Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Finding Brontë in Brussels: reflections on literary tourism

In March 2014 I visited Brussels to carry out some preliminary research for a project on Charlotte Brontë and Brussels. The work came out of my book research on mobility in the Victorian novel, in which I look at Charlotte Brontë’s writing on travel to Europe in Villette and The Professor. This was coupled with a developing project on literary tourism, and I became interested in how and why “Brontë’s Brussels” as a tourist site has received so little critical attention from scholars, overshadowed as it is by the more famous Brontë location, the Parsonage at Haworth.

My Brussels trip formed the basis for extending and developing these ideas; I wanted to get a sense of how the locations informed the descriptive settings of Villette and The Professor and above all to learn more about how literary tourists, past and present, have forged their relationships to the city’s spaces through these texts.

Just as any self-respecting nineteenth-century tourist would head to Brussels armed with their Baedeker or Murray’s handbook to tour the sites, I set off armed with copies of Eric Ruijssenaars’s Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land: The Pensionnat Heger and other Brontë places in Brussels and Helen MacEwan’s Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontë’s in Brussels, both invaluable guides for touring Brontë’s Brussels locations (1). (I also later took one of the walking tours run by the Brussels Brontë group, a highly enjoyable and very informative experience).

The Belliard Steps
(photo Charlotte Mathieson)

Tourists in search of Brussels’s Brontë sites date to not long after the publication of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853): the earliest account in Ruijssenaars’ book is an 1871 piece by Adeline Trafton, originally published in an American periodical, Scribner’s Monthly. Trafton writes of how her group of American girls go in search of the Pensionnat, where they are told that “Americans often come to visit the school and the garden” (2). Other accounts show a similar international appeal of the site, while commenting that the British show little interest in the city itself, drawn instead towards the nearby site of Waterloo. The internationality of Brontë’s Brussels is still of course highly evident today: the Brussels Brontë group comprises many nationalities, mostly European, and in the discussion over dinner on one evening of my trip this provided interesting points of reflection on the importance of the Brontës in various national contexts.

In the nineteenth-century tourist accounts it is the Pensionnat Heger which forms the centre-point of literary tourist’s interests. The Pensionnat is the “Mecca”, as one describes it, a place of pilgrimage where spiritual connection to the sisters is sought, and where relics of the visit may be acquired: some tourists note taking a leaf from the pear-tree as a souvenir of their visit. Today, of course, little remains of the Pensionnat Heger and the Brontë tourist has to work hard to find and to see the city as the Brontës would have done. As I found, though, the experience is not only made easier by books such as Ruijssenaars’ and MacEwan’s, but is also richly rewarding. One can walk across the Park where Lucy Snowe follows Dr John’s tread on her first, lonely night in the city, and see the beautifully coloured bandstand, reminiscent of the carnival scenes later in Villette. Crossing the street there are the Belliard steps leading down into the courtyard of the Pensionnat, and around the corner the intriguing remains of the old Quartier, the Rue Teracken, descend below street level. Nearby is the Chappelle where Emily and Charlotte attended service, and the Cathedral where Charlotte (and then fictional Lucy) found herself one night, in the middle of the long summer vacation, making a confession to the priest.
Park Royal
(photo Charlotte Mathieson)
Unlike tourist sites such as Haworth, there is no central location for the tourist to fix upon. Instead, the whole area has to be experienced as part of a tour in which the tourist seeks out sites of meaning and maps them onto their own memories of Brontë’s writing. This is, though, a refreshingly different experience to being guided through a curated tourist site in which one is directed how to see the landscape; instead, the tourist draws on their imagination to craft a more individual, personal response.

This also led me to realise just how prominent this same feature is in the original tourists’ accounts, which privilege the walking tour around Brussels as an essential part of their journey. While the site of the Pensionnat is highly valued, all reach their destination by first following in the footsteps of Lucy Snowe – travelling, as I did, across the Park, down the Belliard steps, and into the courtyard. As they journey, they express excitement at how the landscape seems to unfold before them as if unfurling from the pages of Brontë’s writing: no map is needed, so vivid are their memories and so distinctly reminiscent of the books is the space in which they found themselves. “Brontë’s Brussels”, these tourists recognise, went beyond the Pensionnat into the surrounding city streets, and was distinctly captured in Charlotte’s writing: “the topography and local colouring of ‘Villette’ and ‘The Professor’ are as vivid and unmistakable as in the best work of Dickens himself”, wrote Theodore Wolfe in 1885 (3).

This attests to what I found was the enduring appeal of the area today; although no Pensionnat remains, there is much to appreciate in seeking out “Brontë’s Brussels” in the nearby area. One enthusiastic tourist from 1898 remarks “we are here because Brussels is Villette” and the Brontë tourist today, with a little imagination, will likewise find themselves in a landscape in which one can “see, with bodily vision, a locality familiar to the mind’s eye”.

Charlotte Mathieson

Charlotte Mathieson is a Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics. She works on travel in novels by authors including Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, and has published Mobility in the Victorian Novel: Placing the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).


1. Eric Ruijssenaars, Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land: The Pensionnat Heger and other Brontë places in Brussels (Keighley, West Yorkshire: The Brontë Society, 2000); Helen MacEwan, Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels (Hythe, Kent: Brussels Brontë Editions, 2012).

2. Adeline Trafton, “A Visit to Charlotte Brontë’s School at Brussels”, originally published in Scribner’s 
Monthly 3.2 (1871), pp. 186-89; see Ruijssenaars’s Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, p. 59.

3. Theodore Wolfe, “Scenes of Charlotte Brontë’s Life in Brussels”, originally published in Lippincott’s Magazine 36 (1885), pp. 542-48; see Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, p. 61.

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