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.
Reference has been made in her letters 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. Brontë'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 Héger; and so satisfied was the grandmother with the kind of instruction given, that she named the establishment, with high
encomiums, to Mrs. Jenkins; and, in consequence, it was decided that, if the terms suited, Miss Brontë and Emily should proceed thither. M. Héger 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
This was accordingly done; the agreement was concluded, and the Brontës
prepared to leave their native county for the first time, if we except
the melancholy and
memorable residence at Cowan Bridge. Mr. Brontë 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.
Mr. Brontë 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,
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 Héger'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 Héger'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. 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 in 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
But, in the sixteenth century, it became necessary to construct a street
through the exercise-ground of the "Arbaletriers de 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 -
PHILLIPPO IIII. HISPAN. REGE. ISABELLA-CLARA-EUGENIAHISPAN. INFANS. MAGNÆ GULDÆ REGINA GULDÆ FRATRIBUS POSUIT.
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 schoolroom for Belgian girls; the cross-bow men's archery-ground - all are there -
the pensionnat of Madame Héger.
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 Brontës 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 personellement M. Héger, mais je sais qu'il
est peu de caractères aussi nobles, aussi admirables que le sien.
Il est un des membres les plus zélés
de cette Société de S. Vincent de Paul dont je t'ai dejà parlé, et ne se contente pas de servir les pauvres et les malades, mais leur consacre encore les soirées. Après
des journées absorbées tout entières par les devoirs que sa place lui impose, ii réunit les pauvres, les ouvriers, leur donne des cours gratuits, et trouve encore le
moyen de les amuser en les instruisant. Ce dévouement te dira assez que M. Héger est profondement et ouvertement religieux. Il a des manières franches et
avenantes; il se fait aimer de tous ceux qui l'approchent, et surtout des enfants. Il a le parole facile, et possède à un haut degré l'éloquence du bon sens et du coeur. Il
n'est point auteur. Homme de zèle et de conscience, il vient de se démettre des fonctions élevées et lucratives qu'il exercait à l'Athenée, celles de Préfet des Etudes,
parce qu'il ne peut y réaliser le bien qu'il avait esperé, introduire l'enseignement religieux dans le programme des études. J'ai vu une fois Madame Héger, qui a
quelque chose de froid et de compassé dans son maintien, et qui prévient peu en sa favour. Je la crois pourtant aimée et appreciée par ses élèves."
There were from eighty to a hundred pupils in the pensionnat, when Charlotte and Emily Brontë entered in February 1842.
M. Héger'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 sleeves, 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. Héger, 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. Héger. Impairing the force of this gift, was her 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. Héger 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.
Héger'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. Héger told them that he meant
to dispense with the old method of grounding in grammar, vocabulary, etc.,
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
masterpieces 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 Bibliothèque Choisie des Pères de l'Eglise, etc.), 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. Héger had no time. Charlotte then spoke; she
also doubted the success of the plan; but she would follow out M. Héger'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 Héger,
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. Héger, 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 stigmatise 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. Héger 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
The passage in this letter where M. Héger 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 "dévoirs," 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. Héger on the manner in which he formed his pupils' style, and to give a
proof of his success, by copying a "dévoir" of Charlotte's, with his remarks upon it.
He told me that one day this summer (when the Brontës had been
for about four months receiving instruction from him) he read to them Victor
portrait of Mirabeau, "mais, dans ma leçon je me bornais à ce qui concerne Mirabeau Orateur. C'est après l'analyse de ce morçeau, considéré surtout du point de
vue du fond, de la disposition, de ce qu'on pourrait appeler la charpente qu'ont été 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. Héger 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. Héger's; the words in italics are Charlotte's, for which he substitutes a
better form of expression, which is placed between brackets.
"Le 31 Juillet, 1842.
PORTRAIT DE PIERRE L'HERMITE. CHARLOTTE BRONTË
"De temps en temps, il parait sur la terre des hommes destinés
à etre les instruments [prédestinés] de grands changements,
moreaux ou politiques. Quelquefois c'est
un conquérant, un Alexandre ou un Attila, qui passe comme un ouragan, et purifie 1'atmosphère moral, comme l'orage purifie l'atmosphère physique; quelquefois,
c'est un révolutionnaire, un Cromwell, ou un Robespierre, qui fait expier par un roi les vices de toute une dynastie; quelquefois c'est un enthousiaste réligieux comme
Mahométe, ou Pierre l'Ermite, qui, avec le seul levier de la pensée soulève des nations entières, les déracine et les transplante dans des climats nouveaux, peuplant
l'Asie avec les habitants de l'Europe. Pierre l'Ermite était gentilhomme de Picardie, en France, pourquoi donc n'a-t-il passé sa vie comme les autres gentilhommes
ses contemporains ont passé la leur, à table, à la chasse, dans son lit, sans s'inquiéter de Saladin, ou de ses Sarrasins? N'est-ce pas, parce qu'il y a dans certaines
natures, une ardeur [un foyer d'activité] indomptable qui ne leur permet pas de rester inactives, qui les force à se remuer afin d'exercer les facultés puissantes,
qui même en dormant sont prêtes comme Sampson à briser les noeuds qui les retiennent?
"Pierre prit la profession des armes; si son ardeur avait été
de cette espèce [si il n'avait eu que cette ardeur vulgaire] qui
provient d'une robuste santé il aurait
[c'eut] été un brave militaire, et rien de plus; mais son ardeur était celle de l'âme, sa flamme était pure et elle s'élevait vers le ciel.
"Sans doute [Il est vrai que] la jeunesse de Pierre, était [fut]
troublée par passions orageuses; les natures puissantes sont extrèmes
en tout, elles ne connaissent la
tiédeur ni dans le bien, ni dans le mal; Pierre donc chercha d'abord avidément la gloire què se flétrit, et les plaisirs qui trompent, mais il fit bientôt la découverte
[bientôt il s'aperçut] que ce qu'il poursuivait n'était qu' une illusion à laquelle il ne pourrait jamais atteindre; il retourna donc sur ses pas, il recommença le voyage de la
vie, mais cette fois il évita le chemin spacieux qui méne à la perdition et il prit le chemin étroit qui méne à la vie; puisque [comme] le trajet était long et difficile il jeta
la casque et les armes du soldat, et se vêtit de l'habit simple du moine. A la vie militaire succéda la vie monastique, car, les extrêmes se touchent et chez l'homme
sincere la sincerite du repentir amène [necessairement à la suite] avec lui la rigueur de la penitence. [Voila donc Pierre devena moine!]
"Mais Pierre [il] avait en lui un principe qui 1'empechait de rester
long-temps inactif, ses idées, sur quel sujet qu'il soit [que ce
fut] ne pouvaient pas être bornées; il
ne lui suffisait pas que lui-même fût religieux, que lui-même fût convaincee de la réalité de Christianismé (sic) il fallait que toute l'Europe que toute l'Asie partagea sa
conviction et professât la croyance de la Croix. La Piété [fervente] élevée par le Génie, nourrie par la Solitude fit naitre une éspèce d'inspiration [exalta son âme
jusqu'a l'inspiration) dans son ame, et lorsqu'il quitta sa cellule et reparut dans le monde, il portrait comme Moise l'empreinte de la Divinité sur son front, et tout
[tous] réconnurent en lui la veritable apôtre de la Croix.
"Mahomet n'avait jamais rémué les molles nations de l'Orient
comme alors Pièrre remua les peuples austéres de l'Occident;
il fallait que cette éloquence fût 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 [à offrir] a Pierre dans la guerre sainte qu'il voulait livrer aux infidéles. La puissance de Pierre [l'Ermite] n'était nullement une puissance physique, car la nature,
ou pour mieux dire, Dieu est impartial dans la distribution de ses dons; il accorde à l'un de ses enfants la grace, la beauté, les perfections corporelles, à l'autre l'esprit,
la grandeur morale. Pierre donc était un homme, petit d'une physionomie peu agréable; mais il avait ce courage, cette constance, cet enthousiasme, cette energie de
sentiment qui écrase toute opposition, et qui fait que la volonté d'un seul homme devient la loi de toute une nation. Pour se former une juste idée de l'influence
qu'exerça cet homme sur les caractères [choses] et les idées de son temps il faut se le representer au milieu de l'armée des croisées, dans son double rôle de
prophète et de guerrier; le pauvre hermite vêtu du pauvre [de l'humble] habit gris est la plus puissant qu'un roi; il est entouré d'une [de la] multitude [abide] une
multitude qui ne voit que lui, tandis que lui, il ne voit que le ciel; ses yeux lévés 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
delivrée; [il voit] le saint sepulchre libre; il voit le croissant argent est arraché du Temple, et l'Oriflamme et la Croix rouge sont établi à sa place; non seulement Pierre
voit ces merveilles, mais il les fait voir à tous ceux qui l'entourent, il ravive l'espérance, et le courage dans [tous ces corps epuisés de fatigues et de privations] La
bataille ne sera livrée que demain, mais la victoire est décidée ce soir. Pierre a promis; et les Croisées se fient à sa parole, comme les Israëlites se fiaient à celle de
Moise et de Josué."
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 dévoir
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. Héger's
expression, "Elle était 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 dévoir, I was much struck with one or two of M. Héger'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. Héger 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. Héger 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, pre-ordained to His work. Then he would make them read Guizot, and see how, in his 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 man 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 Brontës 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 preeminently 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 Missionaire, Sierra Leone, Afrique."
Something of her feeling, too, appears in the following letter: -
"I consider it doubtful whether I shall come home in September or not. Madame Héger 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, etc., 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 Héger 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 in this school, it
is 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 Brontës 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 Brontës - 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 Brontës 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
Héger'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 Brontës. 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 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
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
excepting the two Brontës 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 Héger 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. Héger 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 bed-room 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 Brontës 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 Héger 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 her 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 Brontës 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 Brontës therein, made upon an intelligent English girl of sixteen.
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 gray 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 Héger, 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. Brontë 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. Héger
had found time to write a letter of sympathy to Mr. Brontë 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 Révérend Monsieur Brontë; Pasteur Evangélique, etc., etc.
"Samedi; 5 9bre.
"MONSIEUR, - Un événement bien triste décide mesdemoiselles vos filles à retourner brusquement en Angleterre, ce départ qui nous afflige beaucoup a cependant
ma complète approbation; il est bien naturel qu'elles cherchent à vous consoler de ce que le ciel vient de vous ôter, en se serrant autour de vous, pour mieux vous
faire apprécier ce que le ciel vous a donné et ce qu'il vous laisse encore. J'espère que vous me pardonnerez, Monsieur, de profiter de cette circonstance pour vous
faire prevenir l'expression de mon respect; je n'ai pas l'honneur de vous connaître personellement, et cependant j'éeprouve pour votre personne un sentiment de
sincere vénération, car en jugeant un p?re de famille par ses enfants on ne risque pas de se tromper, et sous ce rapport l'éducation et les sentiments que nous avons
trouvés dans mesdemoiselles vos filles, n'ont pu que nous donner une très haute idée de votre mérite et de votre caractère. Vous apprendrez sans doute avec plaisir
que vos enfants ont fait du progrès très remarquable dans toutes les branches de l'enseignement, et que ces progrès sont entièrement du à leur amour pour le travail
et à leur perséverance; nous n'avons eu que bien peu à faire avec de pareilles élèves; leur avancement est votre oeuvre bien plus que la notre; nous n'avons pas eu à
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 mérite de
diriger leurs efforts et de fournir un aliment convenable à la louable activité que vos filles ont puisée dans votre exemple et dans vos leçons. Puissent les éloges
méritées que nous donnons à vos enfants vous être de quelque consolation dans le malheur qui vous afflige; c'est là notre espoir en vous écrivant, et ce sera, pour
Mesdemoiselles Charlotte et Emily, une douce et belle récompense de leurs travaux.
"En perdant nos deux chères élèves nous ne devons
pas vous cacher que nous éprouvons à la fois et du chagrin
et de l'inquiétude; nous sommes affligés parceque
cette brusque séparation vient briser l'affection presque paternelle que nous leur avons vouée, et notre peine s'augmente à la vue de tant de travaux interrompues, de
tant des choses bien commencées, et qui ne demandent que quelque temps encore pour être menées à bonne fin. Dans un an, chacune de vos demoiselles eût été
entièrement prémunie contre les éventualités de l'avenir; chacune d'elles acquerrait à la fois et l'instruction et la science d'enseignement; Mlle. Emily allait apprendre le
piano; recevoir les leçons du meilleur professeur que nous ayons en Belgique, et déjà elle avait elle-même de petites élèves; elle perdait donc à la fois un reste
d'ignorance, et un reste plus gènant encore de timidité; Mlle. Charlotte commençait à donner des leçons en français, et d'acquerir cette assurance, cet aplomb si
necessaire dans l'enseignement; encore un au tout au plus, et l'oeuvre était achevée et bien achevée. Alors nous aurions pu, si cela vous eût convenu, offrir à
mesdemoiselles vos filles ou du moins à l'une de deux une position qui eût été dans ses gouts, et qui lui eût donne cette douce indépendance si difficile à 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 qualités personnelles,
leur bon vouloir, leur zèle extrème sont les seules causes qui nous poussent à nous hasarder de la sorte. Nous savons, Monsieur, que vous peserez plus mûrement et
plus sagement que nous la conséquence qu'aurait pour 1'avenir une interruption complète dans les études de vos deux filles; vous deciderez ce qu'il faut faire, et vous
nous pardonnerez notre franchise, si vous daignez considérer que le motif qui nous fait agir est une affection bien désinterressée et qui s'affligerait beaucoup de devoir
déjà se résigner à n'étre plus utile à vos chers enfants.
"Agréez, je vous prie, Monsieur, d'expression respectueuse de
mes sentiments de haute considération.
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 so 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 life-time. 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.