Sunday 2 May 2010

The Life of Charlotte Brontë and Villette: Angus Easson and Sandro Jung at the annual Brussels Brontë weekend

Brussels member Emily Waterfield reports on the talks given by Professors Angus Easson and Sandro Jung at our 4th annual Brontë weekend in Brussels.

For a report on all the activities over the weekend see the following post by Selina Busch.

The weekend was attended by several members from the UK, including Sally McDonald who chairs the Brontë Society's membership committee.

When her Life of Charlotte Brontë was published in 1857, Elizabeth Gaskell said she would never write another biography. The celebrated social and Unitarian novelist had, in addition to the emotional challenge of writing about her recently deceased friend, faced so many complaints and threats of legal action over the Life that it had to be rewritten for republication almost immediately.

On the bicentenary of Gaskell’s birth, editor of the Oxford Classics edition of the Life, Professor Angus Easson spoke to the Brussels Brontë Group about the role of the Group’s home town in Gaskell’s research, and the problems caused by reporting on the Brussels years.

Having accepted the invitation from Patrick Brontë to write the life of his daughter Gaskell was keen to bring the same “charm of locality and sense of detail” to the Life that had already characterised her novels Mary Barton, Cranford and North & South. She quickly realised that a visit to Brussels was needed. Like Professor Easson himself, she visited the cathedral, Royal Park and Belliard steps that feature in the novel, as well as many key Villette locations since destroyed.

Gaskell’s investigations were however made more delicate by the fact that when Villette was translated into French, the fictitious city name was changed to ‘Bruxelles’. Individuals portrayed in the novel were thus left with even less to mask their identity and felt understandably wary of welcoming a second English novelist into their homes.

Undaunted, French-speaking Gaskell made contact with locals including the widow of the former English chaplain and the Brussels chief of police. Although failing to win an audience with Madame Heger (the inspiration for the almost certainly slanderous character of Madame Beck), Gaskell was able to meet with Charlotte’s beloved Monsieur Heger (Monsieur Paul).

Her careful investigations were not however enough to stop debate around the accuracy of the final book: a debate which continues today.

Speaking to the Brussels Group later the same day Professor Sandro Jung considered Villette and investigations of a different sort. His talk on ‘Curiosity in Villette’ described Lucy Snow as “an emotionally motivated detective”, using curiosity to understand the world. In contrast, Madame Beck is a “cold, spying, curious female” with no emotional attachment to what she sees.

A third “female gaze” in the novel is supplied by Miss Marchmont who, following the death of her lover, sees the world from a negatively emotional perspective. This contrasts with Lucy’s growth towards successful human relationships and reciprocated love.

These various ways in which the female sees have been neglected even by feminists in critiques of Villette, which have instead focused on the male gaze and how females are seen, said Professor Jung. His full book manuscript on ‘Brontës and Curiosity’ will be published by Associated University Presses in 2011.

Professor Easson has taught at the universities of Newcastle upon Tyne, London (The Royal Holloway College) and Salford, where he was professor of English until his retirement in 2000. He has published widely on Romantic and Victorian literature, and is currently working on supplements to the Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens and a book on Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Professor Sandro Jung taught in the UK for ten years at the University of Wales Lampeter and the University of Salford. He moved to Ghent University at the beginning of 2010 to take up the University Chair in Early Modern British literature. Professor Jung sits on the editorial board of Brontë Studies. He is in the process of organizing a workshop on the poetry of the Brontës at Ghent University.

Emily Waterfield

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