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