Saturday 13 March 2010

Brontës on Belgian stamps

The Belgian post office has issued an attractive set of stamps on the subject of "a literary walk through Brussels" with pictures of famous 19th century writers who stayed in the city. They are Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, the Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker and - Charlotte and Emily Brontë!

The Brontës are in somewhat incongruous company, since their stay in Brussels studying French at a girls' boarding school (in 1842-43) could not have been more different from the colourful and often squalid existence of the French writers who accompany them on this set of stamps.

Victor Hugo came to Brussels with his family and his mistress, who lodged nearby, as a political refugee, fleeing Paris after Napoleon III's coup d'état. Baudelaire, author of the volume of poetry Les Fleurs du Mal which had caused a scandal, came to Belgium to escape from his creditors. Verlaine and Rimbaud were reunited in Brussels after one of the many rifts in their stormy relationship but were soon quarrelling again. After a row, Verlaine shot and slightly wounded Rimbaud, who reported him to the police. As a result, Verlaine was sentenced to two years' imprisonment.

The Dutch writer in the set, Dekker, who wrote under the alias of "Multatuli" (Latin "I have suffered much"), was also a controversial figure because of his novel Max Havelaar, an indictment of Dutch colonial rule based on his own experience in the Dutch East Indies, which he wrote in Brussels.

Of all these writers, Charlotte Brontë was the only one who drew significantly on her Brussels experience in her writings.

These beautiful stamps were designed by Jan De Maesschalck and cost €5.90.

Helen MacEwan