The Brontës and Trains
Biographers have the bizarre idea that when Patrick Brontë took Charlotte and Emily to Brussels in February 1842 they took the old-fashioned diligence coach from Ostend. The reasoning seems to be that because some of Charlotte’s characters go by diligence coach, she must have too. It is as if this writer of genius wasn’t able to use her imagination.
All four of Charlotte’s novels are set in the past. Two are set in Brussels – The Professor and Villette. In the first novel, William Crimsworth arrives in Brussels perhaps in the early 1830s. He says:
I gazed often, and always with delight, from the window of the diligence (these, be it remembered, were not the days of trains and railroads).
Villette (published in 1853) is set even further back in time. Lucy Snowe comments near the start of her account on how she travelled to London:
Fifty miles were then a day’s journey, (for I speak of a time gone by: my hair which till a late period withstood the frosts of time, lies now at last, white under a white cap, like snow beneath snow.)
But Charlotte herself arrived in Brussels, and left it, by train:
I left Leeds for London last Friday at 9 o’clock […] we had a prosperous & speedy voyage – and landed at Ostend at 9 – next morning I took the train at 12 and reached rue d’Isabelle – at 7 Sunday evening
– Letter to Ellen Nussey, 30 January 1843
By an Act of 1834, Belgium was the first country in the world, after Britain, to establish railroads. The first line, from Brussels to Malines (Mechelen), opened in 1835 and the famous writer Captain Marryat proudly obtained a yellow ticket to ride the very first train. He would be the envy of all modern steam enthusiasts.
In September 1843, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made an official tour of Belgium. They arrived by steam yacht, the Victoria & Albert, at Ostend. In her journal for Monday 18th, Victoria wrote:
Breakfasted at ½ p. 8, & at 9, we all set off for the railway station. I left Ostend with regret, having spent a happy time there. […] At ½ p. 1, we reached the station at Brussels. To attempt adequately to describe Brussels, the prettiest town I have ever seen, our reception there & what passed, will be impossible.
On Tuesday they went by train to Antwerp, setting off for the railway at 2pm. They got out for a moment at Malines and arrived at Antwerp at about half past three.
Charlotte left Brussels for the last time three months later – not on a melodramatic five-hour train journey (or even longer diligence journey) to Ostend with Mme Heger on New Year’s Day, but by herself – on Sunday 31 December 1843. And she did not go via Ostend.
The photos show the station in Brussels, the very first Belgian steam train of 1835, and Queen Victoria’s steam yacht in 1843. (All Wikimedia Commons)