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The Life of Charlotte Brontë
Description of Keighley and its neighbourhood - Haworth Parsonage and Church - Tablets of the Brontë family
Characteristics of Yorkshiremen - Manufactures of the West Riding - Descendants of the Puritans - A characteristic incident - Former state of the country - Isolated country houses - Two Yorkshire squires - Rude sports of the people - Rev. William Grimshaw, Curate of Haworth - His opinion and treatment of his parishioners - The "arvills," or funeral feasts - Haworth Field-Kirk - Church-riots at Haworth on the appointment of Mr. Redhead as Perpetual Curate - Arrival of Mr. Brontë at Haworth
The Rev. Patrick Brontë - His marriage with Miss Branwell of Penzance - Social customs in Penzance - The Branwell family - Letters of Miss Branwell to Mr. Brontë - Marriage of Mrs. Brontë - Thornton, the birth-place of Charlotte Brontë - Removal to Haworth - Description of the Parsonage - The people of Haworth - The Brontë family at Haworth - Early training of the little Brontës - Characteristic anecdotes of Mr. Brontë - Death of Mrs. Brontë - Village scandal - Studies of the Brontë family - Mr. Brontë's account of his children
Miss Branwell comes to Haworth - Account of Cowan's Bridge (Lowood) School and the Rev. Carus Wilson - Originals of "Miss Scatcherd," "Helen Burns," and "Miss Temple" - Outbreak of fever in the school - Characteristics of the Brontë sisters - Deaths of Maria and Elizabeth Brontë
The old servant Tabby - Patrick Branwell Brontë - Charlotte Brontë's catalogue of her juvenile productions, with specimen page - Extract from the introduction to Tales of the Islanders - History of the year 1829 - Charlotte's taste for Art - Extracts from other early writings in MS. - Charlotte's mental tendencies and home duties - A strange occurrence at the Parsonage - A youthful effusion in verse
Personal description of Charlotte Brontë - Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head - Oakwell Hall and its legends - Charlotte's first appearance at school - Her youthful character and political feelings - School days at Miss Wooler's - Mr. Cartwright and the Luddites - Mr. Roberson of Heald's Hall - Chapel scenes and other characteristics of Heckmondwike and Gomersall
Charlotte Brontë leaves school, and returns home to instruct her sisters - Books at the parsonage - A dreary winter - Letters to a friend visiting London for the first time - On the choice of books - On dancing - Character and talents of Branwell Brontë - Plans for his advancement - Prospect of separation
Charlotte as teacher at Miss Wooler's school - Emily's home-sickness - Letters indicative of Charlotte's despondency and melancholy - The sisters at home - Winter evenings at Haworth - Charlotte writes to Southey, and Branwell to Wordsworth - Branwell's letter and verses - Prospect of losing the society of a friend - Charlotte's correspondence with Southey - Letter written in a state of despondency - Accident to the old servant, and characteristic kindness of the Brontës - Symptoms of illness in Anne Brontë - Charlotte's first proposal of marriage - Charlotte and Anne go out as governesses - Experiences of governess life - Advent of the first Curate at Haworth - A second proposal of marriage - A visit to the sea-side
Branwell Brontë still at home - Miss Branwell and her nieces - Plan of keeping a school - Charlotte commences her first story - The Curates at Haworth - Charlotte's sentiments on marriage - She seeks and obtains a situation as governess
Second experiences of governess life - Project of a school revived, and plans for its realisation - Miss Wooler's offer of her school declined
Mr. Brontë accompanies his daughters to Brussels - Charlotte's impressions of the place - The Pensionnat of Madame Héger and its inmates - M. Héger's method of teaching French - Charlotte's exercises in French composition - Her impressions of the Belgians - Arrangements of the Pensionnat - Charlotte's conduct as English teacher - Loss of a young friend - Death of Miss Branwell, and return to Haworth - M. Héger's letter to Mr. Brontë".
Charlotte returns to Brussels - Her account of Carnival and Lent - Solitariness of the English teacher in the Pensionnat - Her devoir "Sur la nom de Napoleon" - Depression, loneliness, and home-sickness - Estrangement from Madame Héger, and return to Haworth - Traits of kindness - Emily and her dog "Keeper"
Plan of school-keeping revived and abandoned - Deplorable conduct of Branwell Brontë and its consequences
I am not aware of all the circumstances which led to the relinquishment of the Lille plan. Brussels had had from the first a strong attraction for Charlotte; and the idea of going there, in preference to any other place, had only been given up in consequence of the information received of the second-rate character of its schools. Reference has been made in her letters to Mrs. Jenkins, the wife of the chaplain of the British Embassy. At the request of his brother - a clergyman, living not many miles from Haworth, and an acquaintance of Mr. Brontë's - she made much inquiry, and at length, after some discouragement in her search, heard of a school which seemed in every respect desirable. There was an English lady, who had long lived in the Orleans family, amidst the various fluctuations of their fortunes, and who, when the Princess Louise was married to King Leopold, accompanied her to Brussels, in the capacity of reader. This lady's granddaughter was receiving her education at the pensionnat of Madame Héger; and so satisfied was the grandmother with the kind of instruction given, that she named the establishment, with high encomiums, to Mrs. Jenkins; and, in consequence, it was decided that, if the terms suited, Miss Brontë and Emily should proceed thither. M. Héger informs me that, on receipt of a letter from Charlotte, making very particular inquiries as to the possible amount of what are usually termed 'extras,' he and his wife were so much struck by the simple earnest tone of the letter, that they said to each other: - "These are the daughters of an English pastor, of moderate means, anxious to learn with an ulterior view of instructing others, and to whom the risk of additional expense is of great consequence. Let us name a specific sum, within which all expenses shall be included."
This was accordingly done; the agreement was concluded, and the Brontës prepared to leave their native county for the first time, if we except the melancholy and memorable residence at Cowan Bridge. Mr. Brontë determined to accompany his daughters. Mary and her brother, who were experienced in foreign travelling, were also of the party. Charlotte first saw London in the day or two they now stopped there; and, from an expression in one of her subsequent letters, they all, I believe, stayed at the Chapter Coffee House, Paternoster Row - a strange, old-fashioned tavern, of which I shall have more to say hereafter.
Mr. Brontë took his daughters to the Rue d'Isabelle, Brussels; remained one night at Mr. Jenkins'; and straight returned to his wild Yorkshire village.What a contrast to that must the Belgian capital have presented to those two young women thus left behind! Suffering acutely from every strange and unaccustomed contact - far away from their beloved home, and the dear moors beyond - their indomitable will was their great support. Charlotte's own words, with regard to Emily, are: -
"After the age of twenty, having meantime studied alone with diligence and perseverance, she went with me to an establishment on the continent. The same suffering and conflict ensued, heightened by the strong recoil of her upright heretic and English spirit from the gentle Jesuitry of the foreign and Romish system. Once more she seemed sinking, but this time she rallied through the mere force of resolution: with inward remorse and shame she looked back on her former failure, and resolved to conquer, but the victory cost her dear. She was never happy till she carried her hard-won knowledge back to the remote English village, the old parsonage-house, and desolate Yorkshire hills."
They wanted learning. They came for learning. They would learn. Where they had a distinct purpose to be achieved in intercourse with their fellows, they forgot themselves; at all other times they were miserably shy. Mrs. Jenkins told me that she used to ask them to spend Sundays and holidays with her, until she found that they felt more pain than pleasure from such visits. Emily hardly ever uttered more than a monosyllable. Charlotte was sometimes excited sufficiently to speak eloquently and well - on certain subjects; but before her tongue was thus loosened, she had a habit of gradually wheeling round on her chair, so as almost to conceal her face from the person to whom she was speaking.
And yet there was much in Brussels to strike a responsive chord in her powerful imagination. At length she was seeing somewhat of that grand old world of which she had dreamed. As the gay crowds passed by her, so had gay crowds paced those streets for centuries, in all their varying costumes. Every spot told an historic tale, extending back into the fabulous ages when Jan and Jannika, the aboriginal giant and giantess, looked over the wall, forty feet high, of what is now the Rue Villa Hermosa, and peered down upon the new settlers who were to turn them out of the country in which they had lived since the deluge. The great solemn Cathedral of St. Gudule, the religious paintings, the striking forms and ceremonies of the Romish Church - all made a deep impression on the girls, fresh from the bare walls and simple worship of Haworth Church. And then they were indignant with themselves for having been susceptible of this impression, and their stout Protestant hearts arrayed themselves against the false Duessa that had thus imposed upon them.
The very building they occupied as pupils, in Madame Héger's pensionnat, had its own ghostly train of splendid associations marching for ever, in shadowy procession, through and through the ancient rooms, and shaded alleys of the gardens. From the splendour of to-day in the Rue Royale, if you turn aside, near the statue of the General Beliard, you look down four flights of broad stone steps upon the Rue d'Isabelle. The chimneys of the houses in it are below your feet. Opposite to the lowest flight of steps, there is a large old mansion facing you, with a spacious walled garden behind - and to the right of it. In front of this garden, on the same side as the mansion and with great boughs of trees sweeping over their lowly roofs, is a row of small picturesque, old-fashioned cottages, not unlike, in degree and uniformity, to the almshouses so often seen in an English country town. The Rue d'Isabelle looks as though it had been untouched by the innovations of the builder for the last three centuries; and yet any one might drop a stone into it from the back windows of the grand modern hotels in the Rue Royale, built and furnished in the newest Parisian fashion.
In the thirteenth century, the Rue d'Isabelle was called the Fosse-aux-Chiens; and the kennels for the ducal hounds occupied the place where Madame Héger's pensionnat now stands. A hospital (in the ancient large meaning of the word) succeeded to the kennel. The houseless and the poor, perhaps the leprous, were received, by the brethren of a religious order, in a building on this sheltered site; and what had been a fosse for defence, was filled up with herb-gardens and orchards for upwards of a hundred years. Then came the aristocratic guild of the cross-bow men - that company the members whereof were required to prove their noble descent untainted for so many generations, before they could be admitted into the guild; and, being admitted, were required to swear a solemn oath, that no other pastime or exercise should take up any part of their leisure, the whole of which was to be devoted to the practice of the noble art of shooting with the cross-bow. Once a year a grand match was held, under the patronage of some saint, to whose church-steeple was affixed the bird, or semblance of a bird, to be hit by the victor. The conqueror in the game was Roi des Arbaletriers for the coming year, and received a jewelled decoration accordingly, which he was entitled to wear for twelve months; after which he restored it to the guild, to be again striven for. The family of him who died during the year that he was king, were bound to present the decoration to the church of the patron saint of the guild, and to furnish a similar prize to be contended for afresh. These noble cross-bow men of the middle ages formed a sort of armed guard to the powers in existence, and almost invariably took the aristocratic, in preference to the democratic side, in the numerous civil dissensions in the Flemish towns. Hence they were protected by the authorities, and easily obtained favourable and sheltered sites for their exercise-ground. And thus they came to occupy the old fosse, and took possession of the great orchard of the hospital, lying tranquil and sunny in the hollow below the rampart.
But, in the sixteenth century, it became necessary to construct a street through the exercise-ground of the "Arbaletriers de Grand Serment," and, after much delay, the company were induced by the beloved Infanta Isabella to give up the requisite plot of ground. In recompense for this, Isabella - who herself was a member of the guild, and had even shot down the bird, and been queen in 1615 - made many presents to the arbaletriers and, in return, the grateful city, which had long wanted a nearer road to St. Gudule, but been baffled by the noble archers, called the street after her name. She, as a sort of indemnification to the arbaletriers, caused a "great mansion" to be built for their accommodation in the new Rue d'Isabelle. This mansion was placed in front of their exercise-ground, and was of a square shape. On a remote part of the walls, may still be read -
PHILLIPPO IIII. HISPAN. REGE. ISABELLA-CLARA-EUGENIAHISPAN. INFANS. MAGNÆ GULDÆ REGINA GULDÆ FRATRIBUS POSUIT.
In that mansion were held all the splendid feasts of the Grand Serment des Arbaletriers. The master-archer lived there constantly, in order to be ever at hand to render his services to the guild. The great saloon was also used for the court balls and festivals, when the archers were not admitted. The Infanta caused other and smaller houses to be built in her new street, to serve as residences for her "garde noble;" and for her "garde bourgeoise," a small habitation each, some of which still remain, to remind us of English almshouses. The "great mansion," with its quadrangular form; the spacious saloon - once used for the archducal balls, where the dark, grave Spaniards mixed with the blond nobility of Brabant and Flanders - now a schoolroom for Belgian girls; the cross-bow men's archery-ground - all are there - the pensionnat of Madame Héger.
This lady was assisted in the work of instruction by her husband - a kindly, wise, good, and religious man - whose acquaintance I am glad to have made, and who has furnished me with some interesting details, from his wife's recollections and his own, of the two Miss Brontës during their residence in Brussels. He had the better opportunities of watching them, from his giving lessons in the French language and literature in the school. A short extract from a letter, written to me by a French lady resident in Brussels, and well qualified to judge, will help to show the estimation in which he is held.
"Je ne connais pas personellement M. Héger, mais je sais qu'il est peu de caractères aussi nobles, aussi admirables que le sien. Il est un des membres les plus zélés de cette Société de S. Vincent de Paul dont je t'ai dejà parlé, et ne se contente pas de servir les pauvres et les malades, mais leur consacre encore les soirées. Après des journées absorbées tout entières par les devoirs que sa place lui impose, ii réunit les pauvres, les ouvriers, leur donne des cours gratuits, et trouve encore le moyen de les amuser en les instruisant. Ce dévouement te dira assez que M. Héger est profondement et ouvertement religieux. Il a des manières franches et avenantes; il se fait aimer de tous ceux qui l'approchent, et surtout des enfants. Il a le parole facile, et possède à un haut degré l'éloquence du bon sens et du coeur. Il n'est point auteur. Homme de zèle et de conscience, il vient de se démettre des fonctions élevées et lucratives qu'il exercait à l'Athenée, celles de Préfet des Etudes, parce qu'il ne peut y réaliser le bien qu'il avait esperé, introduire l'enseignement religieux dans le programme des études. J'ai vu une fois Madame Héger, qui a quelque chose de froid et de compassé dans son maintien, et qui prévient peu en sa favour. Je la crois pourtant aimée et appreciée par ses élèves."
There were from eighty to a hundred pupils in the pensionnat, when Charlotte and Emily Brontë entered in February 1842.
M. Héger's account is that they knew nothing of French. I suspect they knew as much (or as little), for all conversational purposes, as any English girls do, who have never been abroad, and have only learnt the idioms and pronunciation from an Englishwoman. The two sisters clung together, and kept apart from the herd of happy, boisterous, well-befriended Belgian girls, who, In their turn, thought the new English pupils wild and scared-looking, with strange, odd, insular ideas about dress; for Emily had taken a fancy to the fashion, ugly and preposterous even during its reign, of gigot sleeves, and persisted in wearing them long after they were "gone out." Her petticoats, too, had not a curve or a wave in them, but hung down straight and long, clinging to her lank figure. The sisters spoke to no one but from necessity. They were too full of earnest thought, and of the exile's sick yearning, to be ready for careless conversation, or merry game. M. Héger, who had done little but observe, during the few first weeks of their residence in the Rue d'Isabelle, perceived that with their unusual characters, and extraordinary talents, a different mode must be adopted from that in which he generally taught French to English girls. He seems to have rated Emily's genius as something even higher than Charlotte's; and her estimation of their relative powers was the same. Emily had a head for logic, and a capability of argument, unusual in a man, and rare indeed in a woman, according to M. Héger. Impairing the force of this gift, was her stubborn tenacity of will, which rendered her obtuse to all reasoning where her own wishes, or her own sense of right, was concerned. "She should have been a man - a great navigator," said M. Héger in speaking of her. "Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given, way but with life." And yet, moreover, her faculty of imagination was such that, if she had written a history, her view of scenes and characters would have been so vivid, and, so powerfully expressed, and supported by such a show of argument; that it would have dominated over the reader, whatever might have been his previous. opinions, or his cooler perceptions of its truth. But she appeared egotistical and exacting compared to Charlotte, who was always unselfish (this is M. Héger's testimony); and in the anxiety of the elder to make her younger sister contented, she allowed her to exercise a kind of unconscious tyranny over her.
After consulting with his wife, M. Héger told them that he meant to dispense with the old method of grounding in grammar, vocabulary, etc., and to proceed on a new plan - something similar to what he had occasionally adopted with the elder among his French and Belgian pupils. He proposed to read to them some of the masterpieces of the most celebrated French authors (such as Casimir de la Vigne's poem on the "Death of Joan of Arc," parts of Bossuet, the admirable translation of the noble letter of St. Ignatius to the Roman Christians in the Bibliothèque Choisie des Pères de l'Eglise, etc.), and after having thus impressed the complete effect of the whole, to analyse the parts with them, pointing out in what such or such an author excelled, and where were the blemishes. He believed that he had to do with pupils capable, from their ready sympathy with the intellectual, the refined, the polished, or the noble, of catching the echo of a style, and so reproducing their own thoughts in a somewhat similar manner.
After explaining his plan to them, he awaited their reply. Emily spoke first; and said that she saw no good to be derived from it; and that, by adopting it, they should lose all originality of thought and expression. She would have entered into an argument on the subject, but for this, M. Héger had no time. Charlotte then spoke; she also doubted the success of the plan; but she would follow out M. Héger's advice, because she was bound to obey him while she was his pupil. Before speaking of the results, it may be desirable to give an extract from one of her letters, which shows some of her first impressions of her new life.
"Brussels, 1842 (May?)
"I was twenty-six years old a week or two since; and at this ripe time of life I am a school-girl, and, on the whole, very happy in that capacity. It felt very strange at first to submit to authority instead of exercising it - to obey orders instead of giving them; but I like that state of things. I returned to it with the same avidity that a cow, that has long been kept on dry hay, returns to fresh grass. Don't laugh at my simile. It is natural to me to submit, and very unnatural to command.
"This is a large school, in which there are about forty externes, or day-pupils, and twelve pensionnaires, or boarders. Madame Héger, the head, is a lady of precisely the same cast of mind, degree of cultivation, and quality of intellect as Miss --. I think the severe points are a little softened, because she has not been disappointed, and consequently soured. In a word, she is a married instead of a maiden lady. There are three teachers in the school - Mademoiselle Blanche, Mademoiselle Sophie, and Mademoiselle Marie. The two first have no particular character. One is an old maid, and the other will be one. Mademoiselle Marie is talented and original, but of repulsive and arbitrary manners, which have made the whole school, except myself and Emily, her bitter enemies. No less than seven masters attend, to teach the different branches of education - French, Drawing, Music, Singing, Writing, Arithmetic, and German. All in the house are Catholics except ourselves, one other girl, and the gouvernante of Madame's children, an Englishwoman, in rank something between a lady's-maid and a nursery governess. The difference in country and religion makes a broad line of demarcation between us and all the rest. We are completely isolated in the midst of numbers. Yet I think I am never unhappy; my present life is so delightful, so congenial to my own nature, compared to that of a governess. My time, constantly occupied, passes too rapidly. Hitherto both Emily and I have had good health, and therefore we have been able to work well. There is one individual of whom I have not yet spoken - M. Héger, the husband of Madame. He is professor of rhetoric, a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperament. He is very angry with me just at present, because I have written a translation which he chose to stigmatise as 'peu correct.' He did not tell me so, but wrote the word on. the margin of my book, and asked, in brief stern phrase, how it happened that my compositions were always better than my translations? adding that the thing seemed to him inexplicable. The fact is, some weeks ago, in a high-flown humour, he forbade me to use either dictionary or grammar in translating the most difficult English compositions into French. This makes the task rather arduous, and compels me every now and then to introduce an English word, which nearly plucks the eyes out of his head when he sees it. Emily and he don't draw well together at all. Emily works like a horse, and she has had great difficulties to contend with - far greater than I have had. Indeed, those who come to a French school for instruction ought previously to have acquired a considerable knowledge of the French language, otherwise they will lose a great deal of time, for the course of instruction is adapted to natives and not to foreigners; and in these large establishments they will not change their ordinary course for one or two strangers. The few private lessons that M. Héger has vouchsafed to give us, are, I suppose, to be considered a great favour; and I can perceive they have already excited much spite and jealousy in the school.
"You will abuse this letter for being short and dreary, and there are a hundred things which I want to tell you, but I have not time. Brussels is a beautiful city. The Belgians hate the English. Their external morality is more rigid than ours. To lace the stays without a handkerchief on the neck is considered a disgusting piece of indelicacy."
The passage in this letter where M. Héger is represented as prohibiting the use of dictionary or grammar, refers, I imagine, to the time I have mentioned, when he determined to adopt a new method of instruction in the French language, of which they were to catch the spirit and rhythm rather from the ear and the heart, as its noblest accents fell upon them, than by over-careful and anxious study of its grammatical rules. It seems to me a daring experiment on the part of their teacher; but, doubtless, he knew his ground; and that it answered is evident in the composition of some of Charlotte's "dévoirs," written about this time. I am tempted, in illustration of this season of mental culture, to recur to a conversation which I had with M. Héger on the manner in which he formed his pupils' style, and to give a proof of his success, by copying a "dévoir" of Charlotte's, with his remarks upon it.
He told me that one day this summer (when the Brontës had been for about four months receiving instruction from him) he read to them Victor Hugo's celebrated portrait of Mirabeau, "mais, dans ma leçon je me bornais à ce qui concerne Mirabeau Orateur. C'est après l'analyse de ce morçeau, considéré surtout du point de vue du fond, de la disposition, de ce qu'on pourrait appeler la charpente qu'ont été faits les deux portraits que je vous donne." He went on to say that he had pointed out to them the fault In Victor Hugo's style as being exaggeration in conception, and, at the same time, he had made them notice the extreme beauty of his "nuances" of expression. They were then dismissed to choose the subject of a similar kind of portrait. This selection M. Héger always left to them; for "it is necessary," he observed, " before sitting down to write on a subject, to have thoughts and feelings about it. I cannot tell on what subject your heart and mind have been excited. I must leave that to you." The marginal comments, I need hardly say, are M. Héger's; the words in italics are Charlotte's, for which he substitutes a better form of expression, which is placed between brackets.
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