October Books 3) The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

Belgium! name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo, such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce. Belgium! I repeat the word, now as I sit alone near midnight.

When I asked people to guess the origin of this quote, eight years ago, nobody identified the work it came from and only got the author. Twice in the last week I've gone past the plaque on Rue Baron Horta which marks the site of the Heger boarding school where Charlotte and Emily Brontë taught in the early 1840s, Charlotte falling in love with the embarrassed headmaster. The Professor was her first novel, not published in her lifetime, and is generally dismissed as a first draft of Villette.

I must say I found it pretty interesting in its own right. I'll admit that it's journeyman stuff – there is some tedious front-matter packing our hero off to Belgium, and an extraneous happy-ever-after final chapter; the Belgians themselves get a rather poor press; there are a couple too many happy coincidences; and not all of the characters are as rounded as perhaps one might like. But the narrative core is sound: Charlotte Brontë has gender-flipped her own experience, with the (male) narrator falling in love with one of his colleagues; he overcomes adverse circumstances so that their love can win out. There is a moving climax in the Protestant cemetery, demolished long since but located at the northern end of what's now Rue Du Noyer just off the Chausée de Louvain.

It’s not great literature in itself, but it’s a promising start, and it’s much more firmly rooted in the Brussels environment than Villette. Certainly it will give me something else to think about next time I’m wandering past the Palais des Beaux-Arts.

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