Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 December 2016
They are beloved by everyone from misunderstood teens and fools for love to the serious-minded middle-aged and those of a critical bent.
Now the Bronte sisters are taking centre stage again as the bicentary of Charlotte´s birth (born 21 April 1814) brings a host of events at their Yorkshire home and elsewhere…
Above: Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, painted by their brother Branwell, 1834.
So why exactly do the Bronte sisters, these rural Curate´s daughters with only a handful of novels between them, continue to fascinate us?
From the moment Jane Eyre was published in 1847, the Bronte sisters have exerted an almost hynotic pull.
Above: Poster for Jane Eyre (2011)
Where other literary sensations flash bright then fade to earth, the Brontes endure, their stories adapted again and again for both stage and screen.
“I think a lot of it is that we´re fascinated by the idea that these women living in a cold, cramped house in Yorkshire wrote about the most intense human experiences.
There´s something very appealing about the idea that they pushed back against the limits of their world.
There are lots of neater, better planned books, but the Brontes novels work because they´re open-ended.
We don´t know what Anne, Emily and Charlotte really wanted us to think and that means we take away something new each time….
It´s not just women who respond to their work.
I know lots of men who love the Brontes.
Yet whoever is reading them, they will always have one sister they think of as “theirs” definitely.
You are either Charlotte, Emily or Anne and you can tell a lot by which book someone claims as their own….
And that´s how it should be.
Your passions are your own.“(Samantha Ellis, author / playwright)
(Observer, 27 March 2016)
My favourite sister of the Brontes is Anne, for she seems to rally more against her situation and seems more determined to speak and act her mind than her siblings.
But what follows here is not her story, but rather Charlotte´s.
Charlotte´s story is herein combined with my own, for there are parallels which I cannot ignore.
Above: Charlotte Bronte, 1850
The Chronicles of Charlotte (1)
In 1831, 14-year-old Charlotte was enrolled at Miss Wooler´s school in Roe Head.
Curate Patrick could have sent his daughter to a less costly school in Keighley nearer Haworth, but the Wooler sisters had a good reputation.
Patrick´s choice of school was excellent.
Charlotte was happy there and studied well, making many lifelong friends.
Charlotte left Roe Head in 1832, but three years later, Miss Wooler offered Charlotte a position as her assistant.
Charlotte taught and wrote about her students without much sympathy.
Through her father´s influence and her own intellectual curiosity, Charlotte was able to benefit from an education that placed her among knowledgeable people, but her options remained modest.
The Bronte family´s finances did not flourish, so Charlotte and Anne could not hesitate in finding work.
From April 1839 to December 1841 the two sisters held several posts as governesses.
Not staying long with each family, their employment would last for some months or for a single season.
From May to July 1839 Charlotte was employed by the Sidgwick family at their summer residence, Stone Gappe, in Lothersdale.
One of her charges was John Benson Sidgwick (1835 – 1927), an unruly child who on one occasion threw a Bible at Charlotte, which incident inspired part of the opening chapter of Jane Eyre in which John Reed throws a book at the young Jane.
Charlotte had an idea that would place all the advantages on her side.
On advice from her father and friends, Charlotte thought that she and her sisters had the intellectual capacity to create a school in the parsonage where their Sunday school classes took place.
It was agreed to offer future pupils the opportunity of correctly learning modern languages.
Preparation was needed and was felt should be done abroad.
Among the possibilities Paris and Lille were considered, but were rejected due to aversion to the French as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had not been forgotten by the Tory spirited and deeply conservative girls.
On the recommendation of Pastor Jenkins of the Episcopat of Brussels, Belgium was chosen, where the girls could also study German and music.
Aunt Branwell provided the funds for the Brussels project.
Charlotte was 26, Emily was 22, when they travelled to Brussels in February 1842 to enrol at the boarding school run by Constantin Héger (1809 – 1896) and his wife Claire (1804 – 1887).
In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music….
The Chronicles of Canada Slim (1)
Like the Bronte sisters, Brussels had not been my first thought.
I had travelled extensively in both Canada and the States, but I had not yet had the pleasure nor privilege to visit Europe.
During my North American travels I had learned that my biological mother was American, her father English and her mother Irish, which knowledge persuaded me that finding my grandparents´ documents would allow me to work in Britain for a year through my grandfather and claim Irish / EU citizenship through my grandmother.
I had dreamed of Paris since I was a boy.
I had pictures of Paris on my walls and it was those pictures that compelled me to choose Québec City (as old Europe – looking as a Canadian city can get) when it came time to pursue further education beyond high school.
I bought an open-ended round-trip charter ticket, valid for a year, from Montréal to Paris.
Prior to my departure on Saturday 2 November 1996, I worked various jobs to finance my travels, the last being telemarketing for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Whilst there an Oxonian co-worker Jonathan suggested to me that should I ever find myself in Oxford that he would supply me with both a place to sleep and employment.
Prior to 11 September 1996, I was resident and part-time employee at the Ottawa International Hostel and though I would never win any prizes for my looks I found that hostels often led to romance.
I met my ex-fiancée at a hostel in St. Louis.
I would later meet my wife at a hostel in Stratford upon Avon.
I met other girlfriends through the Ottawa, Kingston and Orillia hostels.
My last romantic hostel hook-up prior to Europe was with a Belgian girl whom we shall call “Zoé”.
Zoé was an extremely sensitive and intelligent Belgian girl, bilingual in both Flemish and French, who offered me bed and board and advice to finding work in Brussels.
Driven by the desire to first visit Paris, it wasn´t until 2200 hours on 5 November 1996 that I finally arrived in Brussels.
Though a year had passed since I had last seen Zoé back in Ottawa, our relationship had been intensely passionate and we had fond memories of the experience.
We were foolishly confident that upon my arrival in Brussels we could resume where we had left off and that I could build a new life in Brussels, perhaps never having to use the return-home portion of my flight ticket.
I imagined that I had the intellectual capacity and the courage to find work as an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Brussels.
We had both envisioned in our correspondence that love would conquer all difficulties and that problems were mere obstacles to be circumvented with relative ease.
We were wrong….
The Chronicles of Charlotte (2)
Brussels would dramatically change Charlotte´s life, where she would be forced to depart from the fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria that she had created with her siblings using toy soldiers as the role players and face the harsh reality of the real world where one´s fondest wishes are not always realisable.
Charlotte was short of stature and red of face with many teeth gone.
(It is not that Charlotte did not look after her teeth but rather she like many folks of the 19th century had a tendency to take “the blue pill”.
“Blue pills” were prescribed for every ailment: minor and major, from syphilis to constipation.
Their active ingredient was: mercury.
There was, 19th century Britain and America, an epidemic of mercury poisoning as a result of this popular medication.
The long-term, overdose symptoms were depression, insomnia and fits of mental instability…and loose teeth.)
Charlotte also suffered from myopia (severe short-sightedness) and needed to wear spectacles otherwise she was bat-blind without them, but she didn´t like to be seen with her visual aids on.
Charlotte had folding tortoiseshell lorgnettes – easily put on and taken off – when she felt forced to use them.
And one of the features of the school environment was that spectacles were not considered disfiguring there, but rather indications of mental ability and academic distinction.
So in the classroom, Charlotte worn her glasses with pride.
Charlotte could not attract lines of male suitors, for nature and circumstance had left her somewhat ill-favoured in appearance and being the poor daughter of a poor Curate she had no dowry to compensate for whatever abundance of beauty she lacked.
Constantin was the husband of the proprietress Claire of the Héger boarding school in Rue Isabelle, which catered for 100 girls in Brussels.
Charlotte and Emily had gone there, on very generous terms, to learn French and gain teaching experience.
Constantin Héger was born in Brussels in 1809 and moved to Paris in 1825 in search of employment.
For a period Héger worked as a legal secretary, but because of a shortage of funds he was unable to pursue a legal career himself.
In 1829, Constantin returned to Brussels, where he became a teacher of French and mathematics at the Athénée Royale.
In 1830, Constantin married his first wife, Marie-Josephine Noyer.
When the Belgian Revolution broke out in Brussels, Constantin fought on the barricades from 23 to 27 September 1830 on the side of the Belgian nationalists against the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Above: Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830, Wappers (1834)
In September 1833, Marie-Josephine died during a cholera epidemic.
Their son, Gustave, died in June 1834, only nine months old.
Constantin was appointed a teacher of languages, mathematics, geography and Belgian history at the veterinary college in Rue Terarken, while continuing to teach at the Athénée when it relocated to Rue des Douze Apôtres in 1839.
Constantin met Claire Parent, the directoress of the neighbouring girls´ school in Rue Isabelle, where he began teaching.
Claire and Constantin married in 1836 and would have six children.
Constantin was 33 years old when the Brontes arrived.
He was eight years younger than Claire and six years older than Charlotte.
According to Frederika Macdonald, another English Protestant pupil of the Hégers, Claire was a much more attractive woman than Charlotte in so far as her personal appearance was concerned.
According to Miss Wheelwright, another former pupil, Constantin had the intellect of a genius.
Constantin was passionate about his audiotorium, demanding many lectures, perspectives and structured analyses from his students.
He was a good looking man with masculine features, bushy hair, very black whiskers and wore an excited expression while sounding forth on great authors about whom he admired.
Charlotte´s instruction, especially Constantin´s lessons, were very much appreciated by Charlotte.
The Bronte sisters showed exceptional intelligence, but, unlike Charlotte, Emily didn´t like her teachers and was somewhat rebellious.
Emily learned German and to play the piano with natural brilliance and very quickly the Bronte sisters were writing literary and philosophical essays at an advanced level of French.
After six months of study Claire suggested the sisters stay at the boarding school free of charge in return for giving lessons.
After much hesitation, the sisters accepted.
Neither felt much attachment to their students.
The death of Aunt Branwell in October 1842 forced the sisters to return once more to Haworth.
Nevertheless the sisters were each asked to return to Brussels as they were regarded as competent and needed.
They were each offered teaching posts in the boarding school, but Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843.
Charlotte´s second stay was not a happy one.
Charlotte was lonely, homesick and deeply infatuated with Constantin…
The Chronicles of Canada Slim (2)
Brussels is a city with an undeserved reputation.
It is far more than just a dull, faceless centre of bureaucracy for the European Union.
Above: European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium
Brussels is a thriving, pulsing cosmopolitan premiere city, with highly modern architecture and many superb museums, yet maintaining in a state of pristine condition a well-preserved late 17th-century centre.
Above: Grand Place, Brussels (City Hall on the left)
Restaurants seduce and the nightlife excites.
Brussels is raw, vital and irresistable and reminded me much of both Ottawa and Montréal, for its bilingualism (Ottawa) and its élan/style (Montréal).
Brussels, much like the EU over which it presides, is a divided, complicated community of communities.
Brussels has always been divided by classes – the rich live in the upper levels, the working class below (a kind of Upstairs Downstairs type city) – and linguistics: the Walloons (French-speaking) and the Flemish (Dutch-speaking).
Add to this a patchwork of people from all parts of the known world – the EU civil servants, the diplomats, and the immigrants…
Above: The official languages of the European Parliament
All living distinct, separate existences yet like sentient shards of coloured glass, they create an ever-changing kaleidoscopic pattern to rival any stained window within any majestic cathedral.
Above: The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Giudula, Brussels
Brussels is a Wonderland with surprising contrasts around every corner – from shopping mall to bazaar, slums to sleek luxuries – all captures the poetry of a populace uniquely its own.
Eurolines bus from Paris to Gare Bruxelles – Nord and Zoé waiting for me at the station.
The embrace is warm and welcoming and we speed through the streets like a storm-tossed gust of wind, into her apartment and into her chambers.
Zoé is much like Brussels herself – rarely boastful, plenty to fascinate, every part wonderful, a feeling of…Home.
To be continued…
Above: The flag of Brussels
Sources: Wikipedia / John Sutherland, The Brontesaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte