Book review: Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing

In February 1842 Charlotte Brontë, with younger sister Emily in tow, set off to Brussels to study languages… it was a trip that would help to shape their literary careers and give Charlotte her first taste of romance.

Their charismatic teacher, Constantin Heger, recognised the sisters’ talents and encouraged them to hone their writing skills… but the married father-of-three also unwittingly induced 25-year-old Charlotte to fall headlong in love with him.

And what made the situation more complex was that Constantin’s wife Claire was the owner of the language school.

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Those strange, difficult but heady months at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels are brought to life in a beautifully observed and compelling novel from Jolien Janzing, a Dutch author and connoisseur of 19th century English literature who lives in Belgium.

In a superb translation by Paul Vincent, Janzing recaptures this little-known and intriguing chapter in Charlotte Brontë’s life and her secret love affair with the man who would inspire her to write The Professor, Villette and Jane Eyre.

Taking us deep into the heart and mind of one of England’s best-loved novelists, Janzing explores the people, the emotions and the experiences that would form the bedrock of both the woman and the writer.

Determined to escape the safe but oppressive confines of her widowed father’s parsonage in Haworth, Charlotte Brontë persuades her younger sister Emily to accompany her to Brussels to learn French and German so that they might one day open their own school.

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Accompanied by their father, they make the long journey to Belgium, crossing the Channel on the Ostend packet and travelling by coach to the Hegers’ boarding school in the Rue d’Isabelle in Brussels.

Charlotte dreams secretly that she might never return to Yorkshire but never once considers how profoundly her stay in this strange new city of spacious squares, wide avenues and the rich bourgeoisie will change her life forever.

This Catholic yet worldly capital, where different morals and customs apply, comes as quite a culture shock to the decidedly unworldly Brontë sisters. Emily, a ‘complex soul,’ remains stubborn, awkward and reticent, and finds it difficult to make friends with strangers.

For Charlotte, Belgium is her ‘Promised Land’ and she is determined to live for the moment and learn all she can from her gifted and respected teacher Constantin Heger. What she hadn’t reckoned on was falling in love with him.

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And with his wife Claire owning and running the establishment, her passion for Constantin has the potential to end in disaster…

Using the parallel, cameo story of Arcadie Claret, the teenage girl who became the long-time mistress of King Leopold I of the Belgians, Janzing contrasts the beautiful but spoilt Arcadie – whose life was determined by the ambitions of her mother – with the motherless Brontë sisters who became famous for their literary achievements.

Imagination and knowledge are harnessed with impeccable precision to weave an extraordinarily insightful and credible story packed with wisdom and empathy, and offering a dazzling portrait of two geniuses in the making.

A captivating encounter with the remarkable Brontës…

(World Editions, paperback, £9.99)