Friday 7 December 2012

Down the Belliard Steps: book launch

On Wednesday 28 November over 50 people attended the launch of Helen MacEwan’s book about the experience of setting up the Brussels Brontë Group, Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels. 

Waterstones bookstore in Brussels kindly hosted the launch. Apart from book-signing, talks were given by Helen and by Derek Blyth, who has long been interested in the Brontë links in Brussels and has written about them in his many guide books. Below are some photos of the event.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Book launch of 'Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels’

In the previous post, we brought news about Helen MacEwan's recently published book on the story of the Brussels Brontë Group. See post of 10 november. 

There will be a special book launch in Waterstones at 18.30 on Wednesday 28 November.
Helen will tell more about the inside story of how our group came to be, the significance of the Brontës' time in Brussels, and she will introduce the people who set the group up and those who have contributed to it since then. 
Drop by if you can and get your copy then. 

The book has over 40 illustrations in colour. It is now available in Waterstones and Sterling Books in Brussels (price €17.50) and can also be ordered from the Brontë Parsonage bookshop in Haworth (price ₤13.99).

Wednesday 28 November 2012 at 18.30 at Waterstone’s bookstore, Boulevard Adolphe Max 71, 1000 Brussels

See you there!

Saturday 10 November 2012

The Brussels Brontë Group celebrated in a book by Helen MacEwan

Helen MacEwan writes:

A project I’ve been working on for some time, a book about the genesis and development of the Brussels Brontë Group (which started up in 2006) is finally completed; it has now been printed and copies are available. You can buy it in the English bookstores Waterstones and Sterling Books in Brussels, or from the Brontë Parsonage Museum shop. Go to Brontë Shop – Books – Miscellaneous.

In the course of writing it I interviewed and spoke to many people in the group, and the book is about their discovery of the Brontës in Brussels as well as mine. So it’s something of a group project.

The book is called Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels

Description of the book:

Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s stay in Brussels in 1842-43 to improve their French was to prove a momentous one for Charlotte in particular. She fell in love with her French teacher, Constantin Heger, and her experiences in the Belgian capital inspired two of her four novels, Villette and The Professor. Yet the Brontës’ Brussels episode remains the least-known of their lives.

When Helen MacEwan moved to Brussels in 2004 she discovered that not many people there seemed to know much about the Brontës’ time in the city. She herself had a lot to find out about their life in the Pensionnat Heger at the bottom of the Belliard steps. In the process of doing so she met other people who were similarly fascinated by the story, and with them formed the Brussels branch of the Brontë Society.

Photo: Cassandre Sturbois

For all these people, following in Charlotte and Emily's tracks in modern-day Brussels, and setting up a literary group, was a voyage of discovery. In the course of telling their story, Helen finds some odd parallels between the Brussels of their day and ours, and reflects on why the Brontës' time there is so fascinating.

ISBN No 978-0-9573772-0-2
146 pp

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Brussels Brontë walk filmed for ITV documentary

Whatever the future may hold for the Brussels Brontë Group, 27 October 2012 will always stand out as a high spot in our annals. For us personally it was the day we got the opportunity to take part in a TV programme. More generally, it represented recognition of the role played by Brussels in the Brontë story.

In mid-September I was contacted by Gareth Williams of Blakeway North Productions, a TV production company in Manchester. He was to direct and produce a one-hour documentary on the Brontës, one of a series called Perspectives in which a well-known personality talks about a literary, artistic or musical passion – Andrew Lloyd-Weber on the Pre-Raphaelites, Griff Rhys Jones on The Wind in the Willows. The documentary was to be presented by the actress Sheila Hancock (Sheila is also the widow of John Thaw who played Inspector Morse in the TV detective series).

Gareth Williams explained that the film would be a voyage of discovery for Sheila Hancock as she travelled round the north of England visiting Haworth and other places important in the sisters’ lives, such as Roe Head School, while exploring their story in conversation with Brontë biographers such as Juliet Barker and Lyndall Gordon. The film crew would also head south to London where Sheila would look at the Heger letters in the British Library.

But there was also a location outside England where Gareth wanted to film. He felt that documentaries about the Brontës didn’t always place enough emphasis on the significance of their stay in Belgium. In conversation with me he learned that we organised guided walks around the Brontë places in Brussels. Could he bring Sheila Hancock to Brussels and film her following in the Brontës’ tracks here as she joined a group to listen to one of our guides?

A few weeks later Maire Tracey, the assistant producer for the programme, came to Brussels to reconnoitre. She spent some hours with guides Myriam and Jones and myself going round the walk route. It was a day of brilliant sunshine in early October. The crew were to come out the weekend before Halloween and we warned her that in late October they would be lucky indeed to have a repeat of such weather.

We checked the weather forecast anxiously every day in the week leading up to the 27th. Both the weather that week and the forecast for the weekend were dire. We had been enjoying a brief Indian summer but now temperatures plummeted. Two days before our date with Gareth Williams and his team the forecast was for thunderstorms, heavy rain and temperatures near zero. On the 26th it poured and we were afraid to check the forecast.

Saturday the 27th got off to an uncertain start but quite early in the morning the sun came out – and stayed out. It seemed too good to be true. It was, however, cold. At 1 pm a group of ten of us met the film crew of five (Gareth, Maire, cameraman, sound man and make-up girl) outside the Protestant church in a chill breeze but under a blue sky. 

The film crew (director Gareth Williams is on the right)
Sheila Hancock, tall and very elegant in her ankle-length coat and scarf, joined our group to listen to Myriam, who seemed unfazed as the camera zoomed in, the sound man held his fluffy microphone high over our heads and the make-up girl occasionally darted forward to spray Sheila’s hair or dab at her face although neither hair nor face seemed at all in need of her attention. Half-way through the walk Sheila was offered some gloves which she refused initially because they would mar ‘continuity’. When the temperature dropped a further degree or two, however, the gloves went on!

Sheila Hancock
The rest of us, with hair unattended to by the make-up girl, enjoyed ourselves despite the cold and soon got used to the presence of the camera. Occasionally there was a re-take, for example when background noise became a problem, one instance being the slamming of car doors when the guests departed after a wedding in the Protestant church. The film crew had been concerned that from the outside it didn’t look like a church, but the emergence of the wedding guests provided suitable cinematic confirmation and they asked Myriam to synchronise the start of her talk with the appearance of the bride and groom.

The group with Sheila Hancock (fifth from the right) and guide Myriam (on the right).
In Place Royale our great day could have ended in tragedy as we wandered into the centre of the square while the cameraman took shots, regardless of traffic and the fact that at one stage some of us were standing on the tramline!

Myriam started by setting the scene: what brought Charlotte and Emily here all the way from Haworth, why they chose Brussels, how they funded their study trip. At the top of the Belliard steps looking down at the site of the Pensionnat, she took us in imagination into the school and told us how M. Heger’s tuition improved the sisters’ writing style. But as she embarked on Charlotte’s relationship with her teacher, clearly a subject of great interest to Sheila, the director and the future viewers of the programme, the first hailstones fell from a cloud that had been steadily blackening overhead. The weather had turned wuthering, giving us a taste of the Yorkshire moors. We hurried down the stairs seeking shelter, feeling a little like Lucy Snowe fleeing Place Royale, and took refuge in a café opposite Bozar.

Sheila asked questions of the guide and drew the rest of the group into discussion as well. She picked up on various points that interested her, wondering for example whether Emily was as miserable in Brussels as is generally assumed; she obviously enjoyed learning German, and used to study it with a book propped up in the Parsonage kitchen while she made the pastry. Sheila also wanted to know exactly what kind of man M. Heger was, and how Charlotte’s relationship with her teacher was reflected in her novels. She also quizzed us about our take on the Brontë-Heger letters. She had seen them a few days earlier in the British Library; was it known for certain who tore them up, who sewed them together again, and above all, why?

She speculated about the Heger side of the correspondence and whether some letters are waiting to be discovered somewhere, like the manuscript of ‘L'Ingratitude’ that Brian Bracken found last year at the Musée de Mariemont. In her talk to us two weeks earlier Lyndall Gordon had also speculated about Heger's letters to Charlotte being hidden somewhere. Perhaps, like Lucy Snowe, Charlotte had buried them in a jar in the garden.
Sheila hinted at a couple of interesting discoveries made in the course of filming, including one at the British Library while viewing the letters and another at Roe Head. We’ll have to wait for enlightenment until the programme is broadcast.

The sun shining again, we walked to the cathedral. The tour which had begun in bright sunshine in front of the neo-classical building housing the Protestant church ended in sunshine before the Gothic cathedral where Charlotte, despite her anti-Catholic rants, one day persuaded a priest to listen to her confession…. of what exactly?

After we had speculated about that for a bit it was time for the crew to rush Sheila off to one of the olde worlde cafés in Grand Place where they’d arranged to film her final musings on the importance of Brussels for the Brontës. With the Hôtel de Ville as a backdrop, she summed up how crucial their time here was to their development as individuals and as artists. We too adjourned to a café, to warm ourselves with mulled wine and talk over our afternoon. We were still talking as the film team caught the Eurostar back to London.

Brussels was the last port of call for the team, and the next six weeks will be spent editing the material amassed. The date the programme will be broadcast is not yet fixed but will be early next year. We’ll watch with interest to see just how red our noses were from the cold, which moments of the tour are saved from the cutting room floor and what conclusions Sheila drew from her time with us following in the Brontës’ footsteps in Brussels.

Helen MacEwan
with contributions by Jones Hayden

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Lyndall Gordon shows us Charlotte Brontë’s hidden face

On 13 October 2012 Dr Lyndall Gordon (St Hilda’s College, Oxford; author of several biographies including of Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson) gave a talk called The Hidden Face of Charlotte Brontë in which she explored some of the insights she gained in writing her biography Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life.

Lyndall Gordon proved to be as fascinating and engaging as a speaker as she is as a writer. She spoke of the gap between Charlotte’s inner and outer self, the different selves she presented in letters to different friends and the person we find in her journals and novels.

The Brontës resented the fact that as governesses they often seemed to be invisible, yet Charlotte herself presented a demure and ladylike exterior when it suited her – to Mrs Gaskell, for example. Drawing comparisons with other women writers of the period, Lyndall Gordon reflected on the tension and power created in her novels by this gap between her private and public persona.

Dr Gordon has a particular interest in the Brussels period and considers that it was in Brussels that Charlotte became a writer. Heger understood her as a person as well as nurturing her talent. Her fictional heroes were similarly capable of engaging with her heroines’ inner selves.

Brontë had a similar experience with her publisher George Smith. She had subtle and ‘indefinable’ relationships with both men, creating intimacy with them through letters.

Turning lastly to Arthur Bell Nicholls, Dr Gordon said that in marrying him Charlotte chose life over art and that she found happiness in her marriage.

The discussion that followed was very lively and wide-ranging. Lyndall Gordon told us that in a few days’ time she was to be filmed in the British Museum, talking about the Heger letters, for a documentary on the Brontë sisters to be shown as part of ITV’s Perspective series. The crew will then be coming to Brussels to film with our group. During the discussion we took the opportunity to explore some of the questions the documentary will be raising, such as the factors that may have contributed to producing the phenomenon of the Brontë family. We doubted that the programme would find all the answers in the hour allocated to it!

Over the weekend we enjoyed showing Lyndall and her husband around the Brontë sites and pointing out the confessional in the cathedral where, in 1843, a priest may have had a glimpse of that inner self of Charlotte Brontë we were able to explore with Lyndall Gordon.

Lyndall Gordon (fifth from right) with members of the Brussels Brontë Group.
Photo: Paul Cagli

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Haworth, a little piece of Heaven on earth? or how a dream came true after fifty years

Top Withens

At the beginning of February 2012 I learned for the first time about the existence of the Brussels Brontë Group. Reading about the Brontë Society’s Annual General Meeting in Haworth, all at a sudden, an old and dormant dream reared its head.

It was at the end of the sixties that Heathcliff, Cathy, Nelly and Mr Lockwood came in my life and never would leave it. That time I swore an oath that one day I would go over there and see Haworth, the Parsonage, Wuthering Heights, the Brontë Waterfall, Penistone Crag and Thrushcross Grange and experience the atmosphere of the Moors in good or bad weather, in rain, sunshine or in the clouds. 

However, everybody knows how the river of life can flow in a strange riverbed before it is flowing into the sea. In my particular case, full with obstacles and it would take me fifty years before this dream came true. 

Perhaps you will find that I am exaggerating but one could compare this trip with the last five days of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tensing Norgay on their Himalaya Expedition, climbing and climbing till they reached the top of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953.

Friday 8 June 

Arrival at Haworth, my “base of operation”. The programme planned so carefully was now to be carried out. Would I, just like Hilary, reach the summit too? 

After exploring the Parsonage and Haworth I joined the Brussels members in the Old White Lion where I also made new friends and experienced for the first time that I had made a step in the direction of this small piece of Heaven on earth, or to the top of Mount Everest. The second camp was attained.

Saturday 9 June 

4.30pm: Annual General Meeting of the Brontë Society. “Society members only. Membership cards will be required.” 

With my new membership card in my hand, somewhat enjoying being, as a Belgian, a member of a British literary society, I walked into the conference room on the first floor. For a newcomer as I was, it was the people attending this meeting who drew especially my attention. Young, middle-aged, old and very old, all interested in one thing, the progress of this beautiful part of British Heritage: “The Brontë Family”, a special experience, a special feeling. 

7.00pm: Supper in “The Old White Lion” with the Brussels friends 

We kept talking and talking for hours because there was so much to tell although it was only my second day. And when for each of us the time came to go back to our B&B or hotel, I realized that not me, on my own, but all these people together, this crew, our “expedition”, had reached our third camp on the way to the summit. 

Sunday 10 June 

Breakfast time in the B&B was not simply enjoying the copious delicious meal prepared by David but at the same time taking part in the “group discussion” with other members about what else than… the Brontë Family, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, Emily, Cathy, Heathcliff and so on, the whole family “passait le revue”. Each one of the guests with his/her point of view and sometimes trying to convince the others. 

11.00am: Walk over the moors to Oxenhope 

1.00pm: Walk around historical Haworth. 

6.30pm: Informal evening of friendship, fun and food at The Old White Lion. 

Today the informal evening of friendship was officially organized by The Brontë Society but we had already had two and this one could only extend this magnificent feeling. Every evening, meeting with these friends after the daily occupations was just bringing us to a higher level of harmony, bringing us to the next camp, the camp of Hilary and Tensing before their effort to reach the top of Mount Everest. So I felt. 

These everlasting conversations about all kind of subjects, from “the Brontës” to our own families (we even drew sketches of our houses), literature, movies, music, all this meant that we realized that the moment when we would have to say good-bye would be difficult for each of us.

Monday, 11 June 

11.00 am: Tourist Information Centre – meeting point for the walk over the moors 

This day I was to realize my dream of more than 50 years, the reason why I was coming to Haworth. Sarah, my guide, was to take me and possibly a few other people to do the walk over the moors to Wuthering Heights (Top Withens), The Brontë Waterfall and Bridge, Penistone Crag (Ponden Kirk) and Thrushcross Grange (Ponden Hall) back to Haworth. The places so beautifully described by Emily Brontë in her novel “Wuthering Heights”. 

Whatever the weather should be, I wanted to do it, wanted to be another Mr Lockwood or Heathcliff and go to these places. 

And here comes again my comparison with Sir Edmund Hilary: this last and famous trip meant to me, perhaps, something similar to what it might have meant to him: the last day bringing me to the summit of my stay in Haworth, as if I was stepping into the story and experiencing a little bit what was told so well by the author two centuries ago. 

We were joined at the last moment by a young Swiss man who had read about the trip on the Haworth website. We were ready, our clothes, our boots, our packed lunches, and soon we were marching, leaving Haworth behind us, soon entering into the moors and in my mind, at the same time, going back into the nineteenth century. 

For me, unknown rough territory but I enjoyed it, especially because of the whole story behind it. The weather was what it should be: the sun was not shining but it was cloudy with low-hanging fog banks, some wind, from time to time a little bit of drizzly rain alternating with an up-clearing sky. I became a part of this “Brontë atmosphere”. 

The landscape was varying very strongly, we followed the path of the sheep, climbed to the crest of the hill, got for the first time a glance of a distant tree near Wuthering Heights, descended, and climbed and descended again to arrive at the end at Brontë Waterfall and Cathy’s chair. 

We wanted to stay longer but the way ahead was still so long and so many places had to be seen so that we continued our path, direction Brontë Bridge. Marvellous place with the splashing water in the wild nature. Some photos taken at the spot should help to keep it saved in our brain. 

And again we continued our path, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence listening to the splashing water of the brook, a bird in the sky, the bleating of a faraway sheep or just to the wind in our ears, climbing out of the valley towards another crest of the hill, passing through the haze to find out that this distant tree ahead, finally, is close by and we are only some hundreds of metres away from “Wuthering Heights” (Top Withens). 

I feel my heart beating faster coming closer to this place I have dreamed about so many years and now it is here. An unforgettable moment. I look around and see the panorama and understand very well what the memorial stone in the wall is telling me: 

“This farmhouse has been associated with "Wuthering Heights", the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë's novel. The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the Heights”. 

The building in itself may be unimportant, but not so the location. 
We took the time to have our lunch in this sacred place so that we could stay a little bit longer, experience the atmosphere, feel nature, join Emily’s characters and of course take some pictures to preserve this place for posterity.

Had I now reached the summit? Yes and no, because Penistone Crag (Ponden Kirk) and Thrushcross Grange (Ponden Hall) belong as well to these places that had to be seen. 

And so we continued our walk to Penistone Crag. 
In reality a grit stone outcrop, a nature reserve but for Brontë fanatics a place where the two young people in love, Heathcliff and Cathy and later Hareton and Cathy’s daughter, met each other to find some happiness. 

What a feeling, how wonderful to stand there on top of this rock in the idea that Emily Brontë one day must have stood there admiring the beautiful landscape. 

Only Thrushcross Grange (Ponden Hall) remains to be seen, the contrast with Wuthering Heights, the contrast between a humble farm and a manor. 

The path to Ponden Hall is much easier as we are descending to the valley, more houses and farms appear and the landscape shows more signs of people’s activities. After a while we pass some outhouses and a little later an impressive house with a stately entrance, many windows and surrounded by a garden and a high imposing wall. At the other side of the road another garden, also surrounded by a similar imposing wall. Ponden Hall. 

Sarah, our guide, tells us: “This is Thrushcross Grange in the novel”. 

What a difference with “Wuthering Heights”, a difference that makes one better see all the consequences and influences on the lives of the characters. Now, after all these years, having been there, I better understand this wonderful novel. 

The task was fulfilled, the summit was reached. 

With some luck we would have had a guided tour of the house by the owner but the lady of the house had to leave. The window in the bedroom where Cathy begs: “Let me in, let me in” I did not see, perhaps this is for another time. 

Slowly we took the way to Stanbury which further on would lead us back to Haworth. 

An intense feeling of contentment came over me because the dream of more than fifty years had come true. Sir Edmund Hilary had reached the summit of Mount Everest, I had been in the places I dreamed of and that was for me the summit. 

It took us seven hours but these seven hours gave me such a strong wonderful feeling, put me in such a pleased mood that I wanted to share it with all my friends. 

8.00 pm Farewell supper in The Old White Lion

For me and for a lot of our friends this supper was indeed the last one before our return journey back home.
The Old White Lion was filled up with a magnificent ambience of joy, understanding, kindness for each other. The room was filled with sparkling conversations alternating with laughter from different sides. 

But as the clock was ticking and the time of farewell came closer, here and there in a hurry addresses and e-mail addresses were exchanged because one thing was sure: I had made a lot of friends and wanted to stay in contact with them. And when then the ultimate moment was there and we really had to say good-bye I felt pain in my heart because such a spirit, such an enveloping warmth between so many people, I never had experienced. 
It was here that a new, another dream was born, the dream to come back, perhaps next year, perhaps one day if I should get the opportunity.

Celebrating with Brontë friends
Tuesday, 12 June 

8.00 am: Enjoy for the last time David’s English Breakfast, arrange the last formalities, pick up my luggage and take a glance at my room, appropriately called the “Charlotte” room. 

Good-bye to David and, on my way to The Old White Lion from where I was to leave by taxi for Keighley, a last look at my B&B. 

Good-bye to Haworth, Keighley, Leeds, London and back to Belgium. 

My body was in the train but my mind and my heart remained in Haworth. 

In the evening I came home, happy to be back with my family but with a heart that brimmed over with enthusiasm about my adventure in the neighbourhood of the Brontë Family and I realized, indeed, Haworth is a little piece of Heaven on earth.

Jean De Wolf

Sunday 24 June 2012

Brontë Society AGM weekend: impressions of a first-time visitor to Haworth

I finally made it to Haworth to attend the Brontë AGM after many years of wanting to do so. All in all, it was not unlike how I had imagined it would be; a small village on a hill surrounded by the moors. However, the Brontë Parsonage was somehow bigger than I expected (although for the family themselves given the ladies’ fashions of the day, space must have been tight!). The Brontë Parsonage Museum is partly manned by volunteers who did not disappoint in their dedication and friendliness. Predictably too, Haworth is packed with Bed and Breakfasts; ye Olde Teashops and so on. Nonetheless, a suggestion of tweeness is effectively counteracted by the weight of the history of Brontë family; and the magnificence of the moors. A wide variety of accommodation is on offer (in some cases at top prices) by the locals in the absence- thank goodness - of modern hotel chains. Great efforts are made to create an old world atmosphere in line with the Brontë story. Especially the standard of breakfasts and bakery is high (waist watchers be warned); although the tidying up of bathrooms seemed somewhat erratic; endless supplies of fresh towels either piled high on the bed or in definitely twee baskets did not address this issue.

What I saw of the surrounding moors while green and lovely was much less wild than I had expected (not at all suitable for Cathy and Heathcliff’s ghosts.) But time for rambling was limited due to the busy academic programme on offer. While packed with interesting speakers the connection with the Brontës was at best tenuous in many cases. The showing of the documentary film led to a passionate but ultimately inconclusive debate as to whether Heathcliff was Irish or black Caribbean – the jury is still out on  this one and likely to remain so! A further surprise was the existence of two Haworths – upper and lower – connected by a beautiful and somewhat empty park and a steep hill.

Apart from the moors, Patrick Brontë remained a dominant – one has to say - presence. Over the weekend, one becomes quickly reacquainted with his strong personality; the many tragic aspects of his life; and his energetic commitment to carrying out his pastoral ministry including as Vicar of Haworth, against the background of the lively theological debates raging at the time. Some might   wonder then that the summing up accolade paid to him in the parish church in Haworth in the ceremony to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his marriage to Maria Branwell as well as his Faith, was that  Patrick Brontë was a great British hero - (Oh well; it is the Jubilee  Year!!)

Again, it was a Patrick Brontë connection which provided perhaps the most special feature of the weekend. A visit to nearby Guiseley Church to view the marriage certificate also provided the opportunity to meet a real live Patrick Brontë relation through his sister. Carol was sitting in the Church quietly waiting for us and seemed pleased if somewhat bemused as Brontë enthusiasts eagerly quizzed her on the connection dating back 200 years, about which she had herself learnt only recently! Even an actual family resemblance was not ruled out!! 

Joana Betson

Brontë Society AGM weekend: graveyard tour

Ian Dewhirst leads a walk round the graveyards of Haworth
On Sunday 10 June one of the walks scheduled was the tour of Haworth graveyards with Ian Dewhirst (a local historian and a real Yorkshire man) as our guide. About 25 people met Ian near the Sunday school entrance and we started off first with the graveyard next to the church (which is the oldest graveyard of Haworth). Apart from the so-called Brontë graves (The Brown tombstone and Tabitha’s grave) we visited a number of very interesting graves, although sometimes very difficult to decipher (a brush would have been handy sometimes!).  In his very recognizable Yorkshire accent Ian had great stories to tell at a lot of these graves: the story of the Highwayman (James Sutcliffe), the story of the last hand-loom weaver (Timothy Feather), the story of the man lost at sea (Elkanah Merrell) and of the woman lost at sea (while on her way to seeking a new life in Australia – Elisabeth Hartley), the story of the assumed Haworth poisoner (John Sagar), the story of the honest gamekeeper (John William Moore) and many more. There were some very beautifully carved gravestones e.g. the gravestone with the stone infant laid with his head resting on a pillow (Heaton), or the musical gravestones with hymns carved in stone.

With half of our group left, we then set off on our way to the municipal Haworth graveyard (off the Stanbury road) where Ian showed us some more interesting (newer) graves: the grave of Lily Cove (the parachutist who crashed with her balloon in Haworth), the grave of Anita McCluskey (a BS Council member with a quote from Wuthering Heights on her gravestone), some beautiful war graves, some special children’s’ graves, a murder victim’s grave, gravestones with beautiful poetry,  etc….

We then continued our journey to the Baptist churchyards (near West Lane’s Baptist church): a little bit hidden away, but still worthwhile visiting (one grave was particularly remarkable in that it had a huge pint of stout on the gravestone: old Harry “the hat” Denton liked his pint in the Old Sun! and had it carved on his grave when he could no longer visit “The Sun”).

After approximately three hours of rummaging on graves we finally ended this very lively and interesting tour on West Lane where we said goodbye to our guide Ian. Since I read the book “Ghosts and Gravestones of Haworth” by Philip Lister I had been looking forward very much to this graveyard tour, and I must admit: I was certainly not disappointed. We could not have wished for a better guide than Ian. We were promised a treat and we definitely got one, and certainly one to my liking!! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Marina Saegerman

Thursday 21 June 2012

Brontë Society AGM weekend in Haworth 9-10 June

 The Brontë Parsonage, Haworth

Eight members of the Brussels Brontë Group attended the Brontë Society weekend in Haworth this year and experienced the delights of a few days in Yorkshire. We ate too many cakes and meat pies. We filled our lungs with the bracing air of the moors. We experienced, too, the specific delights of the Brontë weekend. Such as encounters with friendly, talkative Society members sharing inside knowledge of local places with Brontë connections, and coach  excursions to some of these places, where we were ably guided.

Highlights included a surprise meeting with a Brontë descendant – for obvious reasons not descended directly from Patrick Brontë and his children, but from a sibling of Patrick’s – and a tour of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire where the 2011 film of Jane Eyre was shot.

The Brontë descendant was waiting for us in the parish church of Guiseley, now a suburb of Leeds, where Patrick and Maria Branwell were married in 1812. This lady had been unaware that she was a descendant of Patrick’s sister Sarah until a Brontë Society member (who was also present in the church to receive us) researched the link. We had our photos taken with her by Patrick and Maria’s marriage certificate.

From our guide at Haddon Hall, whose battlements have featured in many movies over the years, we heard stories of the making of the feature film of Jane Eyre last year and the BBC series starring Ruth Wilson in 2006. The tale, for example, of the fibreglass tree that was made at great expense for a particular scene, only to split in two in the wind on the night before the scene in question was filmed; and the calls made to the fire brigade because the special effects used for the shots of the Hall on fire were so realistic.

Haddon Hall

Group members in the long gallery at the Hall

Another enjoyable excursion was the one to Red House in Gomersal, the home of Charlotte’s schoolfriend Mary Taylor and now a museum. Mary and her sister Martha were at school in Brussels at the same time as Charlotte and Emily. Martha died of cholera while in Brussels and a member of the Brussels Brontë Group has been researching what happened to her grave when the old Protestant cemetery was closed. Red House and the Taylor family inspired “Briarmains” and the Yorkes in Charlotte’s novel Shirley, and the museum provided plenty of background to this novel of industrial unrest.

In Haworth itself, we had the usual varied programme of talks and entertainment. We saw a demonstration of 1830s costumes by the “History Wardrobe”; viewed a film on the question of whether Heathcliff - who was rescued from the streets of Liverpool, a centre of the slave trade – could have been black, a theme that ties in with the recent Wuthering Heights film; and enjoyed entertainment over dinner at a local hostelry.

On the panel to discuss the film “A Regular Black: the Hidden Wuthering Heights” 
 were Terry Eagleton (far left), Caryl Philips (second from left) 
and Bonnie Greer, President of the Brontë Society (on the right)

A Brontë weekend in Haworth would not be complete without a graveyard tour and the numerous ghost stories told each evening in the pub. Every inn in the village has its haunted room, whether or not connected with the Brontës, and we were given copies of a novel whose narrator is the spirit of Charlotte Brontë interacting with modern-day inhabitants of Haworth; its author claims to have written it at her dictation… If any of the Brontës’ ghosts were present at the weekend’s events I hope they enjoyed them as much as we did.

Helen MacEwan

Photos by Marina Saegerman

Friday 11 May 2012

The Young Brontes and Art

Continuing the cultural exchange between BRIDFAS and the Bronte Group, on 9 May several Bronte members made the trip to Woluwe St Lambert to hear the lecture given by Elizabeth Merry, BA, MA on The Young Brontes and Art.

Elizabeth has lectured on the Brontes for many years, but this was her first lecture in Brussels. She gave an informative and fascinating description of the artistic accomplishments of the talented Bronte children.

Through a series of slides Elizabeth showed us how the children copied from the artwork that surrounded them on the walls of the parsonage. These were mainly apocalyptic scenes of Biblical events, but they also had access to a variety of books, and illustrated magazines and journals of the day. The children copied from these sources and Elizabeth explored how they influenced the Brontes’ creativity in their story writing, and how they adapted their copies to illustrate the characters and landscapes that populated their complex imaginary worlds of Gondal and Angria.
All the Bronte members immensely enjoyed Elizabeth’s talk and we hope that she will return to Brussels to talk to our group at a future date.

Finally, our thanks to Paula Cagli, BRIDFAS chair, for organising the event and making us very welcome.

Sharon Rowles

Monday 30 April 2012

Annual Brussels Brontë weekend 21-22 April

On 21 and 22 April we celebrated our fifth annual Brontë weekend. This year we were joined by members from the Netherlands and some friends from the UK Brontë Society.

Both our speakers made their way here from the Brontës’ county of Yorkshire. Patsy Stoneman, who was on her second visit to talk to our group, has taught much of her life at the University of Hull and Andrew McCarthy is the Director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth (see Emily Waterfield’s report below on their talks).

On Saturday evening we gathered in a restaurant in central Brussels to continue the discussions stimulated by the talks. On Sunday morning, as always, there were guided Brontë tours for new members. This year we organised a walk for a group of members of BRIDFAS (Decorative and Fine Arts Society of Brussels). The history and architecture of the area Place Royale was very familiar to them, but for many who had lived for years in Brussels the Brontë connections were a revelation. The walks were led by enthusiastic guides Myriam and Jones, and afterwards participants exchanged impressions over lunch in a museum restaurant.

BRIDFAS Chairman Paula Cagli, who was on the walk, has written her impressions:
As part of a cultural exchange between our associations the Brussels Brontë Group invited us, the Brussels Decorative and Fine Arts Society (BRIDFAS), to join them on their springtime walk. We were delighted to accept! Between 1842 and 1843 Charlotte and Emily Brontë studied at the Heger boarding school in Brussels, and Myriam Campinaire, a member of the Brontë Group, kindly guided us in their footsteps. She was informative, humourous and brilliantly in contact with the weather gods. It was supposed to pour and, although it was cold and windy, we never felt a drop. As she escorted us from the Protestant church where Charlotte and Emily worshipped to Place Royale, the Park and the Bozar where the school once stood, Myriam carefully wove their biographies into the history of the city and its urban planning. At each point she brought the sisters to life by reading passages from letters or from “Villette”, Charlotte’s novel about her life at the school. The walk concluded with the memorial plaques dedicated to Charlotte and Emily, the Heger school and the former Rue Isabelle. Everyone came away with a new appreciation of the Brontës as well as Brussels, the city which inspired their writing. One of our members even commented that she didn’t feel as if she had visited Brussels but that she had gone to another place altogether. Thank you, Myriam, for an excellent tour and thank you, Helen MacEwan, for organising the morning.
We were joined for some of the events by Claire Harman, the biographer who has written about the literary legacy of Jane Austen in Jane’s Fame and is now turning her attention to Charlotte Brontë. She has been commissioned to write a biography of her for 2016, the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth, and was in Brussels to research aspects of the Brontës’ stay here. We enjoyed talking to her and hope she’ll be back to tell the group about her book.

Helen MacEwan

Report on Saturday’s talks: Jane Eyre from then till now / The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth

Dr Patsy Stoneman returned to the Brussels Brontë Group following a wonderful presentation in 2008, on film adaptations of Wuthering Heights. This year Dr Stoneman, Emeritus Reader in English at the University of Hull, turned to Jane Eyre and talked to the Group about the reception of Charlotte’s novel from its publication in 1847 to the present day.

Jane Eyre was an instant success, she said, to such an extent that the first stage adaptation of the novel took place less than three months after its publication, in the London Theatre we now know as the Old Vic. For this first playwright, John Courtney, Jane Eyre was primarily a working class novel. Courtenay used it to support Chartist messages of rights for the poor and of class subordination, adding comic scenes in which orthodox religion (Mr Brocklehurst) is physically overturned – into a horse trough.

Jane Eyre was published during the mid-19th century years of social upheaval across Europe. For many early readers and adaptations, said Dr Stoneman, it was a revolutionary novel, illustrating the rising up and victory of the underdog. In 1848 the critic Elizabeth Rigby wrote that “the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.”

Early readings were, however, complicated by the readers’ ignorance of whether the author was a man or a woman. Left in doubt over whether to apply male or female standards, critics did not know if they could approve of the story,

Charlotte tried to avoid gender-specific readings, writing in 1848: “To you I am neither Man nor Woman. I come before you as Author only. It is the sole standard by which you have the right to judge me,”

Readers were not however prepared to read in this way. In the year Jane Eyre was published, one said “no woman could have” written it. A critic for the North American Review one year later said he was “gallant enough” to attribute the “slang of the misanthropic profligate” Rochester to a male writer.

It was Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte which first changed how the book was read, said Dr Stoneman. Jane Eyre was no longer linked to revolutions and Chartism, and became “a specifically female protest.” Once readers knew the author was the young daughter of a clergyman, their opinion of the book depended on what they thought of such a writer saying that “Women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.”

Adaptations of the book began to reflect this social aspect: the ‘Woman Question.’ In particular, they sought to give context to Jane’s decision to leave Rochester. In one 1879 stage production, John Reed seduces and abandons Blanche Ingram, who can then provide a speech on the horrors facing fallen women. In an 1882 play, Jane is angry and unforgiving, reflecting the mood of the then current ‘Women’s Revolt’ against a law allowing police to arrest and forcibly examine suspected prostitutes.

As the feminist movement developed in the late 19th century, Jane’s happy marriage became for many interpreters a retrograde step. Freudian critics meanwhile began to speculate on the novel’s central relationship, in which a young girl displaces an older woman and finds happiness with an older man.

Stage adaptations were joined by cinematic versions of Jane Eyre. As in the theatre, the story was quickly a favourite for directors. Dr Stoneman estimates that there were at least 13 silent movie versions of the novel before the first talkie in 1934.

Charlotte Brontë’s novel also continued to inspire the written word, with its central plot becoming the basis both for Mills&Boon romances and for more serious work, including Winifred Holtby’s 1936 South Riding and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in 1938.

The number of new film, theatre, opera and novel versions of the 165-year-old book, along with new critical theories, shows no sign of dwindling, leading up to last year’s film directed by Cary Fukunaga, which Dr Stoneman praised for portraying Jane and Rochester as equals.

Appropriately however, debate at the end of the presentation turned to a French production of Jane Eyre that premiered in Brussels in 1855. News that Alphonse Royer and Victor Lefèvre had written a successful stage version of the novel led to Alexandre Dumas abandoning his own Jane Eyre play, just before it was finished (see earlier blog article: http://www.brusselsBrontë.blogspot.com/2012/01/jane-eyre-on-brussels-stage-1855.html). Dumas’s draft was then lost, and neither Dr Stoneman nor any member of the Brussels Group had seen a copy of the 1855 play. The past could still provide ‘new’ interpretations of Jane Eyre to accompany whatever the 21st century will offer next.

The second speaker from Yorkshire was the director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Andrew McCarthy. He explained that the Parsonage only opened as a museum in 1928 but had been “a place of literary pilgrimage before that.” Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte was largely responsible since, regardless of its instant success, Jane Eyre had not told the author’s many fans where they could find her. As soon as they had an address, readers swarmed to Haworth. Patrick Brontë obligingly cut up some of his daughters’ letters to be shared out as early souvenirs.

The Brontë Society is now one of the oldest literary societies in the world. But its first museum, said McCarthy, was not in the parsonage. Instead it was opened in 1895 in a Haworth building that now houses tourist information.

Even this was preceded in 1888 by another Haworth Brontë museum. This ‘Museum of Brontë Relics’ was opened by Francis Brown, a cousin of the Brontë family servant Martha. Francis’s venture did not instantly prosper as well as he seems to have hoped, said McCarthy. He moved it first to Blackpool and then in 1893 to Chicago, before eventually selling the ‘relics’ at Sotheby’s.

McCarthy set out the history of the parsonage between Patrick’s death in 1861 and its eventual conversion to a museum. The new parson John Wade, probably irritated by the flood of literary tourists on his doorstep, undertook a series of renovations to win a reputation in his own right, and earned the nickname ‘the envious Wade.’

Today, said McCarthy, “I feel – we all feel – that the parsonage shouldn’t just be a museum.” Instead he explained how it was intended to reflect the life of the sisters and their family, and continued to be part of the life of Haworth.

Emily Waterfield


Patsy Stoneman; Andrew McCarthy; Myriam Campinaire (on left) prepares to guide the group of BRIDFAS members; walk participants take the opportunity of a sit-down in the park to listen to guide Jones Hayden; Claire Harman

Monday 5 March 2012

Charlotte Brontë’s French in ‘L’Ingratitude’

Sue Lonoff, translator and editor of Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s Belgian essays, writes about the level of French displayed by Charlotte in her essay ‘L’Ingratitude’, written shortly after her arrival in Brussels and recently discovered in a Belgian museum by Brussels-based archivist Brian Bracken.

How good was Charlotte Brontë’s French in ‘L’Ingratitude’? As we know, it is a very early devoir, written a month and a day after Charlotte and Emily arrived at the Pensionnat Heger. In this text of fifty-eight lines, Brian Bracken has identified fourteen errors. However, eight of the fourteen are the same error: Charlotte used the imperfect tense rather than the passé simple. For example, she wrote ‘mangeait’, ‘he was eating’ rather than ‘mangea’, ‘he ate’. She made one mistake in gender (‘un’ rather than ‘une’ odeur) and one in pronoun case (‘le faisait’ rather than ‘lui faisait). She hyphenated a word incorrectly; she forgot to make ‘grand’ plural before ‘seigneurs’; she put an adjective before instead of after its noun; and she used one plural verb rather than a singular. Errors of this kind are commonly made by English people writing in French. Still, ‘L’Ingratitude’ shows that Charlotte came to Brussels with a fairly solid grammar base and an extensive vocabulary. Her French was not yet supple. ‘L’Ingratitude’ is stiffer than the essays she would write subsequently. Its punctuation is also erratic, but that is an issue in all of her writing, English or French. Nevertheless, she shows her teacher that she can write with imagination and charm

Sue Lonoff

Link to article in London Review of Books with text of the essay in French and English (you can also listen to a podcast of Gillian Anderson reading the tale):

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Lost Brontë manuscript discovered in Belgian museum by member of Brussels Brontë Group

Some months ago Brian Bracken discovered a ‘lost’ Brontë manuscript, which is now published in the renowned London Review of Books. It is the first devoir written by Charlotte at the Pensionnat Heger, on 16 March 1842. The little story is a sort of fable about a young rat, entitled L’Ingratitude.

The manuscript was found in the Musée Royal de Mariemont, near Charleroi, along with some other Brontë related papers. In 1915 Paul Heger had given them to Raoul Warocqué, a wealthy collector. He also managed to acquire letters from, for instance, Rembrandt, Mozart and Erasmus.

For many decades these papers were accessible to anyone, but it was a fairly coincidental finding by Brian that led to this great discovery.

Special thanks go to Sue Lonoff, the expert on the Brussels devoirs, who also provided the translation of the manuscript.

The article will be available on the website of the London Review of Books. The paper version, dated 8 March, will be available this Thursday, 1 March.

The Guardian has already published an article about the discovery, on 28 February.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Presentations by Brussels Brontë Group members: a new departure for the group

11 February 2012 marked a new departure for our group, a do-it-yourself event at which rather than inviting a specialist speaker, members themselves gave presentations on topics of their choice. Only one of the four speakers had previous experience of talks on literary subjects, though their confident delivery suggested that they were no strangers to powerpoint presentations. Both their nationalities (Irish, Portuguese, Belgian and American) and work backgrounds (transport expert, communications manager, interpreter cum teacher, journalist) are representative of the diversity of Brussels Brontë Group members.

Perhaps the most unusual topic chosen was Alex’s: literary blogs and the activities of the blogging “community”. Literary societies such as the Brontë Society continue to organise more traditional activities where you sit in a hall with other members face to face with speakers. Perhaps the more time we spend in virtual worlds the more important it becomes to have forums for real-life interaction with other enthusiasts. But Alex’s case shows how literary interests can be pursued in parallel in the real and virtual worlds. Her blogging brings her into contact with a potentially unlimited online community. But the blogs encourage an activity less dependent on modern technology - reading books! She also belongs to several Brussels reading groups where members meet face to face, as well as attending physical gatherings of literary bloggers from all over the world.

Below are some impressions of the event from Marina Sagerman, Sharon Rowles and Dave Richards.

Marina writes: On a general note, I found it fascinating to see and hear how passionate Brussels Brontë Group members can be when talking about something they are enthusiastic about. It certainly inspires others to come forward and do the same. I think it is a wonderful idea to have this opportunity to hear from other BBG members about their personal Brontë-related “passions”. How about having a talk on Branwell on a future occasion?

Monica Wallace’s presentation on the life and work of writer Maria Edgeworth

Sharon writes: Monica Wallace introduced us to Maria Edgeworth, an Anglo- Irish writer who wrote for children and adults in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Born in Berkshire, Maria’s family moved to Edgeworthstown, Ireland in 1782 where she helped her father to run the family estate. She drew on her daily experiences for inspiration for her stories, which tended to be moralistic in tone. Her novel Castle Rackrent, about the vagaries of Anglo-Irish landlords, was an instant success, She was much admired by writers such as Austen and Scott and became the leading female author of her time.

Elements in Castle Rackrent such as the themes of property and inheritance, and the use of an unreliable narrator, are similar to those in Wuthering Heights. It is highly likely that her books were known to the Brontës and may have influenced their writing. Alas, her work did not endure as well as theirs, as it had fallen out of popularity by the 20th century.

Marina writes: I became interested in this Anglo-Irish writer last year when I was in Ireland and read a book about the Pakenham family and more in particular about Kitty Pakenham (the wife of the Duke of Wellington). Maria was a close friend of Kitty’s and the book gives a lot of information on her life and work as well. I then read Helen, a book that to me completely justifies the definition of Maria Edgeworth as “the Irish Jane Austen”. Castle Rackrent is on my “to read” pile for the near future.

I am currently reading Winifred Gérin’s biography of Emily and in Chapter 15 she speculates that the role of Nellie Dean as narrator in Wuthering Heights may be partly inspired by Maria Edgeworth’s Thady Quirk, the steward in Castle Rackrent (as well as by an influence much closer to home - the Brontës’ servant Tabby).

Alex Reis’s presentation on literary blogs and activities of the blogging community

Sharon writes: Alex gave a fascinating insight of the world of literary blogging – something of which I was only dimly aware, so I was delighted to learn more about this subject. Alex’s colourful presentation and anecdotes about her experiences in the literary blogging world opened a whole new dimension of reading with the opportunity to exchange views with a worldwide community of like-minded readers. With blogs for every literary taste I am looking forward to visiting the many sites recommended by Alex.

Marina writes: The topic that was completely new to me was readers’ blogging. It is fascinating to see how booklovers all over the world can be so passionate about reading books that they create blogs, go into any sort of challenge, set specific reading goals together with other booklovers, make reviews of what they read etc. Personally I like to keep my freedom to read a book when I want without goals or challenges limiting my choice at that moment and I see reading more or less as a solitary and personal business, although I like to exchange views with other readers on books that I have read. I can understand, though, that some people want to share their views and passion with others via internet and blogging.

Dave writes: Are these blogs an art form in themselves? Art in the form of books, letters and paintings survive for centuries for following generations to enjoy. What will happen to blogs as technology evolves, is replaced or disappears? The same question applies to emails which have replaced the written letter.

Myriam Campinaire’s presentation on Gothic elements in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights

Sharon writes: Myriam outlined the main themes of the genre and then explained how these themes were used in these two novels. Both stories share similar themes of the supernatural, horror, terror, madness, cruelty to children and animals, hateful families, disappointment and death, set in a large creepy house owned by a degenerate master, and a surrounded by inhospitable landscapes and stormy weather. In her historical review Mryiam told us of the influence of the French revolution: people were fearful of rapid change and became nostalgic for the remote past, as evidenced by the revival in Gothic architecture at that time. We look forward to hearing more on this in the future.

Marina writes: Myriam’s topic was obvious in one sense in that you know what a Gothic novel is about, but I think the way she presented and tackled the topic was very interesting. She made a good overview of the criteria and elements that are so typical for a “Gothic” novel (darkness and the night, bad weather, supernatural, ruined buildings, death, revenge, etc) and using these elements she tried to prove in what way Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights met the criteria for a “Gothic” novel. This certainly needs a sequel! Myriam has more to say on the subject. It could even be expanded to the Brontë poetry because in many of the Brontë poems you will also find these “Gothic elements”.

A quotation from Winifred Gérin’s Emily Brontë is again interesting here: “If, as may be argued, without the Gothic novel the figure of such a demon-lover as Heathcliff could never have been conceived, it may also be claimed that it took an Emily Brontë to transform the remote Byronic type into a tough northcountryman. In the final analysis of Emily’s achievement in Wuthering Heights, it is perhaps the quality of nearness that she brought to the world of the Gothic novel that is her major contribution to the genre. Mary Shelley situated her demoniacs in Italy as did Mrs Radcliffe before her) and it was of the essence of Gothic characters to be exotic; Emily Brontë brought them home.”

Jones Hayden’s presentation on the influence of her stay in Brussels on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

Marina writes: Jones’s topic was not so obvious. It is clear that The Professor and Villette are full of Brussels experience but to try and find the Brussels experience also in Jane Eyre (which is to me a very typical English novel) is a very brave step. But he succeeded and proved his point in a very convincing way. Here it might be interesting to do the same exercise on Shirley (perhaps another suggestion for a topic?).

Sharon and Helen write: Jones found many interesting parallels. There is some of M. Heger in Rochester and Charlotte’s emotional experience in Brussels shows in Jane Eyre, for example Jane’s moral conflict when she leaves Thornfield. It was suggested that mad Bertha in the attic might have been the fate Charlotte wished for Mme Heger!

Jones found further parallels between the Charlotte/Heger and Jane/Rochester relationships, wondering how much of Heger’s conversational style with pupils is reflected in Mr Rochester’s chats with Jane. Jane calls Rochester her “master”, just as Heger was Charlotte's teacher. But when she returned to Brussels in the second year it was as a teacher, and she gave Heger English lessons. Similarly, in the novel we see Jane and Rochester’s relationship become one of equality.

Sharon Rowles, Marina Saegerman, Helen MacEwan

In the photos: Monica Wallace, Alex Reis, Myriam Campinaire and Jones Hayden