Monday 15 June 2015

Brontë Brussels Past Historians: Joseph Joshua Green.

In July 1842 Dr. Thomas Wheelwright, his wife and five young daughters, arrived in Brussels. The girls studied at the Pensionnat Heger, where Emily Brontë  gave them piano lessons. The girls didn't enjoy these lessons as they took place during their valuable school playtime. At least one of the Wheelwright daughters, Laetitia, disliked Emily a lot, yet on the other hand she was to become a lifelong friend of Charlotte. Another of the daughters, Julia, died sadly in Brussels on the 17 November 1842, apparently from a typhoid fever. The Wheelwrights left in August 1843. The family has always been very cooperative to Brontë historians, from Mrs. Gaskell to Mrs. Chadwick onwards.

An important article about the Wheelwright family, named 'The Brontë-Wheelwright friendship', was written by Joseph Joshua Green. It was published in 1916 in the somewhat obscure Friends' Quarterly Examiner (in two instalments). Thus very few people have actually read the article, while only small parts have been quoted in most biographies. Thanks to internet we can now present it to you. Click here to access the article (it has to be opened page by page). 

Joseph Green was a genealogist from Stansted Mountfichet, Essex. Many titles of publications of his can be found on internet. He was born in 1854, into a Quaker family. He inherited his father's shop but was happy to give that up in 1891 to devote himself to History, citing health problems. He died in 1921 in Hastings. Green was married to a daughter of Laetitia's sister Emily.

His article begins with some interesting genealogical details. He then describes the Brontë- Wheelwright friendship and the mementoes of it which remained in his family's possession at the time of writing. It makes fascinating reading. Even though he reports how valuable Brussels material was thrown into the fire and destroyed (pp.119 and 237), there are tantalising visions of what might still exist, and which did exist when the article was written. There are "two large albums with mementoes of their travels, both in Germany and Belgium"(p.121), and also "a large coloured plan of the Protestant Burial Ground at Brussels showing the place of her [Julia's] interment" (p.221). Green also mentions the possession of "a tiny bouquet of dried flowers from the pensionnat garden" (p.226).

It seems most of the Wheelwright papers ended up in the United States. Such was the fate of many British literary documents coming up for auction between 1918 and 1930. British literature suffered an unfortunate loss of much of its heritage during this decade. Nearly all letters from Charlotte to the Wheelwrights are also to be found now in US collections. And nobody knows whatever may have happened to the tiny bouquet of flowers from Heger's garden. 

Green wrote his article in the middle of the First World War, a few years after Frances, the last of the Wheelwright sisters had died. This year 1916 more or less saw the end of an important period of Brussels Brontë research, and the beginning of a very long barren period, with only the exception of Edgar de Knevett's 1923 article. 
The Wheelwrights were living in Hotel Cluysenaar, which later became Hotel Astoria. A new article about the history of this Hotel follows below.

At the same time one can now find on the research website page of the BBG a new A to Z of all the articles related to places and friends connected with the Brussels of the Brontës, published on the blog since 2007. It’s great that the BBG, now founded almost 10 years ago, has also resulted in a big leap forward in our knowledge of Charlotte’s and Emily’s stay there.  

Eric Ruijssenaars & Brian Bracken

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