Authors: Catherine Reef
Back in Brussels, Charlotte took over the teaching of English at the Hegers’ school. The couple welcomed her into their sitting room as a friend when the school day ended, and she resumed her private studies with Monsieur. She began using her essays to speak from her heart to the teacher who held her in such high esteem. In a composition titled “Letter from a Poor Painter to a Great Lord,” she allowed the fictional painter to voice her own words, revealing thoughts that she had never dared confide to another:
Throughout my early youth
the difference that existed between myself and most of the people around me was,
for me, an embarrassing enigma that I did not know how to resolve. . . . I believed it my duty to follow the example set by the majority of my acquaintances . . . yet all the while I felt myself incapable of feeling and acting as they felt and acted. . . . In vain I tried to imitate the gentle gaiety, the serene and even temper, that I saw in the faces of my companions and found so worthy of admiration; all my efforts were useless. I could not restrain the ebb and flow of blood in my arteries, and that ebb and flow left its mark upon my . . . hard and unengaging features; I cried in secret.
Charlotte’s affection for Monsieur Heger was deepening into love. She tried through her writing to draw him closer and make him admire her all the more. Monsieur kept up his side of the friendship and continued to present her with books. Then, after two happy months, the atmosphere changed at the Pensionnat Heger. Madame stopped inviting Charlotte into the sitting room. The private lessons ended, and Monsieur counseled Charlotte to practice
or kindness, by making friends with the other teachers, women she disliked and snubbed. Charlotte was sure that Madame had made her husband say these things.
It seems that Madame Heger had noticed Charlotte’s warm feelings for her husband and was determined to cool them. She withdrew her friendship and treated the English
teacher with distant formality. How deeply Constantin Heger cared for Charlotte Brontë can only be guessed. He admired her mind, but, if readers can believe a gentleman who knew the Hegers, he never returned her passion. “He was a worshipper
of intellect & he worshipped Charlotte Bronte thus far & no further,” wrote this man, who had seen Monsieur Heger single out another bright girl for attention.
The cloud of depression settled again over Charlotte Brontë. It grew thicker and blacker as August neared and the school closed for five weeks of summer holiday. The Hegers, the other teachers, the pupils—just about everyone left for vacation while Charlotte stayed at the
nearly alone. Day after day, she wandered along the streets of Brussels, a solitary figure. She walked to the Protestant cemetery to see Martha Taylor’s grave. Once, loneliness drove her into a Catholic church, where she confessed her sins to a priest, although as a member of the Church of England, she was a Protestant. “I actually did confess
—a real confession,” she disclosed to Emily. The priest hearing Charlotte’s sins invited her to come for instruction in the Catholic faith, but she never went.
The five weeks passed, and as the autumn term began, Charlotte gave up her plan of living and working abroad. Monsieur pressured her to stay, but Mary Taylor agreed that it was time for Charlotte to leave the Hegers. Mary invited her friend to join her as a teacher at the German school, but Charlotte declined the offer. She had admitted to being ambitious; she had defied convention and traveled to a foreign country alone; but to be a woman teaching adolescent boys was too radical a step even for Charlotte Brontë to take. She labored on at her post through December, when Monsieur gave her a diploma as proof of her ability to teach. On January 1, Madame Heger went with Charlotte as far as the port of Ostend and made sure the lonesome, lovesick teacher boarded the boat for home.
before I left Brussels,” Charlotte Brontë confided to Ellen Nussey, her closest friend. “I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what parting with M. Heger cost me.” Charlotte kept up with her studies by memorizing a passage in French every day. Once every two weeks, she allowed herself the delicious treat of writing a letter to Monsieur. She then waited anxiously for his reply.
The correspondence went on in this way until Madame Heger found three of Charlotte’s letters that Monsieur had torn up and tossed into a wastebasket. She treated these scraps like puzzle pieces, painstakingly matching their edges to discover what Charlotte had written. “Oh it is certain
that I shall see you again one day,” she read; “it must be so—for as soon as I have earned enough money to go to Brussels I will go there—and I will see you again even if it is only for a moment.” Before confronting her husband, Madame stitched two of the letters back together, and she repaired the third with strips of paper and glue. Presenting the evidence, she told Monsieur that if he and Charlotte were determined to stay in touch, they must each write no more than one letter every six months.
As soon as I have earned enough money . . .
The only way to make money that stood open to Charlotte Brontë was teaching, but she lacked the heart to leave home and work in some school, or to hire herself out as a governess again. So she returned to the idea of opening a girls’ boarding school, this time in the Haworth parsonage. It would be a small school, with five or six pupils sleeping in the rooms that Branwell and Anne had vacated. Charlotte would do most of the teaching, and Emily would keep house. Charlotte had cards printed, advertising “The Misses Brontë’s Establishment” and listing the fees. She sent them to friends and acquaintances, including Ellen, who was to distribute them in Dewsbury.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, not a single family inquired about sending a daughter to the Brontës’ school. Haworth was simply too remote and hard to reach. Its isolation outweighed Charlotte’s outstanding qualifications in every parent’s opinion, so the planned school failed before it could open.
It was just as well, because in June 1845, Anne unexpectedly came home, and Branwell followed not long after. Anne quit her job with the Robinsons after she “had some very unpleasant
and undreamt-of experience of human nature,” she wrote. Anne left no further explanation for her departure. Branwell, according to Charlotte, had been fired for proceedings that were “bad beyond expression,”
and he was forbidden to have further contact with any member of the Robinson family.
The facts came out in Branwell’s letters to his friends: he had carried on a love affair with Lydia Robinson, his employer’s spirited wife. While still at Thorp Green, he had informed John Brown, “My mistress is DAMNABLY TOO FOND
OF ME.” From Haworth, he wrote to Francis Grundy that Mrs. Robinson’s kindness had “ripened into declarations
of more than ordinary feeling.” His admiration for her “mental and personal attractions” had grown into “an attachment on my part, and led to reciprocations which I had little looked for.” Mr. Robinson learned of the affair and fired the guilty tutor.
Feeling wronged more than ashamed, Branwell drank away his sorrow in taverns night after night, or sought peace through opium. He begged money from his family, raged against his fate, and became more than flesh and blood could bear. “No one in the house
could have rest,” Charlotte complained. Hoping to restore Branwell’s mind and healthy habits, the Brontës sent him off with his friend John Brown to Liverpool and the Welsh coast. The change of scene may have helped Branwell control his outbursts, but he complained that wherever he went, “a certain woman
robed in black, and calling herself ‘MISERY,’ walked by my side, and leant on my arm as affectionately as if she were my legal wife.”
Emily and Anne found some calm by taking a short train trip to the city of York. Twenty-seven and twenty-five years old, they still loved to lose themselves in Gondal fantasies. Emily wrote in a diary paper:
During our excursion
we were, Ronald Macalgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Angusteena, Rosabella Esmaldan, Ella and Julian Egremont, Catharine Navarre, and Cordelia Fitzaphnold, escaping from the palaces of instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans.
To Charlotte, who was secretly dealing with her own impossible love, life in the parsonage was depressing. Again Mary Taylor urged her to get away. “I told her very warmly
that she ought not to stay at home,” Mary said, “that to spend the next five years at home, in solitude and weak health, would ruin her.” Mary had left the German school and was soon to sail to the other side of the world, to the young British colony of New Zealand. A book for new settlers claimed that no place on Earth offered “a more promising career
of usefulness to those who labour in the cause of human improvement, than the islands of New Zealand.” It sounded like just the place for a purposeful woman like Mary Taylor.