Tuesday 24 April 2007

Brontë weekend in Brussels 21-22 April

The weekend of 21-22 April saw our group's first major event, a weekend of activities coniciding with Charlotte Brontë's birthday for which members based in Belgium were joined by those from the Netherlands and also by a group of Brontë Society members from the UK (the London and South-East branch) led by Margaret McCarthy.

This was a first in the Brontë Society, as it is the first time that such an event has been conceived and organised by members actually based in Brussels and able to offer an insider's view of the city and insights about life in Belgium.

We were able to draw on the experience of Eric Ruijssenaars, Selina Busch and Maureen Peeck O'Toole, who helped to set up the Society's trips to Brussels in 1993 and 2003. Now as then, Eric's research on the Brontë places in Brussels and Selina's maps and drawings recreating the Pensionnat and Isabelle quarter were invaluable.

The programme for Saturday, on which most of the events took place, included a guided walk round the main places connected with the Brontës, a visit to Chapelle Royale (where the sisters went on Sundays) where we were given a talk on its history and that of Protestantism in Belgium, a "birthday" tea party and a dinner followed by some entertainment.

A new feature was that the guided walk was led by a new member of the group who is however not new to Brussels, having lived here and written about it for over 15 years. Derek Blyth is the author of some of the main guide books on the city and has always been fascinated by the Brontës' connection with it. His Brussels for Pleasure - 13 walks through the historic city includes a Brontë walk. This, however, is the first time that he has guided a group of enthusiasts in person!

To his main Brontë walk centred on the site of the Pensionnat, Derek Blyth added a second one, a mystery tour devised especially for our visitors. When they arrived on Friday evening we were all whisked off by him to see some spots with lesser-known or speculative Brontë connections, such as Place des Martyrs or the building in front of which Derek thinks Lucy Snowe may have fainted when she was found by Dr John.

After a relaxed morning over coffee in Grand'Place, lunch on the roof terrace restaurant of the Museum of Musical Instruments with its fabulous view of Place Royale, so often crossed by Charlotte Brontë, and a visit to Chapelle Royale where she worshipped, came the Brontë walk proper. The territory for this one was more familiar but some novel features were incorporated: readings from Villette and from letters by an obliging "Charlotte" in the group, visual aids (old street views, pictures Charlotte saw in exhibitions during her stay), and, again, Derek Blyth's own theories about some of the routes taken by Lucy/Charlotte. Concentrating in fascinating detail on what is geographically a smallish area, in two hours we covered a lot of ground in terms of the history of Brussels and the background to the Brontës' visit: not only where their English friends lived but the wider British community of the time and its amenities in and around Place Royale, for example.

After the tea party and dinner, the day was rounded off by a quiz and readings from Villette by Selina Busch and Brian Speak, introduced by Maureen Peeck.

This international weekend (a coming together of members from four different countries, since we were also joined by two enthusiasts from the Czech Republic who had met some of us at Haworth!) was a light-hearted and enjoyable event with plenty of time to talk to new friends and catch up with old ones.

We are planning to make this April Brontë weekend an annual event and would love to invite more groups of members to join us in between the big excursions organised by the Society. Is anyone interested for next year?

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