Having accepted the invitation from Patrick Brontë to write the life of his daughter Gaskell was keen to bring the same “charm of locality and sense of detail” to the Life that had already characterised her novels Mary Barton, Cranford and North & South. She quickly realised that a visit to Brussels was needed. Gaskell’s investigations were however made more delicate by the fact that when Villette was translated into French, the fictitious city name was changed to ‘Bruxelles’. Individuals portrayed in the novel were thus left with even less to mask their identity and felt understandably wary of welcoming a second English novelist into their homes.
Undaunted, French-speaking Gaskell made contact with locals including the widow of the former English chaplain and the Brussels chief of police. Although failing to win an audience with Madame Heger (the inspiration for the almost certainly slanderous character of Madame Beck), Gaskell was able to meet with Charlotte’s beloved Monsieur Heger (Monsieur Paul).