Dutch author, Jolien Janzing, is an expert in nineteenth century English literature, a fascination traceable to a time in her childhood when she first read English classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily. And while it may seem an odd preoccupation for a woman who has lived most of her life in Belgium, Janzing’s erudition provides the foundation to her compelling literary work Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love, recently published in English translation .
Originally published as Meester in 2013, Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love concentrates on the period (1840s) when Charlotte and Emily Brontë lived and worked at Pensionnat Heger, a boarding school for young ladies in Brussels. Charlotte falls in love with Constantin Heger, the husband of the school’s owner. This wretched experience of unrequited love is a crucial thread to the tale and later becomes the foundation for the character of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s renowned novel of the same name.
This book is constructed from available information about the Brontë sisters and is further embellished into an enjoyable narrative by adding fictional touches to fill gaps. Most of the characters and places are recognizable from historical texts.
For example the letters between Charlotte and Constantin are written in a similar tone and style to the original letters yet are not the actual letters. Similarly, the supplementary storyline of King Leopold embarking on an extramarital affair with Brussels teenager, Arcadia Claret, incorporates a generous mix of fact and fiction.
That ole devil called love
Charlotte’s internal struggles are the source of tension apparent throughout the novel. Her struggle begins with the decision to follow her desire to escape from the confines and expectations of being the pastor’s daughter in impoverished Yorkshire – to study abroad in the cosmopolitan city of Brussels. Upon her arrival at the boarding school, her religion, clothes, language and sister are all constant reminders that she does not belong in this new world and that her survival depends on the strength of her own character.
For Charlotte, being in love is the driving force that powers her through days of adversity. Many readers will find it difficult to identify what masculine wiles Constantin uses to seduce the young Charlotte. Yet her compulsive need to be acknowledged by him, even with full awareness that the situation is not conducive to a relationship, is familiar to many love stories.
Janzings’ descriptions of culture, class and religion adeptly transport the reader between Brussels to the Yorkshire moors in the 1840s. The contrast between the teahouses and dressmaking businesses visited by Arcadia and her mother – and the Belgian wharves with men that smell to Charlotte of ‘a strong odour of fish, sweat and cabbage soup’ something she finds ‘not totally repulsive’ (pg45) are comprehensive yet seamlessly written.
Jolien Janzing has been writing since she was a teenager. She continues to live in Belgium and works as a journalist and novelist. Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love is her second novel. Beautifully translated into English by Paul Vincent, the novel has also been translated into German, French and Turkish. The book was selected for Books at the Berlinale, and film rights to the book have been sold to David P. Kelly Films.