Charlotte Brontë’s stay in Brussels in the 1840s inspired two of her own novels and also two recent novels published on the subject. Jolien Janzing published De Meester in 2013. Si j'avais des ailes, by Nathalie Stalmans, was published in 2019.
The difference between the two writers is instructive. Stalmans is an historian and has an academic past. Janzing, for her part, is a journalist and rather fascinated by current events, which she weaves into her work.
The two have different views on Charlotte and on Brussels itself.
The French-speaking Stalmans and the Flemish-Dutch Janzing view the Belgian capital from their own situation, just like Charlotte herself, who cared for neither the city nor its inhabitants. Enough reasons to cross-examine both novels. How did Charlotte view her stay in the Belgian capital and how do the two contemporary authors look back on the role Brussels and the Low Countries played for Charlotte? That’s the theme of the article I wrote for the Stichting Zannekin in Ypres.
Truths and lies
Si j'avais des ailes
by Nathalie Stalmans starts when Charlotte has just died. In April 1856, the
unexpected message arrives at the Pensionnat Héger that an English lady is
coming, one Elizabeth Gaskell. The whole Pensionnat is in turmoil, because
Gaskell is none other than Charlotte's first biographer and a well-known
novelist. What will the Pensionnat’s inhabitants answer if she asks difficult questions?
The Pensionnat is organized on two levels, like Downton Abbey. On the one hand,
there is the French-language “upstairs” with the Héger couple, their guests and
the teachers. On the other hand, Stalmans sketches the "downstairs"
with the predominantly Dutch-speaking, mostly genuine Brussels residents, such
as the maid Manke Née and the stubborn cook Scheile Leentje. Now all Pensionnat
residents have some private secret they want to keep hidden from Gaskell. You
could say that Stalmans is writing a detective novel.
We have to admit that there are some questionable
passages in Janzing’s novel. There are the famous love letters from Charlotte
to Héger, which according to the “orthodox” version, were sewn together again
by Mrs. Héger after her husband tore them up. After all, they would prove that
Mr. Héger was actually the innocent victim of Charlotte's amorous zeal. In
Janzing’s novel, we read the exact opposite; Stalmans gives a slightly
different version of this story, even more ingenious.
The silent love scene between Patrick Brontë and his sister-in-law Elizabeth has also sprung from Janzing’s fantasy. And we may also wonder if king Leopold I, with his innate lack of paternal instinct, really dreamed of swimming with his two sons in some Brabant beck ... But the old adage remains true: a biographer must tell the truth, whereas a novelist may tell lies. Stalmans does exactly the same in Si j'avais des ailes: she suggests that Charlotte visited the battlefield of Waterloo together with the Hégers. She treats her readers to a true-to-life description of what Waterloo looked like at the time.
Charlotte and the Belgians
Immediately we make a curious observation: when Charlotte talks about the Belgians, she often uses the term “Flemish” (usually in French, the “Flamands”); sometimes she also refers to “Brabanters.” But invariably -- the meaning is the same: Belgians. For her, Flemings are invariably stupid and hypocritical, even if she doesn't deny them a certain amount of picturesque charm. The only time she uses “Flemish” in a positive sense is related to painting (Villette, XIX). In that context she also uses “Dutch”. So she often confuses Flemish, Belgian and even Dutch. Charlotte does not mention the Walloons: so my hypothesis is that she looks at Belgium through her Brussels glasses and invariably describes the lower social classes as “Flemish.” In other words: “Fleming” has a social, not ethnic, significance for Charlotte Brontë.
Historical perspective: is Brussels a Flemish
The young kingdom of Belgium remains an
unfathomable mystery to Charlotte. In addition, we come face to face with a
paradox: why is she perfecting her French in a city that at that time still
speaks Dutch? By the way, Charlotte herself invariably speaks of “Flamands”
when she talks about the original population of the capital. Charlotte's
Brussels -- like the Pensionnat -- is also divided into two social floors: the
ordinary, poor, mostly Dutch-speaking people live in the Lower Town; the chic
Hoogstad, on the other hand, is the place where the French-speaking elite and
the English colony reside.
Charlotte has a lot of criticism towards the locals: they are rude and uneducated, live in miserable conditions in dark slums near the Senne, which will be cleaned up after 1867 by the Brussels city council under Mayor Jules Anspach. Daily life in the dark and busy streets is described in detail by Stalmans and Janzing.
It is easy to explain why Charlotte does not
really care for the “Flamands.” After all, she is the daughter of an Anglican
vicar and has had a good education. Charlotte always has had a kind of
love-hate relationship with Catholicism. She must have been attracted by the
churches and cathedrals (she even goes to confession in the Saint Gudula in
Brussels at a time of despair), but cannot agree with what she calls Catholic
hypocrisy. It is therefore no surprise that Charlotte rather sees Brussels as a
French-speaking city. Janzing, like Charlotte, mainly uses French place and
street names, while there is often a correct Dutch name available. Naturally,
one can find extenuating circumstances for the fact that Charlotte has
difficulty with Dutch, which is often also spoken in dialect form in Brussels.
Logically, once she arrived in Brussels, Charlotte felt more affinity with the
French-speaking elite than with the Flemish workers from the Lower Town. It
seems to me that Charlotte also very quickly adopts the cultural ideology of
her masters in the Pensionnat in Brussels; after all, the French-speaking
Hégers are part of the cultural elite of the capital and literally look down on
the Flemish of the Lower Town. The Hégers live in their own world of museums
and concerts near the Park, and are also literally close to the Palace. Now the
“Flamands” (or the Belgians…) do not only have bad qualities. According to
Charlotte, they are neat, their language skills are proverbial (although
Charlotte is annoyed at the same time with the guttural accent of some Belgian
students). Belgian women are well dressed and seem healthier than the English,
the food is exemplary. And last but not least: thrift -- (in the neutral sense
of the word, Belgians spend little money on ostentation) -- has been elevated
to a national virtue. In my view, all that praise far outweighs the accusation
that we are hypocritical (because Catholic) and stupid (because not English).
It is especially with Stalmans that we find a
historically correct representation of the Brussels reality. For her part,
Janzing is more subjective in her description of Brussels; she looks at the
capital through contemporary, somewhat Flemish-minded glasses. There is of
course nothing against that, but if you write a historical novel, you should be
aware of historical realities and not blend them with contemporary views. That
seems obvious to me when Janzing lets Charlotte meet with a Flemish worker,
Emile. His views on the new Belgian regime are those of the rich and French
speaking “Orangists” and not of the Flemish workers from that period.
Charlotte and the Dutch
But the Dutch are also addressed in a different
way by our three writers. Charlotte herself regularly refers to Dutch
paintings, especially when describing “Flemish” women. Charlotte’s view on the
Dutch is positive. In The Professor there is such a Dutch character, a
Mr Vandenhuten. He is the father of the young man saved from drowning by
William Crimsworth, the main character of the novel (PR XXI). In gratitude,
father Vandenhuten will help Crimsworth to a good job. Charlotte gives a nice
description of the character of this Dutchman: “The Dutchman (he was not a
Fleming, but a true Dutchman) was slow, calm, with limited intelligence but a
healthy and sharp judgment. The Englishman was much more nervous, active and
quicker, both in understanding and in action, in thinking and in realization.
The Dutchman was benevolent, the Englishman sensitive. In short, our characters
matched exactly (…) “(PR XXII).
Real Dutch people do not occur in Stalmans’ or
Janzing’s novels. Stalmans does mention the rebellion of 1830, more or less in
the same terms as Charlotte, as a fight for freedom against an absolute king
(NS 9 and 11). She places the Dutch in a long line of foreign occupants of the
Low Countries. In my opinion, historical reality is best shown by Stalmans;
Janzing, for her part, views history through contemporary eyes and raises
concerns about the contemporary position of Flanders. Feminism is also an
important theme of Janzing’s novel: Charlotte tries to live as an independent
woman. In any case, Brussels remains the perfect source of inspiration for all
three authors. Charlotte Brontë had a difficult period in a capital that was
already very open to the English: she knew loneliness, but also the great,
impossible Love. Her short stay has left traces in our literature down to this
day. And we must continue to cherish that memory.
Published in Zannekin Jaarboek no 42, 2020, Stichting Zannekin, Ieper ; www.zannekin.org. The Stichting Zannekin has a very limited website, so for the full article in Dutch, you must buy the Jaarboek 42 on www.zannekin.org – or send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to get the full text in Dutch.