There is a prelude to this story; learn more about how the Brontës came to stay in Brussels by clicking here.
It was February 1842 when Charlotte and Emily, accompanied by their father, set off from Haworth on their journey to Belgium, crossing the channel on the Ostend “packet”. Since the railway line to Brussels was not yet fully opened, on arrival in Ostend they continued their long and tiring journey by stagecoach.
The next day they went to the Pensionnat Heger. Charlotte could not know when she entered it how profoundly her stay in this strange new place was to change her life.
The school was on the Rue d’Isabelle in a quarter close to the central park and near the grandeur of Rue Royale with its stately 18th century houses. The Rue d’Isabelle and the Isabelle quarter had an ancient past, remnants of which could still be seen. But the street as Charlotte and Emily knew it dated back only forty or fifty years.
The street itself had a curiously sunken appearance, towered over on all sides by high buildings, with the old city wall alongside much of it. On the ‘higher’ level lay the spacious aristocratic quarters with fine buildings, the beautiful Parc and the Palace Royale, the grand residence of the Belgian monarch, king Leopold I. These places were only a stone’s throw away from the Pensionnat.
Descending to the ‘lower’ level, the city centre, you found yourself in the busy commercial area and the higgledy-piggledy streets dating back to medieval times. In the mid 19th century these little back streets had become a dirty and overcrowded slum area.
To reach the Pensionnat, below the Rue Royale, you went down a steep flight of steps. Standing at the top of the stairs by the statue of General Belliard, you could look down on the chimneys of the Rue d’Isabelle below and the old city beyond.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs one had only to cross the street to reach the school. It had been built forty years earlier and was a plain white building two storeys high, long and low with a row of large windows on each floor.
Even though the school building itself was no more extraordinary than the other schools in the neighbourhood, there was an unexpected treasure, tucked away behind the house; a delightful big garden with a line of ancient fruit trees.
This garden was to provide Charlotte with a haven of peace right in the centre of the city. It is described in full detail in her novel Villette, and one can imagine her relishing every opportunity to escape from the pressures of school life to the bower (berceau) and the allée défendue.
Click here to see images of the Pensionnat garden.
Nowadays, sadly, nothing of the Pensionnat remains and little of the Rue d’Isabelle or the old quarter apart from the area around the Place Royale and the Rue Royale. Demolition in the 20th century destroyed many of the streets and ancient history of old Brussels. Luckily, not all is lost and if you know where to look, remnants can still be found.
Today, the view from the top of the steps is completely changed and it is difficult to imagine the scene Charlotte and Emily would have seen. The Palais des Beaux Arts (an arts centre in the art nouveau style built in the 1920s) and the Rue Baron Horta now cover the site of the Pensionnat and the Rue d’Isabelle.
The Rue Ravenstein we see today is on a much higher level than the old street. But the Rue Villa Hermosa, which once led to the Rue Terarcken, still partly exists. One can still go down the steps near the Hôtel Ravenstein to this street of which only a small section remains. This little backwater is still on the original level and one can see the old cobbles paving the street where Charlotte and Emily once walked on their way to the Rue d’Isabelle.
In the Pensionnat Charlotte and Emily were taught by the charismatic and inspiring Constantin Heger, whose wife owned the school. He recognised their literary talents and gave them encouragement and guidance in honing their writing skills. In Charlotte’s case his legacy was still more profound, since she fell in love with her teacher.
The Rue d’Isabelle, the school and the old city live on in the novels Charlotte Brontë created several years after her experiences, of which Villette is the best loved and most highly acclaimed.