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To commemorate 200 years of Charlotte Brontë we dip into Helen MacEwan’s fascinating study of Charlotte Brontë’s time in Brussels, a period that had a marked influence on her later writing.


 

THE BRONTËS IN BRUSSELS

Helen MacEwan

 

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None of the men Charlotte Brontë had encountered in her limited social circle had come close to Constantin Heger. Was she aware of anything wrong in what she felt for this married man, her employer’s husband? We must look for clues to her emotions in the letters she wrote to him after leaving Brussels, in Villette – while remembering that it is fiction and not autobiography – and in an experience she had in the lonely summer of her lonely second year.

One day in that summer, when her mood was at its lowest, she had an odd impulse that furnished her with one of the most memorable scenes in Villette and was one of the most extraordinary in her life.

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THE CONFESSION AT ST GUDULE’S

 

In a few days our vacations will begin – everybody is joyous and animated at the prospect because everybody is to go home – I know that I am to stay here during the 5 weeks that the holidays last and that I shall be much alone and consequently get downcast and find both days and nights of a weary length – it is the first time in my life that I have really dreaded the vacation.
(Letter to Ellen Nussey, 6 August 1843)
At first I lacked courage to venture very far from the Rue Fossette, but by degrees I sought the city gates, and passed them, and then went wandering away far along chaussées, through fields, beyond cemeteries, Catholic and Protestant, beyond farmsteads, to lanes and little woods, and I know not where. A goad thrust me on, a fever forbade me to rest; a want of companionship maintained in my soul the cravings of a most deadly famine. I often walked all day, through the burning noon and the arid afternoon, and the dusk evening, and came back with moonrise.
(Villette, Chapter 15)
‘I, daughter, am Père Silas; that unworthy son of Holy Church whom you once honoured with a noble and touching confidence, showing me the core of a heart, and the inner shrine of a mind whereof, in solemn truth, I coveted the direction, in behalf of the only true faith. Nor have I for a day lost sight of you, nor for an hour failed to take in you a rooted interest. Passed under the discipline of Rome, moulded by her high training, inoculated with her salutary doctrines, inspired by the zeal she alone gives – I realize what then might be your spiritual rank, your practical value; and I envy Heresy her prey.’
(Villette, Chapter 34. At Mme Walravens’ house Lucy runs into Père Silas, the priest who heard her confession. His words show that he has not forgotten her!)
At the same time allow me to tell you that there are some Catholics – who are as good as any Christians can be to whom the bible is a sealed book and much better than scores of Protestants.
(Letter to Ellen Nussey, July 1842)
St Gudule. Legend has it that Gudule was a count’s daughter who was born in the seventh century in Moorsel, a village in East Flanders. As a young woman she dedicated herself to God, led an austere life of prayer and gave generously to the poor. Before dawn each morning she would go to church from her father’s castle at some distance from the village. The devil tried to blow out her lantern, and an angel was sent to light it again. She is usually depicted carrying a lamp.

St Gudule. Legend has it that Gudule was a count’s daughter who was born in the seventh century in Moorsel, a village in East Flanders. As a young woman she dedicated herself to God, led an austere life of prayer and gave generously to the poor. Before dawn each morning she would go to church from her father’s castle at some distance from the village. The devil tried to blow out her lantern, and an angel was sent to light it again. She is usually depicted carrying a lamp.

As we have seen, the Gothic Church of St Gudule was important in the history of Rue d’Isabelle, since the street’s raison d’être was to provide the royal household with a route to it. And it was a church that came to be important in Charlotte’s history, too.

From the Pensionnat garden she could hear its bells, but of course she worshipped not at the Catholic St Gudule but at the Protestant chapel in Place du Musée. Until 1 September 1843 she could never have imagined that she, a staunch Protestant and the daughter of a Protestant clergyman, would ever enter this Catholic church as anything other than a tourist. Her frequent references to Catholicism while abroad had been anything but complimentary. To cite one example in a letter to Ellen Nussey the previous summer:

My advice to all Protestants who are tempted to do anything so besotted as turn Catholic – is to walk over the sea on to the Continent – to attend mass sedulously for a time – to note well the mummeries thereof – also the idiotic, mercenary, aspect of all the priests – and then if they are still disposed to consider Papistry in any other light than a most feeble, childish piece of humbug let them turn Papist at once that’s all – I consider Methodism, Quakerism, and the extremes of High and Low Churchism foolish but Roman Catholicism beats them all.
(Letter to Ellen Nussey, July 1842)

On that first day of September 1843 Charlotte had been practically alone at the Pensionnat – alone in Brussels, in fact – since the school broke up for the summer holidays on 15 August. The other pupils and teachers were on holiday with their families. The Hegers were in Blankenberge, today still a popular Belgian seaside resort.

Why did she not go home for the holidays? Aunt Branwell had left the three sisters some money, and she could surely have afforded the expense. Was she paralysed by inertia and depression, perhaps by reluctance to leave a place associated with M. Heger? Whatever the reason, she stayed on in the school, seeking an escape from its empty classrooms by walking all day in the streets and boulevards of Brussels and the roads leading into the countryside.

One day, after a trek to the Protestant cemetery and the fields beyond, she could not face returning to the deserted Pensionnat. To put off the evil hour she walked around for some time in the streets near the school.

She found herself in front of St Gudule’s. The bell was tolling for the evening service. After hesitating for a moment she went slowly up the steps. We know exactly what happened next because we have her account in a letter to Emily written the next day (as well as the rather different version given by Lucy Snowe in Villette). She stayed for the service, and when it was over she still felt she could not face going back to the school:

An odd whim came into my head. In a solitary part of the Cathedral six or seven people still remained kneeling by the confessionals. In two confessionals I saw a priest. I felt as if I did not care what I did, provided it was not absolutely wrong, and that it served to vary my life and yield a moment’s interest. I took a fancy to change myself into a Catholic and go and make a real confession to see what it was like. Knowing me as you do, you will think this odd, but when people are by themselves they have singular fancies. A penitent was occupied in confessing. They do not go into the sort of pew or cloister which the priest occupies, but kneel down on the steps and confess through a grating. Both the confessor and the penitent whisper very low, you can hardly hear their voices. After I had watched two or three penitents go and return I approached at last and knelt down in a niche which was just vacated. I had to kneel there ten minutes waiting, for on the other side was another penitent invisible to me. At last that went away and a little wooden door inside the grating opened, and I saw the priest leaning his ear towards me. I was obliged to begin, and yet I did not know a word of the formula with which they always commence their confessions. It was a funny position. I felt precisely as I did when alone on the Thames at midnight. I commenced with saying I was a foreigner and had been brought up a Protestant. The priest asked if I was a Protestant then. I somehow could not tell a lie and said ‘yes’. He replied that in that case I could not ‘jouir du bonheur de la confesse’; but I was determined to confess, and at last he said he would allow me because it might be the first step towards returning to the true church. I actually did confess – a real confession. When I had done he told me his address, and said that every morning I was to go to the rue du Parc – to his house – and he would reason with me and try to convince me of the error and enormity of being a Protestant!!! I promised faithfully to go. Of course, however, the adventure stops there, and I hope I shall never see the priest again. I think you had better not tell papa of this. He will not understand that it was only a freak, and will perhaps think I am going to turn Catholic.
(Letter to Emily Brontë, 2 September 1843)

What we do not know, of course, is what she confessed. Years before, in her first teaching post when she was just out of her teens, she had gone through a similar period of depression and had told her friend Ellen that she had dark thoughts she could not confess to anyone. They related to the desires that found expression in her lurid juvenile love stories dominated by excitingly saturnine Byronic heroes.

In Villette Lucy tells Graham Bretton that what she confessed to Père Silas, the priest, was not any specific wrongdoing but merely a ‘dreary, desperate complaint’. She was depressed and just needed to talk to someone. But even if Charlotte had no specific sin on her conscience, in view of the tortured letters she later wrote to Heger it seems likely her confession was prompted by more than just a wish for human contact and some variety in the monotony of her life. Whatever she actually told the priest, we can be fairly sure that her feelings for Heger had something to do with the depression that drove her to the confessional. Was she tormented by the kind of desires she had once hinted at to Ellen? If so, did she hint at them to the priest?

According to one tradition, the confessional at which Charlotte Brontë knelt is the second one on the left. We can go into the Cathedral and stand for a moment musing on what led her there and what she may have said. That kindly priest may have been the only person – unless she at any time made a confession to Emily or Ellen Nussey or Mary Taylor – to hear from her own lips what Frederika MacDonald, writing in 1914, was to call ‘the secret of Charlotte Brontë’: the real nature of her feelings for Constantin Heger.


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