Monday 17 June 2013

The BS excursion to Brussels; a 20th Anniversary

This year sees the 20th Anniversary of the first Excursion made by members from the Brontë Society.
A few of our current BBG members were there to witness that week in April 1993.
Eric Ruijssenaars and Maureen Peeck have given their personal accounts.

"The Excursion"

It was twenty years ago last month that the memorable Brontë Society Excursion took place. Not only was it, on hindsight, an important step towards the creation of the Brussels Brontë Group, it also quite changed my life. In a way the Excursion feels like it happened fairly recently, but in reality it has entered the realms of history, with research needed to recall those magical five days.I remember the excitement started months before, when Selina, our friend Elle and I decided to join. Elle, as readers of Helen’s book will recall, had made me a Villette fan and researcher. I had written for her a history of the Isabella quarter. It became the first chapter of my first book, which might not have existed without that Excursion. And my career certainly would have been different without the book.The ‘photographic memories’ I have are only a few. Selina dressed as Jane Eyre is unforgettable to all. Apart from her, the other scene that comes to mind is us three and three British ladies, in the Park, near the Kiosk, probably. One of them was Dyddgu Pritchard-Owens, from north Wales. She’s still a dear friend. I thought we first met on the Tuesday, but she, when I asked her about it on the phone, immediately said it was at the graves of M. and Mme. Heger at Boitsfort, on the Wednesday.  

Pearl Cragg was one of the other two ladies. In the dark days, when Villette and Brussels were all but forgotten, she and Elle were the only Villette fans left. Pearl made pretty much annual pilgrimage journeys to Brussels. She knew all most of what was known, which wasn’t much however. Without Pearl the Society might still not have organised an Excursion to Brussels. The greatest compliment I later got for my books were given by her. They were her constant bedside books, she once told me. Pearl was also there at the 2003 Excursion. That was her last visit to Brussels. The rise of the BBG must have pleased her greatly.

She died in 2011. Dyddgu remembers that Pearl laid one rose on M. Heger’s grave.

I remember M. Fierens giving a fascinating talk. An eternal regret is that I did not make notes. I also remember a few scenes at the Place Rogier hotel where the Society members were staying, and waving goodbye to them when they left from there on the Friday. There is also the memory of Charlotte Cory and me sitting at a bar, somewhere, on the Wednesday I think. She was quite impressed by the pile of research papers I showed her, and encouraged me to apply for the Brontë Society Centenary scholarship. Charlotte does deserve much credit for organising the Excursion to Brussels, for the first time in, indeed, the Society’s 100 years of existence.

Slowly some memories come back. Maureen Peeck, a dear friend ever since too, I first met at about the arrival of the coach from England with the Society members. At the Place Rogier. That cannot have been before about 3 pm. The British members must have been horribly exhausted. The coach had left from Haworth at 2 am, according to the the programme booklet. “Approximate arrival at Ostende: 3 pm.”The Tuesday we spent in and around the Isabella quarter. 

On Wednesday we visited Boitsfort and Waterloo, and in the evening there was the great party at the residence of the British ambassador. A great party indeed, yet I only have the scenic memory of the photograph I have, and nice flowering plants behind where the photographer stood. On Thursday we went to the Park Theatre, but I remember nothing of that. 

In the evening Charlotte Cory presented her (second) novel at Waterstone’s, of which I have some memories. But not of the last meal togethether at the Grand Place afterwards. But after Dyddgu told me, I do now remember too a last, quite lenghty meeting in the hotel lounge.I will always remember it vividly as a wonderful week, one of the very best in my life. 

Eric Ruijssenaars

Account of the 1993 Brontë Society Excursion

Recently I spent a pleasant day in Leiden with Eric Ruijssenaars. Naturally we were reminiscing about our Brontë experiences and suddenly realised that we had known one another for twenty years. We met 20 years ago in Brussels at the April 1993 Brontë Society Excursion. I had never been to Brussels before and, though I had been a life-member of the Brontë Society since 1974, I had never then been to any Brontë events. This was because they were always held at awkward times of the year for me. Of course I had been to Haworth at Christmas and in the summer as we had a holiday cottage in Oxenhope. 

I was quite surprised at the large number of members on the excursion and how nice they were to me, a new-comer. There was such a feeling of camaraderie. I soon met up with Eric R and Selina Busch as they were the Dutch contingent and I also live in the Netherlands, (though English). They took me on a little tour of Brontë sites. They were already researching the area and had been studying the archives at the city registers. They took me down the narrow rue Villa Hermosa which comes to a dead end at a side wall of Le Palais des Beaux Arts. Originally of course this had led down to the rue d'Isabelle where the Pensionnat was situated.  

Another highlight was our visit to the British Embassy on the anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birthday. We were all supposed to dress in Victorian costume and indeed many people had actually entered into the spirit of the thing (see photo on p 13, Brontë Society Gazette, issue 9, July 1993) and really looked the part. 

We had a very enjoyable afternoon with tea on the lawn. 

Then on another day there was the underground exploration led by the city architect. They had just started excavating the ancient palace of Charles V which lies under the present Place Royale. So we had to slither down a steep and long sandy slope and be led through the darkness ending up amazingly in the original rue d'Isabelle which we followed until it ended in another wall of the Palais des Beaux Arts. 

This was the part of the street which the Brontë sisters could not have known. So while their part of the street has been demolished the more ancient one remains.

Finally, I well remember that M. Fierens, a descendent of  M and Mme Heger, gave us a very stimulating talk about his family. And of course our visit to Waterloo.

Maureen Peeck

The excursion was later reported in the BS Gazette by Charlotte Cory, who had helped to organize it.

1 comment:

charlotte cory said...

I did not "help" organize that Bronte Society trip to Brussels - I organized it! I persuaded the British Embassy to hold the party because the consul at the time, one Emily Rose MBE (I think) had been at the embassy in Finland with my brother when he was stationed there (his first overseas posting - he now practically runs the commonwealth office). I tracked down all the venues etc Anyhow, it is nice to think it is still remembered. Oddly, after many excursions (and i dont mean physical ones but them too, elsewhere) i return to the Brontes this autumn with an exhibiton at the Parsonage about the Brontes and photography "Capturing the Brontes". Do come - it is something quite different!
V best wishes to everyone i met in brussels 20 years ago now, Charlotte Cory