On June 6, 1913, Constantin Heger's son, Dr Paul Heger offered to the British Museum the letters that Charlotte Brontë had sent to his father in a, with hindsight, unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the rumours and speculations about their relationship that had been spreading among critics and biographers (with authors like Frederika MacDonald referring to her 'strong and enthusiastic attachment to her master in literature'(1)). Needless to say, the publication of the letters in The Times on July 29, had exactly the opposite effect, triggering different publications which tried to discover the true nature of the Heger-Brontë relationship(2).
Central as it is to the Brontë Brussels experience, the Brontë-Heger affair is not the only remarkable thing about the Brontës' days in Brussels. The Belgian capital marked a before and after in the way Charlotte Brontë focused her ambitions both personal and professional. The influence on Emily, though, is scarcely noticeable. Even her devoirs(3) doesn't show evident signs of evolution under M. Heger's guidance who, as many biographers relate, nevertheless was able to perceive her idiosyncratic genius.
In recent years several monographies about the Brussels days have appeared(4) but fiction has just explored Brussels in passing. Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow or Syrie James's The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, for example, mention the well-known Heger-Brontë relation but not as a central element of Charlotte's inner bildungsroman. Therefore, when Jolien Janzing published for the first time De Meester in 2013 in Dutch, it was more or less a virgin territory. A few years later her novel has been translated into English, French, German... and its film rights have already been sold.
Jolien Janzing's Charlotte Brontë's Secret Love (the unimaginative English title of the much more adequate The Master) covers exclusively (except for a brief chapter in Haworth serving as transition between Charlotte's two trips to Brussels and an even briefer epilogue, after returning for good to Haworth) the Brussels days: beginning with the excitement of the journey to London, crossing the Channel and the coach trip through the Belgium countryside on their way to Brussels. It is in these descriptive and evocative passages that Jolien Janzing's prose (and the use of present tense in particular) excels. The reader cannot avoid feeling immersed in the atmosphere as minutely described by the omniscient narrator addressing the reader directly (in a very Charlotte Brontë-ish way).
We found much more appealing the description of Brussels (even the not-so-wealthy quarters) in general than the description of the Pensionat Heger itself. Here, the actual biographical events are inserted here and there. There are echoes of Villette (and The Professor) and several well-known comments particularly related to Emily Brontë (you know the I-wish-to-be-as-God-made-me or The Great Navigator description) but several other well-known documented facts and people are not used or not clearly developed. We wonder why the Wheelwrights are so scarcely used when it is obvious that the relationship between Charlotte and Laetitia Wheelwright was quite consistent (let's not forget that she was one of her last correspondents, writing to her even from literally her deathbed). Louise de Bassompierre's friendship with Emily gets the lesbian (just hinted, but obvious) treatment, which is a bit arbitrary in our opinion.
Jolien Janzing doesn't line with the vast majority of the Brontë biographers or previous fiction (as mentioned above) in the description of the nature of the Heger-Brontë relationship. Usually it is depicted as more of a Charlotte infatuation with 'her master' that basically took place in her head. Many of the biographies suggest that Madame Heger (and probably even Monsieur) suspected it and tried to avoid any conflict. Janzing goes a bit further and delineates a Monsieur Heger who flirts with many of his pupils and with Charlotte in particular. Although it is not depicted as a fully sexual relation, it is somehow embarrassing to read the many written (and spoken) tokens of Heger's 'love' for Charlotte. We are no prudes here, but in a realistic context it is quite difficult to imagine the daughter of the reverend of Haworth masturbating thinking about Heger.
There are other parallel elements that are not bad by themselves but are not really integrated in the novel and function a bit independently. We understand the description of the fifteen-year-old Arcadie Claret becoming King Leopold's new mistress as a (rather) obvious metaphor for the master-mistress (only) future for the Constantin-Charlotte relation. There are also here and there some social comments about the Flemish culture repression (which are more fruit of a personal agenda of the author that a necessity of the story) and even a totally implausible marriage proposal by a Flemish worker.
The novel succeeds in evoking the Brussels period and it makes a plausible case (in most of the situations) describing Charlotte's psychological challenges at the Rue d'Isabelle. Particularly compelling is the description of the Catholic confession episode. It is such a powerful and unexpected burst of desperation that it is no coincidence that both Jolien Janzing here and Claire Harman in her recent biography open their books with this same incident.
(1) "The Brontës at Brussels," in The Woman at Home (July 1894, Vol. II, No. 10) pp. 279-91, Even Clement Shorter in 1896 had come to the rescue and interview her Brussels student Laetitia Wheelright in order to clear her name (as quoted by Rebecca Fraser in Charlotte Brontë).
(2) Marion Spielman, The Inner History of the Brontë-Heger Letters, Chapman and Hall, London, 1919. (3) Sue Lonoff (ed), The Belgian Essays: A Critical Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn, 1996 (4) Eric Ruijsenaars, Charlotte Brontë's Promised Land: The Pennsionat Heger and Other Brontë Places in Brussels, Brontë Society, Haworth, 2000; Eric Ruijsenaars, The Pennsionat Revisited: More Light Shield on the Brussels of the Brontës, Dutch Archives, Leiden, 2003; Helen Mac Ewan, The Brontës in Brussels, Peter Owen Publishers, 2014.