Monday, 18 June 2018

Annual Brontë Society weekend of events in Haworth 9-10 June 2018

Several members of the Brussels Brontë Group attended the Brontë Society’s 2018 weekend of events in Haworth, this year celebrating Emily Brontë’s bicentenary. Our group included Guy and Evy Desloovere-Van de Voorde with their 8-month-old son Arthur Branwell – his first visit to the village of the family that inspired his name!

After an invitation to join Brontë Society trustees for chat, tea and cake in a restaurant in Main St, the weekend’s events kicked off with a presentation on the Brontë Parsonage Museum, now 90 years old. Ann Dinsdale, Principal Curator, and Jane Sellars, a former Director, talked us through highlights in the Museum’s history. Ann Dinsdale is the author of numerous books including At Home with the Brontës: The History of Haworth Parsonage & Its Occupants and The Brontës at Haworth.


Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Aspects of the Brussels of the Brontës: The Passage de la Bibliothèque, the Panoramic View of the City and the Pensionnat


In the Calendar articles we have already seen references to the two new buildings opposite of the Pensionnat Héger in the Rue d’Isabelle. They were placed on either side of the steps leading to Place Belliard. Many people complained that they were too high, because they made it quite impossible to enjoy the fine panoramic view of the city from that little square. At about the time of the Brontës’ arrival in the city a petition will have been worded, which in early March was handed to the city’s regents, demanding that something should be done about it. It was signed by “the elite of the artists and by the friends of the arts of the capital.” (The l’Observateur newspaper wrote about it for a second time on 10 March 1842.)


This adapted version of the 1842 cadastral plan of the Isabella Quarter (from the collection of the Brussels City Archives) shows the Belliard Steps, the placement of the two buildings (indicated by the black dots) as well as the extent of the panoramic view at the level of the statue. It is possible that these crossing interrupted lines were added to the plan as a result of the debate about the two houses. The view also depended on the height of the Pensionnat. The cross shows the wide range of the panoramic view. On bright days Charlotte and Emily would have been able to see for instance Koekelberg, and surely places quite far beyond that village, if only there hadn’t been these two obstacles. 

Based on the cross lines it is possible to give the range of the view to a much larger extent. For this an 1840 plan of the city and wide surroundings was used, for the following picture, as well as an 1853 plan to get to a good estimate of how these lines would have run.


Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Brontë Brussels Calendar: June 1842


1 June, Wednesday – Weather: 8 to 23 C, cloudless

2 June, Thursday – W: 12 to 18 C, clouded, with a little bit of rain
On this day Charlotte finished writing her Anne Askew devoir.

3 June, Friday – W: 7 to 19 C, some clouds in the morning, a sunny afternoon
Abraham Dixon, in Ostend, continued writing a letter to his daughter Mary, in England, begun on 31 May: “John Taylor arrived in Brussels on Friday evening last, he & Martha arrived here on Wednesday, & yesterday (Thursday) they left for Calais, will be in London most probably this evening, in Birmingham on Monday & in Leeds towards the end of next week.”
The newspapers reported about the failed attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria, on 30 May. It was a continuing story for some time, up to the end of the trial (forced labor in Australia, the verdict was for that man).

4 June, Saturday – W: 8 to 22 C, a very sunny day

5 June, Sunday – W: 14 to 22 C, another sunny day
Both L’Indépendant and the Journal de Bruxelles had four extra pages, recording exactly what everyone had said in the final debates on the 4th in Parliament on the main part of the  proposed loi communale, the nomination and appointment of mayors. The proposal of the government – the king gets the right to do that – gets the majority of votes.
L’Indépendant reports that the people of Brussels have so far raised a sum of 11,000 francs for the victims of the Hamburg fire disaster ( 29 May).

Thursday, 24 May 2018

The death of Julia Wheelwright

Little more than a month after the death of Martha Taylor, another English friend of the Brontës, Julia Wheelwright, died in Brussels, on 17 November 1842. She was only seven years old. Again Winifred Gérin, without giving any evidence, attributed it to cholera, and again it certainly is not true. There was no cholera in the city, nor another serious contagious disease. It is just another Gérin lie.


Julia was at a still rather more vulnerable age. On the 30th of October she had reached the age of  seven. She had thus only just reached the stage of getting mentioned by name in the newspapers’  lists of the city’s registered deaths. Had she died three weeks earlier she wouldn’t have made it to the newspapers, but would only have been listed as one of those children under the age of 7 that had died.

From L’Indépendant, 21 November 1842, with the death of Julia


We know nothing of her last days, which makes it rather difficult to try to assess the cause of her death. Charlotte and Emily had already left Brussels, following the news of their Aunt Branwell’s severe illness. An analysis of what we do know helps quite a lot though, to get to a good educated guess. As with Martha, a main question is whether or not it could have been a contagious disease.

Friday, 18 May 2018

The true cause of death of Martha Taylor


After about two weeks of illness Martha Taylor, the beloved friend of the Brontë sisters, died on 12 October 1842 in Koekelberg. It has become a fact in Brontë studies that it was cholera that killed her, but can this really be true? We do not know of any evidence. It is not that difficult to research this, and to find out what the alternative options are. It will show that Martha certainly did not die of cholera, it can already be revealed.

Cholera and other contagious diseases

The history of cholera as the cause
We need not be surprised that this history begins with Winifred Gérin. And by now we know she was a serial liar. In her 1967 biography of Charlotte she states without any doubt that it was cholera, but also without giving any evidence. In her biography of Emily she added that it was "a very prevalent infection in Brussels." It doesn’t help that at about the same time William Weightman died in Haworth, possibly indeed because of cholera, and after a similar fortnight of suffering from illness.

What we know from Charlotte and Mary
Although Charlotte didn’t witness either in their last two weeks, she thus compared them, based of course on real witnesses. “Mr. Weightman’s illness was exactly what Martha’s was – he was ill the same length of time and died in the same manner. Aunt [Branwell]’s disease was internal obstruction: she also was ill a fortnight.” (Letter of Charlotte to Ellen Nussey, 10 November 1842)

Mary only sheds a little bit of light on what had happened. In a letter of 1 November to Ellen she says she will give her the history of Martha’s illness in a few months. “A thousand times I have reviewed the minutest circumstances of it but I cannot without great difficulty give a regular account of them … But when I recall the sufferings that have purified her my heart aches.”