Wednesday, 27 April 2016

“Solitude in the midst of numbers” –on loneliness in Brussels

Among the obscure, plain heroines created by Charlotte Brontë, none is as autobiographical as Lucy Snowe of Villette, and none is as utterly lonely. Reserved and secretive, she deliberately keeps her distance both as a narrator and character in her own story, as if she wanted to prevent anyone getting a glimpse of her true feelings. Much like Charlotte during her second stay in Brussels, she is a solitary figure in Mme Beck’s pensionnat, rejecting the company of teachers and pupils, but at the same time longing for true friendship, one that provides a sense of safety and belonging. Both Lucy and Charlotte would be eventually overpowered by the loneliness in Villette / Brussels, but what makes their common story so extraordinary is that they would not let it destroy them completely: they would reclaim their lives and turn their time in the city into something fruitful.

Charlotte’s real-life relationship with loneliness seems ambiguous at best. As a young teacher at the Roe Head school, she would deliberately drift off into a solitary state, closing her eyes on the reality crowded with pupils, and step over to an imaginary world. She wrote most of Jane Eyre in isolation, too, overseeing her father’s recovery from surgery in half-darkness. In those instances, calm and solitude would usher in creativity. But there is also a different, hostile kind of loneliness resulting from a painful conviction of being different and misunderstood. The worst kind of loneliness, possibly, which cannot be remedied in company, but could even be exacerbated if the people present are of the alien kind. For the most part of her life, Charlotte would complain about not being like others, referring to the passionate storms tearing at her soul and thunderous ambition pushing her beyond the prescribed domestic existence. This forcible alienation and lack of understanding  were difficult in themselves, but also carried another threat, possibly the most feared by Charlotte – monotony and inaction, characteristic of the passive life of old maids in her novels. This dichotomy of solitudes is expressed in the first letter to Monsieur Héger from Haworth. In the relative seclusion of the Parsonage, she writes, “one’s brain is always active – one longs to be busy”, which is why she draws up plans for setting up the Brontë school for young ladies and envisages writing a great novel to impress her Master. But later in the same letter, she confesses that she “fear[s] nothing so much as idleness – lack of employment – inertia – lethargy of the faculties – when the body is idle, the spirit suffers cruelly” (Selected Letters 51).

Sunday, 24 April 2016

An evening with Charlotte Brontë

Our Brontë day on Saturday 16 April was rounded off by an evening of readings from Charlotte Brontë’s novels and letters in the Auderghem Cultural Centre. The readers were members of the Brussels Shakespeare Society, directed by Tracie Ryan, who also chose the readings and wrote the account of Charlotte’s life narrated in the first person by Deborah Griffiths. The readings were given by Charles White, Miranda Ryan White, Kendra Doherty, Jonathan Sawdon, Robynn Colwell and Graham Andrews. We heard from Mr Brocklehurst, the young Jane Eyre and her friend Helen Burns. There was plenty of emphasis on Charlotte’s stay in Brussels, with extracts from Villette and Charlotte’s letters home from the Pensionnat. We heard some of the comments written by Constantin Heger on Charlotte’s devoirs, and were introduced to his alter ego in Villette, M. Paul.

Deborah Griffiths as Charlotte

Miranda Ryan White as Jane Eyre, Kendra Doherty as Helen Burns
and Deborah Griffiths as Charlotte.

Jane Eyre and Helen Burns.

Jonathan Sawdon, Graham Andrews and Robynn Colwell

Graham Andrews

Monday, 18 April 2016

Juliet Barker in Brussels for the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary: 16 April 2016

Juliet Barker’s eagerly-awaited talk in Brussels, over our weekend of events to celebrate the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary, took place against the backdrop of travel disruption following the attacks of 22 March. With flights cancelled or deviated, the weeks leading up to 16 April were anxious ones and the news of a Belgian air traffic controllers’ strike shortly before she was due to fly seemed the last straw. But she made it to beleaguered Brussels Airport, all the way from her home in North Yorkshire.

The main focus of her talk was The things Gaskell left out of her Life of Charlotte Brontë. Over dinner the evening before the talk, Juliet expressed admiration for Mrs Gaskell as a novelist, but her talk made it clear that she has a few bones to pick with Gaskell the biographer. In Barker’s view, the problem with Gaskell’s Life is that it is a fiction rather than a truthful biography.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

To my sister - a poem

To prepare for the bicentenary of Charlotte's birth, we asked members whether they would like to contribute to the blog during this special period.  We are pleased to present one of our Dutch members, Louise van Proosdij, who is also a member of the Brontë society. Her contribution is a poem named To my sister. It  is not only creative but reflects the form that, some argue, came most naturally to the Brontes: poetry.

To my sister

Jane and I have always been together.
She guided me during my whole life.
Her strong and independent character
was a great help for me, in times of stormy weather.

I thank this to her mother Charlotte,
who was so gifted and so strong.
Her spirit is still there in Haworth.
I felt it of them all, they came along:

I saw her father, mother and her brother.
They were still young, holding each other's hand.
And all the girls, looking very cheerful,
dancing with each other in that lovely land.

Of course I also know the tragedy.
The crows who live there cried out in my ear :
“They all suffered cruely, died very young.
We know it's hurting you to hear”.

 Once I walked along the graveyard very late and woke up the crows who were asleep.
The eldest said to me : “Always remember this fantastic family “.
The youngest whispered : “Look well after what they have left us “.
 “ I will “.

Louise van Proosdij

Saturday, 9 April 2016

France as Other: Charlotte Bronte’s Divided Response to Francophone Culture

Throughout Charlotte Bronte’s life and works, France and the French language and culture occupied a prominent place in her mental landscape.  It is, however, a conflicted place.  On the one hand, she almost revered the French language, seeing it not only as an employment asset and hence a route out of provincial stagnation, but also as a sign of personal cultivation.  On the other hand, France was home to at least three social phenomena which are demonised in her work: the Catholic Church, a lax attitude to sexuality, and a pettifogging system of domestic surveillance.  Charlotte’s image of France was thus constructed as ‘other’ to English culture in two opposite senses: as the object of desire and as the locus of fear and loathing.  A refinement of this effect is that the desirable qualities tend to be associated with men, while the disgust and hatred are centred on women.

This statement is a generalisation, but it is drawn from well-known aspects of Charlotte’s life and works.  It was almost certainly Charlotte who devised the plan to go to Brussels with Emily to perfect their French and German and it was her energy and determination that carried it through.  After her stay in Brussels, Charlotte is particularly pleased to receive books in French from her friend William Smith Williams, and for a while tells him that she learns by heart a passage in French every day.  In Jane Eyre, Charlotte represents Jane as feeling quiet satisfaction in her ability to reply to her French pupil, Adèle, in her own language; it is a sign that she is in touch with ‘culture’ in its larger sense. The Yorke family in Shirley (based on the family of Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor) are admired for their easy familiarity with French culture, which stands as a sign of larger travels, and speculative, interesting minds ready to debate politics and philosophy.  In Villette, it is M Paul Emanuel who represents the widening of horizons, the stretching of the mind, which Lucy prizes above comfort and security.