In the shadow of the de Cleves-Ravenstein mansion, a flight of stone steps leads down to an inconspicuous cobbled alley where the Rue Terarken now ends. There, opposite an underground car park, the corners of three buildings form an abrupt wall. Beyond this, somewhere along the hill that slopes down from the Place Royale to the town centre, was the Pensionnat Héger where, for two years, Charlotte Brontë lived, taught and wrote. The school was demolished in 1910 and today a concrete office block stands in its place, beside a fifteenth-century sandstone edifice. Yet, from the environs of the old Rue Isabelle – formerly the site of kennels for ducal hounds – one can perhaps still conjure the shadowy scene that greeted the young Brontë when she arrived in Brussels in 1842.
Villette was Brontë’s last novel and the only one to be published under her real name. There are few English-language novels set in Belgium that don’t feature Great War battlefields, but Villette is one such exception, in which the urban landscape is no less haunting than the Yorkshire moors of her other novels. Brontë originally came to Brussels with her sister Emily to study languages at the Pensionnat Héger and stayed on as a teacher there. A decade later, the school would serve as a model for Madame Beck’s academy in the novel, a tale informed by Charlotte’s personal experiences of loneliness, cultural alienation and unrequited love. Although my own experiences as a newcomer to Brussels have been rather different (and happily so; I believe that some dislocation never did a writer any harm), I am intrigued and enchanted by Brontë’s casting of an unjustly maligned city. Today, the European Capital is alternately reviled and celebrated by its native and expatriate population – just as it is by her enigmatic heroine and narrator, Lucy Snowe.
Poor Lucy has long lived in the shadow of Jane Eyre (a character portrayed in over a dozen film and television adaptations, while Lucy has been brought to life only once, in a 1970 television series starring Judy Parfitt). In some ways, it is easy to see why. Brontë herself described Lucy as ‘morbid and weak’, exuding ‘external coldness’. She is an orphan who withholds any information about her family; she is more caustic, cynical and bitter than Jane, and her story is shaped by severe bouts of depression. Having briefly lived with her godmother Mrs Bretton, she describes with the detached air of a marginalized observer the charming early relationship between Graham Bretton and Polly Home, a young ward in their charge. Even the relative happiness of this period is recalled with a bittersweet angst and the brooding undertones only increase when the children are separated and Lucy embarks, alone, to the Continent.
Both Graham and Polly will resurface later in the novel, but not before Lucy has established herself as a teacher at a pensionnat in the town of Villette in Labassecour (literally, ‘The Farmyard’, a thinly disguised Belgium). Lucy’s ambivalence toward the snooping proprietress, Madame Beck, is difficult to understand, as is her almost complete lack of affection for her Labassecourian students, whom she describes as ‘rondes, franches, brusques, et tant soit peu rebelles’, ‘mutineers’, and ‘a stiff-necked tribe’. But I can share Lucy’s disdain for their ‘sullying the shield of Britannia, and dabbling the union-jack in mud’. How many times since reading Villette have I been tempted to unleash Lucy’s patriotic response upon sullen shop attendants who smirk at my own rusty Québecois? ‘A bas la France, la Fiction et les Faquins!’
Villette is itself an anti-hero against which Brontë launches all manner of complaints, some of which are easier to comprehend than others. Having only recently emerged from the havoc wreaked by an invasion of local workmen – one of whom managed to drill through the television cable that an obfuscating electrician had taken two weeks to install – I could well appreciate Lucy’s exasperated claim that ‘it would take two Labassecourien carpenters to drive a nail’. Brontë, whose father was a Church of England clergyman, is even more scathing toward Villette’s gothic Catholicism. After searching fruitlessly for a Protestant church, Lucy is driven by illness and desperation to take Confession; yet she continues to insist that ‘the more I saw of Popery, the closer I clung to Protestantism’. Of her friend and colleague Monsieur Paul, she believes ‘All Rome could not put into him bigotry…He was born honest, and not false… a freeman, and not a slave.’
The use of the word ‘slave’ is notable. Brontë often uses imperial stereotypes of coloniser and savage to reflect the dichotomy between Protestant and Catholic. Empire and race feature even more prominently than in Jane Eyre, with characters racialised to reflect their personalities. Hence, we learn of Monsieur Paul’s “Spanish blood” only after he falls from favour, when Lucy intensifies her descriptions of his Latin swarthiness. The spiritual ‘other’ that haunts Lucy in the form of a ghostly nun is mirrored by the colonial ‘otherness’ of a West Indian Estate where one character will make his fortune. The fact that the first edition was published in both London and Bombay also reveals the extent of an Empire ever present in Brontë’s work. Moreover, the events of the novel predate the 1830 Emancipation Act, which suggests that Lucy’s ultimate reward of independence (bought for her by a friend whose identity I shall not disclose) is built on finances derived from slave labour.
Who knows what effect such knowledge might have had on Lucy’s already vulnerable emotional state? As one who fears heartbreak more than solitude, her conflicting affections for the adult Graham Bretton (based on Brontë’s publisher, George Smith) and the crusty schoolmaster Monsieur Paul signal an all-consuming personal crisis. Brontë’s observations on unrequited love are even more finely captured than in Jane Eyre; I know of few lines more poignant and evocative than Lucy’s bittersweet farewell to her first love: ‘Good night, Dr. John. You are good, you are beautiful, but you are not mine. Good night and God bless you.’
Thackeray’s dismissal of Lucy’s predicament as ‘rather vulgar’, since ‘I don’t make my good women ready to fall in love with two men at once’ merely denies the messiness and sometime inconvenience of love. Refusing to be comforted, Lucy tends her alley garden (another pastime we share in common; although so far I’ve only managed to cultivate an unwelcome mushroom patch) and waits for diversions to arrive through the post. She responds to Graham’s encouragements to cheer up with the rather dour reply that ‘No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness…Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven.’ Little surprise, then, that Lucy recognizes in the ‘nervous, melancholy’ figure of the King (presumably Leopold of Saxe-Coburg), a fellow sufferer of what was then known as ‘hypochondria’ but today would be recognized as depression.
Brontë’s intended conclusion to Villette was no less melancholy. Although her publisher convinced her to replace it with a happier ending, there remains an ambiguity that seems only fitting. Yet although Lucy faces an uncertain future in Belgium, Brontë’s descriptions of the city remain infectiously vivid to the end. I live very close to the city park described in the fête scene: ‘A region, not of trees and shadow, but of strangest architectural wealth – of altar and of temple, of pyramid, obelisk, and sphinx’ – what a pity English parks lack such statuary – ‘incredible to say, the wonders and the symbols of Egypt teemed throughout the park of Villette’. I recently stumbled upon a scene which would have appealed to Brontë’s eye for cross-cultural interactions: under the gaze of a watchful Sphinx, a group of Indians were struggling to teach some Belgian children the game of cricket.
Brussels’ most enduring attraction, the Grand’Place, inspires a glowing account towards the end of the novel. ‘Villette is one blaze, one broad illumination; the whole world seems abroad; moonlight and heaven are banished: the town, by her own flambeaux, beholds her own splendour.’ No better description could have been applied to the spectacle that we enjoyed this past Christmas, as the fifteenth-century town hall was illuminated by a dazzling light show accompanied by a children’s choir. How different Lucy’s outlook on the city might have been, had she the opportunity to arm herself with some fruit beer and a suikerwafel and join the delightful revelry.