Sunday 18 December 2011

More Adventures in NYS. Two Frederika Macdonald letters in Syracuse

Since my last article I have experienced more adventures, but hardly related to the subject of this blog. I have done quite some travelling, and have even been in two other states, for a conference about the Dutch at the Delaware. In that area Swedish settlers also tried to create a New Sweden. In the summer I went to the southeastern end of this state, the eastern end of Long Island, to visit Sue Lonoff, and had the pleasure of swimming there in the ocean. In October I was at the northwestern end of the state, the fantastic Niagara Falls.

I went there with a friend from Syracuse, situated halfway between Albany (the train stops at places like Amsterdam and Rome) and the Falls, where I was staying for a few days. This trip also allowed me to see two letters written by Frederika Macdonald, in 1913, to Marion Spielmann, which I knew were held in the collection of Syracuse University Library. Thus, on Friday morning 14th I was at its Special Collections Dept.; having announced my visit the box with the letters stood ready for me.
Frederika Macdonald wanted to publish Charlotte’s ‘love letters’ to M. Heger in her forthcoming book, The Secret of Charlotte Brontë, about her adventures at the Pensionnat. But she was under pressure from Clement Shorter, who claimed the copyright of the letters, as well as every Brontë manuscript, even those as yet undiscovered. In the background the notorious duo Wise and Symington may have played a role. Frederika being a woman, whose views on the letters differed to those of the chauvinistic Shorter, also didn't help. She turned to Spielmann for support.

The first letter is written from “The Limes – Newport – Isle of Wight 3 Dec 1913”. Macdonald refers to an earlier letter she wrote to Spielmann on 21 November, following the advice of the Principal Librarian of the British Museum, to whom Charlotte’s letters had been given some months earlier that year. She wonders if that letter had arrived, "…because I enclosed a letter from Mlle. Heger to me which I value extremely; & which I asked you to return to me - As I judged you to be a friend of the Heger family, I sent you this letter to convince you that I had their confidence & was myself entirely devoted to the rectification of false judgements passed upon both Mr & Mme Heger by un-critical devotees of Charlotte who have accepted Villette too literally - Mlle Heger's letter to me proved that I was recognized by her as a trustworthy witness; & for this reason only I sent it to you, with a stamped & addressed envelope, so that no trouble nor delay might occur in its being returned. Please let me know about this & if the letter is in your hands.”
By Sunday 7th she had received a “kind letter” from Spielmann, who wrote that he had not received her 21 November letter. She writes back to him on the same day. “I am afraid there is no use in my writing to the General Post Office,” she sighed. “I wish it had been anyone else's letters[to go missing]- let us say Mr. Clement Shorters! What a trouble he is to me at the present moment - you will see by the letters I'm enclosing from these dreadfully nervous publishers of mine, who you will see, are not satisfied with the Times and the Principle Librarian of the British Museum - & want me to do what I am convinced would be a mistake - that is to say recognize Mr Clement Shorter's claim [to copyright of all Charlotte's writings] -which if he meant to assert it should surely have been made against the publication in the Times? It appears to me clear that the Times gave the Letters by publication - to the public? & Dr. Heger gave them to the British Museum - for the use especially of historical & literary critics? I have the consent of both these authorities to the use of these letters as I am employing them by long quotations...Now will you be very kind & if I am right in my view of the case - write me a short note in this respect that I can send to these nervous publishers…”
It is not clear how the Library acquired the Macdonald letters. In 1970 the University established a new library, and these letters were found in the old collection. It is well possible, I was told, that they were acquired in the 50s or 60s by a director who was an avid collector. Two old catalog cards, typewritten, accompany the letters. As these are not cards of the old library these may well have been made by the book and manuscript dealer who sold the letters. It’s also likely to have been an English dealer. I remember such cards from a long time ago, when I had ordered books from England. Spielmann, at this time, was actually staying in Brussels, in the Carlton Hotel.
It is strange that the letters got separated from Spielmann’s large collection of Brontë related papers which are kept at the Parsonage Museum. I saw these papers in 1993, but my research priority then was the Pensionnat and the Quartier Isabelle. I remember however a number of holiday cards from Louise Heger, and of course the one letter in which Louise wrote to Spielmann that Frederika was ‘a dangerous machine to set in motion’, something which one should bear in mind when reading these two letters. It would be very interesting to have another look at these Spielmann Papers to see if they shed further light on matters addressed in the Syracuse letters.
The cards, aforementioned, do state that Frederika Macdonald died in 1923, something which in all of my twenty years of research I had never been able to find. It’s not conclusive evidence, but there’s also little reason to distrust it. In this respect too, these letters are an interesting contribution to our knowledge of the historiography of the Brontës and Brussels.

Macdonald did get her book published, with the letters, in the next year, 1914. In it she acknowledges Shorter's kind permission in letting her use the letters, without referring to all the trouble he had caused her.
Eric Ruijssenaars; with thanks to Brian Bracken for the transcriptions.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Brontë Christmas lunch and entertainment

This year 40 of us assembled in the same venue as last year for our now traditional Christmas lunch and entertainment. There was a great atmosphere and we had a varied programme of performances organised by Jones Hayden, who also devised the quiz.

Graham Andrews kicked off with a rendering of “The Wild Rover”. Another Irish item was “A Piece of a Play”, written and read by Pat Weldon, based on Flann O'Brien's writings on “The Brother”. Alex Reis read an amusing spoof biography of the Brontë family, especially commissioned for our event, written by Derek Roberts (Brussels humourist well-known in musical expat circles and author of the song “Belgian commune blues). As always we had a raffle, with prizes including DVDs of Brontë TV adaptations, books, and framed calligraphy work by Marina Sagerman, who also designed the Christmas card distributed to each attendant. After Jones Hayden’s taxing quiz, the proceedings concluded with carol singing led by José Miguel Arranz and Beth Blount.

Graham Andrews (in the foreground, Margaret Malone and J-C Samuel) (photo by Marina Saegerman)
Alex Reis (photo by Paula Cagli)
Pat Weldon (photo by Marina Saegerman)
Yanakieva Tzveta drawing the raffle tickets, with Helen MacEwan and Jones Hayden (photo by Marina Saegerman)
Jones Hayden (photo by Paula Cagli)
José Miguel and Beth leading carols (photo by Paul Cagli)
Helen Dicker, Sharon Rowles, Myriam Campinaire and Jan Kelley (photo by Marina Saegerman)
Joana Betson, Michael and Connie Dunhill (photo by Marina Saegerman)
Paul Gretton and Córa de Paor (photo by Pual Cagli)
Valeria Schirru (on right) (photo by Marina Saegerman)

Monday 7 November 2011

Exhibition and Lecture at Museum M, in Leuven

On October 27, 2011 several members of the Brussels Brontë Group went to Leuven to an exhibition of paintings and drawings by two Belgian women artists, Isala van Driest (1842-1916) and Louse Heger (1839-1933), and in the evening to a lecture by Professor Sue Lonoff of Harvard University on Louise Heger and Charlotte Brontë.

The exhibition was called ‘Isala & Louise, Two Women Two Stories’. Remarkably their surnames were not part of the title, probably to stress the invisibility of women in the professions at the time, for its theme was how these two gifted women overcame prejudice and forged a way into what were conventionally regarded as male preserves – Isala van Driest as a medical doctor, and Louise Heger as an artist specializing in landscape painting and drawing.

Louise Heger was, of course, the daughter of Constantin Heger, Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s teacher at the Pensionnat in Brussels in 1842 and Charlotte’s alone in 1843. Her work is known to have been extensive, yet there were few examples of it on display. What we saw was very worthwhile and made one wish to see more. The catalogue tells us that on March 19, 1903 Louise Heger received a Knighthood in the Order of Leopold (Ridder in de Leopoldsorde) for her oeuvre. So though neglected and all but forgotten after her death, she did receive recognition in her lifetime. Even work that was exhibited at the time is hard to find, but occasionally turns up in auctions and sales, and there is ongoing research to track down the lost paintings. Louise Heger is again coming into her own as a distinguished and professional artist.

Also of interest to Brontë enthusiasts was the oil painting of the Heger family, father, mother and 6 children, which is so often reproduced in Brontë literature in black and white. It is very colourful and large (123x86cm) and was executed in 1846 by Ange Francois. (see picture below).

The exhibition was a link to the lecture by Professor Lonoff whom we had already heard speak in Brussels last year about the devoirs that Charlotte and Emily Brontë wrote for M Heger which she edited and translated into English. The lecture opened with her tribute to the work of Eric Ruyssenaars and Brian Bracken, without whom, she said, her lecture could not have been given. These two archivists and historians are members of the Brussels Brontë Group. Eric is spending a year on a research grant in the United States and Brian was present in the hall.

The speaker then drew some similarities and distinctions between the two families, the Brontës and the Hegers. The most striking and shocking is of course the fact that Patrick Brontë survived into a ripe of old age, having lost the entire family before any of them had lived to be anything like old. Whereas most of the Hegers achieved a normal life-span. And Louise lived to be 93.

Sue Lonoff said that Louise always claimed she could remember Charlotte at the Pensionnat in 1842/3 (she was born on July 14, 1839). Although it seems improbable, it is possible as she was nearly 4½ when Charlotte finally left Brussels. Charlotte herself is known to have been fond of little Louise and portrayed her in Villette as Georgette.

Of crucial interest was the role Louise played many years later when her parents were long dead, namely what was to become of the letters Charlotte wrote to her teacher M Heger when she had left Brussels for the last time. Louise knew that at least some of them had been kept, having first been torn up and subsequently pieced together, perhaps by Mme. Heger. The actual facts are not really known. But Louise did know that her mother wanted them to be preserved and had therefore bequeathed them to her. Even during Mme Heger’s lifetime Charlotte Brontë had become a very famous author and Mme wanted to scotch any insinuation that her relationship with her husband had been anything other than a schoolgirl’s crush. So it was Louise who initiated the quest to preserve the four letters for posterity – on the one hand to exonerate her father altogether and on the other, as part of British literary heritage. She discussed the case with her brother Paul who knew nothing about the existence of the letters. They decided to consult an eminent English art-critic, Marion Spielmann, and at his suggestion donated the letters to the British Museum (they are now in the British Library) in 1913. Later on they were published in The London Times -- and caused a sensation.

In his writings on the subject Spielmann seems to play down Louise’s role in the preservation of the letters, possibly, as Sue Lonoff implied, because he had a tendency to disregard the female in any but a conventional role; on the other hand, Louise herself may have been too modest a person (we might say under-assertive) to claim her true position. More might come to light as research is done on the life and work of Marion Spielmann.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and the lecture and was glad to see and greet so many people from our group, particularly as many had had to travel to Leuven in the evening after work.

Maureen Peeck

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Selina Busch talks about Jane Eyre in local film theatre.

Last week, on 25th and 26th October, I gave my first ever talk on the Brontës in my home town of Tiel, in the Netherlands.

The latest film adaptation of Jane Eyre was going to be released in our local film theatre, the Agnietenhof. I thought this could be a wonderful opportunity to tell the people of Tiel about a subject I not only hold very dear to my heart, but up till this point, had only shared with fellow enthusiasts either in England or Brussels. I was curious to know if the name Brontë would attract people to come to this specially organized introduction to this film.

Both evenings, there were around 35 people present to listen to Charlotte's and the Brontës' story.

I had prepared for several weeks to produce a concise, informative and comprehensive story that would hopefully captivate and interest the ‘Brontë-novice’ audience. I wanted to give them an inside view of the creator of this undying love story, Charlotte Brontë, concluding with showing the many interpretations and adaptations of Jane Eyre. My aim was to give them an understanding of Jane Eyre’s background story and a greater enjoyment of the film.

The half-hour introduction was accompanied by a colourful Powerpoint presentation, with many images and clips from the Brontës’ life and Jane Eyre adaptations. It was quite powerful to see familiar images and clips on a big cinema screen and with that wonderful surround sound. I had chosen a few clips from 'The Brontës of Haworth', that brilliant series from the '70's; and at the end I compared three versions of the same scene, where Jane and Rochester first meet (and his horse falls), from 1944, 1983 and 2006.

All in all: two very successful evenings. Comments from the public were very positive and some approached me enthusiastically; the talk had actually made an impression. I now hope they have taken on my suggestion of getting to know the real story of Jane Eyre by reading the book, or learning more about the life of the Brontës.

The people of the theatre too have been very friendly in giving me this opportunity and the technicians were very helpful.

If your local film house or cinema is showing the new Jane Eyre very soon, perhaps this might be your chance to let your fellow town’s people know of the Brontës.

Selina Busch

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Jane Eyre in context

On 15 October the Brussels Bronte Group heard a talk from Dr Sandie Byrne of the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. Rather than taking one theme for her presentation, Dr Byrne gave her audience of students and Bronte fans an overview of the context in which Jane Eyre was written.

This began with a reminder of the historical background to Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel. Chartism, Catholic emancipation, and the Irish Famine were just some of the issues in the newspapers of Charlotte’s day. In addition, Dr Byrne told listeners that the 1840s – the decade in which Jane Eyre was published – are known as ‘the hungry 40s’, and follow the beginning of economic depression in the mid-1830s. The Napoleonic wars meanwhile had left Britain with a shortage of men.

This meant that questions about governance, equality and the role of women were all in the air whilst Charlotte wrote.

Dr Byrne then moved to the seemingly more familiar ground, for a Bronte group audience, of the literary context of Jane Eyre.

She started however with some surprising facts: a list of ‘best sellers’ in the years surrounding publication of Jane Eyre offered very few familiar titles. In 1846, for instance, Disraeli’s Sybil was one of the most popular reads. Even authors who are still widely read today did not get most of their attention for the novels we now associate with them: Dickens in 1845 found success with The Cricket on the Hearth, in 1846 with The Battle of Life, and in 1848 with The Haunted Man.

A tour of the authors we now associate more easily with Charlotte also offered new insights. Most memorably, Dr Byrne showed how the structure of Jane Eyre mirrors that of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. According to this model, Lowood is Bunyan’s low point of life, and Thornfield a true thorny field of trials. “It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Pilgrims Progress to 19th century homes”, explained the speaker.

Jane Eyre is not, as many have claimed, a feminist novel, added Dr Byrne. Rather it is an individualist novel, created in an age when the romantic idea of ‘self’ was being formed. This linked to the “romantic eye”, seen also in Wordsworth and Byron, with the self the centre of all things.

She added that Jane, whilst one of the most remarkable heroines created in literature, is not the only strong minded and passionate woman character to be found. Examples dating back to the 18th century were cited, with Harriet Martineau’s novel Deerbrook (1839) and Mary Davys' The Fugitive (1705) given as just two places to look.

Dr Sandie Byrne was formerly Fellow and Tutor in English at Balliol College, Oxford, and now teaches and designs courses for the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. She is the author of a number of books and articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, including publications on Austen’s Masnfield Park and Bernard Shaw’s Plays.

Emily Waterfield

Photos: the audience listens to speaker Sandie Byrne putting Jane Eyre in context; students of Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis and Brontë Society members with Sandie Byrne (on right). The second photo was taken by Paula Cagli.

Thursday 8 September 2011

The 2011 Brontë Society Conference

The biennial Brontë Society Conference was held from August 26 to August 28 at Homerton College Conference Centre, Cambridge. The theme was ‘The Brontës and the Bible: Influences both Literary and Religious’ – an appropriate subject as this year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.

The venue was very attractive with wonderful flower beds bordering the huge lawns. We were staying in halls of residence on the campus. There were about a hundred delegates and the Brussels Brontë Group was represented by Helen MacEwan, Marcia Zaaijer, Brigitte Merle and myself.

As always many of the speakers were very eminent and established Brontë scholars: Christine Alexander, Patsy Stoneman, Marianne Thormählen and Tom Winnifrith (unfortunately Brian Wilks was unable to be present but his paper was read by someone else). In addition there were, among others, a heartening number of up and coming younger Brontë scholars who made valuable contributions which bodes well for the long term future of Brontë studies.

The theme of the conference offered a lot of scope, for of course the Brontë family were steeped in the Bible. Yet in spite of all the work that has already been done in this field, there are still aspects to be brought to light. So it was quite rewarding to listen to people who were actually, in some cases, theologians themselves who looked at the Brontë works primarily from the biblical viewpoint and manner of exegesis. It made us realise all the more how their work is permeated by biblical allusion, not just the odd phrase but the whole structure more often than not is centred round their religious beliefs (orthodox or unorthodox). For instance, Patsy Stoneman’s paper showed how closely Charlotte Brontë’s sentence structure echoes that of the bible. Her stylistic insights were triggered by the linguist David Chrystal’s recent study: Begat: The King James Bible. Another speaker, Emma Miller, dealt with the more figurative aspects, namely biblical and devotional colour symbolism as it related to colour symbolism in the Brontë novels.

Of particular interest to me was Leonora Obed’s paper on Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in which she compared Emily’s notion of nature to ancient Celtic myth where the natural world has its own soul, a kind of super -- naturalness or immanence within it. This, presumably, is the place which the lovers Heathcliff and Catherine will eventually wish to inhabit. To describe it Leonara Obed used the notion of ‘inscape’ developed by the later poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. I thought this an excellent and original insight.

In addition to the scholarly talks, on two evenings we were entertained on a lighter note. On Friday, Donald Burrows, renowned expert on George Friedrich Handel, talked to us about the organ in Haworth church, for which Patrick Brontë had raised the funds, and the supposed performances there of Handel’s Messiah of which no tangible trace remains. So Donald Burrows had to hazard guesses as to how it had probably sounded. He did this by means of playing the piano and recordings of very old versions of excerpts from the Messiah. It was a really informative and amusing evening.

On Saturday there was the conference dinner in the sumptuous Great Hall of Homerton College and a great occasion it was. The after-dinner speaker was Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy Hall in North Yorkshire. This is a museum dedicated to the author Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) who lived in the house in the 1760’s, and wrote most of his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy there. The speech turned out to be a sermon on how (not) to deliver a sermon, with extracts from various sermons and pseudo sermons ranging over some 350 years, including ones by Laurence Sterne, Patrick Brontë, James Joyce and Richmal Crompton (Just William)!

The conference ended after lunch on Sunday. It had been an intensive, worthwhile and memorable experience, thanks to the indefatigable Sarah Fermi and her dedicated team who organised it. I now look forward to savouring the talks on paper when they appear as a special publication of the journal Brontë Studies.

Maureen Peeck

Homerton College, Cambridge
Brontë Society stalwarts Stephen Whitehead and Tom Winnifrith
Sarah Pearson and Marilyn Nickelsburg

Monday 22 August 2011

The Literary World in 1853

The Literary World was a New York based weekly magazine published between 1847 and 1853. Recently I had a little bit of time to look at its year 1853. I presumed they would have a review of Villette, probably in March. This indeed proved to be the case. On the 19th of that month they had quite a lengthy review, though much of it was quotation from the novel. “We must do ourselves the pleasure of quoting the capital description of Miss Snowe’s first introduction to the school room”. It also gives the “description of Rachel’s acting … equal in intensity to the great actress’s best efforts”, and it quotes the last page of the book, “a most admirable example of concise, powerful writing.”

It certainly is a positive review. Here are the opening lines:
“There is a freshness about the books of Currer Bell which we find in no other writer. She seems to cast herself loose from all novel writing precedents, and constructs from beginning to end, after her own fashion. Her independence is shown in the choice of a heroine. She takes a plain looking woman, with no graces of manner or speech, unpropped by rank or fortune. The heroine tells her own story. At the outset we dislike her; she takes no pains to ingratiate herself, but, on the contrary, turns the rough side of her character to us. As we read on, we are, in spite of ourselves, interested in her adventures.”

Like The Athenæum in England this magazine also realized immediately that the novel is set in a fictionalized Brussels. In London, it describes, Lucy “takes passage for a port in Labassecour, and journeys thence to Villette – a happy name for the snug little capital, the miniature Paris, Brussels.”

Caroline No
On 15 October the magazine ran an article about ‘Anonymous works’, which attempted to reveal a number of writers’ pseudonyms. The ninth book was “”Jane Eyre,” 1848, by Caroline Bronte (who has since sent out “Shirley,” and “Vilette [sic],” though of conceded talent, producing less sensation, under the pseudonym of Currer Bell; the only survivor of three sisters; one other of whom is also known to the reading world.”

The article also has Mrs “Gaskill”. The magazine earlier in the year had a very positive review of her Cranford.

The magazine does have one advertisement for the American Villette, published less than two months after the English edition, by Harper & Brothers. Apart from that there was only one Agnes Grey ad – “By the author of “Jane Eyre,” “Shirley,” etc”. This book was published by T.B. Peterson’s.

In November it was reported that much of the publishing house of Harper and Brothers had been destroyed by fire.Other authors
Thackeray (who, in 1853, was in the US) and Dickens (who in that year published Bleak House; January e.g. has a few articles about spontaneous combustion) often feature in the magazine. There are two articles about Rachel, apart from the Villette review. Unfortunately The Literary World stopped at the end of the year, suddenly it seems.

My main topic of research here, this year, is a man named Abraham Staets, who came to New Netherland in 1642, so it was nice to find a literary reference related to my research. The magazinehad several articles about New Netherland, including a curious little article about Dutch Van - names in a story written by the American author J. Fenimore Cooper. After a lengthy list of these names the writer adds that there's also a Van Staets in it, but that as far as he knows this name was never written preceded by Van.

Eric Ruijssenaars

Thursday 14 July 2011

Eric in New York State (2)

Eric Ruijssenaars sends his second bulletin of news from the US where he is spending a year doing research into Dutch settlers at the New Netherland Institute in Albany. He is taking the opportunity to do some Brontë research as well.

A century ago, in March 1911, fire broke out in the Capitol building in Albany, the capital of New York State. It burned for four days. The state’s Archives, Library and Museum were housed in the building, and there was enormous damage to their collections. Because of the intense heat shelves broke down, which is why relatively few Dutch seventeenth century documents were lost. The English documents fell on top of them, as they were all near the ground. A great many of the English documents were lost.

The first picture is from a nice plan of Brussels, dated ‘around 1850’, with illustrations of buildings, from the NY State Archives. The upper part on the left was destroyed by that 1911 fire. It was an interesting find, being so close to 1842-3, and how Charlotte and Emily would have seen the city.

A few weeks ago I was in New York City again. I think it’s a wonderful city. On Thursday I went to the Holland Society of New York, and its fine library, for the research for the New Netherland Institute. On Friday my friend Margaret and I went to the New York public Library, to see the BBC’s Radio Times of 1970. Some years ago I found that at the very end of May 1970 a Villette television series started. Unfortunately this TV series is ‘lost’. I had much hoped to see a picture of this series’ Pensionnat in an article about the series. Would it look in any way like the real scenery?

The Radio Times only gave a (colour) picture of the actress as Lucy Snowe, and the few articles about it were also mainly about the actress. No picture of the Pensionnat. It was interesting to see that on Friday May 29th BBC Radio 4 broadcast a play about Emily (“Whom the Gods loved: Another in the series of portraits of some brilliantly gifted people who died young”). And on May 21st , also on Radio 4, Story Time, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall started, with the first of 10 instalments.

That Saturday I gave a talk to Brontë Society members in this part of the US, or rather a walk, a virtual walk, through the old Quartier Isabelle. In the afternoon Mary Meeks gave a very interesting lecture about Villette and the Bible and it ended with an excerpt from a new theatrical performance about the Bronte sisters. All of it based on their own words, used in the novels and the letters. Unfortunately there was only a small audience, including Sue Lonoff, and Margaret (a great Villette lover) and her husband Steven (now reading it for the first time). But it was a very nice Bronte day indeed, and good to meet the Brontë people here in the NYS and New Jersey region. All thanks to Joy Weiner, who organized the event.

I very much enjoy being in the US. A few days ago I had the pleasure of experiencing the Fourth of July here. I was in the tiny village of Old Chatham again, and saw a cute patriotic parade, after which the Star Spangled Banner was sung, and the Declaration of Independence was read aloud. It was a very pleasant day.

On the day before, a rainy Sunday, we went to the beautiful Catskill Mountains. It was a very Dutch area and is immortalized in Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle story, the afterword to which contains a reference to the Kaaterskill Falls. After coming back home, having seen these Falls,having twice crossed the Hudson River via the Rip van Winkle bridge, I read the story for the first time.With a picture of these literary Falls I say goodbye for now from New York State.

Plan of Brussels circa 1850
TV adaptation of Villette in Radio Times (May 1970)
Eric taking US Brontë Society members on a virtual walk in the Isabelle quarter
The Kaaterskill Falls

Eric Ruijssenaars

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Brontë weekend in Haworth

Return to Haworth I

After the outstanding AGM of 2010 (a first for me), I felt happily excited when the bus dropped me off in Haworth in the afternoon of 3 June.

Less focused on lectures this time, we had nevertheless a highly enjoyable weekend full of variety again and also extremely amusing in different ways: a great evening of light entertainment provided by Haworth’s Gilbert and Sullivan group (among others a funny and very special version of “Cinderella”), but above anything else the Brontë spoof Withering Looks by Britain’s most famous literary lunatics Maggie Fox and Sue Riding – extremely inventive and utterly hilarious!

We also had lots of fun around the usual dinner at the “Old White Lion” on Sunday evening - pitting our Brontë brains against everyone else while trying to find the correct answers to Judith Bland’s 60 questions out of the Brontë books and lives.

But the real highlight for me was our walk on Sunday morning to Ponden Hall, often cited as the model for the Lintons’ home Thrushcross Grange– although none of the sisters left evidence of making such a link themselves. In part this opinion is due to its location, on the way up to the moors, in part to the fact that there were so few larger houses in this area.

Actually, Ponden Hall corresponds in some measure to the description of Wuthering Heights given by Emily and seems thus far more identifiable with Heathcliff’s home - being less grand and more humble than Thrushcross Grange as described in the novel. The date plaque above the main entrance, by the way, identifies the rebuilt house as dating from 1801 - the date that begins the story in Wuthering Heights.

Emily Brontë’s association with the Heaton family at Ponden is well documented: one of the Heatons served as a churchwarden to Patrick and it is known that she used the library which was reputedly the finest in West Yorkshire. Branwell Brontë was also a frequent visitor to Ponden where he attended pre-hunting gatherings.

As soon as I entered the large hall - realising that this was Wuthering Heights as I had imagined it – I had a kind of vision, i.e. Heathcliff standing by the fireplace when Mr Lockwood came in and asked for shelter from the snow-storm outside … And a second one in the master bedroom overlooking the valley beyond, where a tiny single-paned window in the east gable - underneath which a box bed, as in Wuthering Heights, was once standing but has sadly disappeared - is said to be the one where Cathy’s ghost knocked at the glass. I closed my eyes one second and could nearly hear her voice pleading: “Let me in, let me in”….

I didn’t take photos – unfortunately for those who read these lines, but not for me because for me the best souvenirs are those that you keep in your heart. And this I will – forever !

Now that I am back home again I feel like Emily when she was away from Haworth – nostalgic and missing the Moors already, their stillness, their grandeur and beauty and I can’t wait to go back to them!

Renate Hurtmanns

Return to Haworth II

There are many delights to sample over the annual Brontë Society weekend in Haworth apart from the hearty Yorkshire fare in its pubs.

There is the opportunity to meet other members. They come from all over the world but the Society’s heart is in Haworth and the Parsonage Museum. Members include local people with a stock of anecdotes from their years in one of Britain’s oldest literary societies as well as encyclopaedic knowledge of every place in Yorkshire ever visited by a Brontë or used in one of their novels (over the weekend we had a private viewing of Ponden Hall, supposedly the model for Wuthering Heights, and a visit to Gawthorpe Hall whose owner introduced Charlotte Brontë to Mrs Gaskell). Some of these Yorkshire members even have links to families who were associated with the Brontës. Thus they form a living link stretching right back to the Brontës themselves.

There are the local researchers like Keighley archivist Ian Dewhirst who spoke about the grimness of working-class life in Haworth in the 1840s with wit and passion, conveying to us the immediacy with which the period can be experienced through the mis-spelt letters of farmers and mill workers of the time. Again, a local enthusiast acting as a living link between us and the past.

There is traditional entertainment such as that provided by the Haworth light opera group, which included one of the monologues performed in 1930s music halls by the comedian Stanley Holloway, recited in a broad Lancashire accent challenging for members from outside the British Isles!

There are the traditional, time-honoured rites of the Brontë Society, such as the annual service for its members in the church where Patrick Brontë preached for over 40 years and the cream tea always partaken of outdoors unless it’s raining too hard.

But the Society isn’t just about the past and tradition. The Museum runs an arts programme with talks and exhibitions by contemporary writers and artists. This year we listened to novelist Sally Vickers (Miss Garnet’s Angel) talking about her work and how the Brontës have influenced it. At the prize-giving for the Society’s literary competition, the winners included many young writers. The winner of the poetry section has just published her first book of poems.

And from this year the Society has a new President. The writer Bonnie Greer is from Chicago, although she has lived in Britain for decades. This was her first AGM and she was delighted to be invited to lead the Society, mingled affably with members and gave us a stirring speech about the need to work to preserve literary societies and museums for future generations.

Helen MacEwan

Ponden Hall
Withering Looks
Gawthorpe Hall
Bonnie Greer, the new President of the Brontë Society

Thursday 26 May 2011

Eric in New York

Eric Ruijssenaars, who’s done so much research on the Brontës in Brussels, is spending a year in the USA doing research of a different kind (though he hopes to find time for Brontë investigations too). He has sent this account of his first month there.

On Tuesday April 19th I left the Low Countries to go to the United States. For a year I will be doing research at the New Netherland Institute in Albany, the capital of New York State. It is therefore here that the archives of NYS are housed and thus also the papers of the periodwhen the Dutch ‘owned’ quite a large part of what is now the US (1609-1664, 1673-4). Even after the latter year places like Albany remained overwhelmingly Dutch-speaking for a long time, and up to this day one finds many Dutch names, of places and persons.

It is a great adventure for me of course, and what makes it even better is that I have the opportunity to do Brussels Brontë research here.Many Brontë manuscripts have ended up here in a number of collections all over the country. I hope to find things about the Brontës and their stay in Brussels. It is known many Americans visited the Pensionnat Heger when it was still there, and that Villette was much more popular here than in England.

On Saturday April 23th I had the great pleasure to meet Sue Lonoff again in Manhattan,.after meeting her half a year ago in Brussels where she gave a splendid lecture. It has just been confirmed that she will come to Belgium again in October. In Leuven (Louvain) she will give a talk about the Heger family, at the occasion of the Louise Heger exhibition in the Museum.

In New York I spent five days. It’s a great city. Had the great pleasure to see four paintings of Johannes Vermeer, my favourite painter, at the Metropolitan Museum, as well as a marvellous collection of Egyptian antiquities and a golden drum given to Ringo Starr in 1964. Earlier I had already visited the place where John Lennon was shot, and close by, Strawberry Fields in the quite wonderful and huge Central Park. I hope to revisit NY regularly, there’s much I haven’t yet seen, nor have I yet been able to do BB research at the New York Public Library.

After spending several days in New York my friends took me to their second house in Old Chatham, which is pretty close to Albany. The house was the village’s Parsonage and still bears that name.

At present Jane Eyre is a big hit in the cinemas in the US. The people I spoke with who saw the movie were all enthusiastic about it. The picture is from a cinema in Albany.

On June 18th I will be giving a lecture in New York to the Brontë Society members of this part of the US. I’m going to do a guided virtual walk through the Quartier Isabelle. It seems like I’m going to do several more lectures this year about my New Netherland research. But there may be more Brontë lectures as well.

In the summer I hope to visit Syracuse (also in NYS), where they have some correspondence between Frederika Macdonald and Marion Spielmann, two of the great early BB historians. The weekend of 6-8 Maysaw the annual Tulip festival in Albany, a sort of Dutch feast, as you can see on the picture. Photos: Eric Ruijssenaars with Sue Lonoff; The Parsonage; Jane Eyre at an Albany cinema; Dutch Settlers Society in Albany

Eric Ruijssenaars

Thursday 14 April 2011

Report on annual weekend 1-3 April

Brussels and UK Brontë Society members with speaker Valerie Sanders

This April in Belgium the Brussels Brontë Group organised its fifth annual Brontë weekend. As always, the three-day programme was scheduled for the month of Charlotte’s birth.

Members of the Brussels Shakespeare Society started events on April Fools’ Day. Deborah Griffith, Ignace de Volder, Stephen Sadler and Nicole Freund gave dramatic readings of exchanges between Cathy and Heathcliff and Jane and Rochester, selected by their sometime-director and fellow Brussels resident Tracie Ryan. The Brontë Group audience hopes there will be opportunities for further collaboration between the two literary societies in the future.

The following day, Saturday 2 April, two academic lectures formed the centrepiece of the weekend’s events. The first of these, by Professor Valerie Sanders, looked at Fatherhood and the Brontës.

Professor Sanders opened with an examination of the Brontë sisters’ father. Towards the end of his life, Patrick Brontë started to analyse his influence on the children he had outlived. Had he been a “calm, sedate, concentric” man, said Patrick in 1857, “I should not in all probability have had such children as mine have been.”

Patrick himself has been the subject of much study and speculation since his famous daughters’ deaths. The father as a type, Professor Sanders pointed out, is however generally a vague figure in Victorian novels. But in the Brontë novels the father is a more pervasive presence than the mother.

Professor Sanders went on to look at the different ways in which the three sisters portray fathers. For Charlotte, fathers from Mr Rochester to Mr Yorke tend to be stern, older men. With the notable exception of Shirley’s terrifying father, they are usually rational men. Emily’s father figures in Wuthering Heights meanwhile are young and flawed, whilst the daughters’ feelings for them – “I care for nothing in comparison with papa... I love him better than myself” (Cathy Linton) – are morelike those of a wife. Anne’s Agnes Grey portrays a succession of bad fathers, until Mr Weston emerges as the ideal pastor/husband/father.

Professor Sanders is Professor of English of the University of Hull and author of The Tragi-Comedy of Victorian Fatherhood. She was visiting Brussels and its Brontë connections for the first time.

Her presentation was followed by Professor Philip Riley, with his talk Not just a pretty face: physiognomy, phrenology and the novels of the Brontë sisters.

He gave his audience an overview of physiognomy and phrenology, which he described as primitive precursors of modern psychology. Physiognomy is referred to in every Brontë novel. There are seven references to this pseudoscience of judging character through facial appearance in Jane Eyre alone. The less widely known practice of phrenology – a belief that the size and shape of the skull give a clear indication of personality type –also occurs. Rochester, for instance, pushes back his hair and is seen to have “a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have arisen.”

Professor Riley explained how seriously these twin pseudo-sciences were taken in the 19th century. Servants were rejected by potential employers, and Darwin was almost refused passage on the Beagle, because something was thought to be wrong with their faces.

To tell her sisters they were “wrong, even morally wrong, to make their heroes beautiful” and give her first major novel an ugly hero and heroine, Charlotte was upsetting firmly established social beliefs in a link between physical beauty and moral goodness.

Professor Riley is Emeritus Professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Nancy and the editor of books including Language, Culture and Identity. He spoke at the 2009 Brussels Brontë weekend on The Brontë sisters' "strong language".

On Saturday night after the talks about 20 members met in one of the taverns on Brussels’ Grand Place, where they heard songs performed by some of the group. Two guided walks around remaining sites of Brontë interest ran in parallel on Sunday, to cater for ever growing interest from members. These were led separately by MyriamCampinaire and Jones Hayden and were followed by lunch and the informal AGM.

Report by Emily Waterfield
Photo: Ioan Danubiu

Photos of annual weekend

Deborah Griffith, Ignace de Volder, Nicole Freund and Stephen Sadler of the Brussels Shakespeare Society reading passages from Brontë novels

Valerie Sanders talking about fathers in the Brontës’ novels

Philip Riley explaining physiognomy and phrenology

By the Brontë Society plaque outside Bozar

By the unofficial plaque commemorating the Brontës’ stay in the Isabelle quarter
Photos by Helen MacEwan and Ioan Danubiu

Sunday 6 March 2011

Review of Dudley Green's biography of Patrick Brontë

One of the most fascinating things about the Brontës is the myths and legends surrounding them and whether there is any basis at all for some of them. Patrick Brontë appears in Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte as a remote, eccentric and forbidding figure. Many biographies of the children end with their deaths as though Patrick was just a faint figure in the background. Mrs. Gaskell’s picture of him was taken from anecdotes from the nurse who was so incompetent in nursing Mrs Brontë in her last illness that Patrick dismissed her and nursed his wife at night himself.

Dudley Green’s book, which is very well documented, gives a very different picture. Patrick was a good family man and very concerned as to how his children would manage when he was dead. He gave them lessons every day after breakfast. As a lover of music himself he took them to performances of the Haworth Philarmonic Orchestra. He bought a piano for them and other instruments and paid for lessons for them, although money was always tight. It is obvious that he discussed politics and affairs of the country with them and they all shared in the hopes and disappointments of their outcomes. When Branwell was drinking so heavily his father insisted on sharing his bedroom with him so he would not harm himself in the night, although Patrick had a full load of clerical duties to carry out in the daytime. Escorting Charlotte and Emily to Brussels, he reassured himself that his daughters would be in good hands, studying a few phrases in French on the way.

Although his writings were not of the highest literary merit, he was the first of the family to have published works (poems and a story). He wrote many tracts and was a tireless writer of letters to newspapers and organizations to support good causes. So the children were exposed to an atmosphere of the written word, both reading and writing, from early days.

For many reasons Haworth was a difficult parish. It was a daughter parish to Bradford and also had a separate Board of Trustees who did not always agree with the Bradford Vicar. Patrick was one of the few Tories in Haworth, a great believer in the established (Church of England) church among a majority of Dissenters. In Haworth he was a founder member, as was Branwell, of the Haworth Temperance Society and was so concerned when the doctor advised him to take a little wine for his digestion that he asked to have it in writing. He was a great believer in education and fought hard to raise money for, first of all a Sunday School and later a day school. He raised money for the poor when there was little work. He raised a subscription to replace the three bells of the church by six new ones so the bell ringers could take part in competitions. He preached once or twice every Sunday until he became too ill in his 82nd year. Even when he was blind he would be led to the pulpit to give his sermon which was said to be easily understood by the simplest and least educated member and to be delivered extempore.

Although a strong Tory he was sympathetic to many Whig ideas. He supported Roman Catholic Emancipation, was against the death penalty for minor crimes, like stealing a loaf of bread, against the workhouse system where families were separated, a man from his wife and parents from their children, and against rotten boroughs where the few voters were bribed to vote for particular members of Parliament.

He was a tenacious campaigner. Because of dirty water the mortality rate in Haworth equalled that of some of the worst districts in the country. He campaigned for 14 years to get clean water for the poor. The rich had their own good sources and were not willing to pay a water rate for others. The reason why he insisted his children wore only silk and wool was because these were less combustible than other materials and as minister he had had to take the funeral service for so many children who had been burned to death.

He always wanted to be intellectually stimulated and joined first the Keighley Mechanics’ Institute and later the Haworth branch. He not only attended lectures but also gave them. The children sometimes accompanied him. When Charlotte died the Haworth branch paid tribute to ‘the Institute’s most distinguished member and patroness,’ Currer Bell’. She must have become an active member.

The chapter on how Mrs. Gaskell went about writing the biography reveals how much she falsified the family situation, particularly with regard to Patrick’s character. Under the circumstances, he responded with great restraint.

This biography of Patrick is the first for forty years and for me it was special because it was about Patrick as a person in his own right and not just as a background to the girls. It is very easy to read and I do recommend it strongly.

Sheila Richardson

Monday 28 February 2011

Anne Brontë comes to Brussels at last

Maureen Peeck O'Toole addressing the Brussels group
Even though Anne Brontë didn't venture to Belgium with her more famous sisters, the Brussels Brontë Group let the youngest Brontë peek out from under her siblings' shadow at least for an afternoon. The group on Feb. 12, 2011, enjoyed an entertaining talk by Maureen Peeck O'Toole on Anne's second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, followed by a spirited discussion.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Acton Bell was published in June 1848, just six months after Anne's first novel -- Agnes Grey. Unlike Agnes, which was packaged with Wuthering Heights, Tenant was published as a three-volume novel by itself. Anne was to die less than a year later, in May 1849 at the age of 29.

Maureen explained how Anne was an early champion of women's rights and Tenant has been praised (though not at the time of publication) for its 'innovative and radical expression of feminist values.' Helen's struggle to free herself from her marriage to the profligate Huntingdon goes against the 19th-century womanly ideal of the 'angel in the house,' which projected women's role as selfless and submissive wife and mother. Maureen also noted Helen's belief in 'universal salvation' (or 'universalism') -- an unorthodox view at the time that everyone will eventually find salvation. While Maureen contrasted the romanticism of Charlotte's and Emily's books with the social realism of Anne's works, she called Anne 'just as radical as her sisters.'

When it was first published, Tenant was described as 'coarse' along with the works of Charlotte and Emily. Maureen suggested that Tenant may have more connection with Emily's novel than many people realize and may be the first 'intertextual response' to Wuthering Heights. She listed numerous parallels between the two novels, starting with the initials W.H. in the principal residences and titles. In addition, both books use framing -- a tale within a tale -- and a retrospective time frame. They both include violence and drunkenness as well as a tenant arriving at an old house.

One bit of unexpected violence in Tenant is Gilbert Markham's attack on Frederick Lawrence. 'As a kind of Heathcliff, he seems to think his feelings justify his behavior,' Maureen said. She called this assault 'a flaw in the novel' and said it contributes to her conclusion that Markham 'is very unconvincing as a spouse for Helen.' This view of the Gilbert-Helen match was vigorously disputed from the back row.

Another issue that inspired animated discussion was the framing of Helen's diary in Markham's letters. Early criticism found this structure off-putting, but today's critics find it a very effective literary device, Maureen said. The diary is a kind of testimony -- an abused woman telling her own story. The diary gains in intensity by being embedded in the more-mundane letters, she said. The diary also figures in the plot since Helen's first escape attempt is foiled because her husband reads it; later it has a positive impact when Markham is allowed to see it. Another audience member suggested that Anne framed the diary in Markham's letters because those strong views needed to be filtered through a male narrator -- that society at that time wouldn't accept such strong feminist views straight from a woman.

Tenant may be an effort to rewrite Wuthering Heights from a Christian point of view, Maureen said. Helen is driven by feelings of religious duty to try to redeem Huntingdon, but her spiritual pride and dogmatic approach lead to a power struggle between husband and wife. Helen knew Huntingdon's low 'organ of veneration' indicated a lack of natural religion, but while she might have held the spiritual high ground, Huntingdon (and society) took it for granted that he was her superior in every other way. This proved disastrous for both and one of Anne's points in the novel is that the practice of separating girls and boys into separate spheres from childhood was damaging to both, Maureen said.

Charlotte's criticism of Tenant also inspired lively debate. Charlotte called Anne's subject matter 'a mistake' and said the book 'hardly seems to me desirable to preserve.' Maureen said Charlotte's comments probably stem from a desire to preserve Anne's memory and reputation after her death, after the book had been criticized in early reviews.

Luckily for us today, Tenant was preserved and has taken its place beside her sisters' novels, though not quite out of their shadow. Maureen's summation: 'Anne was indeed a novelist in her own right -- a wonderful stylist.'

Friday 14 January 2011

Brontës in Brussels: Jolien Janzing talks about the novel she’s writing on Charlotte and Emily’s stay in the city

The flow of fictional biographies about the Brontës appearing on the market is never-ceasing; in the last year or two we have had Syrie James’ The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë and Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow, to name but two of many. What is unusual about Jolien Janzing’s new novel is that it will concentrate on Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s stay in Brussels and will be written by a writer who lives in Belgium; she is Dutch by birth but was brought up in the Ghent area, where she still lives.

Jolien’s first novel, Grammar of an Obsession, was well received. She knew that she wanted her second to be a historical novel about a real person, but searched for some time for a subject before hitting on the Brontës when she discovered that they had lived in Brussels. She had not realised this despite having read Villette as a teenager, and she knows that the Brontës' link with Brussels will be new for many of her readers too.

Her Dutch publisher liked the idea of a novel set in Brussels, a city that appeals to readers in the Netherlands. In it Jolien will explore the history, everyday life, and politics of the city and how all these might have influenced the Brontës. And the other reason why it is the perfect subject for her is that she has loved and admired the Brontës since her mother introduced her to Jane Eyre when she was 12.

Like so many girls before her, Jolien at once identified with Jane, who at the start of the book is about the same age as Jolien when she first read it. She felt the same emotions as Jane, in imagination grew up with her. Her sense of identification with Charlotte Brontë has continued in adulthood. Although, as can be seen from a glance at her photo, in physical appearance she has little in common with Charlotte and her “plain”, physically “insignificant” and “invisible” heroines, she claims that as a Dutch person growing up in Belgium she shared Charlotte’s sense of being an outsider. She also shares her drive and ambition, the wish to prove herself through writing. She says that one reason she feels this need to prove herself as a writer is that Dutch and Flemish women writers have to work hard to be taken as seriously as male authors and carry off few of the literary prizes.

Inevitably, the subject of Charlotte’s attitude to the Flemish comes up in the course of our conversation. Although Charlotte’s prejudices don’t diminish Jolien’s admiration of her as a person and writer, she addresses these attitudes in her novel. She points out that, living with the French-speaking Hegers, Charlotte would have had little real contact with the Flemish speakers and that although Dutch was the language spoken by the majority of the city’s inhabitants, French was the language of the upper and middle classes, of the upwardly mobile.

Apart from her interest in the Brontës – she feels closest to Charlotte but finds Emily fascinating – Jolien is naturally interested in exploring the character of Constantin Heger too. Her own experience as the daughter of a Catholic father and Protestant mother, brought up as a Protestant in a Catholic country (at school she was given religious instruction apart from the rest of her classmates, rather as Charlotte and Emily were excused from religious observances at the Pensionnat) gives her insights into differences between the two religions that may explain some aspects of Heger’s personality and behaviour. In Jolien’s view, the flirtatious element in Heger’s teaching style, while never overstepping certain limits, reflected a more relaxed attitude typical of a Catholic culture that would have been novel to Charlotte, reared in a Protestantism that was stricter about such matters.

One element not found before in a novel about the Brontës is a sub-plot Jolien is introducing about King Leopold I’s young mistress, Arcadie Claret, by whom he had two children. Arcadie was the mistress of a married man; Charlotte had intense feelings about a married man. Arcadie appeared to be a woman who had everything while Charlotte was deeply unsatisfied with her own life. We will have to wait for Jolien’s novel to find out all the parallels and contrasts she draws between the two.

The novel is being part funded by a scholarship from the Flemish Fund for Literature (Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren), and is likely to be published in 2011 / early 2012.

Helen MacEwan