|The speakers, Jones and Ola
Presentations by members of the Brussels Brontë Group have been a fixture of our calendar for the past six years. In past presentations Eric Ruijssenaars has led us on a virtual tour of the Isabelle Quarter, and Myriam Campinaire has unpicked the Gothic elements in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Last year, in talks enlivened by readings and recitations, Judith Collins spoke on Disguise, deception and concealment in Jane Eyre and Paul Gretton on Some literary themes and sources of Wuthering Heights.
This year’s speakers, Jones Hayden and Ola Podstawka, both of whom are on the Brontë Group committee, are familiar to members – Jones as leader of our Brontë tours and reading groups and Ola as moderator of one of the reading groups. Members also know them for the presentations they have given in the past, Jones (among other subjects) on Profanity and Scripture in The Professor and Ola on the influence of Constantin Heger on Charlotte Brontë’s fictional heroes.
This year it was Jones who took a look at Heger’s influence on Charlotte, specifically on her novel Jane Eyre, in a talk called The influence of Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels experience on Jane Eyre. Juliet Barker’s opinion that ‘Possibly the greatest single influence on Charlotte, both as a person and as a writer, was the time she spent in Brussels’ set the tone for the talk. Many readers of Charlotte’s best-seller wondered how an unmarried clergyman's daughter could write so powerfully about passion. The answer, Jones told us, lies in Brussels and in her Belgian tutor Heger – the person who most influenced her. It was her time in Brussels that made her a great novelist.
Jones looked at various ways in which the Brussels experience is reflected in Jane Eyre. In Brussels, Charlotte wrote devoirs for Heger, as do the heroines of The Professor, Shirley and Villette for the male protagonists. Jane doesn’t write essays for Rochester, but she calls him her ‘master’ as Charlotte did Heger, and shows him her drawings – a similar means of revealing her character and aspiration.
Villette has been called a novel of revenge because of Charlotte’s supposed depiction of Mme Heger as Mme Beck. Did Charlotte also get her revenge on Mme Heger in Jane Eyre? Was Madame transmuted by wish-fulfilment into Bertha Mason, with Rochester finally free to marry Jane, in whom he finds his intellectual equal?
It wasn’t the first time we’d had a look at the Brussels experience, or Jane Eyre. Ola Podstawka’s subject, however, was a first, and it was one we’ve neglected too long: a man who, like Heger, had a considerable influence on Charlotte, particularly in childhood and youth. This was her brother Branwell, the only male Brontë sibling, whose life and character Ola examined in her presentation We need to talk about Branwell. We’ve been a little late in doing so, as it was his bicentenary last year, but better late than never.
It is Juliet Barker’s opinion that without Branwell, the sisters probably wouldn’t have become the writers they did. Ola looked first at some less positive images of Branwell in film: comic relief in the film Devotion, debauched Romantic artist in Téchiné’s Les Soeurs Brontë, ‘sobbing drunken mess’, as Ola put it, in the latest Brontë biopic, To Walk Invisible.
We then followed the chronology of his professional life. Every venture into paid employment ended in failure, whether as portrait painter or railway clerk. These ventures aside, how talented was he really? He was quick to learn, prolific as a writer – yet often derivative and undiscriminating, lacking in self-criticism.
Some of the questions that most intrigue Brontë enthusiasts centre on Branwell Brontë’s life and work. Might he really have had a hand in the authorship of Wuthering Heights? Did he have an affair with Mrs Robinson? What were the elements of his character that drove him self-destruction? Ola’s presentation provided a concise, well-rounded and balanced introduction to the Brontë brother.
It was wonderful to see so many of our members at this event. The two presentations were received with interest and enthusiasm and were clearly greatly enjoyed.