Tuesday 8 December 2015

Brussels Brontë Christmas Lunch and Entertainment 2015

The Annual Brontë Christmas lunch took place on Saturday 6 December. As usual Jones Hayden acted as Master of Ceremonies. This year 35 people enjoyed the festive meal, in which the courses alternated with the various items of entertainment.

Jones, Master of Ceremonies

Paul Gretton
After the initial welcome speeches by Helen and Jones, Paul Gretton entertained us with a reading of Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Oxen’. This was followed by Graham Andrews’ choice samples from ‘One Hundred Great Books in Haikus’.

Graham Andres
This year the skit was not just performed but also partly composed by some of our talented members. Tracie Ryan was the guide and Brian Holland, Kate Healy and Robynn Colwell the family being shown round the Parsonage in an adaptation of Victoria Wood’s monologue ‘The Haworth Parsonage Tour Guide’, with additions by Jones Hayden and the performers. A highly entertaining piece which generated a lot of laughs and was very well performed.

The talented actors!

Myriam Campinaire gave a hilarious reading of a biography of the Brontës that deviated in almost every point from Claire Harman’s, written by Derek Roberts, a humorist who has now moved from Brussels but was formerly well known in expat circles here. He also composed the lyrics for ‘Belgian Commune Blues’ (listen to it on youtube!).

Myriam Campinaire reading a
humorous piece
Members acquitted themselves well in Jones’s annual Brontë Quiz, which was as full of tricky questions as usual. The raffle prizes this year included some of the year’s best-selling books about the Brontës: Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, Deborah Lutz’s ‘The Brontë Cabinet’, and Sheila Kohler’s ‘Becoming Jane Eyre’.

One of the lucky winners in the lottery!

We ended with ‘The Sans Day Carol’ led by Paul Gretton.

It was another enjoyable end-of-year lunch with Brontë enthusiasts. I think most of us are already looking forward to next year’s.

Next year will see some extra activities due to the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. Keep tuned in to our web-site, blog and Facebook page for coming events.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Two launches of Brontë books by Helen MacEwan

‘Les Soeurs Brontë à Bruxelles’

On 3 December ‘Les Soeurs Brontë à Bruxelles’, the French edition of Helen MacEwan’s ‘The Brontës in Brussels’, was launched at Librairie Quartiers Latins in Place des Martyrs.

It was translated by long-standing Brussels Brontë Group members Myriam Campinaire and Daniel Mangano and published by CFC-Éditions, who run the Quartiers Latins bookshop.

‘Les Sœurs Brontë à Bruxelles’

This publisher’s catalogue contains lovingly-produced, richly-illustrated books about Brussels. ‘Les Soeurs Brontë à Bruxelles’, an illustrated guide to Charlotte and Emily’s time in the city, forms part of the collection ‘La Ville Écrite’; in the same collection is ‘Les Écrivains dans la Ville’, a guide to the literary plaques and statues in the city.

Helen MacEwan introduced the book in conversation with Frédérique Bianchi, who specialises in nineteenth-century literature and organises literary walks in Brussels, and Claire Billen, a retired ULB lecturer specialising in the history of Brussels.

Helen MacEwan (centre) introduces the book with
Claire Billen (left) and Frédérique Bianchi (right)

The Brontës in Brussels’ is the first book dedicated exclusively to Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Brussels. The French translation introduces readers to a little-known literary connection of Brussels and also to a historical period in the city (the 1840s, shortly after the Belgian Revolution) less thoroughly chronicled than the later 19th century, which saw its expansion and transformation under Leopold II. Numerous additional images have been included in this lavishly-illustrated French edition.

It is always a pleasure to spend time in Quartiers Latins, a marvellous place a little off the beaten track and located in one of the most beautiful squares of Brussels. The genuine love of books that motivates the publishers and booksellers who work in this tranquil spot is almost palpable in the air.

‘Winifred Gérin: Biographer of the Brontës’

On 29 November 2015, Waterstones Brussels hosted the launch of a book about a Brontë biographer with Belgian links.

Winifred Gérin, who moved to Haworth in the 1950s to research her biographies of the four Brontë siblings, was the best-known Brontë biographer after Mrs Gaskell and before the historian Juliet Barker became the definitive chronicler of the family in the 1990s. Helen MacEwan’s life of Gérin draws on her unpublished memoir and on hundreds of letters to the family of her first husband, a Belgian cellist called Eugène Gérin. Helen met members of the family when researching the book, one of whom (a great-nephew of Eugène Gérin) attended the launch.

Winifred Gérin’s colourful life took her to Paris, where she lived with her musician husband in the 1930s; to Brussels, where the couple were living at the time of the German invasion in May 1940; and to southern France where they found themselves trapped for the first two years of the War and became involved in helping Jews to escape arrest under the Vichy government. Having escaped back to England themselves, they worked for Political Intelligence near Bletchley Park.

Eugène Gérin died in 1945. Ten years after his death, Winifred’s life changed direction after a first visit to Haworth on which she met her second husband, a Brontë enthusiast. Once her Brontë biographies were completed she went on to write lives of other nineteenth-century women writers including Elizabeth Gaskell and Anne Thackeray Ritchie.

Around 30 members of the Brussels Brontë Group attended the launch and heard the story of the research for the book that uncovered the story of Gérin’s hitherto unknown life.

Previously, on 21 November, a launch was organised at Waterstones Piccadilly, London. It was attended by the publisher of the book, members of the Brontë and Gaskell Societies and people who helped with research.

Helen MacEwan with members of the Brussels Brontë Group
at the launch at Waterstones Brussels
Winifred Gérin: Biographer of the Brontës’ is available in Waterstones Brussels. Read about the book here:


Thursday 5 November 2015

Of pioneers and creative followers – Tessa Hadley on Jane Eyre through a novelist’s eyes - Ola Podstawka reports on the talk by Tessa Hadley on 17 October – see also the report dated 26 October

One couldn’t help but hang on to every word. The silence was complete, as if everyone was holding their breath in a strange state of benevolent enchantment. It was a talk like we haven’t experienced before: personal, meandering and deliberate, a beautifully written audiobook more than a lecture we might have been expecting. Tessa Hadley started with a confession that it was somewhat intimidating to speak to a group of Bronte lovers not being an expert on the topic, but I think after she breathed the last full stop, we were all convinced we needed more of such talks in the program.

Admittedly, the uneasiness about being original and offering a unique take  is somethingfamiliar to anyone tackling the mythical literary family. In fact, a hundred and fifty years after publication, dozens of adaptations, several biographies and thousands of discussions later, is it still possible to say something new about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre? Is there a fresh approach waiting to be discovered and presented to our group? As Tessa Hadley argued (and demonstrated by her own example), one of the main charms of Charlotte’s writing lies in its inherent personal character. Highly subjective and yet relatable, it can evoke a myriad of meanings and represent as many things as there are readers. Of course everyone loves their witty Austen, but the Bronte stories are not written from a standpoint of detached irony, with deliberate judgement and a half-amused wink towards the audience; they are carved out of raw emotion, in isolation and darkness, solemn and organic in their oblivion. The Bronte’s wouldn’t have written with such power had they been self-conscious or auto-ironic as artists. But with both kinds, with both Jane and Charlotte, thankfully, we can read and re-read them and be captivated time and time again.

In the course of her lecture, Tessa Hadley touched many important topics, especially relevant if one feels even a remote affinity towards writing and creativity, and as I was too engrossed in listening, relating, remembering and appreciating the linguistic richness, I am able to recount only a few of them from memory. But probably the most powerful point was that made about the difference between contemporary authors and their predecessors from two hundred years ago, the pioneers of the genre and their creative followers who live now. Thinking about writing as a process, one needs to keep in mind that Charlotte’s circumstances were diametrically different than those of contemporary writers. She was coming into a literary scene dominated by poetry -  the noble, respected kind of writing. The novel had barely reached its adolescence at that time, and with its relatively short history was considered a largely inferior genre, destined chiefly for undignified audiences of women (gasp!) and the bourgeoisie (double gasp!). And she wrote a masterpiece of its kind, a milestone in its development. If we think of writers today, how different their situation is, how rich the background, how long the list of references for their work. If the land of novels if a map, there would be no white spots left to discover, no landmark left to be named by an aspiring pathfinder. Or, following Henry James’s metaphor, if it’s a house from which each author adopts a different point of view on the same world visible outside, there would be no new windows to look out of. But even if new writers are to tread in the footsteps of old ones, their creative task ought not to be more difficult. On the contrary, they should be more aware and consequently more sophisticated in their writing, having all these stellar precedents at their disposal in the collective imagination. In the 200 years of its existence, the novel went through a full growing cycle, and in this lifetime it created its own myths, sacred texts and stalwart figures. And like any other myths, these stories can be re-read and reenacted with no expiration date, always with a new meaning. Much like discovering new things in Jane Eyre with every new talk or book club meeting.

With the privilege of the real trailblazer Charlotte, back in the early days of the novel, was able to map her own territory on her own terms (speaking artistically, not socially of course). And trailblaze she did, making the most of her instincts and setting foot first in literary devices we may take for granted nowadays. For example, her opening sentence is now a classic of the genre. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day drops us right in the middle of the situation, with no safety net of explanations or background. It’s short and unadorned but bursting with possibility. Who, where, why, and what is this sense of impersonal constraint? Such suspenseful openings abound in “new” novels, but in her time, Jane Eyre was one of a kind.Going further, as suggested by the enigmatic first sentence, the novel goes on to juxtapose subjugation and repression with passionate affirmation of the self. And throughout the printed pages, these two grind and press against each other making it, in Tessa Hadley’s interpretation, “a novel fueled by outrage”. Young Jane is an outsider, the odd one out destined to be crushed and broken to fit the mold. But she bends and twists around, anything but damaged, to emerge victorious, with all life’s gifts at her feet: independence, belonging, affection and happiness. It is also a peculiar “moral fable”, where all the crushing and bending is not protested as social injustice, but rather accepted as the impersonal status quo. In this relatively straightforward narrative, some are born luckier than others, but moral justice prevails. The Blanche Ingrams of this world will have their share of frivolity and haughty airs, but the St John Rivers will still ensure the noble advancement of England.

And so, in many ways Jane Eyre is a pioneering work of the genre, unique in every way. Living in the 21st century, a writer cannot replicate the same achievement: being the first to tell the story, inventing an in medias res opening sentence, or driving an entire novel with sheer outrage (not in most countries, anyway). What they can do, successfully, is internalize the lessons Charlotte Bronte gives through her writing and treasure the tropes she gives us. They are all part of our shared heritage, a word in novel’s own private language. And while its vocabulary may be limited, one can always create new landscapes assembling and disassembling the existing elements. A contemporary writer doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel, just spin it differently.

Aleksandra Podstawka

Monday 2 November 2015

Launch of ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love’, the English translation of Jolien Janzing’s novel ‘De Meester’

On 29 October members of the Brussels Brontë Group were among those who gathered at Waterstones for the launch of Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love, the English translation of Jolien Janzing’s novel inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s time at the Pensionnat, first published as De Meester.

The Brussels Brontë Blog
On the left, Jolien Janzing
Jolien Janzing, a Dutch journalist and novelist, has lived in Flanders since early childhood. De Meester, first published in 2013 and translated into English by the prize-winning translator Paul Vincent, is her second novel. It is also to be translated into German, French and Turkish. It was selected for Books at Berlinale and the film rights have been sold to David P. Kelly films.

Earlier in October Jolien was invited by the Brontë Society to be their speaker at the Society’s annual literary lunch, held this year in Yorkshire. And on the morning of the Waterstones launch she was in London where she joined Claire Harman, author of the new biography of Charlotte Brontë just out, to speak on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06kggh1). They began by discussing Charlotte’s love for Constantin Heger and confession at the Cathedral of St Gudule. The first chapter of Janzing’s novel relates this scene in the Cathedral, and, interestingly, so does the prologue to Harman’s biography.

The Brussels Brontë Blog
Jolien reading from
'Charlotte Brontë's Secret Love
At the Waterstones launch, against a backdrop of projected images of nineteenth-century Brussels, the audience listened to readings from the novel and an interview with Jolien conducted by Jones Hayden of the Brussels Brontë Group. We heard about the novel’s vision of Charlotte and Emily’s stay at the Pensionnat, with suggestions of homo-eroticism in Emily’s friendship with a fellow pupil, Louise de Bassompierre, and more than suggestions of eroticism in Charlotte’s relationship with Monsieur Heger, the husband of the school’s directress. Rather than presenting Charlotte’s love for Heger as unrequited, Jolien explores a more romantic scenario in which Heger, portrayed as a flirtatious character, is attracted to Charlotte in his turn. She shared with us her view of 1840s Brussels (described in her novel as ‘dissolute’ and evoked with great sensuousness) as a place of relaxed morals where flirtation and adultery were very much in the air. We heard about one of the novel’s sub-plots, the liaison between King Leopold I and his much younger mistress Arcadie Claret, whose destiny is counterpointed in the novel with Charlotte’s. When the liaison began, around the time of the Brontës’ arrival on the Continent, Arcadie was only sixteen.

The Brussels Brontë Blog
On the right, Jones Hayden, who interviewed Jolien
After this presentation of a book which, unusually, offers a take on the Brontës’ stay in Brussels by a writer on this side of the Channel, attendees mingled and relaxed in the approved continental style – over a glass of wine!

Helen MacEwan

Monday 26 October 2015

‘A contemporary novelist reads Jane Eyre’: Tessa Hadley’s talk to the Brussels Brontë Group on 17 October 2015

“No one,” they say, “can do the  impossible” – or, as Charlotte Brontë herself might have put it, following her time in Belgium, “a l'impossible, nul est tenu” - but Tessa Hadley, acclaimed novelist and lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University, achieved just that last Saturday afternoon in Brussels.  Faced with the challenge of finding something new and original to say about Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, she captivated an audience of Brontë enthusiasts with her thoughtful comments and engaging delivery.

She began by observing that in the 1840s when Charlotte was writing Jane Eyre, the novel was still a relatively new literary form – hence the name – and contrasted its then “novelty” to its well established status today. For Brontë, Tessa suggested, was like Good King Wenceslas setting out to leave her mark upon virgin snow. Less than 200 years later, the deep and crisp and even snow has been trampled all over with foot-prints and tracks leading in all directions and no fresh fields in sight. Tessa suggested that, for writers today, this feeling of everything having been done before can be an obstacle,  but can also provide a sense of support and resource from which to borrow.

Tessa Hadley meets members of the Brussels Brontë Group 
over a drink after her talk. From left to right, 
Marcia Zaaijer, Tessa Hadley, Jones Hayden.
The talk focussed on two close readings of scenes from Jane Eyre. The first sentence “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” - now one of the best known openings in English fiction - plunges the reader straight into the narrative with no introduction or explanations. With Jane, we see no chance of setting foot outside for fresh air and exercise. The emphatic “no possibility” creates in the reader a sense of restriction and oppression. The common use today of the technique of starting in medias res, does not prevent us from recognising its novelty in the hand of Charlotte Brontë. By the end of the first page of the novel, we understand that Jane is set apart from the warmth of the fire where Mrs Reed is surrounded by her three children and we hear her challenging  question;  “What does Bessie say I have done?” We too wonder what could a child have possibly done to deserve such treatment? The sense of injustice is palpable and this opening scene puts the major opposing forces in the novel into play: unfair repression “No” versus Jane's fight against it, or as Tessa put it, “Jane's 'Yes'! – 'yes' to life and her 'yes' to Mr Rochester”.

The second scene sees Jane locked in darkness in the red room, in which her Uncle has recently died. She screams out in terror only to be met with yet harsher treatment until she passes out completely. The scene graphically illustrates Mrs Reed's horrific inhumanity. Jane's sense of right and wrong is truer than that of the adults who surround her and understanding this, they punish her all the more. Tessa commented that whereas Charlotte Brontë could build her novel around this theme of arbitrary injustice, writers today could only treat the same subject with more nuance and irony. She noted, however, that the long tradition of novels in English literature allows modern authors to have confidence that their readers will understand them.

When we read Jane Eyre today, and irrespective of how many times we re-read it, we instinctively feel its freshness and immediacy. Feelings and passion such as Jane's had never before been expressed in fiction.  We find ourselves at the origin of the novel, something so well known to us that it is almost mythic. 2016 will be the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth, and although we understand only too well that her life and experience were so different from our own, Tessa demonstrated that the vital force of Charlotte's story-telling, her vision and her truth, transport modern readers, just as all the readers before them, to the moral centre of her wonderful novel, Jane Eyre.

Dawn Robey

Jane Eyre and the Harry Potter generation

This piece was written by Justine Gauthier, a student at the Université Saint-Louis in Brussels where the Brussels Brontë Group hold their talks. Her year is studying Jane Eyre and she and her fellow-students joined members of our group to hear our speaker Tessa Hadley’s talk on Jane Eyre on 17 October.

Every generation shares its own references, favourite books, heroes and heroines. The current young adult generation grew up with the Harry Potter saga by J.K. Rowling. The heroes −Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley −are all part of our reader’s imagination.  While reading Jane Eyre, I was struck by the many resemblances I could find between the two best-selling works, the saga and the novel. These led me to reflect that what touches us in a good novel doesn’t alter so much with time; we all love mystery, adventure, heroes in search of themselves and romance.

I indeed find something of Jane Eyre in the three characters mentioned.  Harry Potter, for instance, is an orphan raised in the family of his horrible aunt, his uncle and their spoilt son, Dudley. He is mistreated, considered inferior and becomes his cousin's whipping boy. Still, he knows he is different, and in a sense, superior to them. When turning eleven, he receives a letter telling him he is a wizard and is bound to go to Hogwart's witchcraft school. That is where he grows up, makes friends, discovers the secrets of the castle and fights evil.

Although Hermione Granger is a plain girl, she has a fiery intellect and always stands up for her friends and those in need of protection. Some of her fellow-students consider her inferior and call her a mudblood because she was not born in a wizards' family. Their prejudice against her is based on social class; while she does not belong to their group due to her non-magical origin, she still surpasses them all thanks to her intelligence and humane qualities, also as a witch.

Ronald Weasley is not intelligent, handsome, or particularly courageous. Yet he has a great sense of friendship and of family. Because of this he has to face up to many of his fears, which in the end makes him a real war hero as well as Hermione's loving husband.

The plot, in Jane Eyre as in Harry Potter, follows their heroine's and hero's development from their unhappy childhood to their happy marriage and parenthood throughout  a succession of tests, sacrifices and losses.

Even the settings of both works share something in common: under the external appearances of respectable family homes, Gateshead for Jane as Privet Drive for Harry are places of torment. Thornfield as well as Hogwart, where they find each a real home, have their hidden secrets, and are finally destroyed, the one by a mad woman and the other by a mad wizard and his followers.
What appeals to us in both works, I feel, is their combination of very ordinary characters whom we easily identify with, with a great and eventful plot. We sympathize with these poor and abused children, support them in their revolt, feel excited when a hopeful change comes their way, and share their concern in front of omens of danger or loss. We cannot but respond to both narratives' evocation of the deepest dimensions of life, to supernatural mystery as to true love romance.

We are looking for heroes who in their own, modest and honest way find their way out of difficult circumstances, and who – though lacking favour, power and support, come out victorious thanks to their inner force of character, courage and intelligence.

The narratives of Jane Eyre and Harry Potter are demonstrations that hard work, courage, honesty, friendship and love can overcome every obstacle. These are inspiring role models and wouldn't that be what we seek in or expect from literature?  No impossible ideals of beauty and accomplishment, but examples of ordinary yet heroic characters in their patient and enduring progress to happiness.
Justine Gauthier

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Back on the Brontë trail in Ireland!

The 2015 annual holiday was spent as usual in our  beloved holiday spot:  Ireland. Of course, being an Ireland fanatic and a Brontë fan, it is no wonder that especially the “ Irish connection” of the Brontë story is an attraction to me.

After having visited Banagher in 2013 (where Arthur Bell Nicholls grew up and spent the last years of his life) and the Northern Irish homeland in 2014 (Rev. Patrick Brontë’s roots), we were once more on the Brontë trail, this time in the Connemara.

Ever since I read the books on the life of Arthur Bell Nicholls two years ago, I have become fascinated by this man who played such a significant role in Charlotte Brontë’s life. Over the years, without even realizing it, my husband and I visited the places in Ireland related to the Brontës, in particular the places Charlotte and Arthur visited on their honeymoon.

When reading the story about Arthur Bell Nicholls’ life I discovered where he came from and where he spent his life after returning to Ireland. I came across a few other places that needed further investigation. One of them was Kill House near Clifden in the Connemara. This is the house where Arthur’s cousin, Harriette Bell lived with her husband and six of their seven children. Harriette was
the cousin Arthur proposed to in 1851 and who declined his proposal.

My husband and I became intrigued with this house. We had been looking at the internet and found a vague location near the Sky road (Clifden). We knew the area quite well and have been driving around on the Sky road peninsula many times, but we could not figure out where the house would be situated.

This year, armed with a google map (very vague) and an old picture of the house, we went back to the Sky Road peninsula to have a better look. We were driving very slowly so as to have a good look at all the “big” houses we passed . We took all possible byways and turned corners on very narrow roads. Driving a van on those narrow Irish roads is not an easy thing to do, believe me!

Friday 24 July 2015

Dutch branch of the Brussels Brontë Group meeting in Dordrecht

On Sunday July 12th 2015 the Dutch branch of the Brussels Brontë Group had a meeting in Dordrecht, in the seventeenth century one of the most important cities of the fledgling Dutch Republic of the United Netherlands, and still a fine place to visit when you are interested in art and history.

We Dutch Brontë-fans are a small branch, but most of us have been life-members of the Brontë Society for years and years, so you can say we are die-hards. We spent part of our meeting in Villa Augustus remembering nice trips and good talks on the Brontës.  Jones Hayden, who had joined us from the Brussels Brontë Group, could pick up some history here.

Villa Augustus is a restaurant, hotel and garden  at the site and in the buildings of the former water-purification-plant of Dordrecht and most of the surrounding province. Don’t worry, drinking water is still purified in Holland, but on another site with more modern equipment.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the Dordrecht Museum at the exhibition ‘Holland op z’n mooist’ (Holland at its best). There were paintings of Dutch painters like Jozef Israëls and Willem Roelofs, and later Weissenbruch,  who were influenced by the Romantic period, specially by the School of Barbizon in France.  They were very modern in painting outside, not in studios. I like to think that the Brontë’s would have enjoyed that.

Well. we did enjoy our meeting and hope the ones that couldn’t make it this time will join in next time.

Marcia Zaaijer

Saturday 27 June 2015

The re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo

Saturday the 20th of June 2015 was a particularly memorable day. Starting at 10.00 a.m. we were treated to a superbly enthusiastic talk by Emma Butcher on the Bronte heroes, Wellington and Napoleon and the Juvenilia which to my discredit I knew little or nothing about. The talk was followed by a relaxing lunch where people mingled and set the tone for the subsequent coach journey to Waterloo. As we stepped into the coach a parade of French militia drummed its way behind us for a few minutes before the coach moved off, whetting our appetites for the afternoon.

We were blessed with a gorgeous day and our party walked up to the village where we split up. I spent the afternoon with Joanna and we trekked the considerable distance to the French Bivouac.
Because of the great distances choices had to be made so the Allied Bivouac had to be missed. I have to admit a great deal of our enthusiasm was actually looking for loos which were pretty nonexistent unless actually on the site.

The French Bivouacs 
The Allied Bivouacs
The Allied Bivouacs

Brontë proposal

On Sunday morning the UK Brontë Society group were not too exhausted by the long afternoon at Waterloo the previous day to enjoy a guided walk by Jones Hayden around the site of the Pensionnat Heger and other places known to Charlotte and Emily around Place Royale.

The group was joined by a couple for whom our Brontë tour was part of rather a special weekend, Guy and Evy from Menen near Ypres. Guy is head of the Menen tourist office, Evy a researcher at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917. Guy had planned a romantic break for the two of them in Brussels which he called a ‘proposal weekend’; he was going to ask Evy to marry him, and knowing her interest in the Brontës, he booked our tour as part of the programme he had put together to impress her.

Evy writes:

‘The proposal weekend and the Brontë walk was a surprise organised by Guy, I just knew when to pack my bags, destination unknown.

‘I have always been interested in 19th century English literature, especially the Brontës, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, etc. - how these authors stood up for themselves in a male-dominated society and pursued their passion for writing. And of course the love stories with sometimes unrequited love.

‘What I particularly enjoyed about the walk was finding out more about Charlotte’s and Emily's stay in Brussels. I was surprised that they had been near places I once just passed without knowing the Brontës walked there once and without noticing the memorial plaque where the Pensionnat Heger once was. It changed my view of that part of Brussels. I knew they had stayed in Brussels for a while to teach and that Charlotte returned to Haworth after her love was unanswered. But I wasn't aware of all the details of their stay and the exact places that are connected to the Brontës. About five years ago, I visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth and I am still very impressed by the visit and the journey to Haworth and Yorkshire.’

Both agree that they will always remember the tour as a wonderful part of a wonderful weekend. They have joined the Brussels Brontë Group and we look forward to seeing them back here soon. (Evy said ‘Yes’, by the way.)

Brontë weekend with the Brontë Society and Waterloo bicentenary

A quite unusual Brussels Brontë Group event took place on Saturday 20 June. Due to the bi-centenary of the Battle of Waterloo, which was fought on 18 June 1815, we had the pleasure to welcome a group from the Brontë Society. Since Wellington and Napoleon were early heroes of the Brontës, the Society decided to take this opportunity to organise a visit to Brussels and meet our group. They kindly invited us for a lecture on Saturday morning.

The lecture on The Brontës’ Early Heroes was held by Emma Butcher. Emma is still a student, and already a very accomplished and wonderful speaker. Since Emma is writing her thesis on The Brontës and War, she has done a lot of research into this particular interest of theirs. Apart from some background information on both Napoleon and Wellington, we got an interesting ‘guided tour’ through their Juvenilia creation of Anglia, with their dashing characters of Zamorna (based on Wellington) and Percy (based on Napoleon). It is amazing how imaginative they were. Emma also told us that apart from one woman, Elizabeth Hastings, all the women in their Juvenilia writing are rather helpless creatures. They obviously came a long way, when it was time for them to create their own very strong, female characters.

Lisbeth Ekelof

Monday 15 June 2015

Brontë Brussels Past Historians: Joseph Joshua Green.

In July 1842 Dr. Thomas Wheelwright, his wife and five young daughters, arrived in Brussels. The girls studied at the Pensionnat Heger, where Emily Brontë  gave them piano lessons. The girls didn't enjoy these lessons as they took place during their valuable school playtime. At least one of the Wheelwright daughters, Laetitia, disliked Emily a lot, yet on the other hand she was to become a lifelong friend of Charlotte. Another of the daughters, Julia, died sadly in Brussels on the 17 November 1842, apparently from a typhoid fever. The Wheelwrights left in August 1843. The family has always been very cooperative to Brontë historians, from Mrs. Gaskell to Mrs. Chadwick onwards.

An important article about the Wheelwright family, named 'The Brontë-Wheelwright friendship', was written by Joseph Joshua Green. It was published in 1916 in the somewhat obscure Friends' Quarterly Examiner (in two instalments). Thus very few people have actually read the article, while only small parts have been quoted in most biographies. Thanks to internet we can now present it to you. Click here to access the article (it has to be opened page by page). 

Joseph Green was a genealogist from Stansted Mountfichet, Essex. Many titles of publications of his can be found on internet. He was born in 1854, into a Quaker family. He inherited his father's shop but was happy to give that up in 1891 to devote himself to History, citing health problems. He died in 1921 in Hastings. Green was married to a daughter of Laetitia's sister Emily.

His article begins with some interesting genealogical details. He then describes the Brontë- Wheelwright friendship and the mementoes of it which remained in his family's possession at the time of writing. It makes fascinating reading. Even though he reports how valuable Brussels material was thrown into the fire and destroyed (pp.119 and 237), there are tantalising visions of what might still exist, and which did exist when the article was written. There are "two large albums with mementoes of their travels, both in Germany and Belgium"(p.121), and also "a large coloured plan of the Protestant Burial Ground at Brussels showing the place of her [Julia's] interment" (p.221). Green also mentions the possession of "a tiny bouquet of dried flowers from the pensionnat garden" (p.226).

It seems most of the Wheelwright papers ended up in the United States. Such was the fate of many British literary documents coming up for auction between 1918 and 1930. British literature suffered an unfortunate loss of much of its heritage during this decade. Nearly all letters from Charlotte to the Wheelwrights are also to be found now in US collections. And nobody knows whatever may have happened to the tiny bouquet of flowers from Heger's garden. 

Green wrote his article in the middle of the First World War, a few years after Frances, the last of the Wheelwright sisters had died. This year 1916 more or less saw the end of an important period of Brussels Brontë research, and the beginning of a very long barren period, with only the exception of Edgar de Knevett's 1923 article. 
The Wheelwrights were living in Hotel Cluysenaar, which later became Hotel Astoria. A new article about the history of this Hotel follows below.

At the same time one can now find on the research website page of the BBG a new A to Z of all the articles related to places and friends connected with the Brussels of the Brontës, published on the blog since 2007. It’s great that the BBG, now founded almost 10 years ago, has also resulted in a big leap forward in our knowledge of Charlotte’s and Emily’s stay there.  

Eric Ruijssenaars & Brian Bracken

Friday 12 June 2015

The Hotel Cluysenaar

The Hotel Cluysenaar, on Rue Royale, which later became the Astoria Hotel, is more than likely the original model for the Hotel Crécy in Villette. This is how Charlotte describes it (Vashti chapter): “It was an hotel in the foreign sense: a collection of dwelling-houses, not an inn - a vast, lofty pile, with a huge arch to its street-door, leading through a vaulted covered way, into a square all built round”.

Hotel Cluysenaar, ca. 1840
The hotel was built in 1838 by the architect J.P.Cluysenaar (1811-1880) born in Kampen in the Netherlands. Other well known works in Brussels by Cluysenaar include the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the Conservatoire Royal (the new one built in the 1870s) and the kiosk in the Parc Royal, the latter also being mentioned by Charlotte in Villette (chap.38). Cluysenaar not only built the hotel but also owned it; financial troubles, however, forced him to put it up for sale in 1843.

In its early days, the Hotel Cluysenaar was a much-publicised residence, attracting a wealthy and mainly foreign clientele. As Charlotte suggests, it was indeed more a set of well-furnished apartments than a hotel. A precise description of the hotel as Charlotte would have known it is found in the l'Observateur belge (15 September 1843). Here we learn that the ground floor consisted of five shops, three apartments, a courtyard and five stables. Six imposing staircases led to an entresol containing five large apartments, and to the three main upper floors, each holding ten apartments.

Monday 1 June 2015

Mary Taylor in Wellington, a report from New Zealand

Over the years I have been doing historical research for people all over the world, a few of whom became friends. Sharon van Deursen from Wellington, New Zealand, is one of them. I have known her since 2002. Wellington is of course the place where Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s friend, emigrated to shortly after her time in Brussels in 1842.

Wellington, as far away as possible from here. It has always intrigued and impressed me that Mary Taylor went there. Sharon’s parents emigrated to New Zealand in the 1950s, from Holland. She has always loved the Brontës’ novels, her favorite is Wuthering Heights.

Recently I asked Sharon to make a picture of the place of Mary Taylor’s house as it looks today.  The original house, or rather two houses of course – the place where she lived and her shop – were demolished long ago. She came up with a full report, having also gone to the Wellington Archive, and having made a nice little Mary Taylor discovery.

Sharon also mentions there is a new campaign for Mary Taylor to get a plaque in Wellington, after a previous attempt failed. Let us hope it will be successful this time, as Mary Taylor certainly deserves that.

Eric Ruijssenaars

The Kiwi Connection 

When Eric, asked me to write a bit about Miss Mary Taylor (dear friend of Miss Charlotte Brontë) for his Blog, I said OK. 
Easy I thought....
Hmmm where do I start? Google!
I love Google, Google is my friend.

They say that New Zealand is really lucky to have a visual history, because the camera had been invented, apparently everyone had one and everyone was taking photos, unwittingly taking photos not only of great Auntie Grace and the family, (where no one smiled!) but of the house, streets, buildings, popular landmarks and of course panoramic views, thus creating the above said visual history.

Now I am here to dispute this, because in doing quite a bit of research on Miss Mary Taylor, I could find nothing, that was nothing, on the women to prove that she had actually lived and worked in New Zealand for 15 years...

Brief Background...care of said Google.
 Mary Taylor was born in Yorkshire, England on the 26th of February 1817. She met Charlotte Brontë and another girl named Ellen Nussey at school in 1831, when they were just 14 years old and the 3 became close friends.
 But in 1840 Mary's father died leaving debts which split the family up. 
It was then Mary decided to emigrate to New Zealand, (after a stint in Brussels) to see her younger brother, William Waring Taylor who had emigrated here to Wellington in April, 1842. By 1843, he was running a general business and importing agency, living in and trading from his wooden colonial house on Herbert Street, Te Aro, a thriving commercial hub fairly near the water front.
 Remember the Wellington Settlement was only 5 years old at this time.
Now it has been the capital city of New Zealand since 1865.

Monday 4 May 2015

Brontë weekend talks on 25 April with Claire Harman and Bonnie Greer

Claire Harman

Claire Harman, whose biography of Charlotte Brontë is due to be published in October, was our first
speaker at our Brontë weekend this year. Her talk on Saturday, April 25, was very special for the Brussels Brontë Group because Claire focused on the wrenching letters that Charlotte sent to her teacher, M. Heger, after she left Brussels and the importance of her Belgian experience in her life and art.

The feelings of unrequited affection and desperate anguish that Charlotte shows in these letters coloured all of her subsequent writing after she went back to Haworth at the start of 1844, Claire said. The four letters are now at the British Library in London, where they have been since being donated by the Heger family in 1913.

Claire, the author of several biographies including one of Robert Louis Stevenson, also provided interesting insights into the biographer's craft. She has also written Jane's Fame on the legacy of Jane Austen, in the vein of Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth. In writing her forthcoming book on Charlotte Brontë, Claire said she refrained from reading other biographies of the writer, though she heavily consulted Juliet Barker's The Brontës as a reference, saying she wanted her biography to contain her ``own very personal take'' on the letters and other material, such as the devoirs written in Brussels.

Friday 17 April 2015

Path to the Silent Country by Lynne Reid Banks

I recently read and reviewed Dark Quartet: The Story of the Brontës , which is the first of the two
books Lynne Reid Banks has written about the Brontë family. The first book covers all of the siblings and ends when all of them, except, Charlotte are dead. This second book is about Charlotte and how she is coping on her own.

It is historical fiction, but as with the first book, the characters are very well depicted, and, as far as I can tell, Lynne Reid Banks follow well the history of the family, as we know it. Charlotte, who has been used to have her siblings around her, and, mind you, for most of her life they have been the only social contact she had, feels the solitude heavy on her shoulders. However, there are highlights. Her fame, and that of her sisters, are rising and she is now much sought after.

Her publisher Mr Smith, of which she has a crush, although she is quite aware that nothing can come out of it, is trying to include her in his social circles when she is in London. She meets her favourite author Thackeray, although his behaviour is not to her approval and that puts her off. She manages, although it seems to be very difficult, to somehow enjoy herself while in London.

Her fame also put her in contact with other female writers like Elizabeth Gaskell (who were to write the first biography of Charlotte) and Harriet Martineau (considered as one of the first female sociologists) and whom Charlotte admired. At least until she gave an unfavourable opinion on one of her books!

Lynne Reid Banks manages to visualise the rather depressing character of Charlotte, as well has her father Patrick. It can not have been a happy house to live in during those years. Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate, is deeply in love with Charlotte. His first marriage proposal is refused, we can imagine, probably more because the father does not like him, than Charlotte’s own feelings. He has to leave for another parish but keeps a correspondence with Charlotte. In the end it pays out and they marry.

Top Withens, Haworth

This seems to have been the most happy time of Charlotte’s life. They visit his family in Ireland and are well received. Charlotte becomes pregnant which makes her very happy. Alas, happiness does not seem to be for her and her family and she dies before the child is born.

This books is a must if you are into the Brontë family. Historical fiction (I know not all love this kind of freedom with the lives of famous people), but I really love it. Especially when it is so well written and with a lot of respect to the real persons and their stories as in Lynne Reid Banks version. She makes these remarkable people come alive.

Thank you to Endeavour Press for the review copy. The views put forward are my own, personal ones.

Monday 30 March 2015

Rue Ducale 13 – the house where Zoë Parent died

Late in the evening of 9 January 1890, Claire Zoë Parent (b.1804) passed away at Rue Ducale 13, suffering from double pneumonia. In the Brussels Brontë story, she holds a prominent role of course, as directrice of the Rue d'Isabelle pensionnat which Charlotte and Emily attended in 1842–43, and as part model for the characters of Madame Beck (Villette) and Zoraïde Reuter (The Professor) in Charlotte's novels. Much has been written about her in Brontë-related literature, yet the story of the house where she lived out her final days has never been told. It is a story which offers some interesting details.

Rue Ducale is one of the more attractive streets in today's Brussels. Beginning at the Place du Trône near the Royal Palace, it runs along the east side of the Royal Park, past the Belgian Parliament buildings, to end at the Rue de Louvain. It is one of the main axes of the neo-classical Quartier Royal, built in the late 18th century. Fortunately the street has been spared unsightly reconstruction projects over the years, and retains much of its original, harmonious architecture. It lies but a short distance away from where the Rue d'Isabelle and the Parent-Heger Pensionnat once stood. The street has many literary connections. In 1816, Lord Byron stayed briefly at Rue Ducale 51, where he is said to have composed several stanzas of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Brussels Brontë weekend, 25-26 April, 2015

The time has come for our annual Brontë spring weekend, which will take place on 25-26 April.
Please find here the program.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Room P61, Université Saint-Louis, Rue du Marais 119, 1000 Brussels
Entrance charge: €10 (members €5)

14.00: We have two guest speakers this year.

Claire Harman will be talking about her new biography of Charlotte Brontë to be published in 2016, the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth. Claire is the author of various literary biographies and of the highly-acclaimed Jane’s Fame on the legacy of Jane Austen.

We will also be joined by Bonnie Greer, President of the Brontë Society, writer and well-known TV personality, who will talk to the group.

Do join us for what promises to be a very interesting event.

Sunday 26 April 2015

10.00: Guided walk around Brontë places (Place Royale area). Duration: about 2 hours. Charge: €7.

Please register by sending an e-mail to Helen MacEwen (helen.macewan@ec.europa.eu).