Society Star: The Life and Times of Lady Massereene

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Easter Monday marks the 102nd anniversary of Edward Carson’s visit to Antrim Castle – a minor but significant event which changed Irish politics forever. Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. III, this post looks at the life and times of the Scots-born and Irish peeress, Lady Massereene.

Before she became chatelaine of Antrim Castle at the age of 21, having married the 12th Viscount Massereene, Jean Barbara Ainsworth was a society star. Standing six-feet-tall with black hair and dark eyes, her exotic looks attracted attention from both sexes. Women admired her avant garde fashion sense – she was always something of a style icon – and her penchant for flamboyant clothes, during the Edwardian era, was displayed through backless dresses, bejewelled head-wear and a long string of pearls tied in a knot. Her clothing was daring, as was her behaviour, and men admired her willingness to speak her mind. After a summer of parties in the salons of Mayfair and hunt balls in stately homes, she met her future husband, Algernon William John Clotworthy Skeffington. They married in February 1905, and three months later Algernon succeeded his father as the 12th Viscount Massereene and 5th Viscount Ferrard.

It was a glamourous marriage, reported in the stylish magazines of the day, The Tatler, The Bystander and The Sketch. With her new husband, twelve years her senior and a war hero (Lord Massereene served with the 17th Lancers in the Boer War and was mentioned in Dispatches twice), Lady Massereene had become a celebrity. It was an age when the merits of stardom were weighed against one’s background and breeding, and regardless of her title, she was prime candidate during this new wave of modern media, much like today. She was born in Scotland in 1884, the eldest daughter of Sir John Stirling Ainsworth (he was given a peerage in 1917), a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal politician. She had grown up accustomed to large houses with staff, fascinating house-guests from the political and industrial worlds, and the privileges her father’s money could afford her.

The political element would conjure up discord between father and daughter, for in 1910, Lord and Lady Massereene allayed themselves with Edward Carson to resist Home Rule. John Ainsworth was a Home Ruler, and he accused Lord Massereene of influencing his daughter. But nobody could tell her what to do, and she threw herself into the Unionist cause. The Massereene seat, Antrim Castle, a 17th century dwelling overlooking the parish of Antrim, became a refuge for Carson and his Antrim branch of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Lady Massereene inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’, and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters. The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Lady Massereene, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Lord Massereene had been arrested and that Carson was at the castle. In a letter to her friend Edith, Lady Londonderry, she described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow the housekeeper who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Lady Massereene founded a corps of nurses, named the Volunteer Aid Attachment Corps. The training consisted of five weeks with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance to ensure the women were equipped to care for volunteers if they went into battle. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, while Antrim Castle and the O’Neill seat, Shane’s Castle, were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle during his task to review 2,800 volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given in his honour, and amongst the UVF hierarchy were a countess, a marquis, a duchess and various lords and ladies. A photograph exists of Lord and Lady Massereene standing on the steps of Antrim Castle with Carson and his cronies. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Lady Massereene on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of 80 members from Antrim, Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. Lady Massereene presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

There were no women in local government and Lady Massereene was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s role in society were made clear when, opening a Bazaar in Dunadry in aid of Muckamore New Schools, she referred to the topical Suffragette movement. The school’s colours of green, blue and orange, were Suffragette colours, and she joked that if any such ladies were presented they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the new schools’, before adding: ‘I believe in the higher education of women – the reason was that education makes them much better wives and mothers. The future of the empire depended to a very large extent, if not altogether, upon the mental training of mothers, and the way in which they brought up their children.’ The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

The arrival of WWI in 1914 saw Lady Massereene move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. Lord Massereene went to the front with the North Irish Horse, and there had been scenes of enthusiasm from the locals as he went to Antrim railway station on the 8 August for France. Accompanied by Lady Massereene and their daughter, Diana, born in 1909, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Lady Massereene’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about her allegiance with Carson. At home, she joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependants of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. In October 1914, Lady Massereene’s second child, a son and heir was born while Lord Massereene was in France. A month after the birth of her son, Lady Massereene hosted a successful fancy dress ball at the Protestant Hall. The fundraiser was for an ambulance, which she planned to send out to the front. Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s League’s Canteens, and dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook her for a streetwalker and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before. With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and relayed the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. By chance, Lady Massereene along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the 1918 Hollywood silent film, The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

Lady Massereene’s postwar life saw her re-emerge on the social scene, and Sir John Lavery painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. On 28 October 1922, Antrim castle held a grand ball, after which a fire broke out. Guests tried to extinguish the fire, to no avail, and locals rallied to the castle, concentrating their efforts on rescuing the servants whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Lady Massereene fled to the nursery to rescue her children, and trapped on a stairwell engulfed by smoke, she warned them they might not live. They watched as their cat caught on fire and perished before their eyes. Eventually, Lt Col Stewart Richardson, a war veteran who was staying at the castle, saved the lives of Lady Massereene and her children by tying sheets together and lowering them down from the roof of the chapel.

In 1923, a claim was made, and eventually rejected, for £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that was full before the fire and now found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to be forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (she showed her husband but not the police) in which Lady Massereene was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’. Such letters were sent in retaliation to Lady Massereene’s pro-Unionist speeches in which she said: ‘Let’s arm ourselves that Ulster will never surrender an inch of her soil or title of right to the insidious bloody foe.’ The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single fire. The water supply in the cisterns had been tampered with and several items that had been saved from the fire were found to be covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Lady Massereene was questioned about the repairs that had been carried out on the fireplaces. She replied that, owing to a dream she had had ten years previously that a fire had broken out in her boudoir, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in her bedroom replaced.

This was not the first time Lady Massereene relied on or spoke openly about her dreams. A decade before, her tiara was stolen from the castle and she ordered the police to comb the banks of the Six Mile river, having dreamt it was discarded there. She was, in fact, the victim of a network of jewel thieves who were eventually caught in London and arrested. She harboured a deep interest in the paranormal and was renowned in London as a ghost expert. A good friend of the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale, Lady Massereene related her paranormal experiences in Tweedale’s book, Ghosts I Have Seen. She also spoke openly to various London newspapers about her psychic abilities and affiliation with the spirit world.

In 1930, Lady Massereene suffered a bitter blow when her eldest child and only daughter, Diana Skeffington died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, after contracting typhoid at a wedding in Scotland. Lord and Lady Massereene never recovered from their daughter’s death, and having once spoke enthusiastically about rebuilding a country house on the site of the castle, Lord Massereene lost interest. They went their separate ways though never divorced, with Lord Massereene residing in apartments at Clotworthy House and Lady Massereene living in London, where in place of her once grand house parties she hosted seances. Many believed her obsession with the supernatural was a source of comfort to her after Diana’s death.

Lady Massereene’s final years were plagued by illness, although she never believed she was seriously ill. After collapsing in Hyde Park, she went up to Knock House, her Scottish residence in Mull, where her condition deteriorated. Five week later, in the winter of 1937, she died at the age of 54. Having championed the existence of ghosts, many of whom she called friends, one assumes, and hopes, Lady Massereene languishes in that spiritual realm.

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Guest Post: Janet Todd on historical Italy and A Man of Genius

Annabelle looked at the corpse. Hands and head separate. Blood had leaked from wrists and neck. Fluid covered part of the distorted features. The open eyes were stained so that they glared through their own darkness. A smell of rotting meat.

By itself the face was unrecognisable, yet she knew it was her father’s. What was a father? A man begot a body but not a mind. She prodded the head with her foot. The blood must have congealed for her boot remained clean.

Had she killed him? It wasn’t clear. She rather thought she had. She was sure she’d not cut him up. She hadn’t the strength. She would order the bits thrown in the Arno to mix with filth from the city. She turned away.

How many people do you have to murder before it becomes habitual? Before you cannot remember which corpse is which and who is its dispatcher?

She wiped old blood off her hands with her handkerchief. Her maid would wash it clean.

He’d come silently into the room and read from behind her. He smiled.

Ann felt the smile. ‘I will cross out the fluid and rotting meat,’ she said without looking up.

I began my novel with this invented passage because I wanted to introduce my main character, Ann, through what was in her head: the kind of work she wrote and read. She’d been writing Gothic novels for many years and her own and other people’s plots had filled her imagination from childhood to the present day (the early 1820s). Yet, when faced with a Gothic world of torment and pursuit she was as bewildered as anyone else would have been—and as any of the heroines of the novels she read and invented.

After this preface I opened the novel proper by going back to Ann a few years earlier:

She met Robert James in St Paul’s Churchyard. The bookseller
J. F. Hughes held a dinner once a week for his distinguished
writers and a few hacks. She was invited to leaven the party with what
a prized pornographer called ‘femality’. Mary Davies, who wrote
children’s primers for numbers and letters, was absent. Hers was a
more respectable trade than Ann’s gothic horrors but Mr Hughes
judged Ann less prissily genteel in men’s company.

An Italian was there. He said little except when talk veered towards argument. Then he remarked there was a sundial near Venice that claimed to count serene hours alone. How good, he added, to take notice of time only as it gives pleasure.
‘That sundial had not the English art of self-tormenting,’ said
Richard Perry, an intense, gentle man introduced by Mr Hughes as a
reviewer and former bookseller.
‘It’s surely not so easy to efface cares by refusing to name them,’
said Ann.
Nobody pursued the point. Signor Luigi Orlando felt no need to
facilitate further.

Later, much later, she wondered why Robert James had been
invited. He’d published nothing of consequence beyond that amazing
fragment of Attila. Did Mr Hughes believe in his promise as fervently
as his friends did? As he did?

At first he’d been silent and she hadn’t much remarked him.
During the introduction she’d failed to note his name, being too
engrossed in her own. Then, as afternoon turned to evening, and
wine and conversation flowed, he’d started to dominate the talk, to
catch and keep attention. He spoke animatedly.

She knew who he was then.

My purpose in A Man of Genius is to bring together a woman writer who sees herself as a jobbing novelist and a male poet who’s regarded by many as a ‘genius’. The exhilaration and pain of their relationship come from a combination of fascination and repulsion on both sides. She may suffer more severely but the relationship is, at base, one of mutual torment. However the work is a psychological and historical mystery and nothing is ever quite what it seems at first….

For my work as a critic and biographer of women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I read a lot of Gothic novels. I relished the gory woodcuts that often accompanied their title pages. Wonderfully crude and energetic.

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I was especially interested in the women who wrote them. The authors weren’t all women but a substantial number clearly was. On the whole their lives are obscure but, when we can hear them at all, they make no claims for their hack work and are eager to state they are not encroaching on the male territory of Literature. Often they claim they write only for money and because they have to: they are spinsters with ailing fathers or they are widows or abandoned wives.

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While the mass market was growing for cheap novels and sensational tales, fed by scribbling writers, a contrasting cult of the ‘genius’ grew up. He—and it was usually a ‘he’—was understood to be a distinctive and specially endowed human being. Consequently he was not constrained by the same morality and rules as other mortals. To sustain his role he needed immense self-confidence as well as the belief, even adulation, of others.

My biography, Death and the Maidens, described the effect of a real and haunted ‘genius’–the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley–on Fanny, the eldest daughter of the great feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as on her half sister Mary Shelley, whom he later married, and on his first wife Harriet. In A Man of Genius, an entirely fictional work, I imagine what occurs when the assumed genius begins to doubt his superior powers and when his lover fears her idol might have no substance.

The setting for much of A Man of Genius is Venice. I describe the city at a special moment in its history. For centuries Venice had grow rich and powerful as the dominant maritime and commercial state along the Adriatic. It boasted a thousand-year-old past as an independent republic. It had been home to the greatest sculptors and architects, as well as to the most celebrated Renaissance painters, Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian. Its richness in money and art was legendary.

But, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had suffered a long decline and the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte found little opposition in 1797 when he decided to conquer it and subsume it into his Italian empire.

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After this shaming defeat, Venice was shunted back and forwards between France and Austria until after the battle of Waterloo and the final defeat of Napoleon it fell finally into Austrian hands and was made part of the kingdom of Lombardy and Venetia. A few Venetians collaborated with the Austrian masters, appreciating some aspects of the order they brought to the city, others preferred the French as being closer to them in temperament, though more plundering of Venetian treasures. Others hugely resented what had happened to Venice and plotted for independence –an independence that would never return.

In 1866 Venice was subsumed into the new kingdom of Italy.

The run down and conquered city of 1819-20 is the backdrop of my story. Venice was still at that time part of the grand tour for gentlemen from Britain for it retained much of its amazing art and architecture. At the same time it was beginning to attract more modest middle class tourists. These were armed with an increasing array of guidebooks.

The era of mass tourism was, however, still in the future. It awaited the coming of the railway.

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One of the more bizarre events happening at the time my characters travelled to Venice was the scandal of the British royal family. As so often in history, the royals provided much entertainment for the public at home and abroad. To secure the succession the dissolute Prince Regent had been urged into an alliance with a German princess Caroline of Brunswick. He took an instant dislike to her and desperately sought a way out of the hated marriage. Over the next years, as she travelled with a rather louche entourage around Europe, he worked to establish enough evidence to bring about a divorce. She was especially linked in scandal with an obscure Italian called Bartolomeo Pergami, much decorated with the honours she bestowed on him: the pair provided great amusement through the newspapers and cartoons. My characters in Venice couldn’t avoid hearing of what was entertaining all of Europe.

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So — my novel is set in specific history but is not about history. It occurs in a particular place that is both real and imaginary. But, then, there is always something ‘imaginary’ about Venice.

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Janet Todd has just retired from being an academic mainly in the US and the UK. Her last positions were as Professor of English in the University of Aberdeen and President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her most recent works have been introductions to the novels of Jane Austen and biographies of women writers from Aphra Behn to Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn. A Man of Genius is her first original novel.

Guest Post: Love and Ginger Biscuits by Jolien Janzing

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21 April marks the 200th birthday of Charlotte Brontë. The author of – to name one – Jane Eyre will be celebrated in Brussels, the city where she studied and fell in love. Belgian author Jolien Janzing traveled from Belgium to Yorkshire in search of the true identity of one of England’s most beloved writers.

The sea, the sea. It is the title of one of my favourite novels, by Iris Murdoch. A wonderful title that evokes the endlessness of the sea; the rolling of the waves is captured in the repetition. It is morning, and I am eating buttered toast and scrambled eggs on board of a ferry about to enter the port of Hull. Last night, as the ferry left Zeebrugge harbour, I was rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the sea. This morning is shrouded in a thick fog, and the vague contours of containers and stacks of bricks are all I can discern of the shore. The idea of traveling to Hull by ferry, like Charlotte Brontë made the trip from London to Ostend by steamer, seemed inspiring to me. She from England to Belgium, I from Belgium to England. Somewhere along the way, the two ships could have crossed in the night, if it weren’t for the fact that Charlotte’s steamer made the journey in 1842.

This is the third time I am on my way to visit the scene of Charlotte’s childhood: Haworth with its steep high street, high up in the barren hills of West Yorkshire. Once upon a time, Haworth was a small industrial town with a population of domestic weavers and families of which almost all members above the age of six worked in the textile factories down by the river. The textile factories are abandoned nowadays, but the town has been preserved beautifully as a pilgrimage for Brontë fans.

After a three-day stay in Haworth I will travel on to Shipley, where I am to be received by the Brontë Society. The literary society is hosting its annual lunch – this year’s edition marks the start of a series of festivities to celebrate Charlotte’s 200th birthday. I have been invited as a guest speaker, but I am not particularly nervous. It is as if, after having submerged myself in Charlotte Brontë’s life for five years, she has become a sister to me. As if she is sitting across from me, sipping tea. Her world has become familiar. The figure sitting across from me is, of course, only my Charlotte, my interpretation of everything that is known about her.

The life of Charlotte Brontë reads like a novel. Born in the village of Thornton, Charlotte was the third child of Anglican minister Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria. Three more children followed: Branwell, Emily and Anne. When Charlotte was three-years-old, the minister was appointed the town of Haworth as his parish. The family moved into the rectory, a spacious manor overlooking the treeless hills and the cemetery. Maria would die of cancer not long after the relocation, leaving Patrick with six children. He sent the four eldest girls, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, off to a boarding school for daughters of impoverished clergymen. This soon proved a fatal mistake, as the school was poorly run and the children suffered from cold and hunger. Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and were taken home, where they would pass away. Later in life, Charlotte would write about this horrendous school in a way that anyone who has read Jane Eyre will not lightly forget.

Less commonly known is that Charlotte and Emily came to Brussels in their early twenties to perfect their command of the French language. Charlotte had taken up the idea to found a school in Yorkshire with her younger sisters, and such an undertaking would require a considerable level of French proficiency on the part of the Brontë girls. Brussels was an obvious choice, both because life in the Belgian capital was significantly cheaper compared to Paris, and because the city had become familiar terrain for the English following the battle of Waterloo.

I spend my first night in Haworth at Ponden Hall, a large 17th century farmhouse in a valley near Haworth. I read by the fireplace and later crawl into the bedstead that closes by means of two small doors. On the side of the outer wall is a cutout in the wood panel with a small, old window, fogged by the damp mist that covers the fields outside. A number of books are stacked on the stone windowsill, warped by the mildew. This is the window tapped by the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Back in the Brontë sisters’ days, the house belonged to Robert Heaton, a well-off captain of industry. Ponden Hall contained the most extensive library in the area, frequented by the young Charlotte and Emily. As women were not allowed to borrow books from the village library, the sisters happily seized the opportunity to read books in the deep window recesses of Ponden Hall. Robert Heaton was in love with Emily, but when he declared her his love in the kitchen one afternoon, young Emily slid off her chair to play with a couple of puppies under the table – she never was particularly interested in men.

Although Emily possessed a remarkable, lively imagination, she founded her stories on her surroundings the same way Charlotte did. Indeed, the description of the room with the bedstead and the small window in Wuthering Heights is so reminiscent of my bedroom here at Ponden Hall that I simply know this must be the place where Emily’s heroine came knocking. Cathy, with the wild hair and fluttering nightdress, her face pale and contorted with grief, in search of her beloved Heathcliff.

The annual lunch of the literary society takes place at Hollins Hall, a decent hotel in Shipley. The place is atmospheric: a rippling Schubert in the background, the smell of earl grey, ginger nuts and the sloping landscape outside.

I read from Charlotte Brontë’s secret love, the English translation of my novel De meester. On a warm summer day, a lonesome and sad Charlotte walked the streets of Brussels. Eventually, she entered Sint-Michiel’s cathedral and went to confession with a young priest. For the daughter of an Anglican minister, it was unthinkable to enter a catholic church, leave alone go to confession, but Charlotte had fallen in love with a married man and felt the need to talk about her predicament: an anonymous confession provided the solution.

We have a lunch of roast, Yorkshire pudding and peas. The last strawberries of the season with cream for dessert. I talk about the morals and customs in the city of Brussels in the mid-19th century. About how adulterous behaviour on the part of married gentlemen was often tolerated by their wives. The possibilities were many, as long as one did not discuss them openly and went to confession every week. ‘Is it possible that monsieur Heger awakened our Charlotte sexually?’ asks a lady who had traveled all the way from London to attend the literary lunch.

After Charlotte’s death, many of her fans visited Constantin Heger in Brussels. Heger, on these occasions, never failed to profess how the famous novelist had been in love with him and proudly showed the letters she wrote to him. At the same time, he presented himself as a devoted husband and father who would not have considered turning a young woman’s head. Although Charlotte’s biographers have taken his version of the story for the truth, it is my belief that there are plenty of reasons to believe Heger was an incorrigible flirt. For instance, there is the sensual letter he wrote to another one of his female pupils, in which he tells her how he conjures her image as he sits in his study at night, enjoying a cigar. If a male teacher were to write a similar letter in this day and age, there would be no end to the trouble he would be getting himself into. Furthermore, he received a number of love letters from Charlotte after her return to England. The letter written in the fall of 1845 – no less than one year and ten months after their goodbye – is especially passionate and desperate. I find it impossible to imagine that the intelligent Charlotte, no matter how sensitive and weakened by her heartbreak, would write such a letter to a man who supposedly never actively ignited the passion inside of her.

From Yorkshire I travel to London, where I meet Jenni Murray for an interview in Woman’s Hour at the studios of BBC Radio 4. The other guest on the show is the writer of Charlotte Brontë’s new biography. Jenni asks me why I chose to let Emily befriend Louise de Bassompierre, another student at the Pensionnat Heger, in my novel. She obviously finds this peculiar, as it is known of Emily that she liked to keep to herself. I replied that the friendship existed in reality. Upon their goodbye, Emily gave Louise a sketch of a pine tree struck by lightning. Their friendship was special, precisely because it was very rare for Emily to form an attachment to someone. Given her misanthropy, her fondness of her home with its daily routines, and her love for animals, I am inclined to think she may have been slightly autistic.

The interview is short, but we have a little time to chat afterwards. About Charlotte, of course. As is often the case, opinions are divided. In the new biography, Charlotte is portrayed as a disappointed, even somewhat bitter woman, and no longer as a feminist. I do not recognize my Charlotte in this defeated character. My Charlotte got back up to fight whenever she was kicked to the ground. She lost her older sisters and her mother as a young child, but she scribbled wonderful stories in tiny booklets; she experienced heartache at the hands of Constantin Heger, but wrote Jane Eyre; she lost her sister Emily, her brother Branwell and her sister Anne, but she straightened her back and wrote Shirley. In the lobby of my hotel, I read from my novel to a group of Brontë fans. The train, the train. How Madame Heger traveled to Ostend with Charlotte to ensure her pupil took the packet boat to England. Indeed, she could no longer tolerate that English young lady jeopardizing her marriage.

That night I, too, take the boat. I am on the deck and I am saying goodbye. The moment that every writer longs for, but fears at the same time, has arrived. Goodbye to the years that I have dedicated to this story: to Emily’s piano playing, to Charlotte’s letters, to the girls’ voices in the corridors of the Pensionnat Heger, and to the old Brussels. A world that was mine for such a long time, now swallowed by the waves.