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

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