The Brontës’ main literary legacy from their time in Brussels can be found in two of Charlotte‘s novels: The Professor and the highly autobiographical Villette. In addition, letters written by her from that time have survived, which help scholars and Brontë fans alike to understand this important period of her life.
To our disappointment the same cannot be said of Emily. As we have only Charlotte’s material, she is our main focus for the Brussels episode. It is time to redress the balance and explore Emily’s side of the Brussels story.
Emily was happiest when she was at home at the Parsonage in Haworth with the wild, windswept moors beyond it. Periods away from her beloved moors, during her time as a pupil or teacher at Roe Head and Law Hill, were overshadowed by homesickness.
One can only imagine how daunting the prospect must have been for Emily to know she would leave her regulated life and quiet home again, once she knew she would leave for Brussels. How different her new life would be, in a strange boarding school, in the midst of a large city and in a foreign country. Though there are several reasons why Emily (instead of Anne) had been chosen to join Charlotte, her own, and probably only, reason why she did venture to leave her home was her thirst for knowledge, for learning. She would enter a whole new world of other literatures, and foreign languages. This journey would bring a great opportunity to broaden her mind and exercise her creative and mental powers.
And how did Emily experience all this? What did she make of Brussels, the Pensionnat? And what was going through her mind; how did she feel?
As with the rest of Emily’s personal life, so much is shrouded in mystery. She left no letters, and while in Brussels, she kept no diary. We can only form our conclusions by reading other people’s accounts. Charlotte’s letters to Ellen Nussey are the most important.
Emily’s life would be transformed from the ‘external’ world of the Parsonage in Yorkshire to an ‘internal’ world of the Pensionnat. This ‘Institution of Instruction’, the boarding school run by Constantin and Zoë Heger, lay in the sunken street of Rue d’Isabelle, towered over by high buildings around; the long, white front of the school concealing an inner world of a self-contained, controlled and efficiently run establishment. And inside this internal world was an inner sanctum, a beautifully kept garden. Though a peaceful retreat within a noisy and bustling city, with its secret Allée Défendue and secluded arching tree boughs, this garden was surrounded by walls and sides of other houses, giving it a sense of a ‘preserved fortress’.
Emily must have felt imprisoned in what she might have perceived as a place of detention.
It was however also a place of learning. Emily’s knowledge of foreign languages, in particular French, was limited to what she was taught at Roe Head, what Charlotte had passed on to her and what she had learned herself. She had a great deal of catching up to do in the first few months she stayed in the Pensionnat. During the free hours of the day, she devoted all her spare time to further reading and more studies. It would have been a serious test for her, not only having to speak and write French everyday, but also to be taught in it. Emily and Charlotte were given French lessons by Constantin Heger, a gifted teacher who would notice his pupils’ talents and was able to cultivate and develop them.
In May 1842, a few months after their arrival, Charlotte writes to Ellen:
Between Emily and Heger arose a tension that remained throughout her time as his pupil. He was an exacting master, inflexible, irritable and erratic.
They clashed at the very first lesson over Heger’s method of teaching. He proposed to the sisters reading passages from masterpieces from French literature, discussing and analysing them and then getting these English pupils to write essays, expressing their own thoughts, based on the style of these models.
Emily rebelled against this system. Charlotte recalls: “…she saw no good to be derived from it; and that by adopting it, they should lose all originality of thought and expression.” Heger did not perhaps know Emily had been writing poems, tales and essays from a very young age and that she had long since passed the stage of finding her own distinctive voice and style. Despite Emily’s initial objections, she produced her ‘devoirs’, the required essays. During the summer of 1842, Emily worked diligently, producing some ten works.
- Le Chat , 15th May
- Le Siège d’Oudenarde
- Portait: Le Roi Harold avant la bataille de Hastings, June
- Lettre (Madame), 16th July
- Letter (Ma chère Maman), 26th July
- L’Amour Filial, 5th August
- Lettre (d’un frère à un frère), 5th August
- Le Papillon, 11th August
- Le Palais de la Mort, 18th October
No other poetry or prose by Emily survives from this period in her life, so these devoirs give an important insight into her creative writing. They show that Emily’s essays were superior both in power and imagination to Charlotte’s. Her pessimistic and cynical view of mankind and shrewd understanding of the cruelty in the world around her, astounded, impressed and sometimes even shocked Heger.
His view of Emily changed and he was impressed by the daring and originality of mind revealed in her work. He recognised Emily’s to be the more exciting and challenging mind of the sisters and began to value her qualities.
Years later he said; “She should have been a man – a great navigator…her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty, never have been given way but with life. She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman…[but]impairing 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.” Emily, according to Heger, was also, “egoistical and exacting, and exercised a kind of unconscious tyranny over her [i.e. Charlotte].”