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.