His comments shed interesting light on Emily’s character and personality.
Her stubborn, uncompromising and self-centred attitude made her anti-social and unpopular. But Emily never had any intention of making friends, or adapting to social conventions; she had never done so before. She considered social intercourse a waste of time.
From the time of their arrival at the Pensionnat it was apparent that the two sisters were very different from the other pupils. They were older than most of them and were unique in being Protestants. They clung to each other for dear life, protective of each other. They differed from the other inmates in their behaviour and outlook and their old-fashioned dress sense did them no favours either.
Though Charlotte was more prepared to make concessions and adapt the rules and etiquette of this new society, Emily refused point blank to change in any way. Whereas Charlotte imitated and adopted a new dress style on the Continent, buying dresses to suit her tiny figure, Emily would not abandon her old style. She persisted in wearing leg-of-mutton sleeves and petticoats, which lacked fullness and did not suit her tall thin figure. But when she was teased about her odd clothes and ungainly figure, she lashed out in reply: “I wish to be as God made me.”
Since Emily had no interest in making contact with her fellow pupils, her only contact with other people was among the small circle of the sisters’ English acquaintances. Mr Jenkins, the Anglican cleric, who had helped the sisters find the Pensionnat, invited them to spend Sundays at his house in the Chaussée d’Ixelles. However, Mrs. Jenkins stopped inviting them after a while, as their shyness and awkwardness made the visits more and more painful. They were escorted to the house by the Jenkins’ sons, who found the walks tedious owing to the girls’ silence. Mrs. Jenkins observed that: “Emily hardly ever uttered more than a monosyllable” when she was in their home. The Jenkins grew weary of the impenetrable, silent mask Emily presented to them.
On another outing, when Mary and Martha Taylor took the girls to visit their cousins, the Dixons, for tea, Emily remained completely silent the whole evening.
Later in July five English girls, the daughters of Dr. Thomas Wheelwright, a British doctor, enrolled at the Pensionnat. The Wheelwrights lived in the Rue Royale, not far from the Rue d’Isabelle.They too tried to make friends with the sisters. They liked Charlotte and wanted to invite her home or on excursions, but did not do so because they knew Emily would have to be invited too and would ruin the occasion. But they could not invite one sister without the other. They felt that Emily bullied her sister and held Charlotte in a possessive grip, cutting her off from everyone else by her anti-social behaviour.
The eldest Wheelwright daughter, Laetitia, who was to become a friend and correspondent of Charlotte’s later in life, wrote of her antipathy of Emily:
“….I simply disliked her from the first…She taught my three youngest sisters music for four months to my annoyance, as she would only take them in their play hours, so as not to curtail her own school hours, naturally causing tears to small children…”.
Yet another mark of Emily’s single-minded and uncompromising behaviour: again she displayed no polite social attitude and showed no inclination to make any concessions; she simply did not care if she made herself unpopular.
There is only one exception to the prevailing bad opinion of Emily. Louise de Bassompierre, a sixteen-year-old girl who was a student in the Brontës class, preferred Emily to her sister, finding her more sympathetic, kinder and more approachable. A friendship between the otherwise aloof Emily and Louise did exist, and Emily clearly valued her friendship with this Belgian girl because she gave Louise a signed pencil drawing of a damaged fir-tree.
However miserable and difficult Emily must have been to others, clearly she, too, was suffering during her stay in Brussels. But she was determined to prove that she could stay away from home, however unpleasant the experience and however homesick she felt. She studied relentlessly, taking up every challenge and making use of every opportunity that offered itself.
Under the guidance of one of the best music professors in Brussels she made great strides with her piano-playing and was given the post of music teacher in the Pensionnat.
Emily’s study of music on the continent changed her taste. She became fonder of piano arrangements of symphonies. On the contents page in one of her music books, with listings such as Bach, Boccherini, Clementi, Corelli, Haydn and Mozart, she concentrates on pieces from Beethoven, Glück and Handel. She also transcribed three of Beethoven’s symphonies, all marked. They show Emily’s daring and dramatic taste for composers who shared her passionate and powerful spirit. Her fondness for Beethoven, like Byron a hero of the Romantic era, might well explain her eagerness to learn German, which brought her into contact with the great German literature of the same period.
The initial plan was to stay in Brussels for only six months, but the Hegers suggested they stay on longer and offered them teaching posts in exchange for free board and education. Charlotte wrote in a letter:
“…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.”
We can imagine what this prospect of remaining six more months in the confinement of the Pensionnat must have been to Emily. She became even more inaccessible and silent. Charlotte saw her physical decline and knew that she was suffering, as she had done during her time at Roe Head which she left on the verge of collapse.Emily wouldn’t eat, didn’t sleep properly and grew more and more weak and ill.
“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 it in this second ordeal. She did 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” Charlotte later wrote.
But then Providence overtook circumstances, and death broke into the lives of the young Brontë sisters, delivering Emily from an unendurable position.
Martha Taylor, their friend Mary’s younger sister, who had been at school at the Château de Koekelberg, suddenly died of cholera. Emily and Charlotte heard of the news only after she had died. On 30th October they went with Mary to the Protestant cemetery to visit her grave. Just a few days after this, on 2nd November, they received terrible news. Their Aunt Branwell was very seriously ill and was probably going to die. The next day, they received further tragic news, announcing their Aunt was already dead. They were too late for the funeral, but it was their duty to return home.
Emily was to see her beloved Yorkshire moors once more.
Despite her academic success in Brussels, she had no wish to return to the Pensionnat. She resumed her old role as housekeeper and thankfully decided henceforward to stay at home. She could now return to her Gondal poetry, and a few years later would produce one of the greatest novels in English literature: Wuthering Heights.