Wednesday 15 December 2010

Brontë Christmas lunch and entertainment 2010

45 members gathered for the group's Christmas lunch on Saturday 11 December, seven of whom had travelled from the Netherlands to join us, with journeys of over three hours each way in some cases. We were lucky with the weather, since the lunch fell between two cold spells, just over the heavy snow that had been making for difficult travelling conditions and with more snow threatened soon.

There was plenty of good cheer, good conversation, and excellent entertainment from several of our talented members who had volunteered to amuse us over our desserts and coffee.

Until today we had known Franklin as the creator of visionary drawings inspired by the Brontës. He now acquainted us with another of his talents by singing 1960s and 70s songs for us (no Brontë link here, but very enjoyable!), accompanying himself on the guitar. Valerie Sculfor, Sally Batten and Sherry Vosburgh sang carols and songs from musicals.

Franklin and his guitar, and singers Valerie, Sally and Sherry

We had first-rate literary entertainment, too, and this was all Brontë-related. Sheila Fordham, who has been known to write poems for group occasions in the past, often drafted on the train journey in to work, didn’t let us down this time and read us a prose poem, a humorous reflection on the life of Branwell Brontë.

Sheila entertains us with her tribute to Branwell

In similarly satirical and light-hearted vein we got fun out of the whole Brontë family (or rather the popular stereotypes of them) in the sketch Christmas Dinner at Haworth Parsonage which appeared in Punch magazine in the 1930s. Richard Fletcher played an irascible Patrick Brontë, Sally Batten an embittered Charlotte brooding about Brussels (whereas Patrick is more interested in the Brussels sprouts), Sheila Fordham a lachrymose Anne and Valerie Sculfor a formidable Emily squabbling with a Branwell somewhat the worse for drink (Liviu Danubiu) over the authorship of a well-known poem.

Tracie Ryan, who directs and acts in the Brussels Shakespeare Society, also took us into the Parsonage with her performance of a Victoria Wood sketch, The guide in Haworth Parsonage.

Valerie, Sally, Sheila, Richard and Liviu performing the sketch Christmas Dinner at Haworth Parsonage

Tracie performing her Victoria Wood sketch

Eric Ruijssenaars, taking leave of us for a year, told us about the scholarship he has been granted by the New Netherland Institute in Albany, US, to do a research project involving 17th C Dutch colonial archives. While in the US Eric will also make contact with the Brontë Society there and talk to its New York section and will also address the annual meeting of all the American sections of the Society. The subject of his talk will of course be Brussels Brontë research and our group!

We gave Eric a going-away present prepared by Selina Busch and ended with a raffle with gifts also prepared by Selina. In her role as Father Christmas, Selina came from the Netherlands bearing Christmas cards as well as gifts for everyone present.
Eric telling us about his scholarship to do research in the US and receiving his going-away present from Selina and Helen

If Branwell Brontë, that lover of good cheer, had been present at our revels surely he would have enjoyed himself and forgiven some good-humoured fun at his expense. I think even his more retiring sisters, had they been flies on the wall, would have been pleased to see so many of us gathered in Brussels to celebrate Christmas in their honour.

Helen MacEwan
Thanks to Peter Cavanagh for the photos

Sunday 5 December 2010

Jane Eyre in Luxembourg

On Friday 3 December I made the three-hour train journey from Brussels across the snow-covered Ardennes to see June Lowery’s stage adaptation of Jane Eyre performed by the Berliner Grundtheater, an English-language theatre company which performs frequently in Luxembourg. The play was being premiered there with a mainly Luxembourg-based cast.

A more romantic setting for this most romantic of stories is hard to imagine: the arts centre in the magnificently renovated Abbaye de Neumunuster down in the picturesque Grund quarter. At this time of year the quarter was particularly beautiful, the snow sparkling with the Christmas lights.

June Lowery has been involved in drama since her university days when she helped her future husband with the lights for a student production of Hamlet he was directing. They set up the Berliner Grundtheater 20 years ago.

She re-discovered Jane Eyre through reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels with her daughter. She wrote the script in 5 months - somehow combining the work with her roles as a manager at the European Commission and mother of two children- after she and her husband, Tony Kingston, met their Jane (Jacqueline Milnes).

The play was directed by Tony and produced by June who also took the role of Mrs Fairfax.

It is an ambitious staging, every essential scene of the novel packed into the two-and-a-half hours, with a huge cast and a striking set design, stairs up to a higher level being used to different effect for Gateshead Manor, Lowood School and Thornfield Hall where of course they lead up to the attic!

As usual in English-language productions in Luxembourg and Brussels, the cast was multinational, with a Danish Rochester, for example. The cast’s multilingualism came in useful: Adèle spoke in impeccable French as did Jane when required (Jacqueline Milne is Irish but was brought up in Luxembourg).

Charlotte Brontë’s interest in foreign languages was one aspect of the novel that attracted June. Jane loves French, learns German, even learns Hindustani. This made the play particularly suited to the babel of tongues that is Luxembourg. In preparing the show, June met fans who had read the novel for the first time in French, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Slovakian….

Two other aspects of the novel seemed to June timely and modern: the treatment of sexual passion, and of religion. Charlotte Brontë acknowledges the force of sexual passion and frankly analyses Jane’s dilemma when torn between love and principle. As for religion, while the framework of the novel is Christian – Rochester must be punished and repent before he can be united with Jane – the emphasis is on tolerance and forgiveness. Brontë has no time for the strict and narrow-minded religion of Brocklehurst and St John Rivers.

The Brussels Brontë Group has several members in Luxembourg, who have been known to spend hours on trains in order to attend our events. I hope there will be lots more “trans-Ardennes” exchanges!

Helen MacEwan

Thursday 18 November 2010

Mrs. Chadwick online and other research news

Published in 1914, Mrs. Chadwick's In the footsteps of the Brontës is one of the most interesting early biographies of the family. The book, which has some very valuable information about 'Brussels' has now become available online.


Little is known about the author, Esther Alice Chadwick. She seems to have been born in 1882. In 1910 she published a biography of Mrs Gaskell. Both books she signed, confusingly, as Mrs. Ellis H Chadwick. In 1917 her article about A gift from M. le Professeur Constantin Heger to Charlotte Brontë was published in 'The Nineteenth Century'. The last reference to her that can be found is a book named Haworth Parsonage, the home of the Brontës, from 1928. It's not known when she died.

The book has some very interesting photographs and other illustrations, for instance of the Rue d'Isabelle and M. and Mme. Heger's grave. There's also a nice but too speculative chapter about a third visit to Brussels by Charlotte (beginning on page 400) in 1850.


With regard to the Jenkinses, and in particular the question about where exactly they lived, a giant breakthrough has been achieved by Brian Bracken. Below you can read his article about it. Brian, if I may say so, is a great addition to the Brussels Brontë Group's Research Dept. With the aid of Renate Hurtmanns, who previously did vital cemetery research, we will continue to bring you interesting resarch news.

There's also more to come on the website, the beginning of an A to Z of places and persons, in which among other things a longer version of Brian's article can be read. In the near future we also hope to make available online some old articles ourselves, like Mrs. Chadwick's A gift.

Eric Ruijssenaars

The Jenkinses’ house in Ixelles

Brian Bracken reports on an important discovery concerning the location of the house of the Rev. Evan Jenkins, the British chaplain in Brussels whose home was so often visited by the Brontë sisters.

The Jenkins family played an important role in the Brontë Brussels story, introducing Emily and Charlotte to the Hegers and their Pensionnat, yet the only concrete address we've ever had for the family's home in Ixelles is from W. Gérin's famous biography of Charlotte Brontë, wherein she cites the address as Chaussée d'Ixelles, 304. This lies near the Place Flagey end of the Chaussée. It would have proved a long enough walk for the Brontës, coming from downtown Brussels on their Sunday visits to the Jenkinses. However, our new research has shown that the address provided by Gérin is incorrect.The Brontë biographer repeats an erroneous address listed in the 1840 Indicateur Belge, used by her as a source book. If one looks at other Indicateurs, or address books, for Brussels in the period 1838-1848, the Jenkins address is clearly given as Ch.d'Ixelles, 388. The Ixelles Commune's Population Census for 1846 confirms this address.

However the Chaussée d'Ixelles we know today ends at number 359. So where was number 388? This has a simple explanation - the houses of Ixelles underwent a major numbering change between the years 1846 and 1850. Chaussée d'Ixelles 388, in the new numbering system became Chaussée d'Ixelles, 138. The death certificate of the Rev. Evan Jenkins, issued by the Ixelles Commune, confirms this. He died at this address, on 23 September 1849.

Where was number 138 located exactly on the Chaussée? Reading the 1846 and 1856 Census Registers for Ixelles, it's clear that the house bearing this number lay between the Rue de la Paix and the Rue de la Tulipe, on the left hand side as one goes from the Porte de Namur to Place Fernand Cocq. It was located about eight or nine houses before the corner of Rue de la Tulipe. The Ixelles cadastral maps of 1836 and 1866 also show this position. On their Sunday afternoon visits here, the Brontë sisters, accompanied by the Rev. Jenkins' sons, John and Edward, would have walked up from the Place Royale in half an hour at the most.

We must note, however, that the Ch. d'Ixelles,138 of the 1840s is not the 138 we see today. There were further minor house number changes on the Chaussée over the last 160 years, with the result that the house would have stood somewhere between the present day 144 and 148, still on the same section of the Chaussée d'Ixelles, between the Rues de la Paix and de la Tulipe. It's impossible to be more precise for the moment. The street has seen a lot of new constuction over the years, and old houses have been swallowed up by new blocks of flats. Numbers 144 and 146 today are neoclassical houses of 19th century origin, with transformations, and it's possible either one of the two is the Jenkins house.

In any case, even if no further information can be attained, it's certain that the Jenkins family's home, whose whereabouts has long since been a puzzle, was located on this part of the Chaussée d'Ixelles. Our research also offers one of those mysterious coincidences sometimes found in Brontë studies - the house we have been patiently seeking, and which Charlotte and Emily often visited many years ago, may in fact be the house now occupied by a shoe shop called … Pronti !

Brian Bracken

Sunday 14 November 2010

Brontës in Brittany

Brussels Brontë Group member Johan Hellinx explains how he came to write an article in the Breton language about the Brontës’ stay in Brussels.

For a British expat it might sound very strange, but for a Fleming like myself it’s not unusual to speak two or three languages besides our mother tongue, Dutch. I learned French, German and English at school and quickly discovered why I needed to know what we call “our languages” in Belgium: when we travel 100 kilometers, we are already in another language area or … in another country ! So if we want to broaden our horizons, we have to learn languages, unlike some other Europeans …

When I trained to become a French teacher – oh yes, I learned the language of the “enemy” ! – I also studied Italian. At that time, I also laid the foundations of another hobby of mine, Celtic languages and cultures. During the lectures on medieval French literature, our professor told us about the “matière de Bretagne”, the medieval French literary works inspired by the ancient Celtic legends, Tristan and Yseut, Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes, King Arthur … It all came back years later when I decided to study Breton. It took me some time – Breton is a very strange language after all and I didn’t get younger either – but after ten years I can confirm I speak it quite fluently. That’s how I recently started writing articles for the Breton literary review ABER. When I eventually became acquainted with the Brussels Brontë Group, I formed the project of writing an article about the stay of the two Brontë sisters in Brussels – for a Breton public. I read out my article at a literary conference on women writers in Quimper in the départment of Finistère, Brittany.

Johan Hellinx

Saturday 30 October 2010

Memorable day of talks with Sue Lonoff and Brian Wilks.... and two surprise visitors

Brontë Society members with the British Ambassador to Belgium, Jonathan Brenton (on the right), speakers Sue Lonoff and Brian Wilks, and Heger descendant François Fierens (fourth from right)

The Brontës in Brussels and Ireland
Emily Waterfield

On Saturday 23 October the four-year-old Brussels Bronte Group proved that nothing can stop it from offering outstanding literary events. Speakers from London and Paris struggled through strikes on the Eurostar and on pretty much everything in France, around 100 audience members braved miserable Belgian weather, and the British Ambassador arrived at the lecture hall on crutches.

The Group's founder Helen MacEwan opened the talks by welcoming François Fierens, a direct descendant of Charlotte’s beloved professor Constantin Heger. Monsieur Heger spotted the merit of the sisters’ work quickly enough to save many of their essays and his great-great-great-grandson was able to bring four of these with him to the Group event.

Helen then gave the floor to Jonathan Brenton, the new British Ambassador to Belgium. A Uganda-born Doctor of English literature, Mr Brenton said culture, literature and immigration were as important to building relations between countries as anything on the EU policy agenda. He had therefore been immensely pleased to learn of the existence of a group set up in honour of two women whose work was enriched by their time outside the UK.

Jonathan Brenton introducing the day’s events, and listening to Sue Lonoff’s talk

The next speaker returned to the topic raised by the presence of François Fierens. Sue Lonoff, editor of Charlotte and Emily Brontë: The Belgian Essays, gave a talk on Two Contrasting Brussels Experiences.

There are obvious differences between the two women’s experiences in Brussels, said Ms Lonoff. Charlotte was intrigued by the city, fell in love and after a brief return to Haworth came back to Brussels as a teacher at the Pensionnat Heger. Back in England, she based the plot for two of her four novels on events in Brussels, whilst elements of the other two were apparently inspired by her time in the city. Emily on the other hand left as soon as she had chance and never seems to refer to time spent away from Yorkshire in her work.

Sue Lonoff argued that essays written by the two authors whilst pupils at the Pensionnat provide a less obvious illustration of their different attitudes and experiences in Brussels. This is particularly true, she said, of the five ‘twin’ essays, given at the same time and on the same subject.

In the twin essays Caterpillar (Charlotte) and Butterfly (Emily) it seems M. Heger has asked the sisters to write about an insect’s metamorphosis and to draw a moral lesson from their description. For Charlotte the caterpillar is like man, he eats and crawls through a miserable existence, the chrysalis is the tomb, and the butterfly resurrection. Charlotte’s French is good but the parable conventional.

Emily meanwhile rages imperfectly but unnervingly that “All creation is equally mad” [La création entière est également insensée],before squashing the caterpillar she finds eating a plant. A last-minute butterfly flies past to make her wonder if there might be something other than her dark thoughts, but the reader is left with her impression that “Every being must be the tireless instrument of death to others, or itself must cease to live”.

In her talk, Sue Lonoff compared Charlotte and Emily’s experience in Brussels and approaches to the essay topics set by M. Heger

Sue Lonoff with students of Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis where the talks were held

Brian Wilks, a former vice-president of the Brontë Society, also turned to a less widely studied aspect of the Bronte’s lives: their father’s youth in Ireland. Mr Wilks is the author of The Brontës of Haworth and biographical works on Jane Austen, amongst others. He said the idea that the years before Patrick Bronte went to Cambridge aged 25 were irrelevant to the Bronte’s development was a serious error.

Patrick was 12 at the time of the French Revolution, 13 when the Rights of Man was published and 21 during the bloody 1798 Rebellion. As well as witnessing the brutality for which the Rebellion has become infamous, the fact that Patrick’s brother was a United Irishman will have made life extremely dangerous for the whole family.

Small wonder then, said Brian Wilks, that Patrick always defended the underdog in his position as clergyman, or that he took advantage of the freedom of the press in his adopted land to write copiously, or that violence and rebellion are always a theme in the novels of the three sisters. The father’s history was the background to the daughters’ lives.

Brian Wilks, always a dramatic speaker, had chosen a dramatic topic for his talk to us: the turbulent historical background in the Ireland of Patrick Brontë’s youth

Meeting with Heger descendant François Fierens
Helen MacEwan

One reason why this weekend was such a special occasion was that Group members finally got to meet M. François Fierens, a direct descendant of Constantin Heger.

This is his first contact with our group but not with the Brontë Society. He met members when they visited Brussels in 1993 and again in 2003. He is a member of the Society himself, though he has never been to Haworth – something for him, and us, to think about for the future?

On the eve of the talks, I and other Brontë Society members had dinner with M. and Mme Fierens, Brian and Sue Wilks and Sue Lonoff, who had last met M. Fierens almost 20 years ago when working on her edition of the “Belgian Essays” and had pleasant memories of his hospitality to her when she spent a couple of days in his house copying the devoirs still in the possession of the Heger family.

He is the great-great-great-grandson of Constantin Heger. Over dinner he wrote out the family tree for us:

Constantin Heger
Paul Heger
Martha Heger m. Victor Pechère
Paul Pechère
Claire Pechère m. Jacques Fierens
Francois Fierens

He told us that when he used to stay with his grandparents as a boy he would sleep in a room his grandfather had made into a “family temple”, full of photos and other mementos of Constantin and Paul Heger, so he grew up knowing about Constantin and the Brontës – who are viewed by the family as a fairly minor episode in Constantin’s long and full life!

The account in the Brontë Society Transactions of the unveiling of the BS plaque in Brussels in 1980 mentions that members were invited to lunch afterwards at the house of his grandparents, M. and Mme Pechère.

In Coreen Turner’s account of the 2003 Brontë Society excursion to Brussels, she says: “Sadly, we did not know beforehand that M. Fierens wore a watch and chain, or one of us would surely have worked a watch guard for him…” I asked him to confirm whether, like M. Paul, he does indeed wear a watch and chain. He promptly produced one from his waistcoat pocket and explained that he took to wearing it when his wristwatch was snatched by a pickpocket in South America!

The next morning, as Emily has related, he came to hear Sue Lonoff give her talk on the Belgian Essays and this time produced something still more remarkable: the (bound) manuscripts of the four devoirs in his possession! A magical and memorable moment for those of us who were there to witness it.

Group members enjoying a drink with Brian and Sue Wilks, Sue Lonoff and M. and Mme Fierens

Sue Lonoff, Myriam Campinaire and Eric Ruijssenaars

Bringing people together
Helen MacEwan

Many members have said how much they enjoyed the day of talks on 23 October and I think it will go down in our annals as a special occasion. In fact what was to be a day-long event turned into a weekend, starting with a dinner for some of us on Friday to meet the Heger descendant François Fierens and finishing on Sunday with a mystery tour of lesser-known Brontë places by Eric Ruijssenaars (I won’t go into details - if I do it won’t be a mystery tour next time!).

What a privilege it was to have two scholars of the calibre of Sue Lonoff and Brian Wilks with us on the same day. Few people know more about Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s stay in Brussels than Sue Lonoff, who translated and edited their devoirs. As for Brian Wilks, his enthusiasm on a wide range of topics makes him fascinating company, but one theme he always returns to is the origin of the Brontë family’s genius (for which one of his favourite images is “the Crucible”). Hence his interest in Patrick Brontë’s Irish origins. Before he gave this talk someone asked him “Who on earth is interested in a talk on Emily Brontë’s dad?” The reason is obvious both to him and us: because we are fascinated by the mystery of where the Brontë children’s genius came from. No-one can fully explain genius, but knowing something about where their father came from must throw some light on the family as a whole.

As well as the usual multinational gathering of the members who live in Brussels, with just about every European country represented (many Irish members this time, drawn by the talk on Patrick Brontë) we were joined by members travelling from the Netherlands and, for the first time, from Luxembourg, as well as by stalwarts Mirka and Jiri, joining us once again from Prague.

In addition to having two such excellent speakers in our midst, with opportunities over the weekend to meet them socially, the talks were made special by the presence of François Fierens and the British ambassador, Jonathan Brenton.

And apart from all these riches, the talks, like all our events, gave members a further opportunity to get to know more of their fellow members. In his introductory talk, Jonathan Brenton spoke of the role of literature in bringing people together, and this is surely the most important function of a literary association like ours. Reading is necessarily something we do alone, albeit in close communion with the author and his creations. But a group like ours brings us together to share this reading experience, and the discussions generated by our aggregate knowledge and insights, combined of course with the knowledge and insights of the speaker, can be truly exciting and rewarding.

“Every time I go I meet new and fascinating people. And how well everyone seems to get on with everyone else.” (Comment by a member)

“It's still a mystery to me, what makes Brontë people so kind and interesting. There must be a connection with the universal power of Charlotte and Emily.” (Comment by a member)

Members meet up in one of the bars in Grand Place on the evening after the talks

With thanks to Liviu (Ioan Danubiu) for many of the photos

Saturday 16 October 2010

Mad about the Brontës: Dutch journalist Jolien Janzing visits Haworth to research her novel about the Brontës in Brussels

This is a translation of an article by Jolien Janzing originally published in Dutch in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard Der Letteren on 13 August 2010 about a trip to Haworth to research a novel she is writing about the Brontës in Brussels. While there, Jolien met various people in the village including the director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the parish priest and a guide who does Brontë walks.

Jolien Janzing established her reputation through widely-discussed articles published in Belgian and Dutch magazines. Her first work,
Grammatica van een obsessie, received excellent reviews.

In a recent article in the Belgian magazine
Feeling, Jolien identifies with Jane Eyre because she too felt like something of an outsider as a child, being Dutch but growing up in Belgium. She recognizes in herself the belief in true love that Jane Eyre had. And she says that Charlotte Brontë inspired her to become a writer herself.


There are some classics which simply never lose their charm. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, for example, or Wuthering Heights by her sister, Emily, which are still being published in no less than 26 languages. And it’s not just the Brontë sisters’ books which continue to sell like cookbooks; the Brontë Parsonage Museum in their native town of Haworth continues to welcome a steady stream of visitors. If anyone should doubt, the Brontës are still alive and kicking!

It’s Monday morning and while the sun is shining in Flanders the barren landscape of the Pennine Hills in West Yorkshire is cold and windy with menacing clouds as wet and oppressive as a bad cough and night sweats. But why am I here actually? In fact I’m working on a novel which looks at the two years Charlotte and Emily Brontë spent in Brussels learning French, So clearly there’s more research to be done back home than here in England, but when I find myself a bit later going up the steep Main Street leading to their father’s parsonage it all becomes clear again. Main Street has hardly changed since Charlotte lived here, even the cobblestones are hundreds of years old, and I can see her walking in front of me, a delicate young woman with a narrow back and slightly hunched shoulders wearing an ill-fitting overcoat. She’s hurrying home, occasionally nodding to a regular churchgoer.


I’m somewhat obsessed by the Brontës and want to see where they lived. My diary is full of appointments with people who know about every aspect of the village and every detail of the family’s history. For my part I quickly read everything Charlotte, Emily and Anne ever wrote, from the poems about their imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal to their best-selling novels originally published under male pseudonyms. It’s not only their books which fascinate me, but also their private lives. The sisters grew up in Haworth, which at the time was an overcrowded, bustling little town, with their father being an Anglican parson at the head of the parish church. The Brontë girls’ mother had died at a young age and an aunt helped raise them. The four oldest girls, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, were sent away to a new boarding school, the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, but this turned out to be a wretched institution. While there, Maria and Elizabeth contracted a deadly infection and Charlotte endured a number of traumatic experiences which she purged from her system by writing Jane Eyre. Mr Brontë was left with three daughters and a son, Branwell, whom he spoiled horribly and who died at a young age due to a penchant for alcohol and opium. His daughters fared better and became well-known novelists, but they all died prematurely.

At the top of Main Street is the Black Bull pub where Branwell went to drink his ale and whiskey. There is a path on the right which leads to the church and directly behind it is the parsonage. I stand in the front garden and look up at the facade, thinking that the parsonage is certainly not what you would call a humble abode. And even if I imagine away the new wing, the house exudes a certain social status. I turn around and between the low garden wall and the church I see part of the cemetery. Here and there I see a standing tombstone, but most of them have been laid flat on the ground as if the living wanted to prevent the dead from crawling out of their graves, just like Cathy. Time has stood still here and the atmosphere is hazy and somewhat ominous.


It takes a bit of time before I can actually go into the parsonage because there are quite a few visitors there today: Scottish teenagers, Italian students, a bunch of Japanese and a group of Americans. At the threshold I stop for a moment and think about how many times Charlotte walked over it and that this is where Emily whistled to her dog, Keeper. I had expected to feel a lump in my throat when getting so close to the Brontës, but that didn’t happen after all.

From Mr Brontë's study I walk to the dining room with the table where the sisters sat when writing their novels. Andrew McCarthy, the museum’s director, is waiting for me in the kitchen and invites me into his office. There, I ask him if there are always so many visitors.

“Oh yes!” he proudly answers. “Last year we had 73,000 people come to the museum. Our visitors come from Japan, the US and Europe, and of course also from England.” I ask him if he sees more visitors when a television network airs a series based on the Brontës or their books.

“In those cases the influx of visitors is so impressive that we are sometimes afraid that the walls of the parsonage are going to give in” he replies. “Thankfully, it hasn’t ever been as bad again as what we saw in 1973, when the series The Brontës of Haworth was shown on British television. During that year, we welcomed in excess of 250,000 visitors.” Andrew’s bookcase contains a number of recent books on the Brontës, and from this I can see that I’m clearly not the only writer inspired by the reverend’s family. “The legend is still kept alive,” says Andrew. “There’s always a good film version of Jane Eyre in the pipeline, and that invariably accounts for a good deal of publicity. On the other hand, it has to be said that Brontë films are never blockbusters, and that the book is always better than the movie.”


On my way out I go through the museum shop and see an Italian student buy a brand-new edition of Wuthering Heights. With the novel carefully tucked inside her jacket – this is Yorkshire and it’s raining again – she walks out of the shop. The woman at the cash register winks at me and says “That girl has caught the Wuthering Heights bug. Some fans are so enthralled by the novels that they completely forget that Heathcliff, Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey never really existed. They often mix up the Brontë sisters with the characters in their novels. Just yesterday a visitor to the parsonage asked where Heathcliff’s bedroom was.”

Outside I open my umbrella and walk towards the church, but on my way there I stop for a moment at the low building where Patrick Brontë taught Sunday school. Through the dirty windows I see quite a few spider webs, but some desks for the pupils are still there. Charlotte Brontë taught catechism here when she was only 16. Emily didn’t like teaching, because she didn’t really like children. When she worked as a teacher for a few months at a girl’s boarding school when she was twenty, she told her pupils that she cared more about the dog than any one of them. She was a bit strange, that Emily, and possibly slightly autistic.

“Ms Janzing?”

Someone taps me on the shoulder and for a split second I feel like a character in a novel when something dramatic is about to take place. Unfortunately, there is no seductive Mr Rochester standing in front of me but instead a sprightly vicar.

His name is Peter Mayo-Smith and we have an appointment. He takes my arm and leads me into his church. Once upon a time, Patrick Brontë stood here at the pulpit and through his inspired sermons brought together his community.

“He was an exceptional man, Patrick Brontë!” We are sitting in a pew and Peter pulls on his fuzzy beard with a satisfied look. “He was tuned into nature long before there was any environmental movement. The cemetery was over capacity and thousands of corpses were rotting just below the surface of the ground, so Patrick had trees planted to speed up their decomposition. He was also democratically minded and spent time promoting education. The textile barons in Haworth brought orphans up from London to work in the factories next to the river, and Patrick opened a school in the evening to teach them to read and write.”

Peter’s eyes are sparkling and it’s easy to see that Brontë is his role model. He springs up and at the front of the church shows me the family grave where Maria Brontë, her children Maria, Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily and Charlotte, and also Patrick Brontë, were laid to rest. Anne is buried in the coastal town of Scarborough where she was staying while trying to recover from tuberculosis.


Behind me I hear a repressed sob and see a blonde woman in her forties crying. Her daughter puts her arm around her shoulders. We start talking and she tells me “Charlotte, Emily and Anne weren’t beautiful or glamorous, they weren’t models or actresses. No, no, they were ordinary women just like my daughter and I, but we also have a right to be loved.” I suddenly feel a need for fresh air and quickly say goodbye.

Johnnie Briggs, my new guide, is waiting for me at the church portal. He takes me to the cemetery in the pouring rain and tells me about the high rates of child mortality during the 19th century. He has an umbrella with him, but he doesn’t open it. There’s a drop of rain hanging from his nose and his coat is completely soaked, but this doesn’t seem to bother him.

We walk down Main Street and go into Hatchard & Daughters, a second-hand book shop. While looking around I see a book I’ve been trying to find for months: the compendium of Charlotte Brontë’s letters. Mary Hatchard wraps my book in a piece of brown paper. “It’s the personal life stories of the Brontës which continue to fascinate people”, she replies to my question about the secret of their popularity. “The novels are great, but their personal history is even better. It’s a tragedy and people just love tragedies, especially when they happen in the past because then they can watch from a safe distance. Look at Byron and Shelley! Byron, the pale hero who lived off tea and biscuits and died of malaria in Greece, and then Shelley, who was killed in a shipwreck. Their stories will stay with us for centuries. And there are also the scandals: there’s nothing quite like a good scandal to keep a literary figure in the spotlight! Byron slept with his half-sister and Branwell Brontë had an affair with a rich married woman 17 years older than him.”


I ask her what kind of people come in to her shop to buy Brontë novels. “Teenage girls all want a copy of Wuthering Heights. They think they’re Cathy and dream about passion and romance. They’re also the ones who are crazy about the dream-like poems and drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jane Eyre is mostly popular with women over 40, who remember the book from when they were young and want to read it again.”

Nostalgia is very big in Mary’s shop. On the shelves there are books about World War II and I can also see a Vera Lynn CD. “The UK is losing itself in nostalgia,” sighs Mary. “World War II is still popular, but nobody asks for books on Vietnam or Afghanistan, because we only want to think about misery if it’s associated with victory.”

Mary is from London and lived several years in Amsterdam, but Haworth and its stories have captured her heart. She lives together with her husband and two daughters in an isolated cottage somewhere in the hills, and this makes her a bona-fide Brontaholic.


The following day the rainclouds have given way to a more sympathetic blue sky. Emily was in the habit of taking walks on the moor in the rain and during storms, but I’ve decided to wait for more clement weather. Johnnie recommends that I go to the waterfalls, which was a regular walk for the Brontës. I don’t bring a dog along with me, but I can imagine how Emily’s dog, Keeper, a tough bulldog, must have chased the sheep around.

The sounds of Haworth subside behind me and for the first time since I arrived I feel a certain degree of proximity. No trees grow on these hills and there is nothing except sheep, heather, sometimes in bloom, marram grass and low walls made of stones stacked up on one another so that the wind can whistle when blowing through the cracks. It is an empty landscape and my head is empty as well; there is room for a new story. When I reach the waterfall I go to sit on the rock where Emily liked to sit, with her big feet dangling above the splashing water. I open up the book with Charlotte’s letters. At the end of January, not long after she had returned from Brussels, she wrote to a friend “It seems to me that Haworth is a lonely, quiet place hidden far from the rest of the world.”

Jolien Janzing

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Glorious weather for our last guided walk of 2010

The group at the top of Mont des Arts

In Parc de Bruxelles

In front of the "unofficial" Brontë plaque

Since last Sunday we have a new Brontë walk guide, as Jones Hayden has volunteered to lead some of our walks. For some time now they have been led by Myriam Campinaire who’s been doing it brilliantly. In the past, walks have also been led by Eric Ruijssenaars and Derek Blyth, and it is to them we owe a lot of the research and material we draw on.

The sun shone and everyone looked happy for Jones's debut guiding on Sunday 10 October. We gathered at 10 a.m. on 10/10/10; it must have been an auspicious moment, for conditions were particularly favourable for that morning’s walk. Not only did the sun shine, but the guide didn’t have to contend with the usual noise of trams and buses on the cobbles of Place Royale, since it was closed for traffic for the Brussels marathon!

Jones, an American journalist who’s lived in Brussels for 10 years, enjoyed preparing his walk commentary and, like our first volunteer guide Myriam, has increased his knowledge about the history of the city - as well as about the Brontës - in the process.

Although the area covered by the walk is a compact one focusing on places near the site of the Pensionnat Heger, there is no shortage of things to be said about the area and its buildings, the Pensionnat and the Hegers, the Brontë sisters’ stay there, the Brontës in general, Villette, The Professor… the difficulty is packing it all into two hours.

As always, a multinational group had gathered to listen. Today our 19 participants were Belgian, British (two from Yorkshire!), Irish, American, Polish, Bulgarian, Russian and French.

After the walk we adjourned, as usual, to one of the museum cafés on Place Royale to continue talking about the Brontës and much else beside.

We’re lucky to have two such able and enthusiastic guides as Myriam and Jones. Each has developed his/her own version of the basic walk commentary, so with Jones there was new information to glean for those who had been on a previous walk.

This was the last walk of 2010. We’ll start up again once warmer days return, probably not until our April weekend (1-3 April). Join Myriam or Jones next year to learn about the Brontës and Brussels!

Helen MacEwan

Thursday 7 October 2010

Literary weekend in London 18-19 September

The group in the National Portrait Gallery with Tim Moreton

Near Temple Bar in Paternoster Square, on the walk led by Margaret McCarthy

A new initiative for the Brussels Brontë Group

This was a first for the Group. We’ve had weekends of events in Brussels, and groups of us have attended the Haworth weekend, but this was the first weekend excursion organised by us. There were 23 of us in the group. The first day of our Literary Weekend in London was dedicated to the Brontës, and the second to Dickens’s London, Dickens being the obvious writer to explore for a group of 19th century literature enthusiasts on a trip to London.

Day 1: Brontë Day
Overview by Helen MacEwan

Most of us travelled on the Eurostar arriving around 9 a.m. on Saturday. At 11 a.m. we had a rendezvous with Tim Moreton, Collections Manager in the National Portrait Gallery, who took us to Branwell Brontë’s “Pillar Portrait” of his three sisters and talked to us about it for an hour. He also showed us something we weren't expecting to see (see reports below!) We went on to lunch with members of the Brontë Society’s London Branch in the Strand Palace Hotel on the site of the spot where Charlotte Brontë and her publisher George Smith, posing as a Mr and Miss Fraser, consulted a phrenologist.

Margaret McCarthy then took us on a walk retracing the footsteps of Charlotte and her sisters’ visits to London – Paternoster Square by St Paul’s where they stayed in the Chapter Coffee House, St Stephen Walbrook where Charlotte and Anne worshipped, Cornhill where they went to George Smith’s offices on their visit to introduce themselves to him. By the site of London Bridge Wharf where Charlotte got a waterman to row her to the Ostend packet when returning for her second year in Brussels, Margaret’s husband Jerry told us about the Thames watermen in her time.

The National Portrait Gallery
Patricia De Gray

In the National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square there is a room devoted to early19th century literary figures. In the midst of large, stylised portraits of Dickens, Tennyson and Browning there are two smaller, more modest portraits of the Bronte sisters and it was here that the Brussels Bronte Society started their weekend trip to London on Saturday 18th of September 2010.

Most of the group had journeyed to London early that morning and it was fitting that this was the first stop of the group since it gave us time to reflect and think about the sisters and their tragic life. Tim Moreton, the gallery's collection manager, gave us a very interesting talk on the background of these two portraits: the first known as the Pillar Portrait depicts the three sisters modestly dressed and looking pensively at the artist, while the second is a profile portrait of Emily which was probably part of a larger ensemble piece known as the 'Gun Group Portrait'.

The artist of both portraits was their brother Branwell. One can see quite clearly that he was not a professional or particularly gifted artist, particularly when compared with the rest of the professional portraits in the room. Another stark contrast is the condition of the portraits. These portraits were taken to Ireland by Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte's husband, after the death of Patrick Branwell, folded and placed on top of a cupboard in a suitcase. The colours have faded and the crease folds are very evident. After the death of Arthur Nicholls the paintings were sold to the National Portrait Gallery by his widow.

Tim Moreton told us that the Gallery had made a conscious decision not to restore these paintings since it is felt that their condition is a part of their story and journey. He also discussed at length the famous 'pillar' which is at the center of the first portrait. One can see clearly that originally another figure (probably male) had been painted in but than painted over. Was this Branwell himself or someone else, one can only speculate.

Elizabeth Gaskell describes the 'Pillar Portrait' in great detail in her biography The life of Charlotte Bronte. She writes "I have seen an oil painting of his, done I know not when….It was group of his sisters, life size; three-quarters' length; not much better than sign-painting, as to manipulation; but the likenesses were, I should think, admirable. I could only judge of the fidelity with which the other two were depicted, from the striking resemblance which Charlotte, upholding the great frame of canvas, and consequently standing right behind it, bore to her own representation, though it must have been ten years and more since the portraits were taken. The picture was divided, almost in the middle, by a great pillar. On the side of the column which was lighted by the sun, stood Charlotte, in the womanly dress of that day of jigot sleeves and large collars. On the deeply shadowed side, was Emily, and Anne's gentle face resting on her shoulder. Emily's countenance struck me as full of power; Charlotte's of solicitude; Anne's of tenderness. The two younger seemed hardly to have attained their full growth, though Emily was taller than Charlotte; they had cropped hair, and a more girlish dress. I remember looking on those two sad, earnest, shadowed faces, and wondering whether I could trace the mysterious expression which is said to foretell an early death. I had some fond superstitious hope that the column divided their fates from hers, who stood apart in the canvas, as in life she survived…. They were good likenesses, however badly executed."

Tim than lead us to an adjoining room where there was a temporary showing of two official portraits of Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell by George Richmond commissioned by their publisher George Smith. This portrait of Charlotte is more stylised and formal, depicting a more worldly woman though still shy and apprehensive.

The entire group was mesmerised by the portraits we had seen and the informative talk by Tim. I am sure that the National Portrait Gallery and these portraits have become a 'must revisit' on all future visits to London for the whole group. I will definitely be returning again and again.

The Richmond portrait

Quietly extraordinary
Peter Workman

I have always marvelled at the fact that three sisters born into English provincial obscurity whose combined output of novels and poems would barely fill half a library bookshelf should nonetheless have taken the literary milieu of their day by storm and should to this day continue to fascinate and enrapture readers throughout the English-speaking world – and beyond.

To attribute all of that to their 'genius' is a commonplace and a cliché (and in any case, 'genius' is an impossibly elusive, intangible quality which we can at best intuit; trying to pin it down is a futile exercise). My preference would be to describe the Brontë sisters as 'quietly extraordinary': three young women who did quite remarkable things is a most modest, unassuming fashion.

Two aspects of their 'extraordinariness' became apparent to me in the course of the Brussels Brontë Group's recent weekend visit to London (which was, incidentally, my first contact with that group and, indeed, with the Brontë Society as a whole). Our first port of call was the National Portrait Gallery, where we viewed the famous 'Pillar Portrait' in which the three sisters appear seated in the presence of a subsequently blanked-out figure looming over them (presumed to be their brother Branwell, who painted the picture). To be perfectly frank, I find this painting rather amateurish in both conception and execution; the sisters look like Victorian 'young maiden' stereotypes and they are about as distinguishable from one another as are Russian dolls. However, awaiting us in an adjacent room of the gallery was an artwork of a very different calibre: namely, the rarely-displayed chalk portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond. Even allowing for the artist's alleged tendency to flatter his sitters by 'improving' their looks, I was struck at first sight by Charlotte's extraordinary (that word again) beauty and grace and, above all, by the remarkable sense of her presence and her strength of character which the portrait exudes. Whereas the sisters in the 'Pillar Portrait' resemble cardboard cut-outs, the solo portrait of Charlotte radiates the humanity of its subject; it is truly 'lovely', in the literal sense of the word ('inspiring love', 'worthy of being loved').

Charlotte's strength of character was brought home to me again at the very end of our guided tour of 'Brontë London': we were taken to the place on the north bank of the Thames at which Charlotte would have boarded a river boat – the first stage of her journey across the English Channel to Ostend and thence to Brussels. Our guide portrayed a highly atmospheric scene of Charlotte arriving at the water's edge in the cold and dark, negotiating her passage with the boatmen and being conveyed downstream along a sometimes treacherous tidal river, only to be grossly overcharged for the privilege by her unscrupulous ferryman.

Not until the latter part of the twentieth century did international travel become straightforward and routine. In the nineteenth century it still constituted an epic undertaking, fraught with hazard and of uncertain outcome. A young woman who was prepared to embark upon such a journey unaccompanied must have been possessed of a character whose strength can only be described as ... extraordinary.

Much more could be written about our literary weekend in London – but I shall leave that to other, more competent hands. I shall conclude by thanking Helen MacEwan for going to such extraordinary (I can't get away from that word) lengths to organise such a worthwhile event and for bringing me back into contact with three lasses who could justifiably be described as 'the Pride of Yorkshire'.

In front of the Dickens House Museum with Anthony Burton of the Dickens Fellowship

Day 2: Dickens Day
Helen MacEwan

The second day of our stay was devoted to Dickens, and our reading group had been reading Oliver Twist in preparation for it. At the Dickens House Museum we were met by Anthony Burton of the Dickens Fellowship, who used to be a curator in the Victoria and Albert Museum and is active on the museum committee.

Anthony guided us on a marathon walk that explored the theme of Dickens’s London. We had asked for the walk to start at the Dickens Museum, our first port of call on Sunday, and finish at The George Inn in Southwark, where we wanted to have lunch – the only surviving example in London of the galleried coaching inns common in Dickens’s time.

Anthony rose to the challenge and devised a walk to fit our requirements. Leading us at a brisk pace and imparting an impressive amount of information all along the way, he got us to the George at 1.30 pm in time for our roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

His walk took in many aspects of the city Dickens depicted, for example the Inns of Court where some of his characters lived and worked and where he himself was miserable for a time as a solicitor’s clerk. They are all still standing, unlike the Inns of Chancery that were associated with them, only some of which have survived. We did see the striking half-timbered Staple Inn, but the site of Furnival’s Inn where Dickens lived while writing his first novel Pickwick Papers is now occupied by the splendid Victorian neo-Gothic Prudential Assurance Company building. We went in and looked at a bust of Dickens in this building. He would probably not have approved, since his will specifically forbade monuments to him – one of the many pieces of information we gleaned from Anthony’s commentary.

In fact it’s a miracle that any of the buildings Dickens knew survived the developers and the Blitz of the second world war. Where the Victorian sites have disappeared, Anthony used old paintings or engravings and readings from the novels to give us the feel of the places Dickens knew: for example the filthy Fleet river, now underground, that used to run under where the Holborn viaduct now rises, through the slum area where Fagin operated. To build up the grim picture Anthony told us of the prisons where rather a lot of Dickens’s characters ended up – Newgate on the site of the Old Bailey, where Fagin was hanged; the Marshalsea, home to Little Dorrit, which stood in Southwark.

Why a Dickens Day for a Brontë Society group? Well, why not. Dickens was a contemporary of the Brontës and his London was the one Charlotte visited. She herself was interested in its institutions and visited Newgate as well as the hospital for the insane, Bedlam. In our reading group we explore a range of 19th century writers whose works put those of the Brontës in context. And fostering links with other literary societies whose members share our interest in the 19th century can only be a good thing.

We arrive at The George Inn

Overall impression of the weekend
Marina Saegerman

I have been to the National Portrait Gallery on many occasions before and knew the portraits of the Brontës to be seen there. I was very excited however at seeing (for the very first time) the original Richmond portrait of Charlotte and Mrs Gaskell. This was a real bonus for our visit to the National Portrait Gallery. And on top of that we had a very passionate guide who could tell us so many interesting facts about the portraits (how they came into the possession of the NPG, how restoration work had been done, etc…).

The whole weekend was just great and exciting (both walks, lunches, company, theatre visit including my surprise conversation with Bud, the American calligrapher who happened to sit just next to us in the theatre (life really is full of surprises!!!!, …) but if I have to pick out one particular thing – the Richmond portrait is it!

Sunday 3 October 2010

A hundred years ago: the Pensionnat demolished

It is now, in the first weeks of autumn, exactly 100 years ago that the Pensionnat building was torn down. A sad anniversary.

At the beginning of September the final decision had been made, and published in newspapers. The illustration here is from the Chronique des Travaux Publics (4 September 1910): "The pick-axe of the demolisher will soon bring down what is left of the old Quartier Isabelle".

At this time the Pensionnat had become an 'ordinary' school, an 'école communale', as it was named in this note.

Much of the quarter had already been torn down in the previous year. It seems likely that this demolition work will have started at the end of September, and will have taken several weeks. It is not entirely clear but it very much seems that by 1 November the Pensionnat was no more. It will never be forgotten though.

Eric Ruijssenaars

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Meeting of Dutch members of the Brussels Brontë Group in Rotterdam

Guido and Nelleke van Rijn, Jenny Hofman, Maureen Peeck-O'Toole and Marcia Zaaijer meet in the Trompenburg Gardens, Kralingen, Rotterdam

On Saturday 25th of September the Dutch Branch of the Brussels Brontë Group met in Rotterdam. From one of our earlier meetings we learned that we not only share our love for the Brontë-sisters, but that we also like to dwell between plants, shrubs and trees. So we met in the Trompenburg Gardens and Arboretum in Kralingen, since 1895 a part of Rotterdam.

The history of these gardens started in 1825 as part of a house in the country. Most of these country houses disappeared in the 19th and 20th centuries because of the ever-increasing need for houses for the common people of Rotterdam, but Trompenburg survived and its garden became a real park. For the greater part of its history Trompenburg belonged to the Van Hoey Smith family, but since 1958 it is a foundation and the park is open to the public. No ‘allée defendue’ here as in the Pensionnat, though there are beautiful hidden places, where in summertime you can sit quietly and read a book.

In one of the newly required parts of the arboretum there is a tea-house, a good place to renew our acquaintance and talk Brontë. In the afternoon we were lucky that during our walk it was dry and sunny, so we could really enjoy this greenest part of Rotterdam.

Our next chapter was Hoofdtuk II (Chapter Two), a grand café and restaurant decorated with books and serving good food and a nice environment to talk Brontë again.

We hope to continue meeting and talking Brontë in future gatherings in the Netherlands and we look forward to see you all in October in Brussels.

Marcia Zaaijer
Photographs by Eric Ruijssenaars

Sunday 12 September 2010

Visitors from Northern Irish Brontë Country

Northern Irish visitors with Helen MacEwan in Grand Place; in front of the "unofficial" Brontë plaque in rue Terarken with guide Myriam Campinaire and other Brussels enthusiasts; having a drink after the walk

Six members of the Northern Irish branch of the Brontë Society, led by Robert Logan and Margaret Livingston, visited Brussels over the weekend of 11-12 September and met members of our group on a guided walk arranged to coincide with their visit. During it they had a taste of Brussels weather as it poured with rain for the first hour, but it cleared up enough to take a photo on the cobblestones of rue Terarken, where we took them to get a feel of Brussels in the 1840s.

The Irish visitors had interesting stories of the activities organised by their own branch, including a 10-day trip to Sicily where they were invited by an Italian envoy to Ireland keen to promote his region and specifically the Bronte town and area in Sicily which is believed to be the inspiration for the surname. For those not familiar with the story, Nelson was made Duke of Bronte by the King of Sicily in return for military services. Since Nelson was a hero of Patrick Brontë, who was born Patrick Brunty or Prunty in County Down, Northern Ireland, when Patrick went to England to study and registered at Cambridge University he decided to change his name to the grander-sounding Brontë. That at any rate is one theory as to why he changed the spelling.

The manor house on the Bronte estate is now used as a conference centre. But as far as I know no Brontë literary conference has ever been held there. An idea for the future?!

(Another idea: a visit of Brussels members to Sicily, following in the footsteps of the Northern Irish branch?)

Patrick was one of 10 children and there are numerous Brontës today in Northern Ireland. One of the Irish visitors, a teacher, told us that at one point she had an Emily Brontë and an Anne Brontë in her class – curiously, though, the original pronounciation of “Prunty” has been retained!

It would certainly be interesting to visit the beautiful Brontë Country in Northern Ireland. The Brontë Society has organised trips there in the past and we hope there will be another one in the not too distant future. In the meantime we can dream about a visit to Sicily!

Helen MacEwan

Monday 16 August 2010

Interpreters switch off their mikes to listen to Eng Lit gems read by Brussels Brontë Group members

On August 3 two stalwarts of the Brussels Brontë Group, Richard Fletcher and Sherry Vosburgh, took part in an English intensive course for Commission interpreters at the Borschette Centre. They strutted their stuff as readers of literary extracts in a Powerpoint presentation by interpreter and trainer Rosalind Perkins on Historical and Literary Links between Britain and Belgium.

The audience of interpreters, who work from their respective mother tongues into English, came mostly from the new EU countries. The course, organised by Kate Davies and Rosalind Perkins, was designed to improve their colleagues' language skills and their knowledge of the culture and history of Britain and other English-speaking countries.

Participants were welcomed by the music of Henry Purcell, one of several British composers who featured during the week. Rosalind Perkins emphasized the historical and literary links between Britain and Belgium, from the time of the wool trade to Waterloo, from Queen Victoria and her Uncle Leopold to the First World War, prominently featuring the Brontë sisters and their stay at the Pensionnat Heger.

Interpreter Richard Fletcher and retired translator Sherry Vosburgh read excerpts from Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell, Byron, Thackeray and several War poets. A walk followed in the steps of the Brontës, led by the knowledgeable and animated guide, Myriam Campinaire. The readers and guide all received little Belgian souvenirs of an enjoyable and educational cultural event - a first for the Brussels Brontë Group. What next, I wonder?

Sherry Vosburgh with contributions by Rosalind Perkins

Friday 30 July 2010

The cobblestones of rue Terarken

Rue Terarken/ Terarkenstraat beside the Palais des Beaux-Arts, off rue Ravenstein, is practically the only surviving stretch of the narrow cobbled streets of the Quartier Isabelle where the Brontës lived in the 1840s. It is very close to the site of Rue Isabelle and the Pensionnat Heger. Most of the Quartier Isabelle disappeared under re-development in the early 20th century.

It was a shock to read, in Selina Busch's report about the Brussels Group events in April, that the original cobblestones of the Rue Terarken had been replaced. They were the ones Charlotte and Emily had walked upon! However much had changed in the Quartier Isabelle, at least they had survived. Until last August, 2009.

If only I could retrieve one of them, I thought, so I wrote to the Palais des Beaux-Arts (BOZAR). As always they were very helpful. They referred me to a lady working at the Brussels Transport Infrastructure Department (Beliris), Priscille Bernard. And she very kindly replied she had managed to save three of the stones! She explained there had been two kinds of stone. These three are probably the kind you can see on the right-hand side of the photograph of the street before it was re-paved.

Rue Terarken before re-paving

Some weeks ago I went to Brussels to collect them. For me it was quite exciting. To have a cobblestone, like having the Brontë stamp mentioned earlier this year on this blog, would be wonderful for my Brussels Brontë collection. As always, the first thing I did after arriving was to go to Rue Terarken. It was a rather warm sunny day, and it felt great to be in Brussels again, after quite some time.

Rue Terarken as it is now

That morning I had my appointment with Priscille Bernard, who you can see in the picture handing over to me the three cobblestones, in the office at the Rue du Gouvernement Provisoire. I would like here to thank Beliris and her very much! They have been incredibly helpful (with what perhaps could be regarded as a bit of a weird request)

Priscille Bernard

The cobblestones were smaller, or less deep, than I had expected. But when I looked at other roadworks I saw the stones were of the same size. They weigh about 2½ kg each. It is almost beyond imagination that they may well have the footsteps of the Brontë sisters on them. As well as the footsteps of a number of readers of this article.

The two other have ended up or will end up in Kerksken and Tiel.

Marina Saegerman tells me that someone from BOZAR explained that the stones had been replaced because they have to support the weight of the heavy trucks delivering goods for BOZAR in Terarkenstraat.

Eric Ruijssenaars

Monday 14 June 2010

Annual Brontë weekend in Haworth: a novice's experience

Haworth moors

Patty Simou (on the left) with other members of the Brussels group (Maureen Peeck, Renate Hurtmanns, Helen MacEwan, Gunilla Westman and Eva Stönner) chatting to UK Brontë Society members in Haworth

This was my first time in Haworth. Already an avid fan of the Brontë literature, I was looking forward to finally walking in the place where the three sisters lived and wrote. The Brontë Society had prepared an excellent programme to highlight all that which makes the Brontës eternally interesting - their style that has inspired so many other authors of their time, but also continues to inspire authors of the present.

The choice of lectures combined all the domains the sisters engaged in, and I was pleasantly surprised that they exceeded my expectations, with all these new details to further feed my interest in them. The programme was also accentuated by the restoration of the Brontë piano, and the pleasure of an evening of music "out of this world". The notion of such an old instrument, that gave so much pleasure to the Brontës, finally being able to play music transcending all generations into the future - what an experience! The trips organised in the area also provided an insight into the region and an appreciation for the history of people and places that have formed the world we live in.

And then, there were the moors of course... Such indescribable beauty that, despite all the travels I've made, left me speechless. That vast area of all the shades of green, the absolute silence for enjoyment and reflection... This is a sight I fully recommend to all those who have not yet travelled to Haworth.

The most important aspect of this trip, however, were the people I met: the other members of the group, who embraced me in this first journey to the history of the Brontës and of Haworth and who, with their addictive interest and knowledge of the subjects, wooed me into wanting to learn more myself! Their kindness and this exchange of information and experience brings out the best in people, and has made me immerse myself into learning more and enjoy this interaction!

A truly wonderful experience all in all, to be repeated!

Patty Simou

Annual Brontë weekend in Haworth 4-7 June

Main St, Haworth

This year 7 members from Belgium and 3 from the Netherlands travelled to Haworth to attend the annual Brontë ("AGM") weekend. For some of the Brussels members it was their first visit to Haworth. The Brontë Society had prepared the usual interesting mix of events: a concert, talks, interviews with writers and with an artist, a graphologist talking about the Brontës' handwriting, a book auction, an evening of entertainment by members, guided walks and a full-day excursion.

Apart from the Brontë Society programme, for those with any spare time or energy there were other things going on in the village "on the fringes" of the AGM. Some Brussels members rode on the Worth Valley steam railway and saw the station used in the film The Railway Children. Others stayed up until 3 a.m. on Sunday to go on a ghost hunt organised by the Black Bull, Branwell Brontë's local, which of course boasts at least one haunted room and still houses Branwell's Chair. Bleary-eyed members who attended told us next day about this "psychic event" which included a séance using the chair and a visit to the churchyard in the small hours.

The weekend started on Friday afternoon with a interview with the artist Victoria Brookland about her exhibition of paintings inspired by dresses in the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection.

The evening event was a magical occasion: the opportunity to hear a concert using Emily's tall "cabinet" piano, restored thanks to a donation from an American member, the first time it has been heard since the Brontës' times. Emily was a keen player, and of course studied the piano here in Brussels as well as teaching it to young pupils at the Pensionnat Heger. The restored piano is now back in Patrick's study and as it was a fine evening we could listen either in the Parsonage (in the hall or sitting on the stairs) or in the front garden at the top of the village, adjoining the churchyard, with the moors beyond.

Concert in the Parsonage with Emily's piano

Saturday, a day of brilliant sunshine, started with an interview with the children's writer Robert Swindells about his novel Follow a Shadow, in which a teenage boy's Water Mitty-like fantasy life involves Branwell Brontë and we see the Parsonage through his eyes on a school visit to Haworth. This was followed by Lyndall Gordon, author of the biography of Charlotte Brontë A Passionate Life, speaking of the Brontës' influence on Emily Dickinson, once described as "a kind of left-over Brontë". Many parallels came to light apart from the obvious autobiographical ones (strong father figure, closeness to siblings, importance of home and homesickness when away).

In the afternoon we had an auction of books left to the Society by a member, a garden tea party and the AGM itself, and in the evening we listened to Lucasta Miller, author of The Brontë Myth, talking to the American feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter, author of A Literature of their Own, which Lucasta told us she read in a single night as a student when she was supposed to be studying Milton! Elaine told us about the reactions to the Brontës of American 19th century readers who, unlike their British counterparts, did not find them shocking or "coarse". They took Jane Eyre to their hearts at once, appreciating in particular her egalitarian words to Rochester ("Equal, as we are").

Lucasta Miller and Elaine Showalter

On Sunday morning we could choose between a walk over the moors to the "Brontë falls", or around Haworth with a local historian, both in the rain! In the afternoon we were introduced to the art of graphology by Diane Simpson, who got us analysing our own handwriting and that of various famous personalities, including Lord Nelson, who signed himself "Nelson and Brontë" (Brontë being one of his titles, which is what is thought to have inspired Patrick Brunty to change his name) before moving on to the four Brontë siblings. This was followed by a service in Haworth church where Patrick preached for so many years. A church service of remembrance and celebration of the Brontë family is always held over the weekend with an address or lecture on a Brontë theme.

Brontë Falls

Patricia De Gray on the "Brontë Stone Chair"

To round off the day we had a meal in the Old White Lion with entertainment (poems, songs, readings and a comedy sketch) provided by members.

Monday was as always taken up with a full-day excursion and this year's was to places associated with Branwell and Emily Brontë's periods of employment in the Halifax area. These periods ended of course in their return to the Parsonage, driven home again by homesickness in Emily's case and in Branwell's by his losing his job as a railway clerk. We visited the lovely town of Luddenden where he stayed when working at stations on the new railway, and stopped at Law Hill House where Emily worked briefly as a teacher. We also visited places nearby that she would have known: the site of High Sunderland Hall which may have inspired Wuthering Heights, and Shibden Hall, whose unconventional owner Anne Lister had been the subject of a BBC series the previous week.

The Lord Nelson in Luddenden, frequented by Branwell Brontë when he was working as a clerk on the Leeds and Manchester Railway.

Shibden Hall

On Tuesday morning it was time to pack up and take leave of our favourite haunts in and around the village – the moor walks, bookshops, favourite pub or tea room, and of course the Parsonage Museum itself. For many this annual pilgrimage has long been a fixture in their calendar, and I'm sure that some of this year's first-time visitors will be returning too.

Eva Stönner and Gunilla Westman, two of the first-time visitors to Haworth from Brussels

Helen MacEwan