Friday 9 February 2018

The Brontë Brussels calendar, or daily life in Brussels in 1842 and 1843: Introduction 2, The news of the world

Newspapers are a wonderful source of historical information, and in these years Belgium was already blessed with a very good freedom of press. There was a wide range of papers, local and national, from very liberal to very conservative, and they liked a good debate among each other. Two national papers published in Brussels have been digitized. They take us all around the world when reading them, as far away as New Zealand (Belgium sent a new consul to New Zealand in October 1842),

It took almost half a year for news to get from New Zealand (where Mary Taylor was to go to a few years later) to Belgium. The rest of the world went quicker of course. Even so, there could easily be a delay of two, even three days between a news event happening in Belgium and it getting in the newspaper. Three to five days was normal for news from England, which surely the sisters were most interested in, certainly especially during the 1842 summer of (Chartist) unrest in Britain.

Belgium was squeezed between three big countries, one slightly bigger country and a tiny one. A young country too, not completely settled yet. Soon after the sisters’ arrival a noteworthy court case began, on accusations of (an Orangist) conspiracy against the state (the big news of March). In 1842 there was still no definitive treaty with the Dutch, following their successful 1830 rebellion.
Germany as one country didn’t exist at all but the Zollverein already was quite successful in beginning to unify the country. With Prussia as its most powerful member it was already getting an important economic force. Because of the shared language and close border France was the most influential big neighbor culturally. Economically the country was perhaps more oriented towards Britain. The Belgian king, Leopold was related to Queen Victoria. The Belgian queen was a daughter of the French king, Louis-Philippe.

A divided country
It is said the country was divided between liberals and Catholics, but this can hardly be called entirely right. Most liberals were Catholics too. It is perhaps better described by the Flemish description of the divide: ‘klerikalen v antiklerikalen.’ The Catholics had retained a sound majority in parliament, after the 1841 elections. In general though consensus was sought, resulting in lengthy parliamentarian debates, on precise wordings of an article of a law. These laws would also be well-discussed in the newspapers, and sharply too.

The Catholic Journal de Bruxelles, which has been digitized, always liked a good debate. They often, on their first page, refute something ‘our opponents’ (“nos adversaires”) had said, as being untrue. The newspaper had only began to be published on 1 January 1841 but it appears to have become rather influential in a short time (and to have eclipsed the other main Catholic paper, l’Émancipation belge). It’s favourite opponent was l’Observateur, the main newspaper of the liberals/anti-clericals.
The Journal thought that Byron was a ‘satanic poet.’ Rousseau was dangerous too, the paper stated in debates about education, in which it was most outspoken. “Our schools must be profoundly Christian … if not they’ll produce nothing.” And “definitely, the religious principles are the best safeguard against disorder and anarchy.”

L’Indépendant has also been digitized. It was the forerunner of the renowned l’Indépendance belge. It was a moderate newspaper, not doing that much debate or opinion. Among the other papers le Moniteur belge, from which some information has been derived too, should be mentioned. It was the state’s official paper, which published new laws, decrees and other governmental decisions (often quoted in the other papers). But it had also plain news. Some info was also found in Dutch (digitized) newspapers.

It is interesting to note that L’Indépendant had one identifiable journalist, who signed his pieces with “E.R.” He wrote reports from England, wrote lengthy pieces about the arts. He is the only writer who can be identified, nobody else ever signed an article (except, once,  a very unbelievable X.X.). He was Eugène Robin, who sadly died at a young age (1812-1848). In 1957 Gustave Charlier, well known for his BB research, edited a published selection of Robin’s articles (Impressions littéraires, Brussels 1957).

One more newspaper should be mentioned, the British Gazette, publishes since 1837, twice a week. Its agent was Edward Browne, who also held an English bookshop at Montagne de la Cour 80. It’s of course highly likely the Brontë sisters visited this bookshop (or, it’s impossible to believe they didn’t).

Brussels was a liberal city. A march census in 1842 shows it had 110.760 inhabitants. A further 40.000 people were living in the towns around it, the faubourgs. (Amsterdam had 250.000, Moscow 350.000, Paris, 1 million.) Belgium in 1842 had about 4, 1 million inhabitants. L’Indépendant (on 20 September 1842) wrote there were about 3500 British people living in Brussels. That month a proposal came up to unite the city with the faubourgs, but it stood no chance. A new wall around that much bigger city would easily cost 3 to 4 million francs.

There was, in 1842, already a sort of telegraph system, for instance between Brussels and Paris, but it clearly didn’t function well yet, as there are very few telegraph news reports. In 1843 Morse would come up with a good system which would become very important (also for predicting the weather). What did help though certainly to bring the news closer was the quite fast expansion of railway lines. On the other hand though, there wasn’t even a direct train connection between Brussels and Paris, when the Brontës arrived in the city.

There was very little sports news in these days, one remarkable difference from our  days. There was the occasional horse-racing, and a bit of pigeon racing. On his annual visit to England, the Belgian king had visited a cricket match in 1841 at Eton (“sorte de jeux de quilles”), but there is no such report for 1842 or 1843.


1 comment:

Marina said...

Hello E.R. , or Eric (as I know you),
Any relation to the ER in your article?
What a very interesting article. I have just finished Helen's book "through Belgian eyes" and this is a good additional informative report on what happened in Brussels and Belgium when Charlotte and Emily where here. Good to know what kept us Belgians busy and what interested us in those days; I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thank you.