Monday 8 December 2014

Brussels Brontë Group’s annual Christmas lunch

Hard to capture,
always on the go!
The Brussels Brontë Group’s annual Christmas lunch took place on Saturday 6 December, at the restaurant ‘Carpe Diem’. It was attended by 38 enthusiastic lovers of the Brontës and 19th century literature. As usual Jones Hayden was the Master of Ceremonies and he made sure that we were properly entertained.

The entertainment was varied and interesting. Jones and Paul Gretton had produced a Quiz about the Brontës which was not that easy to get right (although we think we know almost everything about them!). Graham Andrews read the poem ‘Transvestism in Brontë novels’ by Patricia Beer.

Our theatre company
'Branwell in action'

Our actors’ team, that is, Daniel Mangano, Myriam Campinaire, Robyn Colwell, Kate Healy and Brian Holland performed ‘Christmas Dinner at the Parsonage’ which was first published in ‘Punch’ magazine in 1935. They all gave engaging portraits of (in order of actors) Mr Bronte, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell.

Friday 14 November 2014

Dark Quartet: The Story of the Brontës by Lynne Reid Banks

The Brontë sisters are widely popular all over the world. Probably more popular today than they have ever been. I think that each one of us, who is a fan of the sisters and their books, have our own idea how they were and how they lived. A lot of biographies have been written about their peculiar story and lives, first of them Elisabeth Gaskell, already in the 19th century. I have also read several other biographies, so it was with some excitement that I opened the first page to read this biographical fiction of them.

It is a very brave task to take on to write a biographical fiction about such well known and loved characters. Lynne Reid Banks has managed beautifully. I must admit thought that it took me a little bit of time to get into it. However, that changed rapidly after the first part. The more I got into the book, the more I was overwhelmed of the way she is characterising the siblings, and other persons relevant to the Brontës. She makes them come alive.

She seems extremely well read on the family history, and she has mingled their lives with their fiction and created each of the family members as, at least I, imagined them to be. We tend to look at them as an entity, but they are four rather different characters, and they are here beautifully and lovingly portrayed.

The story of Branwell is always a sad story. I thought though that it was so well imagined, and written with such care, that his miserable character came alive on the pages. His inability to hold on to a job, his illness, his overestimation of his own talent, his decline into death by despair, drugs and alcohol. You cannot but feel sorry for him.

Charlotte, the oldest sister who always took care of the others, who seemed mostly unhappy, but had her happy moments as well. Her love for M. Heger is delicately balanced, and her longing once she is back in England, so well written that I think the reader feels what she felt.

Top Withens
Emily, the tough but still vulnerable figure with a lot of wild passion inside her. She held it under tight reins but she could let it show when she walked her beloved moors and in her masterpiece Wuthering Heights. She could not bear to be away from Haworth and suffered incredibly the three times she ventured out into the world.

Anne, the youngest sister was very gentle. She seemed fragile, but was maybe the strongest of them all, in her religious beliefs and her stubbornness to finish what she had started. For several years she worked as a governess to help earn money for the family. Branwell got his job as a tutor to the son at Green Thorpe through her, but it ended in disastrous results when he fell in love with the wife.

The Brontë Waterfall
The description of the scenery and the people surrounding the siblings, is very well done, and makes it very real. Their lives are told from the angle of each one of them, which makes it even more fascinating. The same situations are interpreted from different sides and different persons.

Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, have been read by generations ever since they were written. Here you enter into passionate stories of strong characters, feelings and passions, and in the background are always the moors. The sense of desolation in their books seems to have come from their daily lives. I found that Lynne Reid Banks have managed to keep this special atmosphere in her telling of their story. The book brought me back to the times of the Brontës, and it was as exciting and passionate, as to read one of their books. It really took me some time to come back to the 21st century once I finished it. If you love the Brontës, and if you love biographical fiction, this is a book for you.

This book was given to me for free from Endeavour Press. The views put forward are my own personal views.

Lisbeth Ekelöf

Monday 10 November 2014

Two Constantins: Constantin Heger and Constantin Meunier

Constantin Meunier
The BOZAR Museum in Brussels is currently featuring a major exhibition devoted to the work of
Constantin Meunier (1831-1905). The Belgian artist was among the very finest of 19th century sculptors; Rodin was a great admirer of his work, as was Vincent Van Gogh, who once declared Meunier to be "far superior to me".

For followers of the Brussels Brontë story, there is a detail which might give rise to extra interest in the artist - his forename Constantin. The name of course brings to mind Constantin Heger (1809-1896), Charlotte and Emily Brontë's literature professor. Constantin was a rare enough first name back in 1840s Brussels; even today it is not so common. Besides Meunier and Heger, it is a challenge to think of other Belgian public figures or artists so named. (There were some 'Constant's however - such as the painter Constant Permeke, and the football world's Constant Vanden Stock...)
Constantin Heger
It was no simple coincidence that Meunier and Heger shared the same forename. There were in fact real connections between the two men. Constantin Heger was Constantin Emile Meunier's godfather, and the sculptor was given his first name in his honour. Meunier was baptized at Ste. Gertrude's, Etterbeek, on 13 April 1831. Constantin Heger and Marie-Josephe Noyer, who were to marry in September 1831, stood for him as godparents. Marie-Josephe Noyer and Meunier were second cousins, related through the Ghigny family, from Rebecq (Walloon Brabant).

The church where Constantin Meunier was baptized no longer stands, demolished in 1993 when menacing cracks started to appear in its towers. However, the house in Etterbeek where he was born still exists, surviving somewhat uncomfortably between modern constructions on the Chaussée d'Etterbeek 172, opposite the Parc Léopold. There is a memorial plaque to the artist on the façade.

Meunier's birthplace, Etterbeek
When Constantin Meunier was aged around 11, Heger advised his godson to study at Brussels' Athénée Royal, where he himself was then teacher of the junior class (classe élémentaire). Meunier entered the Athénée in 1842, the year the Brontë sisters came to Brussels. However he struggled  with his studies; by 1845, he had already left the Athénée. It is no wonder that Meunier did not get on well at school. He was a rather  sensitive child; it is said of him that up to the age of 15, he used to cry every evening. If Charlotte and Emily Brontë were sometimes sad in Brussels, it was unlikely they were ever as sad as the young Meunier was!

Meunier in later years was a regular guest at the pensionnat which Heger ran with his wife Zoë Parent on the Rue d' Isabelle. Indeed the Heger-Parent Pensionnat was a welcoming place for a number of notable Belgian artists over the years. Some were artists who also gave classes there, such as the painter and illustrator Paul Lauters (1806-1875) and the composer Etienne Soubre (1813-1871). Others were men with family connections to the Hegers, such as Edmond Picard (1836-1924), the controversial writer and lawyer, whose brother Emile was married to Victorine Heger, Constantin's daughter, and the engraver Auguste Danse (1829-1929), Meunier's brother-in-law. It is not surprising that artists were welcome at Rue d'Isabelle, 32. Constantin Heger was a member of the Brussels Cercle artistique et littéraire, and although he never wrote or painted himself, he had a keen interest in the artistic world of his day. His daughter Louise (1839-1933) was a talented singer and painter; she was a popular figure in the artistic world of 19th century Brussels.

There are other links between the two Constantins which are worth highlighting. Both men at a young age witnessed tragedy and suffering in the family home. Constantin Meunier was four years old when his father Simon Louis Meunier died on 10 July 1835, at the age of 45. Serious financial problems seem to have precipitated his death. Heger too was still very young (aged 13) when he lost his father Joseph-Antoine Heger in 1822, also in circumstances of financial ruin.

Further deaths occurred which affected both men profoundly. In 1833, not so long after marrying her, Heger lost his first wife, Marie-Josephe Noyer to (probably) consumption. In 1894, Meunier lost his two dearly-loved sons in quick succession - Karl, who died of consumption in Leuven, and Georges, who died of yellow fever in Brazil.

The Firedamp Explosion, 1889
©MRBAB, Bruxelles
These various personal tragedies perhaps helped both men to empathise with the suffering of others. Both the professor and the artist showed a deep solidarity with those suffering from chronic poverty and harsh working conditions. The theme of humanitarian concern is central to the work of Constantin Meunier, as in his sculptures dedicated to the cruel mining world of the Borinage (near Mons in Southern Belgium). His godfather Heger, for his part, dedicated much effort to teaching and aiding the poor workmen of 19th century Brussels. In Mrs. Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Chapter XI, mention is made of his long hours of work with the Brussels underclass, as a devout member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Constantin Meunier's  humanitarianism, however, perhaps owes less to orthodox religious beliefs than that of Constantin Heger.

The name 'Constantin' comes from Latin, meaning firm, resolute. The idea that a man spends his whole life somehow fulfilling his forename seems true when applied to the professor and the sculptor. The two Constantins, Heger and Meunier, dedicated themselves from an early age to their respective passions of pedagogy and art. Over the course of their long lives, they stood firm, never renouncing the ideals which motivated them, above all the belief in the essential dignity of man. Despite many personal tragedies and set-backs, the two men strove tirelessly to combat human suffering and ignorance, and to bring about a more just, enlightened world.

Select Bibliography:
A. Behets, Constantin Meunier. L’homme, l’artiste et l’œuvre (Bruxelles: Office de publicité, 1942); A. Fontaine, Constantin Meunier ( Paris: Félix Alcan, 1923); M. Jerome-Schotsmans, Constantin Meunier : sa vie, son œuvre (Bruxelles: Belgian Art Research Institute, 2012); Anon., La vie de Paul Héger (n.p., n.d.), Belgian Royal Library, ref.:7B 3339.

Brian Bracken

Sunday 9 November 2014

Secrets and spies at Brussels Bronte talk on Villette

Two women watching each other formed one of many memorable scenes of a talk given to the Brussels Bronte Group last month. Only one woman knows she’s being watched, while the other quietly and tidily sifts through private belongings. The two women are Madame Beck, searching through the possessions of the enigmatic teacher Lucy Snowe, the other is Lucy herself, following the headmistress’s moves through not-quite closed eyelids. The talk was “Shoes of Silence and a Face of Stone: Surveillance and Secrets in Charlotte Bronte's 'Villette'.

Students and members of the Brussels group met to hear award-wining historian and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett give the talk at the Université Saint-Louis. Group committee members Myriam, Lisbeth, Sharon and Marina brought local cakes and tarts for listeners to buy, along with the regular free tea, coffee, juice and biscuits. The audience was set to watch and learn on a sunny Saturday morning in October.

It was the watching, the surveillance, in Bronte’s final novel that Lucy Hughes-Hallett examined and discussed with the room. She showed how Madame Beck’s school is full of spies, of unobserved observers. These include Monsieur Paul at his window in the neighbouring boys’ school, as well as the many instances of characters appearing or hiding shadows, behind trees, or through unexpected doors and shutters. Above all there is stony faced Madame Beck, running her “school of spies”on “shoes of silence.”

But what is observed, as well as by who and how, was just as important to the talk by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of introductions to the Everyman editions of Jane Eyre and Villette. Lucy Snowe is full of secrets, wilfully choosing to withhold information from the reader, Hughes-Hallett explained. These secrets most obviously include the end of the novel, as well as the reason why Lucy leaves home at the start. Even when, late in the book, Ginevra asks directly “Who are you, Miss Snowe?”, Lucy’s reply is the unclear and unsettling “Who am I indeed? Perhaps a personage in disguise.”
Lucy Hughes-Halett
Lucy’s name, from the Latin for “light”, is also revealing in the context of what is shown and what held secret, said Hughes-Hallett, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Biography Award. Other secrets and hidings central to Villette and discussed at the Brussels talk include the beloved letters covered with an almost ludicrous number of wrappings, and then buried.

Errors made in the perception of others were also covered in the talk. These include the failure to recognise Polly when she grows up as Paulina, and the true identity of Dr John – another secret Lucy chooses to keep from the reader for much of the book.

Fortunately for us, Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s presentation was more revealing than Lucy Snowe’s narrative. Members of the Brussels Bronte Group ended the hour far wiser than Madame Beck, after her 15 minutes considering the “sleeping” protagonist of Villette.

Emily Waterfield

Monday 20 October 2014

Brontë Society American Chapter

Hello Brontë Brussels Group,

I’m happy to report that a Brontë Society American Chapter Blog is now available. 

Our primary purpose is to offer a visitor an opportunity to talk Brontë. The Brontë Society American Chapter blog home page invites visitors to comment on a selected Brontë topic. The current one is “How I met the Brontës”. Other pages include “Gallery” for photos and “Scribblemania” where Brontë inspired prose and poetry can be shared.

Brontë Brussels Group folks are invited to come visit us and share Brontë. Your blog address is posted on the Brontë Society American Chapter Blog “Links” page.


Brontë Society American Chapter Representative

You can find the link to the American Chapter Blog on the right hand side, under links. 

Sunday 21 September 2014

Brontë Conference 30.31 August 2014: The Brontës and the Condition of England

The last weekend of August I joined Helen, Judith, Maureen, Jolien and her husband Paul and about 
70 other Brontë lovers/scholars at the Scarman Centre, Warwick University, for the Brontë Society 
Conference 2014. This conference contained five sessions and two additional treats. And indeed we 
were treated! On Friday afternoon Juliet Barker told us what political animals the Brontës were, at 
least when they were young and all at home in Haworth, reading as many magazines as they could lay their hands on and debating the articles read.

The second treat Melissa Hardie-Budden. She is researching the Brontë connection in Cornwall, 
the families of Thomas Branwell and Anne Carne, the maternal grandparents of the Brontës. These 
families were very often in trade. This gave them a wide, though very Cornish, network of connections in all directions of life, including a scientist like Sir Humphrey Davy. There is still a lot more to be done here, but I think Mrs. Gaskell would have been astonished already.

The first Session (on Saturday) was on Patrick Brontë. Dr. Logan, from the Irish branch of the Brontë Society, made clear to us how much Patrick was moulded by the people he met when he was young and still in Ireland. Not only his own kin, but people in a wider circle, who saw how promising a young man he was and helped him to Cambridge University. In Isobel Stirk's story we see Patrick later in life, preaching in the church in Haworth to rich and poor people alike. Patrick would talk to everybody: he wanted to help the poor and needed the rich people to get things done, like healthy drinking water for all the people of Haworth. Brian Wilkes gave us lovely insight in his rich knowledge of all things Brontë and in this case all things Patrick and the world beyond. Marianne Thormählen discussed the case of the Brontë novels being historical fiction or just fiction. Of course Shirley is set in the time of the Luddite Riots, a time Patrick could clearly remember, but there are no historical figures in Shirley, nor in any other of the Brontë novels. 

The theme of the second Session was Religion. Bob Gamble surprised everyone with his research 
done on the education of William Weightman. He calls Weightman and his fellow-students Northern 
Lights, the term used for the lighthouses on the northern shores of Britain, because they were the first students coming from the new University of Durham. And Weightman was not just the flirty, flighty 
young man he looks like in Brontë-lore, but a serious and empathic curate. He could have gone back 
to Durham before the dreadful cholera that killed him, struck Haworth, but he decided to stay and help Patrick with his huge parish.

Sarah Pearson reflected on Charlotte’s ideas on the Condition of the Church of England: it should 
not become too Catholic, nor too Protestant and certainly not too far from the daily life of its people. 
Though Charlotte Brontë is not known for her progressive thoughts on religion these ideas, especially the third one, sound very modern to me.

The third Session was on Industrial Unrest. Ariella Feldman told us, that even in very difficult times for workers, like in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, workers, rebelling against losing their jobs, would still use a folklore kind of yell when attacking the mills, so maybe not all the fairies left, when industrialisation began. Erin Johnson talked us through the influence of the Captains of Industry in those days and of writers and historians like Thomas Carlyle.

The fourth Session on Women started with an interesting talk of Rebecca Fraser on where the Brontë 
sisters, especially Charlotte and Anne, stood in the Woman Question. Birgitta Berglund, who used 
the "yell" 'Fashion in a Feminist Issue' for her talk, made it even more interesting by showing us very 
literally what a part of the Woman Question, the Great Corset Debate, meant to a woman. She is 
sure that the Brontë's wore corsets, because all women did, even working women. Maybe not as 
tightly laced as she was herself by then by her friend and colleague Marianne Thormählen, but still. 

One wonders how any woman could work with a corset on. Or walk on the moors. Or go on with your lecture like Birgitta. It changed her breathing and therefore her voice, like modern day high-heeled shoes change your walking. Molly Ryder, in her talk on ‘Asylum Metaphors in Villette’, kept to the theme of confinement and gave us an insight into what solitary confinement, not just in a corset, but in an asylum could do to a person, woman or man for that matter.

The fifth and last Session was on War and Empire. Emma Butcher showed how in their juvenalia 
Charlotte and Branwell reimagined the times of the Napoleon
ic Wars and the impact of wartime on
the Condition of England. Sarah Fermi, great organiser of this conference, ended the series of lectures by thinking aloud on the question of colour. There is still a lot of research to do on questions like: did the Brontës meet coloured people? Did they know people who got rich by trading slaves? And what did they think about that? And of course the never answered question: where does Heathcliff come from?

Bonnie Greer had in her speech at Conference Dinner told us how important it is to us, members of 
the Brontë Society, to be the true heirs of the Brontës and let nobody else run away with the Brontë 

Many delegates thought this was the best Conference ever. Maybe a few more historians as speakers 
would have given us an even better idea of the Condition of England in Brontë-times, but I do think 
the organisers of the next Conference will have a whale of a job to surpass this Brontë Society 
Conference 2014.

Marcia Zaaijer

Kate Bush concert “Before the dawn”

My impressions regarding the Kate Bush concert “Before the dawn”. After 35 years of silence as far as concerts are concernd, Kate Bush was back on stage in the Hammersmith Apollo in London for 22 concerts between 26 August and 1 October 2014!

Tickets for the concerts were gone in a few minutes. Stressful minutes for those fans who wanted to go, clicking away on the computer to get what was still to be had, and I finally got a “hospitality package” for the opening night on 26 August: a superb hamper of delicious food and drinks in a magnificent setting (St Paul’s neo-gothic church in Hammersmith London, opposite the Apollo 
theatre) as a starter before the concert, premium seats for the concert and the wonderful souvenir book were all included in the package.

The atmosphere of anticipation beforehand, waiting outside with the crowd to get in the concert hall, was really magical. You could feel the excitement everywhere!

I loved the first part of the concert, which was a series of songs followed by a theatrical performance of “The Ninth Wave”: Kate gave a spectacular show, she had a very strong voice and the whole story was fascinating to watch. 

The second part after the break was in my view a little bit less interesting, still spectacular in a way but also  very confusing. Less strong than the Ninth Wave performance.

The anticipation and expectations in the concert hall grew with the “encore”, and although she performed two beautiful songs, you could feel that the audience was waiting for “Wuthering Heights”, which did not come. The audience was applauding for more, but Kate did not return to oblige. That was a little bit of a disappointment, but overall I was glad to have been there and seen it all.

It was certainly a magical evening. Something to treasure always.

Marina Saegerman
5 September 2014

Friday 22 August 2014

My missing link: A visit to Patrick Brontë’s homeland in Co. Down, Northern Ireland – tracing the Brontë family roots!

Over the years I have been able to visit many places related to the Brontës, both in the UK and in Ireland, but there was one place that I had not yet visited and which is essential to the Brontë history: the place where Rev. Patrick Brontë was born and where he grew up. This was my missing link in the Brontë story. So this year’s mission on our holidays in Ireland was to be a visit to the area where Patrick Brontë was born and lived until he moved to Cambridge, the area around Rathfriland in County Down, Northern Ireland. I have always been fascinated by the Brontës’ Irish ancestry (probably a consequence of my fascination with Ireland in general) and have read all that I could find on this topic. So you can imagine that I was very excited to see the area where Patrick Brontë spent his early years and to visit the places related to his family.

The day of the visit was to be Saturday 26 July 2014. On our way back home from Boyle to Dun Laoghaire (Co. Dublin) a small detour was planned to Northern Ireland, where I booked us into a B&B in Rathfriland for one night.
In preparation of this visit I had been (re)reading some books on the Brontës’ Irish background. My main guidebook for the trip was to be “The road to Haworth – the story of the Brontës’ Irish ancestry” by John Cannon. This book tells the story of the Irish Brontës, it gives a very good picture of their family history (as far as it is known) and it reads like a Brontë novel. It gave me some background information for the visit of the Irish homeland.

We set off in the morning and planned to arrive in the  Rathfriland area around noon.
A few days before our departure I had phoned the secretary of the Irish section of the Brontë Society, Miss Margaret K Livingston, to see whether we could meet her when we were in the area. We decided to meet up at 1 pm for a picnic lunch  at Drumballyroney where the Brontë Homeland interpretative Centre is situated. The Drumballyroney Schoolhouse and Church are also the start of the Brontë Homeland drive.

The Rathfriland area breathes Brontë: a lot of houses or institutions have a Brontë-related name: Brontë manor, the Brontë primary school, a Brontë nursery unit, there was even a house called “Villette”.

We arrived at 12 o’clock on the dot, the time that the interpretative centre opened its doors. No need to say that we were the first visitors of the day. Since we were well before the time set to meet Margaret, I had some time to browse around in the Schoolhouse to see the video on the Brontë family and read all the information panels, giving information on the various members of the Brontë family, including Patrick Brontë’s parents and their unusual “country courtship”. The small schoolroom also contained some exhibits related to Patrick Brontë and the Brontë sisters, amongst others a replica of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress.

Margaret arrived well on time and was accompanied by another member of the Irish section, Mr Finny O’ Sullivan. The weather gods were not on our side that day, it was pouring outside. But a  picnic was planned, and a picnic we would have! Margaret decided to have a picnic in the schoolroom: since we were the only visitors at that moment, this was not a problem. We were treated to a real picnic feast: lovely fresh sandwiches, biscuits, cake, strawberries and cream, tea & coffee and juice, … too much for our poor bellies!

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Book launch: "The Brontës in Brussels", 26 June

I suspect I’m not alone in saying that each time I make my way through downtown Brussels to a Brontë event, I gather the aura of the old city as I go, preparing myself for another delicious escape into the nineteenth century. Depending on my mood, and whether or not the North Sea climate has graced the city with mist, I might imagine a little figure in grey on a cobbled corner, or a dark-coated gentleman disappearing down an alley in the park.

I’m sure I’m not alone in confessing that this time, on June 26, as eager as I was to welcome Helen MacEwan’s new Brontë book into the world (The Brontës in Brussels), other matters distracted my journey into town. That is to say, like many of you, I was rather preoccupied by the fate of the Red Devils later that evening as they advanced in the World Cup. Instead of little ladies in grey, therefore, dallying on forgotten corners, I spied Devils supporters in tri-coloured wigs and red horns brandishing lurid, plastic pitchforks, a spectacle that would surely have rendered poor Charlotte and Emily Brontë senseless had they encountered it (though not before confirming their deep suspicion of the Catholic faith’s puzzling obscurantism…).

The above observations are not incidental to this little piece. Helen’s new book is, indeed, a journey back in time to the Brussels the Brontë sisters would have known in the early 1840s. No one can dip into these sumptuous pages without escaping contemporary Brussels – even in all her football finery. Along with a wealth of colour illustrations from the period. The Brontës in Brussels presents a fascinating look at how this city influenced the two sisters’ hearts and imaginations. Cogent details transport the time-traveller immediately: we follow Charlotte on a ramble along the Rue de Louvain, where she refreshed herself with a coffee and currant bun; we slip into an illustration of a wide, leafy boulevard with views over the surrounding countryside, and find ourselves at once elated and heartsick to touch this Brussels we will never know. Thanks to Helen’s book, however, this vanished city still has a pulse. She guides us to those corners where, if we close our eyes, we might still detect a horse’s hoof or rustle of silk in the endless drone of traffic. Such moments bring a familiar frisson to those of us who have spent many years in Brussels and fallen in love with her enigmas.
Most moving of all is Helen’s inclusion of Charlotte’s letters to Constantin Heger. The stark intimacy of these confessions draws the reader far from Brussels, all the way to the moorland chill of Yorkshire and the grey-clad little woman who anguished there, in physical and emotional exile from her “promised land”. It is with a strange sort of clairvoyance that we read those letters, knowing as we do how Charlotte’s genius would eventually transform her despair into great art.

Familiar faces as well as new ones could be seen in the substantial gathering at Waterstone’s on Thursday night. Helen presented a series of slides from her book while subtly drawing us ever deeper into the lost world just outside the door. By the time she’d finished, no one wanted to open that door and step back into real-time Brussels. After a series of stimulating questions (followed by some welcome stimulants of the liquid variety), Helen’s second Brontë book was successfully launched and her appreciative readers dispersed into the evening.

I found myself lingering alone at a bus stop in a sort of Brontë-induced reverie. Nearby, cafés were swelling by the minute with Red Devils supporters, and a passing pitchfork brushed my elbow. But these things barely registered this time. I had eyes only for the elaborate cornices overhead that a Brontë might have glanced up to admire; I kept watch out the bus window for the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudule, trying to imagine what desperation had driven the anti-Catholic Charlotte to mount its steps and seek confession. The bus traversed the mythical “Quartier Isabelle”, so lavishly illustrated in Helen’s book, and as I swept past the Belliard steps, they seemed narrower and steeper than usual, the flash of long grey skirt at their summit utterly unremarkable.

Across from the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a man in a crowded bar was draping himself in the Belgian flag and downing a Jupiler. It’s proof of the early success of Helen’s book that he clearly seemed lost in the wrong century, for I was certain that I’d spotted the watchful Mme. Heger, bustling up and pursing her lips in disapproval. The bus had whisked me up the hill, however, before I could say for sure what her expression had been.
World Cup, 0. Brontës, 1.
Leona Francombe

Monday 30 June 2014

Annual Brontë Society weekend 14 - 15 June 2014

This year nine members of the Brussels group were in Haworth for the annual ‘AGM weekend’ or ‘Brontë Festival’. The weather was a little changeable and the atmosphere at the AGM slightly unsettled, with the need to fill a couple of key posts on the Brontë Society Council and at the Museum. But we had plenty of sunny spells for walking on the moors and chatting on Main Street café terraces, and meeting up with friends in Haworth was, as always, a joy.

The first event, on Friday 13 June, was a talk by novelist Stevie Davies, author of Emily Brontë: Heretic. She was speaking about her new novel Awakenings, set in 1860 against the background of charismatic religious movements and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Stevie came to Brussels in 2009 to talk about Emily Brontë and the Mother World. I recommend her novel Four Dreamers and Emily about a Brontë conference in Haworth. Although a fantasy featuring imaginary characters, it will strike a few chords for anyone who has been in Haworth during the Brontë weekend!

Air on Brontë Moor on Friday evening brought together music, images and poems inspired by on the moors around Haworth, with music provided by David Wilson, filmed images by Simon Warner and readings of poetry (his own and that of Emily Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and others) by Adam Strickson. Although it was jinxed by technical problems, with some images failing to materialise on the screen, it was an enjoyable mix. Earlier in the evening entertainment was provided by Pennine Harps, a quartet of four female harpists.

Air on Brontë Moor
On Saturday, events were packed back to back as always. A talk on the Wesleyan Methodist circles in Cornwall in which the Brontës’ mother, Maria Branwell, and her sister, who looked after them after her death, grew up, was followed by the AGM. Bonnie Greer, the Society’s President, was in the chair. The Brontë Society Council has a busy few months ahead. ´The Museum director, Ann Sumner, is moving to a new post and the term of office of the Chairman, Sally Macdonald, is coming to an end so these two posts must be filled soon.

The lecture was given by Lucasta Miller, author of The Brontë Myth, always a speaker worth hearing. Her subject was Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s Naughty Book. She considered it in conjunction with the work of another female writer of ‘naughty’ novels, Letitia Landon, who is the subject of her next book.

Lucasta Miller
After the prize-giving for the Society’s Creative Competition for best short story, poem and illustration (judges: novelist Margaret Drabble, poet Simon Armitage and artist Victoria Brookland), Lucasta Miller returned for the evening’s panel discussion on fictional biographies and spin-offs of well-loved classic novels. How far are they justified, what can they provide? Ably chaired by Patsy Stoneman, who has twice given excellent talks to our group, the panel also included novelists Tiffany Murray and Catherine Rayner.

Sunday was a more restful day, with some relaxed indoor events alternating with the traditional tramp over the moors. Unfortunately, sunny spells were less in evidence today! As always, the Brontë Parsonage Museum was opened for a private visit by Society members. Some then proceeded to the library for a viewing of ‘hidden gems’ of the Museum collection, presented by Collections Manager Ann Dinsdale, followed by refreshments from the famous Betty’s Tearoom in Ilkley.

Those not walking attended a screening of pictures from the scrapbook of Ellen Nussey, best friend and chief correspondent of Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte’s letters to this friend form the bulk of her voluminous correspondence and the source of much of what we know about her. Audrey Hall, who inherited the scrapbook and has researched its contents, gave this presentation and then formally handed the scrapbook over to the Parsonage Museum.

The weekend was rounded off by the now traditional dinner and entertainment at the Old White Lion. This year members were not asked to write Brontë-themed limericks, which had us scratching our heads and biting our pens last June. Instead we brainstormed ideas for events for future AGM weekends and to celebrate the bicentenary years coming up, starting with Charlotte Brontë’s in 2016. After the meal we sat back and enjoyed costume-maker and historian Gillian Taylor’s talk on a replica of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress, based on descriptions of it and Gillian’s knowledge of the period. Charlotte was married to Arthur Bell Nicholls on 29 June 1854 and died nine months later.

This year’s Monday excursion was to Liverpool, in whose streets, it will be remembered, Heathcliff was found as a child. There were opportunities to visit the International Slavery Museum, Albert Dock and Tate Liverpool, the Liverpool Maritime Museum and the Beatles Museum.

The 2015 Brontë Society AGM weekend will be held on 6-7 June.

Monday 9 June 2014

Football and the Brussels Brontë Story…

The World Cup 2014 is fast approaching, as every soccer fan knows. Perhaps now is a good time to trace some football links in the Brussels Brontë story. There are some interesting connections which merit highlighting - however unlikely the idea might seem at first glance!

The Jenkinses

The first connection relates to the Jenkins family of Brussels. A previous, highly informative blog post here by Jenkins descendent Monica Kendall details how this Ixelles-based family was closely involved with Charlotte and Emily Brontë during their Brussels stay. Indeed it was due to its intervention that the two Brontë sisters ended up at the Heger pensionnat on the Rue d'Isabelle in the first place. But not only were the Jenkinses responsible for introducing the two literary geniuses to Brussels, the same family was also largely responsible for the introduction of the British sport of football to Brussels. (For these two feats alone, perhaps the Jenkinses merit some day an honorary plaque or a street named after them in their adopted city?!)
     The Jenkins family's role in the beginnings of the Brussels, and indeed Belgian, football story is a theme still to be fully researched, yet its close involvement is widely acknowledged by Belgian football historians.
    This involvement should come as no surprise. Rev. Charles Edward (1826-73) and Rev. John Card (1834-94), the sons of Rev. Evan Jenkins (1794-1849), were both keen sportsmen. According to Monica Kendall, John won trophies for rowing, still in the family's possession, while studying at Cambridge in the 1850s. The brothers founded the Brussels Cricket Club, the first of its kind in Belgium, in the early 1860s, and both were fine amateur cricket players.
     Most of the early members of the Brussels Cricket Club were pupils from the brothers’ school, known from around 1870 as St Bernard's and the largest British boys boarding school in the city. Indication that these young cricket players might have been playing football too, as early as 1865, is found in  L'Indépendance belge ( 31 May 1865): "Les membres du Cricket-Club, fils d'Albion habitant Bruxelles, viennent de reprendre leur jeu favori dans les plaines de Cureghem, entre le Nieuw-Molen et l'Ecole vétérinaire. Demain, ils donneront une fête comportant des jeux divers, qu'ils appellent athletic sports". Football at the time was foremost among the activities described as "athletic sports"; it would surely have featured at this sporting fête.
     If the Jenkinses counted among the very earliest pioneers of football in Brussels, some sources hold that the first man to introduce football to Belgium was an Irish student from Killarney, Bernard Murrogh, who brought the game to his college at Melle, near Ghent in 1863. The sport was soon being played in other cities across Flanders; the first official football club in Belgium was Antwerp FC, formed in 1880.

La Plaine de Tenbosch

La Plaine de Tenbosch
In the 1880s the Jenkinses and their friends were playing their football matches on the sandy open
ground of Tenbosch. [See photo of a match here from the epoch]. Now built-up, this open ground was located between the present day Avenue Louise, Rue Tenbosch and Rue Defacqz in the Ixelles commune. It was very much Jenkins family territory. In the latter 19th century, the family lived at several different addresses on the Rue des Champs Elysées in Ixelles and the Rue St. Bernard in St. Gilles, both of which were a stone's throw away from the football grounds. In 1874, the Church of the Resurrection, built largely through the efforts of Charles Edward Jenkins (Senior), was inaugurated on the Rue de Stassart, which was also close by. Given the connections the Jenkinses had with this part of the city, it is no coincidence that Tenbosch became an early home to Belgian football.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Exhibition on the Brussels Royal Quarter at the BELvue Museum.

Readers interested in the Brussels Brontë story might consider a visit to the exhibition entitled Vivre au Quartier Royal 1800-2000 Du Coudenberg au Mont des Arts, just opened at the BELvue museum in
Brussels. Organized by the Cercle d'Histoire de Buxelles to celebrate its thirty years of existence,  the exhibition includes numerous photos of the old Isabelle quarter, where the Heger Pensionnat  attended by Charlotte and Emily Brontë once stood. This quarter was almost completely destroyed in the early 20th century to facilitate various urban projects, including the infamous Nord-Midi rail Jonction; the selection of photos and slides on display helps revive its memory.

The exhibition runs until 31 August 2014 and entry is via the BELvue museum. The exhibition itself is housed in the Hôtel d'Hoogstraeten, which stands opposite the BELvue, across the Rue Royale. To reach the Hôtel, the visitor descends into the labyrinth of halls and passages which lie beneath the Place Royale – the remains of the Coudenberg Palace destroyed by fire in 1731. These subterranean vestiges include a small section of the original Rue d'Isabelle which managed to avoid later destruction.

The exhibition is a small one, yet includes some highly interesting images of daily life in the Quartier Royal in former times. It covers themes ranging from the area's commercial activities to important royal family events, public transport and parades. Perhaps the most striking photos on display relate to the
final destruction of many of the quarter's streets and landmark buildings. It's hard to believe that such whole scale, ruthless devastation was carried out in the name of progressive urbanism! [See photo, Rue des Douze Apôtres]

The exhibition catalogue, on sale at the BELvue shop, is excellent. It features a long and highly interesting article by François Samin on the history of Rue d'Isabelle and Le Grand Serment des Arbalétriers. The Heger Pensionnat garden on the Rue d'Isabelle, so memorably described in Charlotte Brontë's Villette, had once been home to the city's important Guild of the Crossbowmen. Samin's article includes a wealth of little-known facts and documents related to the guild's history and its former exercise garden. It merits the attention of anyone interested in the Brussels of the Brontë sisters.

Brian Bracken

Sunday 6 April 2014

'Shirley in Context': Nicholas Shrimpton gives a talk to the Brussels Brontë Group at our annual Brontë weekend

For the celebrations of this year’s Brontë Weekend in Brussels, the members of our society convened in the usual location of Université Saint-Louis and welcomed a guest speaker from the University of Oxford, Dr. Nicholas Shrimpton, who was kind enough to share his knowledge about the social and literary context behind Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. In a fascinating lecture, he presented evidence of an opinion some of us discussed earlier in the book club meeting – while not an instant classic, Shirley does have its strengths and remains an interesting read. And so, on one of the first days of spring, we’ve been told the story of a writer, who has embarked on an ambitious task of writing her sophomore novel “in a style entirely new”.

Dr. Nicholas Shrimpton
Our guest speaker started this tale of context by making us understand the novel’s origins. Shirley is the
one atypical story that came from Charlotte’s pen. Published as her second novel, it is a product of the author’s struggle with personal demons, but also of the problem of delivering something new and different, when one has only one previous experience to draw on. In her own attempt at revolution, she abandoned the single heroine of Jane Eyre, with her inner battle between stoicism and rebellion. Instead, she ventured to introduce two female characters representing the same juxtaposition in the flesh, illustrating parallel experiences rather than an individual one. On top of that, she expanded the picture with a number of key characters, who are not only introduced fairly late in the novel, but also tend to disappear from view for multiple chapters at a time.  The story is not narrated by that single heroine anymore, but by an external third person narrator, omniscient if often using focalisation. And finally, we are relatively far removed from the familiar Brontë geography – while staying in Yorkshire, we move West from the country of moors, towards Leeds and its surroundings. The real-life location of the novel was supposedly Birstall, now graced with an IKEA retail park.

Unfortunately for her, many view this attempt at innovation as only mildly successful: somewhat incongruous and decidedly less convincing than the heavily introspective works she’s best known for. Before sharing his own opinion, Dr. Shrimpton presented a vast perspective on possible sources of inspiration for this endeavour, which turns out to be necessary knowledge in order to fully grasp the meaning of the novel.

Apparently, it could have been none other than W. M. Thackeray and his panoramic masterpiece, Vanity Fair, that served as primary influence on Shirley. It is no secret that they admired each other’s writing, despite their distinct characters. The monumental story of Becky Sharpe was being published in episodes at the time Charlotte was starting work on the new novel, and several hints of that impact can be identified in its contents. The most striking example being the opening paragraphs detailing the curates’ debauchery, inspired directly by Thackeray’s satirical tones. Arguably not as successful as the master himself, Brontë only barely managed to keep up with the sharp pace of satire, and was encouraged to omit that  entire section by her editors. The fact that the opening scene and others that follow in similar vein are still there, might prove how strongly the author felt about going against the grain. In other clues, the action is moved back in time to Wellington’s era and aims to describe a wide range of social classes of the time, much like Vanity Fair. And finally, it goes on to fill one of the few gaps in Thackeray’s panorama and focus on the urbanising, industrial reality of the North of England. But while he manages to keep his characters in check through a powerful narrator figure, Brontë seems to have less control over her lot, and despite trying to emphasise the masculine voice of Currer  Bell, she comes across thoroughly feminine in her storytelling.

To further complicate things, halfway through her writing process, Charlotte was hit by a wave of misfortunes, as all three of her siblings died within a short period of time. As Dr. Shrimpton argued, some prolific writers like Frances Trollope were able to overcome their personal grief and produce masterpieces and their opus magnum even in times of grief. Miss Brontë was apparently not one of them. Insecure and always seeking reassurance with Emily, Anne or Branwell, she was not only mourning but also lonely with her incertitude. The tone of her writing changes visibly between parts 1 and 2 of the novel, and literally nothing is the same again after the tragedy strikes. Even Caroline’s eyes change colour in the process, if anyone needs tangible proof of incongruence.

Fortunately, there is yet hope for Shirley. Our guest speaker pointed out that despite all the inconsequence, there seems to be a thematic unity within the novel, which starts with Chartism, “the unspoken subject of the novel”. Indeed, the topic of social struggles  makes up for a big chunk of the novel’s story, but that doesn’t mean Charlotte equated the fighting Luddites from the beginning of the century, with the later Chartist movement, nor did she confuse one with the other. The Chartism in question is more likely the broad idea raised by Thomas Carlyle, of which the suffrage movement was only a symptom. It’s the general discontent of the working classes that flows steadily throughout the story, their struggle for food, education and dignity. Because of this widespread chartist spirit, the demand for “Condition of England” novels was going strong for many years, and prompted many writers to try their hand at portraying the ills of the working man, or at least incorporating some elements of it in their works. Maybe Charlotte is not as graphic dealing with this topic, as she usually is when digging through the layers of the inner conflict and romantic fever of her heroines, but she is successful in keeping the political theme of oppression  a relevant element of her story. And maybe, it is not the panoramic Vanity Fair we should compare it to, but rather the more common attempts at addressing pieces of the “Condition of England” that we should treat as context of Brontë’s penchant for social issues in Shirley.

The same thematic unity becomes even more apparent when we look at the broader picture outside the social issues the author raises. The very core of the story is driven by an almost philosophical juxtaposition between romantic egoism and the revival of pre-romantic rationalism. For the former, think Louis Moore with his ardent professions of love. The Byronic, individual experience linked to nature and its metaphors. Think chivalry, Wellingtonian heroism and war against Napoleon. Think, the lonely figure trying to help his mill off its knees. For the latter, go for Robert Moore and the pragmatic merchants. Go for the community of workers and the guarantee of employment they demand. Go for the idea of war as a nuisance menacing internal balance.  This dichotomy goes strong throughout the whole story. Two heroines, two brothers, two opposing social classes, the individual and the disgruntled collective. And an opening that promises “[nothing] romantic” versus the ending that evokes seeing faeries. Don’t write them off as inconsistence – look how symmetrical and present they are.

In conclusion, let’s not be afraid to admit that we’ve been discussing not the very finest of Charlotte’s work. It shifts the focus away from the conflicted introspection she is unsurpassed at, in favour a social engagement done more successfully by others. It is an inconsistent text plagued by the author’s suffering.  And, as a question from the audience made us realise, one that would sadly be forgotten if it wasn’t for other, more successful Brontë novels. And yet, let’s keep in mind  Dr. Shrimpton’s conclusion before we dismiss this novel as a failure. Charlotte put an extremely difficult task in front of her. She wanted to reinvent her well-rounded style, and took inspiration from intricate social situation and one monumental masterpiece. Only a select few in the course of history have managed to pull off a truly panoramic novel, and even those were not foolproof. This one is not really panoramic, but remains engaging and complex, and still masterfully soul-searching at times, which are some good redeeming qualities. Shirley may be a flawed and uneven work in many respects, but it is a hugely ambitious one to start with.

Ola Podstawka

"Shirley in Context"

Nicholas Shrimpton at the Brussels Brontë group, 
29th March 2014

Charlotte Mathieson, a research fellow at Warwick University who is researching the legacy of Charlotte Brontë in Brussels, joined us for the events of our annual Brontë weekend. She wrote this report on Nicholas Shrimpton’s talk for her own blog and has kindly allowed us to reproduce it here.
Charlotte also joined one of our guided walks and has posted an excellent photographic account on her blog of the tour of Brontë locations in Brussels. Read it here:

Although not a regular attendee of the Brussels Brontë group, I visited Brussels at the end of March to come to the annual Brontë weekend and had an excellent time at the various events, including the talk by Dr Nicholas Shrimpton from the University of Oxford.

Dr Shrimpton’s subject was Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley (1849). It’s fair to say that this is the least favourite of Charlotte Brontë’s novels, among readers and critics alike, and from the time of its publication to the present day has attracted far less interest than Jane Eyre and Villette. I'm in the minority who find the novel both enjoyable and of academic interest, and having taught Shirley a couple of times (on The English Nineteenth-Century Novel at the University of Warwick) I've definitely gained a much greater appreciation of it – it's a pleasure to teach as there is simply so much to say, and the novel is rich with interesting scenes to analyse in light of gender and political debates (it's also one of the few novels where I find myself wanting to really persuade students of how much they should love it, something I usually try to resist!).

But it has to be said that much of this interest, and indeed the novel’s scope for analysis, comes from its problematic nature in terms of thematic and structural integrity. It this that formed the basis of Nicholas Shrimpton's talk, in which he assessed the case for and against Shirley, exploring in detail both the novel’s problems and its possibilities. Most interesting was that Shrimpton made the case for Shirley as a ‘panoramic’ novel on a par with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: we know that Charlotte Brontë greatly admired Thackeray’s work, and Shirley, he argued, is her attempt at undertaking a novel of such scale and scope. Ultimately, it is hugely flawed, but it is also hugely ambitious. Shrimpton really captured that what makes the novel so exciting is the many fractures and disjunctures that occur throughout the text. The text's handling of the "woman question", and its eventual 'failure' at sustaining proto-feminist arguments, is an apt case in point: while on the one hand, the final marriages of Caroline and Shirley come as a disappointment after the novel's earlier promise in questioning and challenging gender conventions, at the same time it is here that Brontë most usefully illustrates the strength of such conventions and the need for change - for both the women in the story, and for the woman writer, there simply is no other realistic option but to end with a marriage.

Shrimpton also highlighted other contextual issues that are illuminating on how we read it - he focused particularly on the Luddite/Chartist conflation (or not), and also spoke of Brontë's worry that the text would be read as too similar to Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, published the year before. It was also interesting, in light of my literary geography excursion that weekend, to hear Shrimpton discuss the idea of 'Shirley country' (as distinct from 'Brontë' country') as well as talking about the novel's continental connections. The talk was an excellent reminder that Shirley deserves more attention as perhaps the most interesting, and certainly illuminating, of Charlotte Brontë's works.

Charlotte Mathieson

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Brussels, Brontë, Jenkins: My great-great-grandparents Rev. Evan and Eliza Jenkins and the Brontës

Monica Kendall tells of her search for her relatives in Brussels.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë, published two years after Charlotte’s death, Mrs Gaskell comments that when she was researching the biography and visited Brussels:

Mrs. Jenkins told me that she used to ask them [Emily and Charlotte] to spend Sundays and holidays with her, until she found that they felt more pain than pleasure from such visits. (Gaskell, 1997: 162)

I am the great-great-granddaughter of that Mrs Jenkins (her name was Eliza, née Jay), and of Rev. Evan Jenkins, the British Chaplain in Brussels from 1825 until his death in 1849. Until October 2013 I knew quite a bit about the Jenkins family in Brussels, though mostly in the second half of the nineteenth century, but knew nothing about our connection with the Brontës. It’s a mystery why there are no anecdotes in the family. But thanks to hugely helpful people who responded to my interest (and an inordinate number of emails I sent) I finally arrived in Brussels in February 2014 to investigate. It was the same month Charlotte and Emily arrived, 172 years before – rather more quickly (by Eurostar from London where I live) than the Brontës had managed!

But first, grateful thanks to the following for their support, time, help and information: Brian Bracken, Mme Jacqueline Charade and all at the Chapel Royal, Roger Cox, Robyn Crosslé, the staff at the Evere cemetery, Jones Hayden for a wonderful walk around Brontë Brussels, Renate, cousin Suzie Walker, Marcia Watson and above all to Helen MacEwan, of the Brussels Brontë Group, who not only found more Jenkins graves than I could have possibly hoped for, and rubbed off moss with Renate before I visited, but recommended my (excellent) hotel, found time to answer all my emails, saved me from howlers and organized my Saturday which ended up with a descendant of the Hegers and descendant of the Jenkinses downing (in my case) copious amounts of wine in a wonderfully convivial way which I will always treasure.

A Jenkins descendant meets a Heger descendant:
M. Francois Fierens (great-great-great-grandson of Constantin
Heger) and Monica Kendall (great-great-granddaughter of Rev.
Evan and Eliza Jenkins), Brussels, February 2014
What follows is my journey and discoveries in Brussels over three days.

St Bernard’s School, New York and what happened next ... and before
In 2000 I wrote an article for my grandfather’s school magazine, entitled ‘My Grandfather Jack’. My grandfather, John Card Jenkins (1874–1958), founded a school in New York in 1904 called St Bernard’s. It is an extraordinary and unique prep school for boys and I have visited it twice – as recently as autumn 2011. My article was accurate: but with one big error about the Jenkins church in Brussels (see below)! My research for it was based on his elder sisters’ scrapbooks that went to my mother Dorice on their deaths (my last great-aunt died in 1954). They were the daughters of Rev. John Card Jenkins (1834–94) who had been an Anglican chaplain in Brussels, after his father and elder brother. I found then that the roots of the school in New York lay in Brussels in the 1820s, with Rev. Evan and Mrs Jenkins.
My mother, Dorice Kendall, née Jenkins, remembered stories of Brussels from her parents (both British, who were born or grew up there), and in my article I tried to describe Brussels of the nineteenth century. I mentioned the Brontës in passing: ‘In this city ... Emily and Charlotte Brontë came to study languages in the early 1840s, and Charlotte returned to teach and found unrequited love.’ That’s all! Alas no one emailed me to say: But haven’t you read Mrs Gaskell’s biography? I hadn’t, nor it seems had any member of the Jenkins family, and I hadn’t even read Villette!

What happened next, 13 years later, was one of those strange coincidences that change everything: I am an academic book editor, and I just happened in autumn 2013 to be copy-editing a book that included a chapter on Charlotte Brontë’s extraordinary novel Villette (a fictional name for Brussels). I decided to buy the book since my ancestors were in Brussels at the same time Charlotte had been there. Then out of the blue my cousin Suzie Walker (née Jenkins) asked for the number of the Jenkins home in Rue St Bernard in Brussels as her artist daughter was about to visit (I am the historian of the family!). Suddenly Suzie emailed telling me to try googling this combination: Brussels, Brontë, Jenkins. I did so, intrigued. Suzie tells me she had just idly tried doing that combination as she explored her Jenkins roots and had found something amazing. And I came across Brian Bracken’s blog on the Brussels Brontë Group website about finding the whereabouts of the Jenkins home in Chaussée d’Ixelles: the house that Charlotte and Emily had ‘visited’ on several occasions in 1842–43. I was astounded. The Brontë sisters knew my ancestors?

My research took off. I began to email total strangers, including Helen via the Group website, and Roger Cox, who had written a booklet on the Anglicans in Brussels, and then read as much as I could after work. And wonderfully most people responded! After a few weeks I knew I had to go to Brussels. Helen suggested a good time would be in February 2014 for Eric Ruijssenaars’ talk for the Group on the Isabelle Quarter where the Brontë sisters had stayed and learned. I booked my Eurostar ticket. So what did I find?

Monday 17 March 2014


On 15 February, for our first event of the year we were pleased to welcome Eric Ruijssenaars, who gave us a fascinating slide show of pictures relating to the research he did for his two books, Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land: The Pensionnat Heger and other Brontë places in Brussels (2000) and The Pensionnat Revisited; More light shed on the Brussels of the Brontës (2003). Eric guided us on a virtual walk of the area round the Pensionnat. Many of those present have already been on one of our actual guided walks and this presentation provided an opportunity to gain a fuller picture of the area and its history. Eric, who lives in Leiden and has been researching the subject for the last twenty-five years, is always delighted to return to Brussels and his old Brontë haunts here.

Eric has written the following about his Brontës in Brussels research:

Eric Ruijssenaars
It is 25 years ago that I started doing research on the Brussels of the Brontës, aiming to recreate the Isabella quarter for her, the lady who had introduced me to Villette. Over the next decades I looked at every book and picture I could get hold of, in archives and libraries, to try to understand what the old quarter had looked like in the days of the Brontës. In 1990 I visited Brussels and the quarter for the first time, with Elle. I remember the excitement of standing on the Belliard Steps, though obviously having no real idea of the world ‘down these Steps’, and what it would all bring. Most recently, my talk for the BBG.

The Tahon photograph
Of invaluable importance was and is the iconic Tahon photo of the quarter, supposedly dating from 1909. For many years it hung on the wall at my desk. The crucial breakthrough came in 2003, when I took the picture to a photography professor of Leiden University. She said it must be an 1850s photograph. It’s possibly the highlight of these 25 years. Finally we fully understood the quarter. By implication it shows us the quarter as it was in 1843.

With all we had gathered then, it had become possible to do a sort of virtual walk through the old quarter, in the mind. Just as I can easily imagine walking in, for instance the quarter as it is now. I hope that those who joined my walk can agree.
Hotel Ravenstein, circa 1920

One of my last and nicest discoveries was the following picture:

 It’s a picture of the area where the Terarckenstraat now ends (with Hotel Ravenstein on the right). This time though we only need to climb over the gate to continue our walk, ‘through the mist of time’ (unfortunately I forgot to say that at my talk). At the same time it’s also a sad reminder of the very charming quarter that not long before had been demolished.

Eric Ruijssenaars