It is 1 September 1843 and a 27-year-old Englishwoman is alone at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, a girls’ school where she is an unpaid pupil-teacher. It is halfway through the long vacation and everyone else who has a home or family to go to left weeks ago: the proprietress, Madame Heger, is at the seaside with her husband and children; the other teachers are on holiday or travelling.
Miss Brontë’s home is too far away to warrant a return for a mere two months. She can’t afford the cost of the journey back to her father’s Yorkshire parsonage, and, besides, arrangements should be kept to: Charlotte is a scrupulously dutiful person. But she is finding the empty dormitory oppressive, with all the beds covered in white cloths like a morgue; every meal is eaten alone, and the Pensionnat’s beautiful garden, with its old fruit trees and allée défendue of limes, seems more of a prison than a refuge when the rest of the school is abandoned. To escape the heavy solitude, it is Miss Brontë’s habit to go out and walk the city and the surrounding countryside for hours at a time. ‘I should inevitably fall into the gulf of low spirits if I stayed always by myself here without a human being to speak to,’ she writes to her sister Emily, who was her companion at the school the previous year and knows the place well. The truth is, although she doesn’t tell Emily this, she is already in that gulf. She is desperately unhappy.
Her return to Brussels for a second year at the Pensionnat Heger Charlotte sees with hindsight to have been a terrible mistake, for she has fallen in love with someone who, it is painfully clear, will never see her in a romantic light. It is the headmistress’s husband, Monsieur Constantin Heger, a man of impressive intellect and spirit, the first person outside her immediate family to take her seriously, the first man to treat her as potential equal. But the thrill of having his attention in her first year, as a pupil, has been followed by misery in the second, as his junior colleague. The Hegers have become wary of Charlotte’s ardour and eccentricities, and much more formal in their dealings with her. And now the man she considered her soul mate is pretending that she is nothing special to him at all.
She looks in the mirror and sees, with ruthless clarity, a catalogue of defects; a huge brow, sallow complexion, prominent nose and a mouth that twists up slightly to the right, hiding missing and decayed teeth. She looks poor and ill-dressed, haunted and miserable, with none of the brilliant light from her ‘great honest eyes’ that other peo- ple sometimes saw, and marvelled at. ‘[I]t is an imbecility which I reject with contempt – for women who have neither fortune nor beauty . . . not to be able to convince themselves that they are unattractive.’ That’s what she had written six months earlier, when her friend Ellen, back home in Yorkshire, had ventured to suggest that there was some romantic reason for Charlotte’s return abroad.
The pain of staying within doors is too much: she sets off along the length of the parc Royal to the porte de Louvain, through the gate and up the long hill heading eastwards away from the city. ‘No inhabitant of Brussels need wander far to search for solitude,’ she wrote later; ‘let him but move half a league from his own city and he will find her brooding still and blank over the wide fields, so drear though so fertile, spread out treeless and trackless round the capital of Brabant.’ Her destination is the Protestant Cemetery in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, two miles beyond the walls of this predominantly Catholic city, a walk down into the hamlet of Evere, then up to the crest of a hill beyond. There is no church here, just a few dozen graves in a walled garden, heavily overgrown with cypress and yew, with inscriptions in English, French and German: the foreign tongues of alienated people dying far from home.
From the cemetery Charlotte keeps walking away from the city, through valleys, farms and hamlets, to a hill where there is nothing but treeless fields as far as the eye can see. The furthest reach. She has to turn back, but coming into the city in the fading light she finds herself so desperately trying to put off returning to the Pensionnat that she ends up weaving around the surrounding streets to avoid it.
This unassuming-looking woman, tiny, unfashionable, darting out a look but not liking to hold one’s eye, was in extremis.