Authors: Catherine Reef
Weightman’s gentle teasing of Aunt Branwell made the Brontë sisters laugh. Charlotte playfully called him “Miss Celia Amelia Weightman.”
She decided to sketch his portrait and had him pose in his clerical gown.
Acting anonymously, Weightman sent the three women their very first valentines, each with verses written for its recipient. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne knew right away who had sent these charming love notes. They put their heads together and wrote a poem for him in return:
Believe us when we frankly say
(Our words, though blunt are true),
At home, abroad, by night or day,
We all wish well for you.
And never may a cloud come o’er
The sunshine of your mind;
Kind friends, warm hearts, and happy hours,
Through life we trust you’ll find.
Weightman playfully flirted with all three sisters, but he may have felt most attracted to Anne. Charlotte remarked in one of her letters to Ellen that the curate “sits opposite to Anne
at church sighing softly and looking out of the corners of his eyes to win her attention—And Anne is so quiet, her look so downcast—they are a picture.”
No romance developed, however, because Anne left the happy circle in May 1840 to be a governess again. She was to teach four children, three girls and a boy, in the Robinson family, near the city of York. The Robinsons’ estate was called Thorp Green. Their mansion was more than twice the size of the Inghams’ home, and they needed a large staff of servants to run it. Born into wealth, Mr. Edmund Robinson was a minister, but chronic ill health kept him away from the pulpit. His wife, Lydia Robinson, was dark haired and full of life.
Branwell, too, tried again to make his way in the world. In autumn 1840 he went to work for the Leeds and Manchester Railway. He was assigned to the station in Sowerby, a bustling textile-manufacturing town near Halifax. The station was brand-new, and the railroad line would not be complete until work finished on the 1.6-mile Summit Tunnel, which runs beneath the Pennine Mountains of northern England. Then the longest railroad tunnel in the world, the Summit Tunnel represented speed and progress.
As an assistant clerk, Branwell kept a record of the trains that stopped at the Sowerby station and the freight they carried. He also looked out for passengers’ safety. Charlotte thought that this low-level job was beneath her brother’s ability, but railroads were expanding, and Branwell looked forward to being promoted. Indeed, after six months he rose to clerk-in-charge of the Luddendenfoot Station and received a raise.
At this time Branwell befriended Francis Grundy, a young man he could impress with his knowledge and talent. Grundy described Branwell as “small and thin of person”
and “the reverse of attractive at first sight.” Branwell “had a mass of red hair, which he wore high off his forehead—to help his height, I fancy; a great, bumpy, intellectual forehead, nearly half the size of the whole facial contour; small ferrety eyes, deep sunk, and still further hidden by the never removed spectacles.”
Then, as always happened with Branwell, something went wrong. In March 1842, the railroad’s auditors looked at his account books and discovered that money was missing. Branwell had lost more than eleven pounds, a little more than he earned in a month. No one accused him of stealing the money, but it had been his job to keep track of it, so Branwell was fired once more.
before Branwell moved to Luddendenfoot, Charlotte tried once more to be a governess. She worked for the family of a merchant named John White, teaching and caring for a girl and boy, ages eight and six. She still had mounds of sewing to do, but the White children behaved better than the young Sidgwicks had. Their parents treated Charlotte kindly, giving her time off to visit Ellen and offering to let her father spend time at their home. They even said yes when Charlotte asked to extend her summer holiday from one week to three.
None of this mattered to Charlotte, who had made up her mind to hate her new job. “No one but myself can tell
how hard a governess’s work is to me,” she declared, “for no one but myself is aware how utterly averse my whole mind and nature are to employment.”
That summer, when Anne and Charlotte spent their holidays at home, the sisters devised a plan to free themselves from working for others. As Emily wrote in a diary paper on her twenty-third birthday, “A scheme is at present in agitation
for setting us up in a school of our own.” Aunt Branwell was to lend her nieces money to rent a building and equip it as a school for girls. Miss Wooler even offered to let them take over the school at Dewsbury Moor, which would lower the cost of starting up.
On the same day that Emily wrote her diary paper, Anne wondered “what will be our condition
and how or where shall we all be on this day four years hence.” Emily, thinking along the same lines, imagined the sisters “all merrily seated
in our own sitting-room in some pleasant and flourishing seminary.”
Then Charlotte found a better way to use some of Aunt Branwell’s money. Her unconventional friend, Mary Taylor, was studying with her sister, Martha, in Brussels, Belgium, where their uncle Abraham lived. Mary urged Charlotte to do the same, but Charlotte needed little coaxing. Here was a chance to travel, to live far from home amid new sights and faces. Here was an opportunity to learn! With luck, the teachers in Brussels would challenge her eager mind. “Papa will perhaps think it
a wild and ambitious scheme;” but, Charlotte asked, “who ever rose in the world without ambition?” This statement would have shocked many people, because for a woman to be ambitious went against the Victorian ideal. Still, Charlotte boldly admitted that when her father left Ireland to go to Cambridge University, “he was as ambitious as I am now.”
To persuade her father and aunt, Charlotte stressed the practical side of the venture. Spending time abroad refining her French would make Charlotte stand out from the many other Englishwomen running schools, she said. Also, in Brussels she might meet Belgian families wanting to educate their daughters in England and recruit these girls as pupils. The Reverend Brontë and Aunt Branwell agreed to the plan, to Charlotte’s great joy. It was decided that Emily would study with Charlotte in Brussels while Anne remained with the Robinsons.
As far as their father and aunt knew, Emily and Charlotte would be gone for six months. But Charlotte whispered to Emily, “Before our half year
in Brussels is completed, you and I will have to seek employment abroad.”
The Reverend Brontë escorted his daughters, although they traveled as well with Mary Taylor, who had made a brief trip to England, and her brother Joe. Together this group went by boat to the Belgian port of Ostend and journeyed inland past fertile plains. Mounting a hill, they saw in the distance the towers and steeples of the Belgian capital.
The Taylors’ school was too costly for the Brontës, so Charlotte and Emily had chosen instead the Pensionnat Heger, a girls’ boarding school in the old part of Brussels. The long, low school building appeared unadorned and even grim when viewed from the narrow cobblestone street, but it had a pleasant, well-tended garden hidden from view. Once inside the door, the sisters received a warm greeting. The director, Madame Claire Zoë Heger, lived at the school with her children and husband, Monsieur Constantin Heger, who taught literature to the girls. He and the other teachers taught exclusively in French, one of Belgium’s principal languages. (Flemish and German are the other two.)
Constantin Heger, age thirty-three, was “a little black ugly being,”
Charlotte observed. He might have been “a man of power as to mind,” but he was “irritable in temperament.” Another student recalled, “In talking perhaps
he made his profoundest impression by a steadfast often mocking gaze.”
This forceful teacher quickly noted that his two new students had unusual ability. He saw how much Charlotte loved to learn. He recommended books for her to read, and he reviewed her compositions with extra care. He taught her to improve her writing, telling her to “sacrifice,
everything that does not contribute to clarity.” He spurred her on to find
le mot juste
—exactly the right word to express what she wanted to say.
Monsieur, as he was called, would read to the sisters from works by great French authors. After discussing a passage, he would ask them to write—in French—a composition of their own, sometimes inspired by the famous author’s subject or words. Charlotte accepted the challenge. Under Monsieur’s direction, she also wrote on religious topics like “the Death of Moses” or “the Immensity of God.” In a paper titled “The Nest,” a subject of her own choosing, she described how watching a mother bird tending her hatchlings had revealed God’s presence. She wrote, “The bird’s nest is but a line,
a word in the huge book that Nature opens for the instruction of the entire human race, a book whose every page abounds with proof of the existence of God.”
Emily refused to write like anyone but herself. It was her own idea to write about King Harold, who died defending England from Norman invaders in 1066. She breathed life into this ancient king who was transformed into a hero by war:
He is inwardly convinced
that a mortal power will not fell him. The hand of Death, alone, can bear the victory away from his arms, and Harold is ready to succumb before it, because the touch of that hand is, to the hero, what the stroke that gave him liberty was to the slave.
Monsieur Heger gave Emily more freedom in her studies than he allowed the other students, because he saw that she had an extraordinary mind. She possessed “a head for logic,
and a capability of argument” that were “rare indeed in a woman,” he said. He knew only one way to make sense of Emily’s intelligence: “She should have been a man.” Emily had come to the school knowing very little French, so she had to study hard at first to keep up with Charlotte and the others, but she made rapid progress. “Emily works like a horse,”
In the past, leaving home had caused Emily’s health to break down, and Charlotte worried that this might happen again in Brussels. In fact, it looked for a while as though Emily might be sinking. Charlotte felt relieved, before long, to see that “this time she rallied through the mere force of resolution.”
Emily insisted on wearing the old-fashioned hand-sewn clothes that she brought from home. They were as good as anything else, she thought. Her dresses had full, puffy sleeves that had been out of style for a decade or more. She hated petticoats, so her skirts clung strangely to her long legs. Clearly, Emily gave little thought to her appearance. “I wish to be
as God made me,” she simply said. Charlotte, more willing to conform, learned from the Belgian girls at school to wear embroidered collars and tailor her dresses to flatter her small frame.