Saturday 10 June 2023

Guided walk in area near Bozar with Dr Christophe Loir

The Brontë-related area around the Bozar was the subject of a fascinating guided walk by Dr Christophe Loir from the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) on Saturday 3 June 2023. In this walk, devised specially for the Brussels Brontë Group, Dr Loir talked about the rue Isabelle and its environs and the redevelopment of the area in the first half of the 20th century. 

Dr Loir conjured up the area as it was in the 1840s when the Brontë sisters were there, with the help of street plans of the period, travel guides, engravings, early photographs and press articles. 

More of a talk than a walk (rue Ravenstein, rue Baron Horta, and up the Belliard Steps into the Parc de Bruxelles), Saturday afternoon’s event treated participants to a wealth of information on the history and architecture of this part of Brussels. 

Clearly impassioned by his subject, Dr Loir spent over two hours sharing his extensive knowledge, accompanied by documentary evidence and large-scale maps and images, the fruits of painstaking research carried out over the years with the aid of his colleagues and students. 

Dr Christophe Loir

Dr Loir, who teaches at ULB's department of History, Arts and Archeology, gave us a broad insight into the architectural history of the area (Horta, Malfait etc.), not to mention the authorities’ rather blinkered view of how to look after their architectural heritage. It was disturbing to learn that while Horta’s Palais des Beaux-Arts is a listed building, the Belliard Steps and their architectural setting do not enjoy the same degree of protection: witness the disappearance of the old lampposts on the side of rue Baron Horta, now occupied by what can only be described as an architectural monstrosity! 

What was particularly fascinating for Brontë devotees was Dr Loir's particular concern to ensure that we had a vivid picture of the area in the years leading up to and including 1842-43, when Emily and, on two occasions, Charlotte, lived in the rue Isabelle. 

It was news to me that this small area of Brussels had been the epicentre of resistance and fighting during an abortive attempt by the Dutch to regain control of the city during the revolution of 1830 that saw the founding of the Belgian state. So, although the Brontës visited some twelve years later, the area of the Belliard Steps, a major thoroughfare at the time between upper and lower town, would still have displayed the scars of battle. 

Speaking of upper and lower town, we were also told of the stark social division between these two areas. English visitors and Brussels English society in general stuck very much to the upper town, which included the Parc de Bruxelles, hence Charlotte’s obvious familiarity with it in Villette. The Hotel de Bellevue nearby (now attached to the Royal Palace), was the go-to hotel of its day for well-to-do English visitors.

Dr Loir read some amusing extracts from the police regulations governing the park, vigorously enforced by all accounts. The bottom line appeared to be that quiet walking was allowed, but pretty much everything else was not. A safe haven then perhaps for wary English visitors, particularly female? 

Just a couple of nuggets from amongst the many entertaining and illustrated anecdotes we heard: an article written by a local journalist of the day, marvelling at the coexistence of ‘anglomanie’ and ‘anglophobie’ amongst local residents – plus ça change…! – and the astonishing fact that a vast proportion of advertising space in the Brussels newspapers in the later part of the 19th century was given over to dentists plying for trade, not least an English dentist who pioneered the profession in Brussels, thus prompting the advent of more English dentists! 

  Brian Holland

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