Wednesday 16 June 2021

Book review: 'Lies and the Brontës: The Quest for the Jenkins Family' by Monica Kendall

A new book shines the spotlight on the couple who recommended the Pensionnat Heger to the Brontës and found Charlotte and Emily difficult guests at Sunday lunches in their home in Brussels.

Until their great-great-granddaughter Monica Kendall determined to throw light on them, Evan and Eliza Jenkins were fairly shadowy figures in the Brontës’ story. The few references to them in Brontë biographies leave a vague impression of a couple who were pillars of the British community in Brussels, no doubt, and well-meaning in their standing invitation to Charlotte and Emily to Sunday lunch at their home, but … didn’t the sisters find them rather dull? Biographers seem to hint at this, even though the information hitherto given on Mr and Mrs Jenkins is too sparse for any clear picture of them to emerge.

And yet their importance in the Brontës’ Brussels adventure is clear from the letter in which Charlotte first broached the project to her Aunt Branwell. Referring to her Yorkshire friend Martha Taylor, who was studying at the Château de Koekelberg school in Brussels, Charlotte writes:

‘If I wrote to her [Martha], she, with the assistance of Mrs. Jenkins, the wife of the British Consul, would be able to secure me a cheap, decent residence and respectable protection.’

Evan Jenkins was in fact the chaplain to the British embassy, not the consul. Curiously, this initial confusion on Charlotte’s part, relatively minor in itself, was just the first of the inaccuracies in the accounts handed down on the Jenkins family – the ‘lies’ of Monica Kendall’s book title.

One circumstance about which there seems to be no doubt is that it was Eliza Jenkins who recommended the Pensionnat Heger to the Brontës. Mrs Gaskell, who met her on a visit to Brussels to research her Life of Charlotte Brontë, tells us that the Pensionnat was recommended to Eliza by an Englishwoman at the Belgian royal court, whose granddaughter was a pupil at the school. Eliza, tasked to find a suitable school for Charlotte and Emily by Evan’s clergyman brother in Yorkshire, an ex-colleague of Patrick Brontë’s, had enquired in vain until this recommendation clinched the choice of Brussels just as the Brontës were considering a school in Lille instead. Thus, Monica Kendall claims, ‘If it had not been for Mrs Jenkins, Charlotte would never have gone to Brussels, never met M. Heger. There would be no Villette, no Jane Eyre’.

However vague our previous information on the Jenkinses, the few anecdotes we have of their contacts with Charlotte and Emily throw a vivid light on the sisters themselves. We have Eliza Jenkins’ account of the Brontës as the visitors from hell at Sunday lunches in the Jenkins household, as reported in Gaskell’s Life:

Mrs. Jenkins told me that she used to ask them to spend Sundays and holidays with her, until she found that they felt more pain than pleasure from such visits. Emily hardly ever uttered more than a monosyllable. Charlotte was sometimes excited sufficiently to speak eloquently and well – on certain subjects; but before her tongue was thus loosened, she had a habit of gradually wheeling round on her chair, so as almost to conceal her face from the person to whom she was speaking.

A subsequent biographer, Mrs Chadwick, author of In the Footsteps of the Brontës, also tells a story about the sisters’ taciturnity:

‘The two sons of Mrs. Jenkins John and Edward who were sent to the pensionnat to escort the Brontës when they were invited to their home, declare that they were most shy and awkward, and scarcely exchanged a word with them during the journey’.

This and subsequent versions of the ‘escorting’ story, which isn’t in Gaskell’s Life, appear to have evolved through a process of Chinese whispers. An example is the inclusion of Kendall’s great-grandfather John Jenkins, only seven years old at the time, too young surely for escorting duties. 

Chadwick’s account, published in 1914, suggests that she had it straight from the mouths of Edward and John, and indeed that they were still living at the time of writing. Winifred Gérin, relaying the story, seems to indicate that Chadwick got it directly from Mrs Jenkins. A few dates provided by Kendall show this to be impossible. Mrs Chadwick was born in 1861; she could not possibly have spoken to Eliza Jenkins (died 1864) or Edward (died 1873) and is unlikely to have visited Brussels in time to speak to John, who died in 1894. The true source of the tale was in fact a Brussels resident who had it from Edward Jenkins.

It’s one of several hand-me-down stories repeated by biographers which Kendall, a book editor used to querying and checking every detail, scrutinises and subjects to ‘the trial of common sense’, facts and logical deduction. But her quest for Evan and Eliza Jenkins grew out of more than a scholarly wish to correct ‘fabrications’ and ‘sloppy copying’. Lies and the Brontës is also driven by her sense that the Jenkinses have been ‘largely ignored’ and even disparaged by Brontë biographers.

Have they simply been assumed to be too boring to be investigated? Gaskell hints at this in her Life when she suggests that Charlotte found the Wheelwrights, a family she made friends with in Brussels, more congenial than the Jenkinses:

There was another English family where Charlotte soon became a welcome guest, and where, I suspect, she felt herself more at her ease than … at Mrs. Jenkins’.

The Sunday lunch story doesn’t just show up the Brontës in a bad light; it gives the impression that they didn’t find the Jenkinses worth talking to.

At the start of her research, Kendall, too, was afraid lest she should find her forebears dull and hardly worth investigating. Had they been cultured and interesting, their link with the Brontës would surely have been cherished – yet Kendall stumbled on it by chance. She knew that generations of the family had lived in Brussels, as testified by great-aunts’ albums. She also knew that the Brontës had been in Brussels. But nobody in the family had told her about the connection between the two, and she hadn’t read Gaskell’s Life or Villette. It wasn’t until 2013 – curiously, just as she happened to be copy-editing a monograph that included a chapter on Villette – that a cousin alerted her to an article about the site of the Jenkinses’ house in the Brussels municipality of Ixelles, posted by the Brussels Brontë Group.

The Brontë sisters had known her ancestors! The realisation was the starting point of the quest which resulted seven years later in this amazing book. A quest that took her to Brussels to visit the graves of Evan and Eliza and their sons Edward and John of the escorting story, who eventually succeeded Evan as chaplain; to Wales where Evan Jenkins was born the son of a poor tenant farmer, like Patrick Brontë; to Scotland and the Netherlands on the tracks of Eliza Jenkins née Jay, born in Rotterdam into a family of Scottish merchant traders; to Yorkshire on the trail of Evan’s brother David, Patrick’s colleague at Dewsbury and Hartshead in pre-Haworth days. It was David Jenkins who linked up the Brontës with Evan and Eliza.

The research trail is fascinating in itself. For anyone interested in family history, the notes alone tell an eloquent tale of riches unearthed in archives from Lambeth Palace to Leuven. But Kendall’s pursuit of the Jenkinses was emotional as much as scholarly. By the Jenkins graves, she felt ‘the impossible yearning to be part of a family that might be happier than my own’ akin to the longing of Richard Holmes, when writing his life of Shelley, to be part of the magic circle of Shelley’s family. In Footsteps Holmes describes feeling like a tramp knocking at the kitchen window, hoping to be invited in for supper. In Kendall’s case, the family she was researching was, of course, her own. By their graves at the beginning of her adventure she wondered not just whether she would like them, but whether they would approve of her. Would Evan and Eliza prove to be the kind of people she’d want to join for Sunday lunch?

She leaves no stone unturned in finding out, and the book certainly redresses the lack of information hitherto available on the family. We are told so much, not just about the Jenkinses but those whose lives touched theirs, that at times I had a feeling of information overload, particularly in the first part of the book before Evan’s and Eliza’s paths converge in Brussels. (Eliza’s father started a school there where Evan, as well as officiating as chaplain at the Chapelle Royale, taught before starting one of his own, which was carried on by subsequent generations.)

Happily, the rewards of the book far outweigh any feelings of embarras de richesses and interest is maintained by the lively writing as well as the erudition. Lies and the Brontës is packed with information, anecdotes and above all personalities. A ‘spider’s web of connections’ between apparently disparate lives constantly comes up with surprises, including many famous names.

That there are so many names of writers, apart from the Brontës, is one of the book’s attractions. This despite the fact that the Jenkins family seems to have had little interest in literature, one possible reason for their silence about the Brontës – another may just have been a wish to avoid the attention of curiosity hunters. (Whatever the reason, until Kendall came along no other member of the clan had had anything to say about references to the family in Brontë biographies.) As if in compensation, in Lies and the Brontës Kendall writes of her sense of a ‘thrumming wire’ connecting some of the most celebrated writers of the age through the family story.

Byron and Trollope, to take just two examples. The school started by Eliza’s father was taken over by a clergyman called William Drury who’s a constant presence in the book and was a larger-than-life presence in the British community in Brussels. Drury had been at Harrow with Byron and wasn’t averse to basking in reflected glory as ‘Byron’s playmate’. His school in Brussels was the very one at which the 19-year-old Trollope did a stint as an assistant teacher when his family fled to Belgium to escape their creditors. Rather like the Brontës, Trollope took a job as a teacher to help pay for language classes:

I must … learn German and French … and in order that it might be accomplished without expense, I undertook the duties of a classical usher to a school then kept by William Drury at Brussels. Mr. Drury had been one of the masters at Harrow when I went there at seven years old, and is now, after an interval of fifty-three years, even yet officiating as clergyman at that place. To Brussels I went, and my heart still sinks within me as I reflect that any one should have intrusted to me the tuition of thirty boys …

Trollope lasted just six weeks in the job before being rescued by the offer of a post office clerkship.

Another literary link on that thrumming wire thrills us when a British resident called E. Taylor, a member of the committee that offered Evan the chaplaincy of the Chapelle Royale, turns out to be Edward Taylor of Bifrons in Kent, a man on whom Jane Austen told her sister she had ‘doated’ as a teenager, praising his ‘beautiful dark eyes’. Like so many expats who ended up in Brussels, his presence there seems to have had something to do with money difficulties; he had given up his Kent country house. Apart from the Austen connection, it’s exciting to learn he had a brother in England who was employed in high places … but I don’t want to include too many spoilers.

Edward Taylor, the man whose ‘beautiful brown eyes’ were admired by Jane Austen and on whom she ‘doated’ as a teenager.

Like Constantin Heger, for whom teaching Charlotte Brontë was just one episode in a full life, Evan was a very busy man. He and his descendants were at the heart of the British community in the Belgian capital. With schools and churches to run and build (Kendall’s great-grandfather built an Anglican church in Ixelles) the Jenkins dynasty’s failure to mention the Brontës in family annals no longer seems so surprising.

Literary links apart, there are the connections with royal courts. A year or two before Prince Albert’s marriage to Victoria, he and his brother Ernst turn up in Brussels for a study stay; their English teacher is (who else!) Evan’s colleague William Drury. Where Evan himself was concerned, Eliza sometimes worried that her husband lacked ambition. ‘My spouse is very backwards in going forwards’ she writes in a letter about the imminent arrival of Leopold of Saxe-Coburg to take up the Belgian throne; she’s fretting about whether the King will opt to attend Evan’s chapel or one of the other Protestant ones in town. Her ambition must have been gratified when in 1835 Evan, a man born in poverty who, like Patrick Brontë, was a sizar at Cambridge, was appointed chaplain to Leopold I. It’s a thrill to find Evan, on a visit to London, carrying letters from King Leopold to Victoria and Albert. How appropriate for a man whose life is the connecting point for so many others in the book to be employed as a messenger.

Kendall has tirelessly tracked down sources for the Brussels background, digging in little-known memoirs, including witness accounts of the 1830 Belgian revolution. The recollections of Charles MacKay, for example. He was the future father of the novelist Marie Corelli, attended Eliza’s father’s school in Brussels and was in the city when the first stirrings of the revolution broke out.

She is equally tireless in digging out facts and sources in the part of the book that deals with the Brontës’ time in Belgium in 1842-43. In this section she seems to have been guided by Flaubert’s opinion that ‘When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him’, admitting that ‘It’s partly true that other than curiosity there has been an element of revenge in my research and writing’. Brontë biographers both dead and living are savaged for inaccuracies (‘lies’) – not just those involving the Jenkinses.

Did the Brontës, like Lucy Snowe in Villette, really travel to Brussels in 1842 not by train but by coach, as claimed by Mrs Chadwick, Gérin and subsequent biographers? Did Mr Jenkins, as also claimed by Chadwick, really accompany Patrick Brontë and the two sisters to the Pensionnat Heger to effect the introductions to Mme Heger? Did Mme Heger really accompany Charlotte to Ostend when she left the Pensionnat for good in January 1844, as claimed by some? Indeed, is it certain or even likely that Charlotte travelled back to England from Ostend? Frequently-told stories about Charlotte and Emily’s Belgian stay are examined and refuted.

Much of interest is added to our knowledge of the Brussels background. We share what Kendall calls ‘the frisson of “only connect”’ when she identifies a schoolfellow of the Taylor girls at the Château de Koekelberg, mentioned in a letter that has often been cited, as a member of the Jenkins family. In addition, she gives new information about the school’s headmistress, Catherine Phelps. Intelligent speculations are offered on ways in which Villette may have drawn on Charlotte’s observations of the Jenkins household, with possible models suggested for the teenage Graham Bretton, the mature Dr John Bretton, and the character of Mr Home.

Lies and the Brontës casts the net wide and encompasses much more than Evan and Eliza’s story, but they are at its heart and the book is a testament that Kendall’s quest was worth the years of labour. The Jenkinses may not have been literary-minded or interested in the Brontës’ novels, but they and their circle do deserve to be better known. By the time I finished the book I, like Kendall, would have liked to be present at Sunday lunch at the Jenkinses’ house in Ixelles, listening to the gossip about the expat British community of which the Brontë sisters were briefly a part, as the fiacres described in Villette rattled over the stony streets outside.

Helen MacEwan

Lies and the Brontës: The Quest for the Jenkins Family 
by Monica Kendall

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