The first speaker at the Brussels Bronte Group's latest Saturday talks can more usually be found introducing lectures than giving them herself. But Helen MacEwan, founder of the group and a familiar face to all its members, on the 1st of April this year took the podium herself.
|Helen MacEwan and Jones Hayden
In 2014 Helen’s book ‘The Brontës in Brussels’ was published, a guide to Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time at the Pensionnat Heger. The subject of her talk was ‘Charlotte Brontë seen by the Belgians: Some views from ‘Labassecour’.' Charlotte was famously unimpressed with much that she found in Brussels in 1842 and 1843, at the same time as being in love with the beauty of the 19th century town - and very probably with one of its citizens, the school teacher Constantin Heger.
Helen sought to correct the idea that Charlotte's opinion of Brussels had been overwhelmingly negative, and to report some reflections from the other side: impressions the Yorkshire writer made on the Belgians. Yes, Helen said, Charlotte had renamed Belgium as Labassecour – the farmyard, or the poultry yard - for her novel. But she was writing at a time when England and Belgium found much to admire in each other, with Belgium seeing the United Kingdom as the cradle of democracy, and the the UK finding the first king of the Belgians, Leopold, an ideal constitutional monarch. Much of this positive feeling is reflected in Charlotte's description of the beauties of Brussels, in her novels and her letters, which were not only filled with damning portraits of slovenly Flemish students. Charlotte's personal and published writings are also full of praise for a wide range of Belgian pleasures, from the fashions seen on the streets and the culture and lights of the city, to the pistolets she seems to have enjoyed eating so much.
Some of the first Belgian reviews of Villette were as uncomplimentary as Charlotte's descriptions of her pupils at the Pensionnat Heger, Helen said. A 1954 review said the book was full of “mockeries and calumnies.” Another critic said it was as misleading for Charlotte to base her portrait of Belgium on experiences at one school as it would be for a writer to use a workhouse as a model for the whole UK. Later critics compared Charlotte to Baudelaire, whose 'Pauvre Belgigue' gives an almost universally negative report of Belgium.
The first French translation of Villette available in Belgium, 'La maitresse d'anglais, ou Le pensionnat de Bruxelles' gives Brussels and Brussels place names their real names, dropping Villette and Charlotte’s fictional names. More significantly, many of the more damning passages about Belgium and the Belgians are changed in translation to become much more flattering. Helen, a translator for the European Commission as well as a writer, said she would never be allowed to do such such "creative" work in her day job.
But despite the positive spin given to Charlotte's novel in its French translation, Jane Eyre remained the more popular novel for Bronte fans visiting Brussels in the writer's footsteps, Helen said. Many members of her audience this month nonetheless will feel a special fondness for Villette, as a portrait of the fascinating but at times frustrating town in which they live - many of them as immigrants, like Charlotte herself.
The second speaker in Brussels on 1st April was unfamiliar with Brussels - but has published a guide to the worst towns in Charlotte's home country. Titled ‘Crap Towns: the 50 worst places to live in the UK’, Sam Jordison controversially includes the Brontes’ birthplace of Haworth in his list of places no sensible person should choose to live.
Jordison is a journalist, critic and humorous writer, as well as leader of the Guardian's Reading Group. He has also led anti-Brexit campaigns in the UK - an affiliation that won him a round of applause from most members of the audience at this month's talk. Jordison explained that, while many of the "crap towns" had won their place in his book because they fostered the social problems and alienation "that led to the disaster of Brexit," Haworth's inclusion could be blamed on the Brontes themselves.
Haworth "killed the sisters," he said, with its open sewers and lack of hygiene giving citizens an average life expectancy of 25.8 years in the mid-19th century. Had they lived in another town, Jordison said, the sisters might have lived "full lives." Instead, their early deaths were followed by Haworth's conversion into "a theme park," with no real life of its own, only a series of tributes and commemorative sites in honour of its famous former inhabitants. He refereed to a 1977 documentary, "the Bronte Business," which showed how the life had been drained out of the town in favour of a money-making tourist industry.
Following Helen's comments on how the Belgians saw Charlotte, Jordison remarked on how the Brontes would have seemed to their own contemporaries in Haworth. Far from being isolated, as is often imagined, the parsonage would have been "the centre of life" in the Victorian hill town. But the Brontes were "cut off" from life in Haworth, he said. "Of course they were eccentric." The sisters would have seemed out of place at any time in history, he said, choosing to keep themselves apart from their neighbours. Even Jane Eyre was in its time an "old fashioned" story, he said, with its "Byronic hero" two decades after Byron's death.
The distance we sometimes feel from the Brontes' writing is sometimes even greater today, said Jordison, a self-described "long-standing admirer" of their work. A reader often finds him or herself "making excuses for Jane" when reading Charlotte's most famous novel, he said. Jane operates under "a very different moral code" from 21st century readers - as well as from Rochester and the Rivers in her own time.
But the fact that we do make excuses and sympathise with the writer and her heroine is "a mark of how real Jane feels," Jordison said. But he added that Jane Eyre is "a book out of its own time, just as Bronte was out of her own time.”