Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love
Translation Paul Vincent
The bells of the church of Saint-Michel and Sainte-Gudule strike twelve and you find yourself in the year 1842: a time when ladies’ taffeta dresses rustle, the streets are illuminated by gaslights, the seed of married men must not be spilt and penniless girls sell their long plaits. You will witness a love story; a forbidden romance. Piles of letters bound with yellowy ribbons bear testimony to this clandestine love, this passion which was illicit, but could not be simply extinguished. The story takes place in a kingdom so small and absurd that it is difficult to believe it does not exist purely in the imagination: Belgium. The name seems to come from a fable, but indeed Caesar mentioned the Belgians and wrote that they were the bravest of all the Gauls. However, this tiny country, a louse in the coat of Europe, is particularly fertile, with lush meadows and fat cows and geese so big you can scarcely lift them. Although most farmers and labourers have only just enough to eat to keep the flesh on their bones, the gentry are plump and sturdy and the ladies have luxuriant hips and breasts and oval, rosy faces. The good people of Belgium cannot all understand each other, since the king likes to express himself in German, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie speak French, the common people in the south of the country use a French patois and in the north they speak Flemish – a rich dialect of Dutch. So much Babylonian twittering brings confusion and disunity. If you come across a specimen of the repressed Flemish working class, note the strong but obstinately shrugged shoulders: the head thrust a little forward in an attitude of eternal suspicious attention, the eyebrows set in a frown above a look of silent rebellion. Belgium: where division reigns. And although it is a ridiculously small country, it has a capital that is growing at frightening speed: Brussels! A city with a heart of spacious squares and wide avenues that intersect at right angles, of palaces and mansions and a splendid park with shady walks – a worthy domicile for the rich and the bourgeoisie. From the edges of this heart wind the streets of the common people overripe with increasingly numerous damp alleyways. And through the canals of the city, between the houses of both noblemen and paupers a narrow river flows, muddy green in colour and stinking fearsomely.
But before you travel with the heroine of this story to the rampantly growing Brussels – by steamer across the North Sea and by stagecoach through the Flemish countryside – I shall give you one glimpse of her future there.
See how the young teacher wanders restlessly through the streets of Brussels. The day has been exhaustingly hot and darkness has still not fallen. She does not want to return to the boarding school yet. A booming of bells catches her attention. It is the hypnotic voice of the church of Saint-Michel and Sainte-Gudule calling the faithful to vespers. She does not know what possesses her, but she hurries towards it, along the rue de la Chancellerie and up the many white stone steps to the church. Next to the porch a beggar puts out his hand towards her and she gives him a coin, not for his salvation, but for hers. How cool it is in the church. A few women are sitting praying with rosary beads between their fingertips. She wished she could sink down onto the flagstones, but she goes and sits at the side to wait until evening prayers are over. In a deserted corner of the church, confessions are being heard. Confession! She is a sinner and she must tell her story. Someone must listen to her. A working-class woman approaches the confessional; she tidies her greasy hair by smoothing it against her skull and straightens her apron. Can the priest see her then? Isn’t confession anonymous?
She can still change her mind: she can go back to the streets where no one knows her. However, she remains seated and waits. The woman emerges from the confessional with the trace of a smile on her lips. She gets up, scarcely knowing what she is doing. The tradition is alien to her: how should she address the priest? She creeps into the confessional, lets the red velvet curtain fall behind her and is almost overpowered by the smell of incense, pipe tobacco and old sweat. Just enough light enters to be able to vaguely make out the face behind the wicker grille.
‘Mon père,’ she says and the blood rises to her head. ‘I have sinned.’
‘Are you a foreigner?’ asks the priest severely, obviously surprised by her accent.
She answers in the affirmative, and adds that she was brought up as a Protestant. He wants to know if she is still a Protestant and she nods, which he appears not to see, so she clears her throat and whispers: ‘Oui, mon père.’ He says that in that case she cannot confess. Tears well up in her eyes. If he dismisses her without letting her tell her story, she will be close to despair. She tells him this and begs him to listen to her.
‘Ma fille,’ says the priest tenderly, making her almost choke on her tears. ‘Confess and let this be your first step towards the true Church.’
She tells him everything, at a furious tempo. About the safe but oppressive life in her father’s house and how she escaped from it. How she thought she would be able to enjoy freedom in Brussels, but allowed herself to be shut up in a boarding school. The priest’s face comes closer to the grille: she feels his breath on her cheek.
‘Tell me what your sin is.’
And she tells him. She tells him everything.