In 1842 Charlotte Brontë, at the age of 26, travelled to Brussels, Belgium, with her sister Emily. There they enrolled in a pensionnat (boarding school) run by M. and Mme. Constantin Héger. In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music.
The sisters' time at the pensionnat was cut short when their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, died in October 1842. Elizabeth had joined the Brontë family to care for the children after the death of her sister, their mother Maria Brontë, née Maria Branwell.
Charlotte returned, alone, to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching post at the pensionnat. Her second stay in Brussels was not a happy one. She became lonely and homesick, and fell in love with M. Héger, a married man. She finally returned to her family's rectory in Haworth, England, in January 1844.
Charlotte drew on this source material for her first (albeit unsuccessful) novel The Professor. After several publishers had rejected it, Brontë reworked the material and made it the basis of Villette. Most literary historians believe that the character of M. Paul Emanuel is closely based upon that of M. Héger. Furthermore, the character of Graham Bretton is widely acknowledged to have been modelled upon Brontë's publisher, George Murray Smith.