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