Wednesday 27 April 2016

“Solitude in the midst of numbers” –on loneliness in Brussels

Among the obscure, plain heroines created by Charlotte Brontë, none is as autobiographical as Lucy Snowe of Villette, and none is as utterly lonely. Reserved and secretive, she deliberately keeps her distance both as a narrator and character in her own story, as if she wanted to prevent anyone getting a glimpse of her true feelings. Much like Charlotte during her second stay in Brussels, she is a solitary figure in Mme Beck’s pensionnat, rejecting the company of teachers and pupils, but at the same time longing for true friendship, one that provides a sense of safety and belonging. Both Lucy and Charlotte would be eventually overpowered by the loneliness in Villette / Brussels, but what makes their common story so extraordinary is that they would not let it destroy them completely: they would reclaim their lives and turn their time in the city into something fruitful.

Charlotte’s real-life relationship with loneliness seems ambiguous at best. As a young teacher at the Roe Head school, she would deliberately drift off into a solitary state, closing her eyes on the reality crowded with pupils, and step over to an imaginary world. She wrote most of Jane Eyre in isolation, too, overseeing her father’s recovery from surgery in half-darkness. In those instances, calm and solitude would usher in creativity. But there is also a different, hostile kind of loneliness resulting from a painful conviction of being different and misunderstood. The worst kind of loneliness, possibly, which cannot be remedied in company, but could even be exacerbated if the people present are of the alien kind. For the most part of her life, Charlotte would complain about not being like others, referring to the passionate storms tearing at her soul and thunderous ambition pushing her beyond the prescribed domestic existence. This forcible alienation and lack of understanding  were difficult in themselves, but also carried another threat, possibly the most feared by Charlotte – monotony and inaction, characteristic of the passive life of old maids in her novels. This dichotomy of solitudes is expressed in the first letter to Monsieur Héger from Haworth. In the relative seclusion of the Parsonage, she writes, “one’s brain is always active – one longs to be busy”, which is why she draws up plans for setting up the Brontë school for young ladies and envisages writing a great novel to impress her Master. But later in the same letter, she confesses that she “fear[s] nothing so much as idleness – lack of employment – inertia – lethargy of the faculties – when the body is idle, the spirit suffers cruelly” (Selected Letters 51).

Sunday 24 April 2016

An evening with Charlotte Brontë

Our Brontë day on Saturday 16 April was rounded off by an evening of readings from Charlotte Brontë’s novels and letters in the Auderghem Cultural Centre. The readers were members of the Brussels Shakespeare Society, directed by Tracie Ryan, who also chose the readings and wrote the account of Charlotte’s life narrated in the first person by Deborah Griffiths. The readings were given by Charles White, Miranda Ryan White, Kendra Doherty, Jonathan Sawdon, Robynn Colwell and Graham Andrews. We heard from Mr Brocklehurst, the young Jane Eyre and her friend Helen Burns. There was plenty of emphasis on Charlotte’s stay in Brussels, with extracts from Villette and Charlotte’s letters home from the Pensionnat. We heard some of the comments written by Constantin Heger on Charlotte’s devoirs, and were introduced to his alter ego in Villette, M. Paul.

Deborah Griffiths as Charlotte

Miranda Ryan White as Jane Eyre, Kendra Doherty as Helen Burns
and Deborah Griffiths as Charlotte.

Jane Eyre and Helen Burns.

Jonathan Sawdon, Graham Andrews and Robynn Colwell

Graham Andrews

Monday 18 April 2016

Juliet Barker in Brussels for the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary: 16 April 2016

Juliet Barker’s eagerly-awaited talk in Brussels, over our weekend of events to celebrate the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary, took place against the backdrop of travel disruption following the attacks of 22 March. With flights cancelled or deviated, the weeks leading up to 16 April were anxious ones and the news of a Belgian air traffic controllers’ strike shortly before she was due to fly seemed the last straw. But she made it to beleaguered Brussels Airport, all the way from her home in North Yorkshire.

The main focus of her talk was The things Gaskell left out of her Life of Charlotte Brontë. Over dinner the evening before the talk, Juliet expressed admiration for Mrs Gaskell as a novelist, but her talk made it clear that she has a few bones to pick with Gaskell the biographer. In Barker’s view, the problem with Gaskell’s Life is that it is a fiction rather than a truthful biography.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

To my sister - a poem

To prepare for the bicentenary of Charlotte's birth, we asked members whether they would like to contribute to the blog during this special period.  We are pleased to present one of our Dutch members, Louise van Proosdij, who is also a member of the Brontë society. Her contribution is a poem named To my sister. It  is not only creative but reflects the form that, some argue, came most naturally to the Brontes: poetry.

To my sister

Jane and I have always been together.
She guided me during my whole life.
Her strong and independent character
was a great help for me, in times of stormy weather.

I thank this to her mother Charlotte,
who was so gifted and so strong.
Her spirit is still there in Haworth.
I felt it of them all, they came along:

I saw her father, mother and her brother.
They were still young, holding each other's hand.
And all the girls, looking very cheerful,
dancing with each other in that lovely land.

Of course I also know the tragedy.
The crows who live there cried out in my ear :
“They all suffered cruely, died very young.
We know it's hurting you to hear”.

 Once I walked along the graveyard very late and woke up the crows who were asleep.
The eldest said to me : “Always remember this fantastic family “.
The youngest whispered : “Look well after what they have left us “.
 “ I will “.

Louise van Proosdij

Saturday 9 April 2016

France as Other: Charlotte Bronte’s Divided Response to Francophone Culture

Throughout Charlotte Bronte’s life and works, France and the French language and culture occupied a prominent place in her mental landscape.  It is, however, a conflicted place.  On the one hand, she almost revered the French language, seeing it not only as an employment asset and hence a route out of provincial stagnation, but also as a sign of personal cultivation.  On the other hand, France was home to at least three social phenomena which are demonised in her work: the Catholic Church, a lax attitude to sexuality, and a pettifogging system of domestic surveillance.  Charlotte’s image of France was thus constructed as ‘other’ to English culture in two opposite senses: as the object of desire and as the locus of fear and loathing.  A refinement of this effect is that the desirable qualities tend to be associated with men, while the disgust and hatred are centred on women.

This statement is a generalisation, but it is drawn from well-known aspects of Charlotte’s life and works.  It was almost certainly Charlotte who devised the plan to go to Brussels with Emily to perfect their French and German and it was her energy and determination that carried it through.  After her stay in Brussels, Charlotte is particularly pleased to receive books in French from her friend William Smith Williams, and for a while tells him that she learns by heart a passage in French every day.  In Jane Eyre, Charlotte represents Jane as feeling quiet satisfaction in her ability to reply to her French pupil, Adèle, in her own language; it is a sign that she is in touch with ‘culture’ in its larger sense. The Yorke family in Shirley (based on the family of Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor) are admired for their easy familiarity with French culture, which stands as a sign of larger travels, and speculative, interesting minds ready to debate politics and philosophy.  In Villette, it is M Paul Emanuel who represents the widening of horizons, the stretching of the mind, which Lucy prizes above comfort and security.

Friday 8 April 2016

Charlotte Brontë and the BMI

There is a very funny scene in Charlotte Brontë's novel Villette where Lucy Snowe visits the art museum and confronts a painting titled ``Cleopatra.'' Before she is shuffled off by M. Paul Emanuel to ``a particularly dull corner'' to view a dreary series called ``La vie d'une femme'', Lucy has a good look at the Rubenesque Cleopatra.

This is possibly the painting that Lucy Snow saw!
She does not look that big though!
The lounging woman in the painting looks ``considerably larger ... than the life,'' thinks Lucy, who wonders at her ``breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh.'' Lucy calculates that Cleopatra ``would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone.'' That's about 90-100 kilograms or around 200 pounds!

Charlotte based the description on a real painting (by a now forgotten artist) that she had seen in 1842 in Brussels. Did she realize that she could have used a fairly recent Belgian innovation to help her calculate the Cleopatra's ``affluence of flesh''? Ghent-born Adolphe Quetelet in the 1830s developed an index to classify a person's weight relative to an ideal scale. Called the Quetelet Index, his method is still used today, though it was renamed the Body Mass Index (BMI) in the 1970s.

Thursday 7 April 2016

The Brontës by Juliet Barker

I’ve never done more than one post about a single book (except read-alongs), but I’ll open an exception for this one. It’s not just because it’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever picked up, but I’m half-way through it and it’s fascinating enough to make me want to put some thoughts down. This is compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in the Brontës and don’t be intimidated by its size: it’s one of those books that just floooows.

Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s works. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.

It was especially enlightening to read this after Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. While Gaskell’s clear agenda was to give a sympathetic view of Charlotte and ease the shock the family’s books generated at the time, she did it by making certain sacrifices. Patrick and Branwell for instance, were not portrayed in the best of lights and it was clear Gaskell bent the truth to carry this argument.

The Life is responsible for many Brontë legends, namely “poor Charlotte” (the martyr daughter and saintly sister) and Emily as the romantic and wild free spirit. With The Brontës, Barker set out to defy these and other dogmas by diligently re-visiting all direct and indirect sources and re-accessing every established assumption.

My perception of Charlotte in particular changed from the “picture of perfection” image I had of her. I was spellbound by her struggle between her duty towards her family (a job she didn’t like and was bad) and the ever-present temptation of her imaginary worlds.

The Brontës & Axel the Cat, our temporary guest.
Photo by Andre
I discussed this book with other Brontë fans and some thought Barker was sometimes too set on thoroughness at the expensed of compelling story telling (the opposite of Mrs. Gaskell?). I didn’t feel that way, even though I admit to a few skims here and there. Baker’s very keen on describing several juvenilia characters and after a while it became too difficult to keep up with who killed, (de)crowned or married whom. Certain parts on the religious and political activism that took so much of Patrick’s time could also have used a little trimming, but the fact remains these were central events in the family’s lives.

Other myths Barker busted included the image of Haworth as an isolate, stagnated village, Branwell being an alcoholic from a very early age and Patrick as a severe and distant father. And we’re only talking about the first half of the book!

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Finding Brontë in Brussels: reflections on literary tourism

In March 2014 I visited Brussels to carry out some preliminary research for a project on Charlotte Brontë and Brussels. The work came out of my book research on mobility in the Victorian novel, in which I look at Charlotte Brontë’s writing on travel to Europe in Villette and The Professor. This was coupled with a developing project on literary tourism, and I became interested in how and why “Brontë’s Brussels” as a tourist site has received so little critical attention from scholars, overshadowed as it is by the more famous Brontë location, the Parsonage at Haworth.

My Brussels trip formed the basis for extending and developing these ideas; I wanted to get a sense of how the locations informed the descriptive settings of Villette and The Professor and above all to learn more about how literary tourists, past and present, have forged their relationships to the city’s spaces through these texts.

Just as any self-respecting nineteenth-century tourist would head to Brussels armed with their Baedeker or Murray’s handbook to tour the sites, I set off armed with copies of Eric Ruijssenaars’s Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land: The Pensionnat Heger and other Brontë places in Brussels and Helen MacEwan’s Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontë’s in Brussels, both invaluable guides for touring Brontë’s Brussels locations (1). (I also later took one of the walking tours run by the Brussels Brontë group, a highly enjoyable and very informative experience).

The Belliard Steps
(photo Charlotte Mathieson)

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Charlotte Brontë - the most interesting author you’re not reading

This year you are likely to see lots and lots of posts about Charlotte Brontë appearing in your social media feeds and literary sections of various periodicals. This year especially, as the English-speaking world is celebrating the  bicentenary of her birth with remarkable zeal, including a conveniently published new biography you will see reviewed everywhere. Maybe her name will ring a bell, maybe it won’t, and maybe you will ask yourself why you should even bother reading any of the countless pieces about her. But before you do, reader, I hope you will believe me when I tell you: do not be discouraged by this ubiquity, I can sincerely assure you that for once, this is a writer who deserves all the buzz she is, and will be getting.

Charlotte’s life and work seem to possess endless layers of fascinating and complex topics. I am proclaiming this as a person who thought there could be nothing new to discover about Jane Eyre and was subsequently relieved of this presumptuous opinion. There is so much more to Jane than the first, the second or even the third reading can reveal.  And there is so much more to Charlotte herself than just being the author of that book, and the sister of two other writers. There is so much more to the Brontë family in general than the myth you might have been sold in a press feature or that high school textbook. With every new reading and every new discussion about these names and books I realize that there are still so many things to discover about them all, and that despite the passage of those two hundred years, their twisted, complicated selves are still eerily relevant.

Monday 4 April 2016

Celebrating the bicentenary of Charlotte's birth

In the run up to the events celebrating the bicentenary of Charlotte's birth, we will be publishing a range of blogs written by our members and others to whet your appetite.

There is so much going on on the subject of Charlotte Bronte at the moment, that it is hard to find the time to follow everything but, if you have some time on your hands, here are some brief comments on a few things that I have seen that may be of interest to you.

First, both BBC Radio 4 and French radio have recently aired adaptations of Jane Eyre. Both are good and you can take your pick as to which language you prefer or try them both.

The links are as as follows:



Then, if you would like something else to listen to, BBC Radio 3 recently ran a series of 15 minute episodes called "Yours sincerely, C Bronte" discussing  what some of Charlotte Bronte's letters reveal about her identity. These are all fascinating. In particular, Claire Harman gives two talks: one on Charlotte as a governess and the other about her time in Brussels and the famous letters to M Heger. Another of our past speakers, Lyndall Gordon shares her pleasure in Charlotte's correspondence with the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, to whom Charlotte had sent some of her poems and who deemed it wise to quash her ambition. Charlotte's reply in which she says 'In the evenings, I confess I do think, but I never trouble anyone else with my thoughts' and ends 'I trust I shall nevermore feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should arise, I'll look at Southey's letter, and suppress it' is a tour de force. The five episodes are available here: