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.