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