Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 7

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Emily Brontë  (1883)  by A. Mary F. Robinson
Chapter VII. In the Rue d'Isabelle.



The Rue d'Isabelle had a character of its own. It lies below your feet as you stand in the Rue Royale, near the statue of General Béliard. Four flights of steps lead down to the street, half garden, half old houses, with at one end a large square mansion, owning the garden that runs behind it and to the right of it. The house is old; a Latin inscription shows it to have been given to the great Guild of Cross-bowmen by Queen Isabelle in the early years of the 17th century. The garden is older; long before the Guild of the Crossbowmen of the Great Oath, in deference to the wish of Queen Isabelle, permitted the street to be made through it, the garden had been their exercising place. There Isabelle herself, a member of their order, had shot down the bird. But the garden had a yet more ancient past; when apple-trees, pear-trees and alleys of Bruges cherries, when plots of marjoram and mint, of thyme and sweet-basil, filled the orchard and herbary of the Hospital of the Poor. And the garden itself, before trees or flowers were planted, had resounded with the yelp of the Duke's hounds, when, in the thirteenth century, it had been the Fosse-aux-chiens. This historic garden, this mansion, built by a queen for a great order, belonged in 1842 to Monsieur and Madame Héger, and was a famous Pensionnat de Demoiselles.

There the Vicar of Haworth brought his two daughters one February day, spent one night in Brussels and went straight back to his old house on the moors, so modern in comparison with the mansion in Rue d'Isabelle. A change, indeed, for Emily and Charlotte. Even now, Brussels (the headquarters of Catholicism far more than modern Rome) has a taste for pageantry that recalls mediæval days. The streets decked with boughs and strewn with flowers, through which pass slowly the processions of the Church, white-clad children, boys like angels scattering roses, standard-bearers with emblazoned banners. Surpliced choristers singing Latin praises, acolytes in scarlet swinging censers, reliquaries and images, before which the people fall down in prayer; all this to-day is no uncommon sight in Brussels, and must have been yet more frequent in 1842.

The flower-market out of doors, with clove-pinks, tall Mary-lilies and delicate roses d'amour, filling the quaint mediæval square before the beautiful old façade of the Hôtel de Ville. Ste.-Gudule with its spires and arches; the Montagne de la Cour (almost as steep as Haworth street), its windows ablaze at night with jewels; the little, lovely park, its great elms just coming into leaf, its statues just bursting from their winter sheaths of straw; the galleries of ancient pictures, their walls a sober glory of colours, blues, deep as a summer night, rich reds, brown golds, most vivid greens.

All this should have made an impression on the two home-keeping girls from Yorkshire; and Charlotte, indeed, perceived something of its beauty and strangeness. But Emily, from a bitter sense of exile, from a natural narrowness of spirit, rebelled against it all as an insult to the memory of her home—she longed, hopelessly, uselessly, for Haworth. The two Brontës were very different to the Belgian school-girls in Madame Héger's Pensionnat. They were, for one thing, ridiculously old to be at school—twenty-four and twenty-six—and they seemed to feel their position; their speech was strained and odd; all the "sceptical, wicked, immoral French novels, over forty of them, the best substitute for French conversation to be met with," which the girls had toiled through with so much singleness of spirit, had not cured the broadness of their accent nor the artificial idioms of their Yorkshire French. Monsieur Héger, indeed, considered that they knew no French at all. Their manners, even among English people, were stiff and prim; the hearty, vulgar, genial expansion of their Belgian schoolfellows must have made them seem as lifeless as marionettes. Their dress—Haworth had permitted itself to wonder at the uncouthness of those amazing leg-of-mutton sleeves (Emily's pet whim in and out of fashion), at the ill-cut lankness of those skirts, clumsy enough on round little Charlotte, but a very caricature of mediævalism on Emily's tall, thin, slender figure. They knew they were not in their element and kept close together, rarely speaking. Yet Monsieur Héger, patiently watching, felt the presence of a strange power under those uncouth exteriors.

An odd little man of much penetration, this French schoolmaster. "Homme de zèle et de conscience, il possede à un haut degré l'éloquence du bon sens et du cœur." Fierce and despotic in the exaction of obedience, yet tender of heart, magnanimous and tyrannical, absurdly vain and absolutely unselfish. His wife's school was a kingdom to him; he brought to it an energy, a zeal, a faculty of administration worthy to rule a kingdom. It was with the delight of a botanist discovering a rare plant in his garden, of a politician detecting a future statesman in his nursery, that he perceived the unusual faculty which lifted his two English pupils above their schoolfellows. He watched them silently for some weeks. When he had made quite sure, he came forwards and, so to speak, claimed them for his own.

Charlotte at once accepted the yoke. All that he set tier to do she toiled to accomplish; she followed out his trains of thought; she adopted the style he recommended; she gave him in return for all his pains the most unflagging obedience, the affectionate comprehension of a large intelligence. She writes to Ellen of her delight in learning and serving: "It is very natural to me to submit, very unnatural to command."

Not so with Emily. The qualities which her sister understood and accepted, irritated her unspeakably. The masterfulness in little things, the irritability, the watchfulness of the fiery little professor of rhetoric were utterly distasteful to her. She contradicted his theories to his face; she did her lessons well, but as she chose to do them. She was as indomitable, fierce, unappeasable, as Charlotte was ready and submissive. And yet it was Emily who had the larger share of Monsieur Héger's admiration. Egotistic and exacting he thought her, who never yielded to his petulant, harmless egoism, who never gave way to his benevolent tyranny; but he gave her credit for logical powers, for a capacity for argument unusual in a man, and rare, indeed, in a woman. She, not Charlotte, was the genius in his eyes, although he complained that her stubborn will rendered her deaf to all reason, when her own determination, or her own sense of right, was concerned. He fancied she might be a great historian, so he told Mrs. Gaskell. "Her faculty of imagination was such, her views 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 perception of the truth. She should have been a man: a great navigator!" cried the little, dark, enthusiastic rhetorician. "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!"

Yet they were never friends; though Monsieur Héger could speak so well of Emily at a time, be it remembered, when it was Charlotte's praises that were sought, when Emily's genius was set down as a lunatic's hobgoblin of nightmare potency. He and she were alike too imperious, too independent, too stubborn. A couple of swords, neither of which could serve to sheathe the other.

That time in Brussels was wasted upon Emily. The trivial characters which Charlotte made immortal merely annoyed her. The new impressions which gave another scope to Charlotte's vision were nothing to her. All that was grand, remarkable, passionate, under the surface of that conventional Pensionnat de Demoiselles, was invisible to Emily. Notwithstanding her genius she was very hard and narrow.

Poor girl, she was sick for home. It was all nothing to her, less than a dream, this place she lived in. Charlotte's engrossment in her new life, her eagerness to please her master, was a contemptible weakness to this embittered heart. She would laugh when she found her elder sister trying to arrange her homely gowns in the French taste, and stalk silently through the large schoolrooms with a fierce satisfaction in her own ugly sleeves, in the Haworth cut of her skirts. She seldom spoke a word to any one; only sometimes she would argue with Monsieur Héger, perhaps secretly glad to have the chance of shocking Charlotte. If they went out to tea, she would sit still on her chair, answering "Yes" and "No;" inert, miserable, with a heart full of tears. When her work was done she would walk in the Cross-bowmen's ancient garden, under the trees, leaning on her shorter sister's arm, pale, silent—a tall, stooping figure. Often she said nothing at all. Charlotte, also, was very profitably speechless; under her eyes 'Villette' was taking shape. But Emily did not think of Brussels. She was dreaming of Haworth.

One poem that she wrote at this time may appro- priately be quoted here. It was, Charlotte tells us, "composed at twilight, in the schoolroom, when the leisure of the evening play-hour brought back, in full tide, the thoughts of home:"

"A little while, a little while,
The weary task is put away,
And I can sing and I can smile
Alike, while I have holiday.

Where wilt thou go, my harassed heart—
What thought, what scene invites thee now?
What spot, or near or far apart,
Has rest for thee, my weary brow?

"There is a spot mid barren hills,
Where winter howls and driving rain;
But, if the dreary tempest chills,
There is a light that warms again.

"The house is old, the trees are bare,
Moonless above bends twilight's dome,
But what on earth is half so dear—
So longed for—as the hearth of home?

"The mute bird sitting on the stone,
The dark moss dripping from the wall,
The thorn-tree gaunt, the walks o'ergrown,
I love them; how I love them all!

"And, as I mused, the naked room,
The alien fire-light died away;
And from the midst of cheerless gloom
I passed to bright, unclouded day.

"A little and a lone green lane,
That opened on a common wide;
A distant, dreary, dim, blue chain
Of mountains circling every side:

"A heaven so dear, an earth so calm,
So sweet, so soft, so hushed an air;
And—deepening still the dream-like charm—
Wild moor-sheep feeding everywhere.

"That was the scene, I knew it well;
I knew the turfy pathway's sweep,
That, winding o'er each billowy swell,
Marked out the tracks of wandering sheep.

"Could I have lingered but an hour,
It well had paid a week of toil;
But truth has banished fancy's power,
Restraint and heavy task recoil.

"Even as I stood with raptured eye,
Absorbed in bliss so deep and dear,
My hour of rest had fleeted by,
And back came labour, bondage, care."

Charlotte meanwhile writes in good, even in high spirits to her friend: "I think I am never unhappy, my present life is so delightful, so congenial, 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—Monsieur Héger, the husband of Madame. He is professor of rhetoric—a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable as to temperament—a little, black, ugly being, with a face that varies in expression; sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane torn cat, sometimes those of a delirious hyena, occasionally—but very seldom—he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air not a hundred times removed from what you would call mild and gentlemanlike. 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 words 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 reader will already have recognised in the black, ugly, choleric little professor of rhetoric, the one absolutely natural hero of a woman's novel, the beloved and whimsical figure of the immortal Monsieur Paul Emanuel. "He and Emily," adds Charlotte, "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."

Emily did indeed work hard. She was there to work, and not till she had learned a certain amount would her conscience permit her to return to Haworth. It was for dear liberty that she worked. She began German, a favourite study in after years, and of some purpose, since the style of Hofmann left its impression on the author of 'Wuthering Heights.' She worked hard at music; and in half a year the stumbling schoolgirl became a brilliant and proficient musician. Her playing is said to have been singularly accurate, vivid, and full of fire. French too, both in grammar and in literature, was a constant study.

Monsieur Héger recognised the fact that in dealing with the Brontës he had not to make the customary allowances for a schoolgirl's undeveloped inexperience. These were women of mature and remarkable intelligence. The method he adopted in teaching them was rather that of a University professor than such as usually is used in a pensionnat. He would choose some masterpiece of French style, some passage of eloquence or portraiture, read it to them with a brief lecture on its distinctive qualities, pointing out what was exaggerated, what apt, what false, what subtle in the author's conception or his mode of expressing it. They were then dismissed to make a similar composition, without the aid of grammar or dictionary, availing themselves as far as possible of the nuances of style and the peculiarities of method of the writer chosen as the model of the hour. In this way the girls became intimately acquainted with the literary technique of the best French masters. To Charlotte the lessons were of incalculable value, perfecting in her that clear and accurate style which makes her best work never wearisome, never old-fashioned. But the very thought of imitating any one, especially of imitating any French writer, was repulsive to Emily, "rustic all through, moorish, wild and knotty as a root of heath."[1] When Monsieur Héger had explained his plan to them, "Emily spoke first; and said that she saw no good to be derived from it; and that by adopting it they would lose all originality of thought and expression. She would have entered into an argument on the subject, but for this Monsieur Héger had no time. Charlotte then spoke; she also doubted the success of the plan; but she would follow out Monsieur Héger's advice, because she was bound to obey him while she was his pupil."[2] Charlotte soon found a keen enjoyment in this species of literary composition, yet Emily's devoir was the best. They are, alas, no longer to be seen, no longer in the keeping of so courteous and proud a guardian as Mrs. Gaskell had to deal with; but she and Monsieur Héger both have expressed their opinions that in genius, imagination, power and force of language, Emily was the superior of the two sisters.

So great was the personality of this energetic, silent, brooding, ill-dressed young Englishwoman, that all who knew her recognised in her the genius they were slow to perceive in her more sociable and vehement sister. Madame Héger, the worldly, cold-mannered, surveillante of Villette, avowed the singular force of a nature most antipathetic to her own. Yet Emily had no companions; the only person of whom we hear, in even the most negative terms of friendliness, is one of the teachers, a certain Mademoiselle Marie, "talented and original, but of repulsive and arbitrary manners, which have made the whole school, except Emily and myself, her bitter enemies." No less arbitrary and repulsive seemed poor Emily herself, a sprig of purple heath at discord with those bright, smooth geraniums and lobelias; Emily, of whom every surviving friend extols the never-failing, quiet unselfishness, the genial spirit ready to help, the timid but faithful affection. She was so completely hors de son assiette that even her virtues were misplaced.

There was always one thing she could do, one thing as natural as breath to Emily—determined labour. In that merciful engrossment she could forget her homesick weariness and the jarring strangeness of things; every lesson conquered was another step taken on the long road home. And the days allowed ample space for work, although it was supported upon a somewhat slender diet.

Counting boarders and externes, Madame Héger's school numbered over a hundred pupils. These were divided into three classes; the second, in which the Brontës were, containing sixty students. In the last row, side by side, absorbed and quiet, sat Emily and Charlotte. Soon after rising, the pensionnaires were given their light Belgian breakfast of coffee and rolls. Then from nine to twelve they studied. Three mistresses and seven professors were engaged to take the different classes. At twelve a lunch of bread and fruit; then a turn in the green alley, Charlotte and Emily always walking together. From one till two fancy-work; from two till four, lessons again. Then dinner: the one solid meal of the day. From five till six the hour was free, Emily's musing-hour. From six till seven the terrible lecture pieuse, hateful to the Brontës' Protestant spirit. At eight a supper of rolls and water; then prayers, and to bed.

The room they slept in was a long school-dormitory. After all they could not get the luxury, so much desired, of a separate room. But their two beds were alone together at the further end, veiled in white curtains; discreet and retired as themselves. Here, after the day's hard work, they slept. In sleep, one is no longer an exile.

But often Emily did not sleep. The old well-known pain, wakefulness, longing, was again beginning to relax her very heartstrings. "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."[3]

But not yet, not yet, this happiness! The opportunity that had been so hardly won must not be thrown away before the utmost had been made of it. And she was not utterly alone. Charlotte was there. The success that she had in her work must have helped a little to make her foreign home tolerable to her. Soon she knew enough of music to give lessons to the younger pupils. Then German, costing her and Charlotte an extra ten francs the month, as also much severe study and struggle. Charlotte writes in the summer: "Emily is making rapid progress in French, German, music and drawing. Monsieur and Madame Héger begin to recognise the valuable parts of her character under her singularities."

It was doubtful, even, whether they would come home in September. Madame Héger made a proposal to her two English pupils for them to stay on, without paying, but without salary, for half a year. She would dismiss her English teacher, whose place Charlotte would take. Emily was to teach music to the younger pupils. The proposal was kind and would be of advantage to the sisters.

Charlotte declared herself inclined to accept it. "I have been happy in Brussels," she averred. And Emily, though she, indeed, was not happy, acknowledged the benefit to be derived from a longer term of study. Six months, after all, was rather short to gain a thorough knowledge of French, with Italian and German, when you add to these acquirements music and drawing, which Emily worked at with a will. Besides, she could not fail again, could not go back to Haworth leaving Charlotte behind; neither could she spoil Charlotte's future by persuading her to reject Madame Héger's terms. So both sisters agreed to stay in Brussels. They were not utterly friendless there; two Miss Taylors, schoolfellows and dear friends of Charlotte's, were at school at the Château de Kokleberg, just outside the barriers. Readers of 'Shirley' know them as Rose and Jessie Yorke. The Brontës met them often, nearly every week, at some cousins of the Taylors, who lived in the town. But this diversion, pleasant to Charlotte, was merely an added annoyance to Emily. She would sit stiff and silent, unable to say a word, longing to be somewhere at her ease. Mrs. Jenkins, too, had begun with asking them to spend their Sundays with her; but Emily never said a word, and Charlotte, though sometimes she got excited and spoke well and vehemently, never ventured on an opinion till she had gradually wheeled round in her chair with her back to the person she addressed. They were so shy, so rustic, Mrs. Jenkins gave over inviting them, feeling that they did not like to refuse, and found it no pleasure to come. Charlotte, indeed, still had the Taylors, their cousins, and the family of a doctor living in the town, whose daughter was a pupil and friend of hers. Charlotte, too, had Madame Héger and her admired professor of rhetoric; but Emily had no friend except her sister.

Nevertheless it was settled they should stay. The grandes vacances began on the I5th of August, and, as the journey to Yorkshire cost so much, and as they were anxious to work, the Brontë girls spent their holidays in Rue d'Isabelle. Besides themselves only six or eight boarders remained. All their friends were away holiday-making; but they worked hard, preparing their lessons for the masters who, holidayless as they, had stayed behind in white, dusty, blazing, airless Brussels, to give lectures to the scanty class at Madame Héger's pensionnat.

So the dreary six weeks passed away. In October the term began again, the pupils came back, new pupils were admitted, Monsieur Héger was more gesticulatory, vehement, commanding than usual, and Madame, in her quiet way, was no less occupied. Life and youth filled the empty rooms. The Brontë girls, sad enough indeed, for their friend Martha Taylor had died suddenly at the Château de Kokleberg, were, notwithstanding, able to feel themselves in a more natural position for women of their age. Charlotte, henceforth, by Monsieur Héger's orders, "Mademoiselle Charlotte," was the new English teacher; Emily the assistant music-mistress. But, in the middle of October, in the first flush of their employment, came a sudden recall to Haworth. Miss Branwell was very ill. Immediately the two girls, who owed so much to her, who, but for her bounty, could never have been so far away in time of need, decided to go home. They broke their determination to Monsieur and Madame Héger, who, sufficiently generous to place the girls' duty before their own convenience, upheld them in their course. They hastily packed up their things, took places via Antwerp to London, and prepared to start. At the last moment, the trunks packed, in the early morning the postman came. He brought another letter from Haworth. Their aunt was dead.

So much the greater need that they should hasten home. Their father, left without his companion of twenty years, to keep his house, to read to him at night, to discuss with him on equal terms, their father would be lonely and distressed. Henceforth one of his daughters must stay with him. Anne was in an excellent situation; must they ask her to give it up? And what now of the school, the school at Burlington? There was much to take counsel over and consider; they must hurry home. So, knowing the worst, their future hanging out of shape and loose before their eyes, they set out on their dreary journey knowing not whether or when they might return.

  1. C. Brontë.
  2. Mrs. Gaskell.
  3. C. Brontë. Memoir of her sisters.