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

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