Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Visit to Mariemont Museum to See Charlotte's 'L’Ingratitude'

Fourteen members of the Brussels Brontë Group visited the Musée Royal de Mariemont on 7 March 2020 to view Charlotte Brontë’s French essay L’Ingratitude and other items in the museum’s ‘Reserve Précieuse’ (collection of rare books and manuscripts). We were given a lively two-hour talk by Chief Librarian Bertrand Federinov.

The session included letters or manuscripts by Charles I, Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin and two special favorites of the Brontës -- the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson.

M. Federinov shows Charlotte's `L'Ingratitude' essay.

M. Federinov started by filling us in on the history of the museum. It stands in the Mariemont domain, first founded as a hunting estate by Mary of Hungary, sister of Charles V. In the early nineteenth century the Warocqué family, who made their fortune from coalmining, bought it and built themselves a neo-classical château on the estate.

Raoul Warocqué, the last of the dynasty, inherited a vast fortune and had plenty to spend on his library of books and the other items that today form the museum’s collection. Warocqué became a bibliophile while still in his teens. His mother, who nagged him about everything he did, asked why he didn’t just buy the decorative spines! Luckily, Warocqué didn’t heed the suggestion. By the time of his death, he had collected around 30,000 volumes, plus a huge collection of manuscripts including over 5,000 autographs. When he died without an heir in 1917 at the age of 47, he left everything to the Belgian state.

The château, where the museum was first housed, burned down in 1960 (luckily, much of the collection survived). A plan to rebuild it was ditched when the architect Roger Bastin took over and designed an ultra-modern new museum building which opened in 1975.

Note from Queen Victoria.

M. Federinov had prepared a manuscript selection tailor-made for our group, relating mainly to English history and literature rather than the French literary autographs and French literature gems he shows most groups. The United States was represented too, for example by a letter from Benjamin Franklin.

Some of the most exciting items were penned by members of the English royalty -- a letter from Mary Tudor to her aunt, Mary of Hungary, about the negotiations for her marriage with Philip II; a letter from Charles I; a note from Queen Victoria on beautifully decorated notepaper about preparations for her marriage with Albert.

There were letters by two heroes of the Brontë family: the Duke of Wellington, writing shortly before the battle of Waterloo, and Lord Nelson in a note to Lady Hamilton signed ‘Nelson and Bronte’, the title that may have inspired Patrick Brunty to change his name.

Lord Nelson note signed 'Nelson and Bronte'.

Writers represented in the selection we saw included Walter Scott (addressing the poet Robert Southey, who famously told Charlotte Brontë that ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman's life’), and Charles Dickens. Dickens was writing in French in 1856 to Hachette, his French publishers, who were expecting a package of his books from London. Little Dorrit was just being published at the time. The francophile Dickens often visited France.

Warocqué’s book collection is comprehensive, spanning all periods of the printed word and including 17 ‘incunables’ – very early (pre-1500) printed books. On this visit there was only time to show us one item in a book collection known for its sumptuous bindings, but the one we saw is one of its jewels. The word is apt since the book in question is an edition of Byron’s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London, known as the ‘Rolls Royce of bookbinding’. Working at the turn of the twentieth century, they produced ornate jewelled bindings featuring real gold and precious stones.

M. Federinov left the Brontë manuscript, Charlotte Brontë’s essay L’Ingratitude, till last. Dated 16 March 1842, a month after her arrival in Belgium, it wasn’t published until the Brussels-based researcher Brian Bracken came across it in the Mariemont’s online catalogue. It was given to Warocqué by his friend Paul Heger as a thank-you gift for Warocqué’s generosity to Brussels University, of which Heger was Vice-Chancellor.


Charlotte Brontë’s 'L’Ingratitude' essay.

The manuscript of the essay is in an album containing other items, including a facsimile of Charlotte’s four letters to Constantin Heger, newspaper cuttings about the publication of the letters in The Times in 1913 and photos of the Pensionnat.

The album also contains a letter from Paul Heger to Warocqué written in 1914, apologising for the delay in giving him the MS and explaining that he had been compiling an album so as to provide context for the MS and create an even better gift for Warocqué. A postscript dated 1915 explains that there had been a further delay caused by the start of the First World War.

Brussels Brontë Group members with M. Federinov at Musee de Mariemont.

When the essay left the Hegers’ hands in 1915, Brontë scholars lost sight of it and didn’t realise it was at the Mariemont until it was published in an article by Brian Bracken in the London Review of Books on 8 March 2012.

We were therefore among the very first visitors in the museum’s history to see the devoir, which as far as we know is the only Brontë manuscript in a museum in continental Europe.

Helen MacEwan

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