Thursday 8 February 2018

The Brontë Brussels calendar, or daily life in Brussels in 1842 and 1843: A first introduction

Charlotte Brontë clearly liked living in Brussels. Had there not been this somewhat problematic relationship with M. and Mme. Heger she would certainly have stayed longer. Brussels was fairly small for a capital city, but it had a “cosmopolitan character,” as she says in The Professor. The best artists visited the city for performances, there were very interesting museums, exhibitions, concerts (the sisters may have seen Berlioz and Liszt), theatre plays, flower shows, many bookshops.

In 2017 the Belgian Royal Library has digitized newspapers of 1842 and 1843, which give a very good idea about life in these years in general, and life in Brussels in particular. It seems rather likely that Charlotte read one or two of these newspapers that were published. It does at any rate seem certain that the Hegers were subscribed to one or two, possibly indeed those two from Brussels that have been digitized.

Lucy Snowe came to Madame “once when she was sitting in the sun in the garden, a cup of coffee at her elbow and the Gazette in her hand, looking very comfortable.” That is surely based on real life. It’s quite unthinkable that the Hegers did not read newspapers. They were the main source of news in these days, it should be remembered. It’s possible they even had the morning edition of one newspaper, and the afternoon edition of another. It also seems more than likely that Charlotte and Emily were allowed to read the newspapers too at the Pensionnat.

The sisters would have been interested in following the news, from Britain especially, but reading the papers will of course also have been a great stimulus in learning French. Besides, many, if not all of the names appearing in the two Brussels novels Charlotte could have taken from the newspapers.

The newspapers also shed much light on diverse thematic aspects, like crime in the city. information about particular streets such as the Rue d’Isabelle and nearby streets, street lighting, bookshops, the music of these years, Belgium and its liberal newspapers policy, time etc. Later on these will also be turned into articles. It should all contribute even more to our knowledge of the Brussels of the Brontës. Villette and The Professor also offer quite a lot of insight about the aspect of daily life. On the internet they can be thoroughly researched for keywords.

It seems obvious that back in Yorkshire Charlotte missed Brussels very much, the city where she had had an income too! Now she was back in Haworth, where nothing happened. It will have been quite easy to get depressed about missing Brussels. It seems well possible that to some extent her love for Heger has been confused with her love for the city. One can after all easily fall in love with a city too, perhaps especially in a foreign country.

The weather
Another important factor about daily life then, and now, is of course the weather. It is unfortunately a neglected factor in history, as it much affects daily life. We are therefore very pleased to present to you, in the upcoming calendar, the weather info for each day.

It is very nice that we now have very detailed weather data for 1842 and 1843, thanks to the Royal Observatory. It published its weather recordings in the Annales de l’Observatoire Royal de Bruxelles, and they have been so kind to send us this information. With it the weather for each day (and hour almost) can be reconstructed – the temperature, if it was dry or raining (or snowing), clouded or not, the wind direction.

The main thing missing is perhaps the force of the wind, but that doesn’t really matter. Brussels in general has little wind. It can at times get unpleasantly warm in the city, as it certainly did for quite a while in 1842. The weather in Brussels was usually considerably more pleasant than in Yorkshire. Warmer, less wind, less rain.

In a next introduction more will be told about the news, the papers and Belgium in 1842. And separately the accompanying project of mapping the Brussels of the Brontës will begin. With an 1841 map as the basis all relevant places can be shown (which can also be used to recreate the walks to the sister’s friends for instance).

This is a long-term project. It should finish in January 2020, when, month by month, we will have reached 1 January 1844, the last day of Charlotte’s stay in Brussels.

Eric Ruijssenaars

(Advisory board: Brian Bracken)

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