Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page

 

 

 

Scenes of Charlotte Bronte's Life in Brussels

by Theo Wolfe

1873

We had "done" Brussels after the approved fashion,—had faithfully visited the churches, palaces, museums, theatres, galleries, monuments, and boulevards, had duly admired the beautiful windows and the exquisite wood-carvings of the grand old cathedral of St. Gudule, the tower and tapestry and frescos and façade of the magnificent Hôtel-de-Ville, the stately halls and the gilded dome of the immense new Courts of Justice, and the consummate beauty of the Bourse, had diligently sought out the naïve boy-fountain, and had made the usual excursion to Waterloo.

This delightful task being conscientiously discharged, we proposed to devote our last day in the beautiful Belgian capital to the accomplishment of one of the cherished projects of our lives,—the searching out of the localities associated with Charlotte Bronté's unhappy school-life here, which she has so graphically portrayed. For our purpose no guide was available, or needful, for the topography and local coloring of "Villette" and "The Professor" are as vivid and unmistakable as in the best work of Dickens himself. Proceeding from St. Gudule, by the little street at the back of the cathedral, to the Rue Royale, and a short distance along that grand thoroughfare, we reached the park and a locality familiar to Miss Bronté's readers. Seated in this lovely pleasure-ground, the gift of the empress Maria Theresa, with its cool shade all about us, we noted the long avenues and the paths winding amid stalwart trees and verdant shrubbery, the dark foliage ineffectually veiling the gleaming statuary and the sheen of bright fountains, "the stone basin with its clear depth, the thick-planted trees which framed this tremulous and rippled mirror," the groups of happy people filling the seats in secluded nooks or loitering in the cool mazes and listening to the music,—we noted all this, and felt that Miss Bronté had revealed it to us long ago. It was across this park that Lucy Snowe was piloted from the bureau of the diligence by the chivalrous stranger, Dr. John, on the night when she, despoiled, helpless, and solitary, arrived in Brussels. She found the park deserted and dark, the paths miry, the water "dripping from its trees." "In the double gloom of tree and fog she could not see her guide, and could only follow his tread" in the darkness. We recalled another scene under these same tail trees, on a night when the iron gateway was "spanned by a naming arch of massed stars." The park was a "forest with sparks of purple and ruby and golden fire gemming the foliage," and Lucy, driven from her couch by mental torture, wandered unrecognized amid the gay throng at the midnight concert of the Festival of the Martyrs and looked upon her lover, her friends the Brettons, and the secret junta of her enemies, Madame Beck, Madame Walravens, and Père Silas.

The sense of familiarity with the vicinage grew as we observed our surroundings. Facing us, at the extremity of the park, was the unpretentious palace of the king, in the small square across the Rue Royale at our right was the statue of General Béliard, and we knew that just behind it we should find the Rue Fossette and Charlotte Bronté's pensionnat, for Crimsworth, "The Professor," standing by the statue, had "looked down a great staircase" to the door-way of the school, and poor Lucy, on that forlorn first night in "Villette," to avoid the insolence of a pair of ruffians, had hastened down a flight of steps from the Rue Royale, and had come, not to the inn she sought, but to the pensionnat of Madame Beck.

From the statue we descended, by a quadruple series of wide stone stairs, into a narrow street, old-fashioned and clean, quiet and secluded in the very heart of the great city,—the Rue d'Isabelle,—and just opposite the foot of the steps we came to the wide door of a spacious, quadrangular, stuccoed old mansion, with a bit of foliage showing over a high wall at one side. A bright plate embellishes the door and bears the inscription,

PENSIONNAT DE DEMOISELLES
Héger-parent.

A Latin inscription in the wall of the house shows it to have been given to the Guild of Royal Archers by the Infanta Isabelle early in the seventeenth century. Long before that the garden had been the orchard and herbary of a convent and the Hospital for the Poor.

We were detained at the door long enough to remember Lucy standing there, trembling and anxious, awaiting admission, and then we too were "let in by a bonne in a smart cap,"—apparently a fit successor to the Rosine of forty years ago,—and entered the corridor. This is paved with blocks of black and white marble and has painted walls. It extends through the entire depth of the house, and at its farther extremity an open door afforded us a glimpse of the garden.

We were ushered into the little salon at the left of the passage,—the one often mentioned in "Villette,"—and here we made known our wish to see the garden and class-rooms, and met with a prompt refusal from the neat portresse. We tried diplomacy (also lucre) with her, without avail: it was the grandes vacances, the ladies were out, M. Héger was engaged, we could not be gratified,—unless, indeed, we were patrons of the school. At this juncture a portly, ruddy-faced lady of middle age and most courteous of speech and manner appeared, and, addressing us in faultless English, introduced herself as Mademoiselle Héger, co-directress of the pensionnat, and "wholly at our service." In response to our apologies for the intrusion and explanations of the desire which had prompted it, we received complaisant assurances of welcome; yet the manner of our kind entertainer indicated that she did not appreciate, much less share in, our admiration and enthusiasm for Charlotte Bronté and her books. In the subsequent conversation it appeared that Mademoiselle and her family hold decided opinions upon the subject,—something more than mere lack of admiration. She was familiar with the novels, and thought that, while they exhibit a talent certainly not above mediocrity, they reflect the injustice, the untruthfulness, and the ingratitude of their creator. We were obliged to confess to ourselves that the family have apparent reason for this view, when we reflected that in the books Miss Bronté has assailed their religion and disparaged the school and the character of the teachers and pupils, has depicted Madame Héger in the odious duad of Madame Beck and Mademoiselle Reuter, has represented M. Héger as the scheming and deceitful M. Pelet and the preposterous M. Paul, Lucy Snowe's lover, that this lover was the husband of Madame Héger, and father of the family of children to whom Lucy was at first bonne d'enfants, and that possibly the daughter she has described as the thieving, vicious Désirée—"that tadpole, Désirée Beck"—was this very lady now so politely entertaining us. To all this add the significant fact that "Villette" is an autobiographical novel, which "records the most vivid passages in Miss Bronté's own sad heart's history," not a few of the incidents being "literal transcripts" from the darkest chapter of her own life, and the light which the consideration of this fact throws upon her relations with members of the family will help us to apprehend the stand-point from which the Hégers judge Miss Bronté and her work, and to excuse, if not to justify, a natural resentment against one who has presented them in a decidedly bad light.

How bad we began to realize when, during the ensuing chat, we called to mind just what she had written of them. As Madame Beck, Madame Héger had been represented as lying, deceitful, and shameless, as heartless and unscrupulous, as "watching and spying everywhere, peeping through every keyhole, listening behind every door," as duplicating Lucy's keys and secretly searching her bureau, as meanly abstracting her letters and reading them to others, as immodestly laying herself out to entrap the man to whom she had given her love unsought. In letters to her friend Ellen, Miss Bronté complains that "Madame Héger never came near her" in her loneliness and illness.

It was, obviously, some accession to the existing animosity between herself and Madame Héger which precipitated Miss Bronté's final departure from the pensionnat. Mrs. Gaskell ascribes their mutual dislike to Charlotte's free expression of her aversion to the Catholic Church, of which Madame Héger was a devotee, and hence "wounded in her most cherished opinions;" but a later writer, in the "Westminster Review," plainly intimates that Miss Bronté hated the woman who sat for Madame Beck because marriage had given to her the man whom Miss Bronté loved, and that "Madame Beck had need to be a detective in her own house." The recent death of Madame Héger has rendered the family, who hold her now only as a sacred memory, more keenly sensitive than ever to anything which would seem by implication to disparage her.

For himself it would appear that M. Héger has less cause for resentment, for, although in "Villette" he (or his double) is pictured as "a waspish little despot," as fiery and unreasonable, as "detestably ugly" in his anger, closely resembling "a black and sallow tiger," as having an "overmastering love of authority and public display," as basely playing the spy and reading purloined letters, and in the Bronté epistles Charlotte declares he is choleric and irritable, compels her to make her French translations without a dictionary or grammar, and then has "his eyes almost plucked out of his head" by the occasional English word she is obliged to introduce, etc., yet all this is partially atoned for by the warm praise she subsequently accords him for his goodness to her and his "disinterested friendship," by the poignant regret she expresses at parting with him,—perhaps wholly expiated by the high compliment she pays him of making her heroine, Lucy, fall in love with him, or the higher compliment it is suspected she paid him of falling in love with him herself. One who reads the strange history of passion in "Villette," in conjunction with her letters, "will know more of the truth of her stay in Brussels than if a dozen biographers had undertaken to tell the whole tale." Still, M. Héger can scarcely be pleased by the ludicrous figure he is so often made to cut in the novels by having members of his school set forth as stupid, animal, and inferior, "their principles rotten to the core, steeped in systematic sensuality," by having his religion styled "besotted papistry, a piece of childish humbug," and the like.

Something of the displeasure of the family was revealed in the course of our conversation with Mademoiselle Héger, but the specific causes were but cursorily touched upon. She could have no personal recollection of the Brontés; her knowledge of them is derived from her parents and the teachers,—presumably the "repulsive old maids" of Charlotte's letters. One of the present teachers in the pensionnat had been a classmate of Charlotte's here. The Brontés had not been popular with the school. Their "heretical" religion had something to do with this; but their manifest avoidance of the other pupils during hours of recreation, Mademoiselle thought, had been a more potent cause,—Emily, in particular, not speaking with her school-mates or teachers except when obliged to do so. The other pupils thought them of outlandish accent and manners and ridiculously old to be at school at all,—being twenty-four and twenty-six, and seeming even older. Their sombre and grotesquely-ugly costumes were fruitful causes of mirth to the gay young Belgian misses. The Brontés were not especially brilliant students, and none of their companions had ever suspected that they were geniuses. Of the two, Emily was considered to be, in most respects, the more talented, but she was obstinate and opinionated. Some of the pupils had been inclined to resist having Charlotte placed over them as teacher, and may have been mutinous. After her return from Haworth she taught English to M. Héger and his brother-in-law. M. Héger gave the sisters private lessons in French without charge, and for some time preserved their compositions, which Mrs. Gaskell copied. Mrs. Gaskell visited the pensionnat in quest of material for her biography of Charlotte, and received all the aid M. Héger could afford: the information thus obtained has, for the most part, we were told, been fairly used. Miss Bronté's letters from Brussels, so freely quoted in Mrs. Gaskell's "Life," were addressed to Miss Ellen Nussy, a familiar friend of Charlotte's, whose signature we saw in the register at Haworth Church as witness to Miss Bronté's marriage. The Hégers had no suspicion that she had been so unhappy with them as these letters indicate, and she had assigned a totally different reason for her sudden return to England. She had been introduced to Madame Héger by Mrs. Jenkins, wife of the then chaplain of the British Embassy at the Court of Belgium; she had frequently visited that lady and other friends in Brussels,—among them Mary and Martha Taylor and their relatives, and the family of a Dr. —— (not Dr. John),—and therefore her life here need not have been so lonely and desolate as it has been made to appear.

The Hégers usually have a few English pupils in the school, but have never had an American.

Some American tourists had before called to look at the garden, but the family are not pleased by the notoriety with which Miss Bronté has invested it. However, Mademoiselle Héger kindly offered to conduct us over any portion of the establishment we might care to see, and led the way along the corridor, past the class-rooms and the réfectoire on the right, to the narrow, high-walled garden. We found it smaller than in the time when Miss Bronté loitered here in weariness and solitude. Mademoiselle Héger explained that, while the width remains the same, the erection of class-rooms for the day-pupils has diminished the length by some yards. Tall houses surround and shut it in on either side, making it close and sombre, and the noises of the great city all about it penetrate here only as a far-away murmur. There is a plat of verdant turf in the centre, bordered by scant flowers and damp gravelled walks, along which shrubs of evergreen and laurel are irregularly disposed. A few seats are placed here and there within the shade, where, as in Miss Bronté's time, the externals eat the luncheon brought with them to the school; and overlooking it all stand the great old pear-trees, whose gnarled and deformed trunks are relics of the time of the hospital and convent. Beyond these and along the gray wall which bounds the farther side of the enclosure is the sheltered walk which was Miss Bronté's favorite retreat,—the "allée défendue" of her novels. It is screened by shrubs and perfumed by flowers, and, being secure from the intrusion of pupils, we could well believe that Charlotte and her heroine found here restful seclusion. The coolness and quiet and—more than all—the throng of vivid associations which fill the place tempted us to linger. The garden is not a spacious nor even a pretty one, and yet it seemed to us singularly pleasing and familiar,—as if we were revisiting it after an absence. Seated upon a rustic bench close at hand, possibly the very one which Lucy Snowe had cleansed and "reclaimed from fungi and mould," how the memories came surging up into our minds! How often in the summer twilight poor Charlotte had lingered here in restful solitude after the day's burdens and trials with "stupid and impertinent" pupils! How often, with weary feet and a dreary heart, she had paced this secluded walk and thought, with longing almost insupportable, of the dear ones in far-away Haworth parsonage! In this sheltered corner her other self—Lucy Snowe—sat and listened to the distant chimes and thought forbidden thoughts and cherished impossible hopes. Here she met and talked with Dr. John. Deep beneath this "Methuselah of a pear-tree," the one nearest the end of the alley, lies the imprisoned dust of the poor young nun who was buried alive ages ago for some sin against her vow, and whose perambulating ghost so disquieted poor Lucy. At the root of this same tree one miserable night Lucy buried her precious letters, and "meant also to bury a grief" and her great affection for Dr. John. Here she had leant her brow against Methuselah's knotty trunk and uttered to herself those brave words of renunciation which must have wrung her heart: "Good-night, Dr. John; you are good, you are beautiful, but you are not mine. Good-night, and God bless you!" Here she held pleasant converse with M. Paul, and with him, spell-bound, saw the ghost of the nun descend from the leafy shadows overhead and, sweeping close past their wondering faces, disappear behind yonder screen of shrubbery into the darkness of the summer night. By that tall tree next the class-rooms the ghost was wont to ascend to meet its material sweetheart, Fanshawe, in the great garret beneath yonder skylight,—the garret where Lucy retired to read Dr. John's letter, and wherein M. Paul confined her to learn her part in the vaudeville for Madame Beck's fête-day. In this nook where we sat, Crimsworth, "The Professor," had walked and talked with and almost made love to Mademoiselle Reuter, and from yonder window overlooking the alley had seen that perfidious fair one in dalliance with his employer, M. Pelet, beneath these pear-trees. From that window M. Paul watched Lucy as she sat or walked in the allée défendue, dogged by Madame Beck; from the same window were thrown the love-letters which fell at Lucy's feet sitting here.

Leaves from the overhanging boughs were plucked for us as souvenirs of the place; then, reverently traversing once more the narrow alley so often traced in weariness by Charlotte Bronté, we turned away. From the garden we entered the long and spacious class-room of the first and second divisions. A movable partition divides it across the middle when the classes are in session; the floor is of bare boards cleanly scoured. There are long ranges of desks and benches upon either side, and a lane through the middle leads up to a raised platform at the end of the room, where the instructor's chair and desk are placed.

How quickly our fancy peopled the place! On these front seats sat the gay and indocile Belgian girls. There, "in the last row, in the quietest corner, sat Emily and Charlotte side by side, so absorbed in their studies as to be insensible to anything about them;" and at the same desk, "in the farthest seat of the farthest row," sat Mademoiselle Henri during Crimsworth's English lessons. Here Lucy's desk was rummaged by M. Paul and the tell-tale odor of cigars left behind. Here, after school-hours, Miss Bronté taught M. Héger English, he taught her French, and M. Paul taught Lucy arithmetic and (incidentally) love. This was the scene of their tête-à-têtes, of his earnest efforts to persuade her into his faith in the Church of Rome, of their ludicrous supper of biscuit and baked apples, and of his final violent outbreak with Madame Beck, when she literally thrust herself between him and his love. From this platform Crimsworth and Lucy Snowe and Charlotte Bronté herself had given instruction to pupils whose insubordination had first to be confronted and overcome. Here M. Paul and M. Héger gave lectures upon literature, and Paul delivered his spiteful tirade against the English on the morning of his fête-day. Upon this desk were heaped his bouquets that morning; from its smooth surface poor Lucy dislodged and fractured his cherished spectacles; and here, now, seated in Paul's chair, at Paul's desk, we saw and were presented to Paul Emanuel himself,—M. Héger.

It was something more than curiosity which made us alert to note the appearance and manner of this man, who has been so nearly associated with Miss Bronté in an intercourse which colored her whole subsequent life and determined her life work, who has been made the hero of her best novels and has even been deemed the hero of her own heart's romance; and yet we were curious to know "what manner of man it is" who has been so much as suspected of being honored with the love and preference of the dainty Charlotte Bronté. During a short conversation with him we had opportunity to observe that in person this "wise, good, and religious" man must, at the time Miss Bronté knew him, have more closely resembled M. Pelet of "The Professor" than any other of her pen-portraits: indeed, after the lapse of more than forty years that delineation still, for the most part, aptly applies to him. He is of middle age, of rather spare habit of body; his face is fair and the features pleasing and regular, the cheeks are thin and the mouth flexible, the eyes—somewhat sunken—are of mild blue and of singularly pleasant expression. We found him elderly, but not infirm; his finely-shaped head is now fringed with white hair, and partial baldness contributes an impressive reverence to his presence and tends to enhance the intellectual effect of his wide brow. In repose his countenance shows a hint of melancholy: as Miss Bronté has said, "his physiognomy is fine et spirituelle;" one would hardly imagine it could ever resemble the "visage of a black and sallow tiger." His voice is low and soft, his bow still "very polite, not theatrical, scarcely French," his manner suave and courteous, his dress scrupulously neat. He accosted us in the language Miss Bronté taught him forty years ago, and his accent and diction do honor to her instruction. He was, at this time, engaged with some patrons of the school, and, as his daughter had hinted that he was averse to speaking of Miss Bronté, we soon took leave of him and were shown through other parts of the school. The other class-rooms, used for less advanced pupils, are smaller. In one of them, the third, Miss Bronté had ruled as monitress after her return from Haworth. The large dormitory of the pensionnat was above the long class-room, and in the time of the Brontés most of the boarders—about twenty in number—slept here. Their cots were arranged along either side, and the position of those occupied by the Brontés was pointed out to us at the extreme end of the long room. It was here that Lucy suffered the horrors of hypochondria, so graphically portrayed in "Villette," and found the discarded costume of the spectral nun lying upon her bed, and here Miss Bronté passed those nights of "dreary, wakeful misery" which Mrs. Gaskell describes.

A long and rather narrow room in front of the class-rooms was shown us as the réfectoire, where the Brontés, with the other boarders, took their meals, presided over by M. and Madame Héger, and where, during the evenings, the lessons for the ensuing days were prepared. Here were held the evening prayers, which Charlotte used to avoid by escaping into the garden. This, too, was the scene of M. Paul's whilom readings to teachers and pupils, and of some of his spasms of petulance, which readers of "Villette" will remember. From the réfectoire we passed again into the corridor, where we made our adieus to our affable conductress. She gave us her card, and explained that, whereas this establishment had formerly been both a pensionnat and an externat, having about seventy day-pupils and twenty boarders when Miss Bronté was here, it is now, since the death of Madame Héger, used as a day-school only,—the pensionnat being at some little distance, in the Avenue Louise, where Mademoiselle is a co-directress.

The genuine local color Miss Bronté gives in "Villette" enabled us to be sure that we had found the sombre old church where Lucy, arrested in passing by the sound of the bells, knelt upon the stone pavement, passing thence into the confessional of Père Silas. Certain it is that this old church lies upon the route she would naturally take in the walk from the Rue d'Isabelle to the Protestant cemetery, which she had set out to do that dark afternoon, and the narrow streets of picturesque old houses which lie beyond the church correspond to those in which she was lost. Certain, too, it is said to be that this incident is taken directly from Miss Bronté's own experience. A writer in "Macmillan" says, "During one of the long holidays, when her mind was restless and disturbed, she found sympathy, if not peace, in the counsels of a priest in the confessional, who pitied and soothed her troubled spirit without attempting to enmesh it in the folds of Romanism."

Our way to the Protestant cemetery, a spot sadly familiar to Miss Bronté, and the usual termination of her walks, lay past the site of the Porte de Louvain and out to the hills a mile or so beyond the old city limits. From our path we saw more than one tree-surrounded farm-house which might have been the place of M. Paul's breakfast with his school, and at least one old-fashioned manor-house, with green-tufted and terraced lawns, which might have served Miss Bronté as the model for "La Terrasse," the suburban home of the Brettons, and probably the temporary abode of the Taylor sisters whom she visited here. From the cemetery are beautiful vistas of farther lines of hills, of intervening valleys, of farms and villas, and of the great city lying below. Miss Bronté has well described this place: "Here, on pages of stone, of marble, and of brass, are written names, dates, last tributes of pomp or love, in English, French, German, and Latin." There are stone crosses all about, and great thickets of roses and yew-trees,—"cypresses that stand straight and mute, and willows that hang low and still;" and there are "dim garlands of everlasting flowers."

Here "The Professor" found his long-sought sweetheart kneeling at a new-made grave, under these overhanging trees. And here we found the shrine of poor Charlotte Bronté's many weary pilgrimages hither,—the burial-place of her friend and schoolmate Martha Taylor, the Jessy Yorke of "Shirley," the spot where, under "green sod and a gray marble headstone, cold, coffined, solitary, Jessy sleeps below."