11 February 2012 marked a new departure for our group, a do-it-yourself event at which rather than inviting a specialist speaker, members themselves gave presentations on topics of their choice. Only one of the four speakers had previous experience of talks on literary subjects, though their confident delivery suggested that they were no strangers to powerpoint presentations. Both their nationalities (Irish, Portuguese, Belgian and American) and work backgrounds (transport expert, communications manager, interpreter cum teacher, journalist) are representative of the diversity of Brussels Brontë Group members.
Perhaps the most unusual topic chosen was Alex’s: literary blogs and the activities of the blogging “community”. Literary societies such as the Brontë Society continue to organise more traditional activities where you sit in a hall with other members face to face with speakers. Perhaps the more time we spend in virtual worlds the more important it becomes to have forums for real-life interaction with other enthusiasts. But Alex’s case shows how literary interests can be pursued in parallel in the real and virtual worlds. Her blogging brings her into contact with a potentially unlimited online community. But the blogs encourage an activity less dependent on modern technology - reading books! She also belongs to several Brussels reading groups where members meet face to face, as well as attending physical gatherings of literary bloggers from all over the world.
Below are some impressions of the event from Marina Sagerman, Sharon Rowles and Dave Richards.
Marina writes: On a general note, I found it fascinating to see and hear how passionate Brussels Brontë Group members can be when talking about something they are enthusiastic about. It certainly inspires others to come forward and do the same. I think it is a wonderful idea to have this opportunity to hear from other BBG members about their personal Brontë-related “passions”. How about having a talk on Branwell on a future occasion?
Monica Wallace’s presentation on the life and work of writer Maria Edgeworth
Sharon writes: Monica Wallace introduced us to Maria Edgeworth, an Anglo- Irish writer who wrote for children and adults in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Born in Berkshire, Maria’s family moved to Edgeworthstown, Ireland in 1782 where she helped her father to run the family estate. She drew on her daily experiences for inspiration for her stories, which tended to be moralistic in tone. Her novel Castle Rackrent, about the vagaries of Anglo-Irish landlords, was an instant success, She was much admired by writers such as Austen and Scott and became the leading female author of her time.
Elements in Castle Rackrent such as the themes of property and inheritance, and the use of an unreliable narrator, are similar to those in Wuthering Heights. It is highly likely that her books were known to the Brontës and may have influenced their writing. Alas, her work did not endure as well as theirs, as it had fallen out of popularity by the 20th century.
Marina writes: I became interested in this Anglo-Irish writer last year when I was in Ireland and read a book about the Pakenham family and more in particular about Kitty Pakenham (the wife of the Duke of Wellington). Maria was a close friend of Kitty’s and the book gives a lot of information on her life and work as well. I then read Helen, a book that to me completely justifies the definition of Maria Edgeworth as “the Irish Jane Austen”. Castle Rackrent is on my “to read” pile for the near future.
I am currently reading Winifred Gérin’s biography of Emily and in Chapter 15 she speculates that the role of Nellie Dean as narrator in Wuthering Heights may be partly inspired by Maria Edgeworth’s Thady Quirk, the steward in Castle Rackrent (as well as by an influence much closer to home - the Brontës’ servant Tabby).
Alex Reis’s presentation on literary blogs and activities of the blogging community
Sharon writes: Alex gave a fascinating insight of the world of literary blogging – something of which I was only dimly aware, so I was delighted to learn more about this subject. Alex’s colourful presentation and anecdotes about her experiences in the literary blogging world opened a whole new dimension of reading with the opportunity to exchange views with a worldwide community of like-minded readers. With blogs for every literary taste I am looking forward to visiting the many sites recommended by Alex.
Marina writes: The topic that was completely new to me was readers’ blogging. It is fascinating to see how booklovers all over the world can be so passionate about reading books that they create blogs, go into any sort of challenge, set specific reading goals together with other booklovers, make reviews of what they read etc. Personally I like to keep my freedom to read a book when I want without goals or challenges limiting my choice at that moment and I see reading more or less as a solitary and personal business, although I like to exchange views with other readers on books that I have read. I can understand, though, that some people want to share their views and passion with others via internet and blogging.
Dave writes: Are these blogs an art form in themselves? Art in the form of books, letters and paintings survive for centuries for following generations to enjoy. What will happen to blogs as technology evolves, is replaced or disappears? The same question applies to emails which have replaced the written letter.
Myriam Campinaire’s presentation on Gothic elements in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights
Sharon writes: Myriam outlined the main themes of the genre and then explained how these themes were used in these two novels. Both stories share similar themes of the supernatural, horror, terror, madness, cruelty to children and animals, hateful families, disappointment and death, set in a large creepy house owned by a degenerate master, and a surrounded by inhospitable landscapes and stormy weather. In her historical review Mryiam told us of the influence of the French revolution: people were fearful of rapid change and became nostalgic for the remote past, as evidenced by the revival in Gothic architecture at that time. We look forward to hearing more on this in the future.
Marina writes: Myriam’s topic was obvious in one sense in that you know what a Gothic novel is about, but I think the way she presented and tackled the topic was very interesting. She made a good overview of the criteria and elements that are so typical for a “Gothic” novel (darkness and the night, bad weather, supernatural, ruined buildings, death, revenge, etc) and using these elements she tried to prove in what way Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights met the criteria for a “Gothic” novel. This certainly needs a sequel! Myriam has more to say on the subject. It could even be expanded to the Brontë poetry because in many of the Brontë poems you will also find these “Gothic elements”.
A quotation from Winifred Gérin’s Emily Brontë is again interesting here: “If, as may be argued, without the Gothic novel the figure of such a demon-lover as Heathcliff could never have been conceived, it may also be claimed that it took an Emily Brontë to transform the remote Byronic type into a tough northcountryman. In the final analysis of Emily’s achievement in Wuthering Heights, it is perhaps the quality of nearness that she brought to the world of the Gothic novel that is her major contribution to the genre. Mary Shelley situated her demoniacs in Italy as did Mrs Radcliffe before her) and it was of the essence of Gothic characters to be exotic; Emily Brontë brought them home.”
Jones Hayden’s presentation on the influence of her stay in Brussels on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Marina writes: Jones’s topic was not so obvious. It is clear that The Professor and Villette are full of Brussels experience but to try and find the Brussels experience also in Jane Eyre (which is to me a very typical English novel) is a very brave step. But he succeeded and proved his point in a very convincing way. Here it might be interesting to do the same exercise on Shirley (perhaps another suggestion for a topic?).
Sharon and Helen write: Jones found many interesting parallels. There is some of M. Heger in Rochester and Charlotte’s emotional experience in Brussels shows in Jane Eyre, for example Jane’s moral conflict when she leaves Thornfield. It was suggested that mad Bertha in the attic might have been the fate Charlotte wished for Mme Heger!
Jones found further parallels between the Charlotte/Heger and Jane/Rochester relationships, wondering how much of Heger’s conversational style with pupils is reflected in Mr Rochester’s chats with Jane. Jane calls Rochester her “master”, just as Heger was Charlotte's teacher. But when she returned to Brussels in the second year it was as a teacher, and she gave Heger English lessons. Similarly, in the novel we see Jane and Rochester’s relationship become one of equality.
Sharon Rowles, Marina Saegerman, Helen MacEwan