Tuesday, 16 April 2019

A Belgian Reads the Brontës

Belgian academic
Dr. Kristien Hemmerechts remembers a time when she could look out from the university classroom where she was teaching literature and see the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, where Charlotte Brontë made her now-famous 1843 confession that she used in Villette. Dr. Hemmerechts would point out the cathedral to her students and stress the importance of the confession to Charlotte’s final novel; but the students displayed only "a `well so what?’ feeling," she said.

Dr. Kristien Hemmerechts
"We don’t share enough of our cultural heritage," Dr. Hemmerechts concluded, a feeling with which we at the Brussels Brontë Group commiserate, especially when it comes to celebrating the city's connection with the Brontë sisters. Speaking to our group on Saturday, April 6, Dr. Hemmerechts gave a lively talk on what the Brontës have meant to her as a writer, a teacher, a feminist and a Belgian. She touched on all four of Charlotte’s novels in her wide-ranging discussion.

Unlike some Belgians, she is open-minded about Charlotte’s negative descriptions of Belgians in Villette, The Professor and even Shirley. "I love all these passages about Belgium, even the horrible ones," Dr. Hemmerechts said. Noting that "a lot of foreign writers say bad things about Belgium," she added: "You start to think that maybe they have a point."

Having lived in Britain for two years in the 1970s, Dr. Hemmerechts said she could identify with Charlotte feeling like "a displaced person" during her time in Brussels in 1842-43. She also can empathize with Charlotte as a female writer, feeling that some of the same prejudices remain for women starting out on writing careers today. "There are so many things that I recognize and identify with – the way she had to fight to have an interesting life," Dr. Hemmerechts said. "Even in this day and age, your gender matters," she said.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Emma Butcher on Heroes in the Brontë Juvenilia

A major feature of the main male characters in the early fantasy stories of Charlotte Brontë and her siblings was a combination of militarism and dysfunctional fatherhood, Dr. Emma Butcher said in a talk to our group on Saturday, April 6: Fathers and Soldiers: (Re)writing Male Heroes in the Brontë Juvenilia.

Dr. Butcher, who specializes in the youthful writings of Charlotte and Branwell Brontë in the context of post-Napoleonic Britain, explained how the children’s make-believe worlds were full of battles and military intrigue and how these stories were the basis for the Brontë sisters’ adult works that we know and love. 

Dr. Emma Butcher
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne all were born after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, so none of them had any first-hand experience of war. But their father, Patrick Brontë, admired the Duke of Wellington for his military exploits and read war poetry and military journals, which the children also had access to. In her biography of Charlotte, Mrs. Gaskell notes Patrick’s military obsessions. He also had to deal with the threat of social unrest spurred by groups such as the Luddites and the Chartists, and he slept with a loaded gun in case of trouble. "Patrick Bronte was prepared to defend his own," said Dr. Butcher, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leicester.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - movie screening

Ola Podstawka and Georgette Cutajar treated our group to a great Brontë day on Feb. 16 with a screening of the 1992 film version of Wuthering Heights -- the one with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche -- followed by a lively discussion. Ola got it started with an excellent overview of all the movie versions of Emily's novel, beginning with a 1920 silent film (now lost) and "the definitive version'' of 1939 with Laurence Olivier, and including French, Japanese and Spanish-language adaptations.

The 1992 movie, directed by Peter Kosminsky, was the film debut for Fiennes, and also features a special guest-star cameo whom Ola and Georgette challenged us to recognize. With yummy popcorn provided, we were off to the moors!

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

New novel about the Brontës’ time in Brussels: "Si j’avais des ailes", by Nathalie Stalmans

In recent years there has been no shortage of biographical fiction about Charlotte and Emily Brontë, but we had to wait until 2013 and Jolien Janzing’s De Meester for a novel focusing on their Brussels experience. Now, in Nathalie Stalmans’ Si j’avais des ailes, ‘If I had wings’ (Genèse Édition, released on 18 January 2019), once again we have the opportunity to view the Brontës’ stay in Brussels in 1842-43 through the eyes of an author based in Belgium, this time a francophone Belgian writer.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Aspects of the Brussels of the Brontës: The Panoramic View of the City, the Pensionnat and the petites maisons

The problem of the protected panoramic view of the city from Place Belliard, mentioned in a previous article,  surfaced again in 1856, in connection with the renovation plan for the Pensionnat Heger. A key part of it was the incorporation into the building of Rue d’Isabelle 34, 36 and 38, three houses the Hegers had already bought in 1844. Heger, in a letter to the mayor seeking permission, described them as “trois petites maisons.” The first renovation plan was rejected though on the ground that the proposed building got too high, for that panoramic view. The Hegers had to agree to a height of two and a half meters less than the 11,70 m they had wished. That’s one storey.

Rue d’Isabelle 34, 36 and 38 were small houses, pretty much identical to the well-known nrs 24, 26 and 28. They were all 17th century buildings. What’s more, in 1842 and 1843 nrs 16, 18, 20, 22, 30 and 40 were most probably also such houses. The Pensionnat was nr 32. It was also bought by the Hegers in 1844.

Rue d’Isabelle 24, 26, 28
The 1842 cadastral plan clearly shows this. One can also see that the Pensionnat had a fairly small street front part. A good deal of the building was hidden behind Rue d’Isabelle 34 to 40. In the 1840s, thus, this side of the street was rather different from what it looked like in photographs of later times, such as this one: 

The 1842 plan
This version of the 1842 cadastral plan shows these three buildings, nrs 34, 36 and 38 (indicated by blue dots; the Pensionnat is given in red, with a part of it, a one storey annex. in orange). They were situated at the right side of the Pensionnat’s street façade. On the left side there was a row of 8 of these little houses. Based on this an adapted picture was made, which comes much closer to what the Rue d’Isabelle really looked like in 1842-3.

A photomontage of Rue d’Isabelle in 1842

Eric Ruijssenaars