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Authors: Catherine Reef

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By July 1842, as the sisters’ six months in Brussels neared their end, Madame Heger invited them to stay for another half year. There was no need to worry about tuition, because they could earn their keep by teaching, she said; Charlotte could teach English, and Emily, who had musical talent, might give piano lessons. Mary Taylor thought they were quite right to accept Madame’s offer. She remarked that Charlotte and Emily looked well, “not only in health
but in mind & hope. They are content with their present position & even gay.”

Emily’s first pupils were English girls, three young sisters from a family named Wheelwright. She made enemies of these girls right away by insisting they have lessons during their playtime. She needed the other hours in the day for her own studies, she claimed. “I simply disliked her
from the first,” said the girls’ older sister Laetitia. The Wheelwrights liked Charlotte and would have invited her to their home—if not for Emily. “Charlotte was so devotedly attached to her, and thought so highly of her talents, that it would only have caused offence to exclude her sister,” Laetitia Wheelwright said.

Emily thought that friendship wasted her time. At the Hegers’ school she made only one friend, a sixteen-year-old Belgian girl named Louise de Bassompierre. Unlike everyone else at the school, Louise found Emily easier to approach than Charlotte. Emily gave Louise a pencil drawing that she had done of a weather-torn pine tree, and Louise treasured this gift for years.

Charlotte was friendlier to most people than Emily was, but not much. She looked down on her Belgian classmates, believing them duller than English girls. She enjoyed visiting the Taylor sisters at their school, yet she appeared shy and strange to the other English people she met in Brussels. For a while a Reverend and Mrs. Jenkins of the British embassy invited Emily and Charlotte for Sunday and holiday visits, but the sisters seemed uneasy in their home. Charlotte turned away and hid her face if anyone spoke to her. Emily, even more aloof, barely said a word. “We are completely isolated
in the midst of numbers,” Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey, but the isolation was largely their own fault.

The most important friendship that Charlotte formed in Belgium was with Monsieur. Before long, their relationship as student and teacher grew into feelings of deep regard. If Charlotte raised the lid of her desk and smelled the aroma of Monsieur’s cigar, she knew that he had left a book in there for her to find.

 

Constantin Heger, shown here in later life, recognized the talent of Charlotte and Emily Brontë. He and Charlotte became friends, and she grew to love him.

 

The new school term had barely begun when a letter came from England bearing bad news. Charlotte and Emily learned that their charming friend, the curate William Weightman, had died of cholera. Long known and feared in tropical places, cholera had migrated through Europe in the early nineteenth century. It reached Britain in 1831 and moved quickly into cities and villages. No one knew that bacteria caused cholera, or that it was spread through contaminated water, so no one knew how to prevent it. Most victims died of dehydration, often quickly. Cholera caused such violent diarrhea that water seemed to pour out of a sufferer’s body. Skin sagged; eyes sank into the head; the face turned blue; hands lay shriveled and wasted.

Weightman caught this terrible disease while visiting the poor and sick of Haworth. Young and strong, he fought off death for two weeks. The Brontë men visited him in his illness, although Branwell fell to pieces in sorrow. The Reverend Brontë remained strong, however. He prayed with the dying curate and listened to what was on his mind. When the time came, the older man “saw him in tranquility
close his eyes on this bustling, vain, selfish world.” Moreover, “I may truly say,” he concluded, “his end was peace, and his hope glory.”

Anne, still working for the Robinsons at Thorp Green, wrote a poem comparing Weightman’s brief, sunny life to a dazzling morning cut short by clouds and rain. She consoled herself with the thought that:

 

If few and short
the joys of life

That thou on earth couldst know,

Little thou knew’st of sin and strife

Nor much of pain and woe.

········································

And yet I cannot check my sighs,

Thou wert so young and fair,

More bright than summer morning skies,

But stern death would not spare.

 

The people of Haworth had so loved Weightman that they paid for a monument to him that was placed in the church. Its inscription praised Weightman’s “orthodox principles,
active zeal, moral habits, learning, mildness, and affability,” as well as “his useful labours.”

Martha Taylor, Mary’s sister, became the next young person to die unexpectedly, after contracting an illness that most likely also was cholera. Throughout Martha’s sickness, Mary “was to her more
than a mother—more than a sister: watching, nursing, cherishing her so tenderly, so unweariedly,” Charlotte informed Ellen Nussey. Martha died on October 12, at age twenty-three, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Brussels. Charlotte and Emily walked with Mary to see Martha’s grave, and Charlotte told Ellen that their friend was coming to terms with her sorrow. Mary appeared “calm and serious now.” There were no more “bursts of violent emotion, no exaggeration of distress.” Mary arranged to go to Germany to teach English at a school for boys. This was a daring move; for a lady to instruct schoolboys went against the accepted rules of propriety in England. Miss Wooler heard about Mary’s plan from Ellen, and she disapproved.

As Mary made ready to leave, another letter from Haworth told Emily and Charlotte that Aunt Branwell was ill and near death. The sisters left for home immediately. They hoped to see for one last time the woman who had devoted her life to their care, but this was not to be. They reached the parsonage on November 2, just missing Aunt’s funeral. She had died painfully of a blocked intestine on October 29.

A similar letter had brought Anne home from the Robinsons, so for a few weeks the Brontës were together in their grief. Branwell, the most emotional, felt the loss most keenly. The moans of his dying aunt’s nighttime suffering played over and over in his brain. “I have now lost
the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood,” he lamented to his friend Francis Grundy.

Aunt Branwell left each of the four young Brontës a personal memento. Her money was divided equally among her four nieces: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and their cousin Eliza Kingston, who lived far to the south in Cornwall. Each received a little less than three hundred pounds. It was hardly a fortune, but it would be some insurance against poverty. Aunt had assumed that Branwell would be better able to earn a decent living, because he was a man.

 

Elizabeth Branwell, “Aunt” to the Brontë children, dedicated her life to raising her dead sister’s daughters and son.

 

But would he? After being fired from his railroad job, Branwell had struggled through a period of drinking, opium use, illness, and deep depression. It was
“almost insanity,”
he wrote. Gradually his mind and body healed, and by May he was telling Grundy, “I can now speak cheerfully and enjoy the company of another without the stimulus of six glasses of whisky.” He would have recovered sooner, he claimed, if he had something to do.

Branwell had been writing, and he had managed to publish some poems in local newspapers. Most were old Angrian poems that he had revised, but he also published the first section of a new poem. It was a long saga that began with Noah speaking at the grave of Methuselah, the oldest person mentioned in the Old Testament:

 

Shall this pale Corpse
whose hoary hairs

Are just surrendered to decay

Dissolve the chain that bound our years

To hundred ages past away?

········································

Shall that dark doom which hangs oer head

Its blinded victims darker find?—

Shall storms from Heaven without the world

Find wilder storms from Hell within?

 

It was Anne who found Branwell something more to do. Edmund Robinson, Jr., her employers’ only son, had grown too old for a governess, so Anne persuaded the Robinsons to hire Branwell as his tutor. When she returned to Thorp Green after Christmas to continue on as governess to the girls, Branwell came along to teach young Edmund.

 

Branwell Brontë sketched Thorp Green, the home of the Robinsons, who employed both Branwell and Anne.

 

Charlotte, still in England, was glad to see Ellen Nussey, but her thoughts kept drifting across the Strait of Dover, to Belgium. She felt “an irresistible impulse,”
she said, to get back to the Pensionnat Heger, to the teacher who saw and appreciated her talent. Emily had spent enough time abroad, though. She chose to remain in the parsonage, where she was happiest, and take Aunt’s place as her father’s housekeeper.

Aunt Branwell’s death gave Charlotte greater freedom. As a respectable lady of an earlier generation, Miss Branwell never would have made a long trip alone. She certainly never would have let her niece go from Haworth to Brussels without a chaperone. Charlotte, more modern in her thinking, had no fear of traveling unescorted. She said goodbye to her dear friend Ellen Nussey with a joke: “It seems you will hardly hear
me—all the waves of the Channel, heaving & roaring between must deaden the sound.” She took a train from Leeds to London, a journey of thirteen hours. After being left by a cab driver on London’s wharf at night, she argued with the crew of the boat that was to carry her to Belgium in the morning. It was against company policy to let passengers aboard on the night before departure, but Charlotte refused to be left standing alone and unprotected in a dangerous place. She won the fight and was allowed to go on.

 

On a letter to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Brontë drew herself looking small and homely, and calling goodbye to her friend and a suitor on the other side of the English Channel.
BOOK: The Bronte Sisters
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