy of manner, were the only outward tokens she gave of being conscious of the annoyance to which she was subjected. But this dignified endurance of hers subdued her pupils, in the long run, far more than the voluble tirades of the other mistresses. My informant adds:— “The effect of this manner was singular. I can speak from personal experience. I was at that time high-spirited and impetuous, not respecting the French mistresses; yet, to my own astonishment, at one word from her, I was perfectly tractable; so much so, that at length, M. and Madame Heger invariably preferred all their wishes to me through her; the other pupils did not, perhaps, love her as I did, she was so quiet and silent; but all respected her.”

With the exception of that part which describes Charlotte’s manner as English teacher — an office which she did not assume for some months later — all this description of the school life of the two Brontes refers to the commencement of the new scholastic year in October 1842; and the extracts I have given convey the first impression which the life at a foreign school, and the position of the two Miss Brontes therein, made upon an intelligent English girl of sixteen. I will make a quotation from “Mary’s” letter referring to this time.

“The first part of her time at Brussels was not uninteresting. She spoke of new people and characters, and foreign ways of the pupils and teachers. She knew the hopes and prospects of the teachers, and mentioned one who was very anxious to marry, ‘she was getting so old.’ She used to get her father or brother (I forget which) to be the bearer of letters to different single men, who she thought might be persuaded to do her the favour, saying that her only resource was to become a sister of charity if her present employment failed and that she hated the idea. Charlotte naturally looked with curiosity to people of her own condition. This woman almost frightened her. ‘She declares there is nothing she can turn to, and laughs at the idea of delicacy — and she is only ten years older than I am!’ I did not see the connection till she said, ‘Well, Polly, I should hate being a sister of charity; I suppose that would shock some people, but I should.’ I thought she would have as much feeling as a nurse as most people, and more than some. She said she did not know how people could bear the constant pressure of misery, and never to change except to a new form of it. It would be impossible to keep one’s natural feelings. I promised her a better destiny than to go begging any one to marry her, or to lose her natural feelings as a sister of charity. She said, ‘My youth is leaving me; I can never do better than I have done, and I have done nothing yet.’ At such times she seemed to think that most human beings were destined by the pressure of worldly interests to lose one faculty and feeling after another ‘till they went dead altogether. I hope I shall be put in my grave as soon as I’m dead; I don’t want to walk about so.’ Here we always differed. I thought the degradation of nature she feared was a consequence of poverty, and that she should give her attention to earning money. Sometimes she admitted this, but could find no means of earning money. At others she seemed afraid of letting her thoughts dwell on the subject, saying it brought on the worst palsy of all. Indeed, in her position, nothing less than entire constant absorption in petty money matters could have scraped together a provision.

“Of course artists and authors stood high with Charlotte, and the best thing after their works would have been their company. She used very inconsistently to rail at money and money-getting, and then wish she was able to visit all the large towns in Europe, see all the sights and know all the celebrities. This was her notion of literary fame — a passport to the society of clever people . . . When she had become acquainted with the people and ways at Brussels her life became monotonous, and she fell into the same hopeless state as at Miss W-‘s, though in a less degree. I wrote to her, urging her to go home or elsewhere; she had got what she wanted (French), and there was at least novelty in a new place, if no improvement. That if she sank into deeper gloom she would soon not have energy to go, and she was too far from home for her friends to hear of her condition and order her home as they had done from Miss W-‘s. She wrote that I had done her a great service, that she should certainly follow my advice, and was much obliged to me. I have often wondered at this letter. Though she patiently tolerated advice, she could always quietly put it aside, and do as she thought fit. More than once afterwards she mentioned the ‘service’ I had done her. She sent me 10L. to New Zealand, on hearing some exaggerated accounts of my circumstances, and told me she hoped it would come in seasonably; it was a debt she owed me ‘for the service I had done her.’ I should think 10L. was a quarter of her income. The ‘service’ was mentioned as an apology, but kindness was the real motive.”

The first break in this life of regular duties and employments came heavily and sadly. Martha — pretty, winning, mischievous, tricksome Martha — was taken ill suddenly at the Chateau de Koekelberg. Her sister tended her with devoted love; but it was all in vain; in a few days she died. Charlotte’s own short account of this event is as follows:-

“Martha T.‘s illness was unknown to me till the day before she died. I hastened to Koekelberg the next morning — unconscious that she was in great danger — and was told that it was finished. She had died in the night. Mary was taken away to Bruxelles. I have seen Mary frequently since. She is in no ways crushed by the event; but while Martha was ill, she was to her more than a mother — more than a sister: watching, nursing, cherishing her so tenderly, so unweariedly. She appears calm and serious now; no bursts of violent emotion; no exaggeration of distress. I have seen Martha’s grave — the place where her ashes lie in a foreign country.”

Who that has read “Shirley” does not remember the few lines — perhaps half a page — of sad recollection?

“He has no idea that little Jessy will die young, she is so gay, and chattering, and arch — original even now; passionate when provoked, but most affectionate if caressed; by turns gentle and rattling; exacting yet generous; fearless . . . yet reliant on any who will help her. Jessy, with her little piquant face, engaging prattle, and winning ways, is made to be a pet.

* * *

“Do you know this place? No, you never saw it; but you recognise the nature of these trees, this foliage — the cypress, the willow, the yew. Stone crosses like these are not unfamiliar to you, nor are these dim garlands of everlasting flowers. Here is the place: green sod and a grey marble head-stone — Jessy sleeps below. She lived through an April day; much loved was she, much loving. She often, in her brief life, shed tears — she had frequent sorrows; she smiled between, gladdening whatever saw her. Her death was tranquil and happy in Rose’s guardian arms, for Rose had been her stay and defence through many trials; the dying and the watching English girls were at that hour alone in a foreign country, and the soil of that country gave Jessy a grave.

* * *

“But, Jessy, I will write about you no more. This is an autumn evening, wet and wild. There is only one cloud in the sky; but it curtains it from pole to pole. The wind cannot rest; it hurries sobbing over hills of sullen outline, colourless with twilight and mist. Rain has beat all day on that church tower” (Haworth): “it rises dark from the stony enclosure of its graveyard: the nettles, the long grass, and the tombs all drip with wet. This evening reminds me too forcibly of another evening some years ago: a howling, rainy autumn evening too — when certain who had that day performed a pilgrimage to a grave new made in a heretic cemetery, sat near a wood fire on the hearth of a foreign dwelling. They were merry and social, but they each knew that a gap, never to be filled, had been made in their circle. They knew they had lost something whose absence could never be quite atoned for, so long as they lived; and they knew that heavy falling rain was soaking into the wet earth which covered their lost darling; and that the sad, sighing gale was mourning above her buried head. The fire warmed them; Life and Friendship yet blessed them: but Jessy lay cold, coffined, solitary — only the sod screening her from the storm.”

This was the first death that had occurred in the small circle of Charlotte’s immediate and intimate friends since the loss of her two sisters long ago. She was still in the midst of her deep sympathy with “Mary,” when word came from home that her aunt, Miss Branwell, was ailing — was very ill. Emily and Charlotte immediately resolved to go home straight, and hastily packed up for England, doubtful whether they should ever return to Brussels or not, leaving all their relations with M. and Madame Heger, and the pensionnat, uprooted, and uncertain of any future existence. Even before their departure, on the morning after they received the first intelligence of illness — when they were on the very point of starting — came a second letter, telling them of their aunt’s death. It could not hasten their movements, for every arrangement had been made for speed. They sailed from Antwerp; they travelled night and day, and got home on a Tuesday morning. The funeral and all was over, and Mr. Bronte and Anne were sitting together, in quiet grief for the loss of one who had done her part well in their household for nearly twenty years, and earned the regard and respect of many who never knew how much they should miss her till she was gone. The small property which she had accumulated, by dint of personal frugality and self-denial, was bequeathed to her nieces. Branwell, her darling, was to have had his share; but his reckless expenditure had distressed the good old lady, and his name was omitted in her will.

When the first shock was over, the three sisters began to enjoy the full relish of meeting again, after the longest separation they had had in their lives. They had much to tell of the past, and much to settle for the future. Anne had been for some little time in a situation, to which she was to return at the end of the Christmas holidays. For another year or so they were again to be all three apart; and, after that, the happy vision of being together and opening a school was to be realised. Of course they did not now look forward to settling at Burlington, or any other place which would take them away from their father; but the small sum which they each independently possessed would enable them to effect such alterations in the parsonage-house at Haworth as would adapt it to the reception of pupils. Anne’s plans for the interval were fixed. Emily quickly decided to be the daughter to remain at home. About Charlotte there was much deliberation and some discussion.

Even in all the haste of their sudden departure from Brussels, M. Heger had found time to write a letter of sympathy to Mr. Bronte on the loss which he had just sustained; a letter containing such a graceful appreciation of the daughters’ characters, under the form of a tribute of respect to their father, that I should have been tempted to copy it, even had there not also been a proposal made in it respecting Charlotte, which deserves a place in the record of her life.

“Au Reverend Monsieur Bronte, Pasteur Evangelique, &c, &c.

“Samedi, 5 Obre.


“Un evenement bien triste decide mesdemoiselles vas filles e retourner brusquement en Angleterre, ce depart qui nous afflige beaucoup a cependant ma complete approbation; il est bien naturel qu’elles cherchent e vous consoler de ce que le ciel vient de vous oter, on se serrant autour de vous, poui mieux vous faire apprecier ce que le ciel vous a donne et ce qu’il vous laisse encore. J’espere que vous me pardonnerez, Monsieur, de profiter de cette circonstance pour vous faire parvenir l’expression de mon respect; je n’ai pas l’honneur de vous connaitre personnellement, et cependant j’eprouve pour votre personne un sentiment de sincere veneration, car en jugeant un pere de famille par ses enfants on ne risque pas de se tromper, et sous ce rapport l’education et les sentiments que nous avons trouves dans mesdemoiselles vos filles n’ont pu que nous donner une tres-haute idee de votre merite et de votre caractere. Vous apprendrez sans doute avec plaisir que vos enfants ont fait du progres tresremarquable dans toutes les branches de l’enseignenient, et que ces progres sont entierement du e leur amour pour le travail et e leur perseverance; nous n’avons eu que bien peu e faire avec de pareilles eleves; leur avancement est votre oeuvre bien plus que la notre; nous n’avons pas eu e leur apprendre le prix du temps et de l’instruction, elles avaient appris tout cela dans la maison paternelle, et nous n’avons eu, pour notre part, que le faible merite de diriger leurs efforts et de fournir un aliment convenable e la louable activite que vos filles ont puisees dans votre exemple et dans vos lecons. Puissent les eloges meritees que nous donnons e vos enfants vous etre de quelque consolation dans le malheur que vous afflige; c’est le notre espoir en vous ecrivant, et ce sera, pour Mesdemoiselles Charlotte et Emily, une douce et belle recompense de leurs travaux.

“En perdant nos deux cheres eleves, nous ne devons pas vous cacher que nous eprouvons e la fois et du chagrin et de l’inquietude; nous sommes affliges parce que cette brusque separation vient briser l’affection presque paternelle que nous leur avons vouee, et notre peine s’augmente e la vue de tant de travaux interrompues, de tant de choses bien commencees, et qui ne demandent que quelque temps encore pour etre menees e bonne fin. Dans un an, chacune de vos demoiselles eut ete entierement premunie contre les eventualites de l’avenir; chacune d’elles acquerait e la fois et l’instruction et la science d’enseignement; Mlle Emily allait apprendre le piano; recevoir les lecons du meilleur professeur que nous ayons en Belgique, et deje elle avait elle-meme de petites eleves; elle perdait donc e la fois un reste d’ignorance et un reste plus genant encore de timidite; Mlle Charlotte commencait e donner des lecons en francais, et d’acquerir cette assurance, cet aplomb si necessaire dans l’enseignement; encore un an tout au plus et l’oeuvre etait achevee et bien achevee. Alors nous aurions pu, si cela vous eut convenu, offrir e mesdemoiselles vos filles ou du moins e l’une des deux une position qui eut ete dans ses gouts, et qui lui eut donne cette douce independance si difficile e trouver pour une jeune personne. Ce n’est pas, croyez le bien, Monsieur, ce n’est pas ici pour nous une question d’interet personnel, c’est une question d’affection; vous me pardonnerez si nous vous parlons de vos enfants, si nous nous occupons de leur avenir, comme si elles faisaient partie de notre famille; leurs qualites personnelles, leur bon vouloir, leur zele extreme sont les seules causes qui nous poussent e nous hasarder de la sorte. Nous savons, Monsieur, que vous peserez plus murement et plus sagement que nous la consequence qu’aurait pour l’avenir une interruption complete dans les etudes de vos deux filles; vous deciderez ce qu’il faut faire, et vous nous pardonnerez notre franchise, si vous daignez considerer que le motif qui nous fait agir est une affection bien desinteressee et qui s’affligerait beaucoup de devoir deje se resigner e n’etre plus utile e vos chers enfants.

“Agreez, je vous prie, Monsieur, l’expression respectueuse de mes sentiments de haute consideration.


There was so much truth, as well as so much kindness in this letter — it was so obvious that a second year of instruction would be far more valuable than the first, that there was no long hesitation before it was decided that Charlotte should return to Brussels.

Meanwhile, they enjoyed their Christmas all together inexpressibly. Branwell was with them; that was always a pleasure at this time; whatever might be his faults, or even his vices, his sisters yet held him up as their family hope, as they trusted that he would some day be their family pride. They blinded themselves to the magnitude of the failings of which they were now and then told, by persuading themselves that such failings were common to all men of any strength of character; for, till sad experience taught them better, they fell into the usual error of confounding strong passions with strong character.

Charlotte’s friend came over to see her, and she returned the visit. Her Brussels life must have seemed like a dream, so completely, in this short space of time, did she fall back into the old household ways; with more of household independence than she could ever have had during her aunt’s lifetime. Winter though it was, the sisters took their accustomed walks on the snow- covered moors; or went often down the long road to Keighley, for such books as had been added to the library there during their absence from England.

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17