Wednesday 10 May 2023

Brontë Sisters Square in Koekelberg comes a step nearer!

Three years ago we reported a proposal for a square in Koekelberg to be named after the Brontë sisters. It’s an initiative of Koekelberg councillor Robert Delathouwer, a member of the social-democratic political party Vooruit, as part of the Brussels authorities’ move to have more streets named after women (the ‘feminisation’ of street names). 

The Brontë square has now moved a step nearer. On 17 April 2023 the commune’s council approved the initiative in principle, as well as proposals for three other streets in the commune to be named after women. What is proposed is for part of the Dapperenstraat/Rue des Braves (numbers 1 to 20) to be renamed Gezusters Brontëplein/Place des Soeurs Brontë. 

A consultation of residents still has to take place before a final decision is taken at a future council meeting, hopefully this year. 

We have often dreamed of a having a Brussels street or square named after the Brontës and now at last it seems this is to become a reality. 

Why Koekelberg? Because during Charlotte and Emily’s time in Brussels their Yorkshire schoolfriends Mary and Martha Taylor were studying at a school called the Château de Koekelberg, and the Brontës visited them there. On one of these visits the four girls wrote a joint letter to a mutual friend, Ellen Nussey, describing what it was like to study in Brussels. Charlotte seems to have been very happy with her own school, the Pensionnat Heger. She wrote: ‘I think we have done well – we have got into a very good school. Just now we are at Kokleberg [sic] spending the day with Mary and Martha Taylor – such a happy day.’ 

The Koekelberg school was very international, with pupils not just from Belgium but Germany, France and Britain among other countries. Mary and Martha described it as a kind of Tower of Babel where English, French and German speakers attempted to learn one another’s languages, not always successfully. Martha complained: ‘In attempting to acquire other languages I have almost forgotten the little I knew of my own.’ 

Also on the Koekelberg school curriculum were drawing and piano lessons, singing, dancing, gymnastics and ‘cosmography.’ The Taylor girls were not very respectful in describing their schoolmasters and mistresses. The drawing master, Mary Taylor wrote, ‘would be my favourite if he did not smell so of bad tobacco.’ The gymnastics master ‘makes strange noises in the back school room teaching gymnastics to some of the girls.’ The ‘cosmography’ master was nicknamed by the girls ‘Ainsi donc’ because of his oft-repeated pet phrase ‘Ainsi donc! C’est bien compris, n’est-ce pas?’ The singing master was described by Mary as having ‘a tremendous mouth’ – ‘He is constantly telling his pupils that the voice has but a very little hole to get out at and that there are both tongue and teeth to interrupt it on its road and that the orifice ought by all means to be opened as wide as possible,’ she said. 

We can only hope that the Taylor girls learned some French and German as well as having fun observing the eccentricities of the teachers. The Château de Koekelberg school was run by a Madame Goussaert, an Englishwoman née Catherine Phelps who was married to a Belgian. Along with the Pensionnat Heger, it was one of the most renowned girls’ boarding schools in Brussels. 

The Taylors’ happy times in Koekelberg ended sadly when Martha died at the school there aged just 22 in October 1842. Hers was just one of three deaths that changed the Brontës’ lives that autumn. Their aunt Branwell, who had helped to fund their European trip, died in the same month and their father’s popular curate, William Weightman (who makes an appearance in the 2022 film ‘Emily’ as Emily’s love interest) died in September aged 28. 

Martha was buried in the now vanished Protestant cemetery outside the Porte de Louvain and Charlotte often paid visits to her grave. She visited it, for example, on 1 September 1843 on one of her long walks when she stayed on alone at the Pensionnat during the summer holidays. It was on her return from this trip to the cemetery that she went to confession in the Cathedral to relieve her feelings of isolation. We are not sure what Martha died of. Many biographers have assumed that her disease was cholera, but Eric Ruijssenaars disputed this cause of death in an article on our blog a few years ago:

The true cause of death of Martha Taylor

Martha inspired the character of Jessy Yorke in Charlotte’s novel ‘Shirley,’ in which Charlotte describes Jessy’s early death and grave in a foreign country. 

Mary Taylor, the elder sister and one of Charlotte Brontë’s best friends, was an intrepid, outspoken woman who went on to live into old age. For a time she moved to New Zealand where she set up and ran a successful business, a shop. There were few work opportunities for middle-class women in England and she believed that women should work for a living in order to lead a fulfilled and independent life. She wrote a feminist novel, Miss Miles, and at the age of nearly 60 led an all-women expedition up Mont Blanc. 

The Gezusters Brontëplein/Place des Soeurs Brontë, if approved, will be on a site close to Place Simonis and near the place where Madame Goussaert’s school stood. The home and workshop of the sculptor Eugène Simonis were nearby. 

Given that the Brontë and Taylor sisters came to Brussels to study, it seems appropriate that the street to be named after them is lined with brand-new educational buildings including a school, a Flemish cultural centre and a library. 

Watch this space for the official naming of the street if the project is finally approved! 

Helen MacEwan

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