Tuesday 29 October 2019

A Conversation With Belgian Author Nathalie Stalmans

Belgian historical novelist Nathalie Stalmans visited the Brussels Brontë Group on Oct. 12 to talk about her novel Si j’avais des ailes (If I Had Wings). The book, published earlier this year, is a fictional account of Charlotte Brontë’s time in Brussels at the Pensionnat Heger in 1842-43.

 The conversation, led by Helen MacEwan and Myriam Campinaire, was like Nathalie’s novel, a very interesting blend of the past and the present. The lively exchange offered insights not only on Charlotte’s life and experience in Brussels, but also on life in the Belgian capital – all the while playing along the borders of fact and fiction.

Saturday 19 October 2019

‘A little romance’? -- Taking liberties with Brontë biography

Patsy Stoneman, Emeritus Reader in English at the University of Hull and distinguished Brontë scholar, on Oct. 12 gave us a fascinating critical tour of some of the highways and byways of Brontë biography, editions, critical works and biographical fiction. Her lucid and trenchant route-map through this changing, variable terrain was much appreciated.

It was after reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) that Patrick Brontë commented that the author should be permitted “a little romance” – saintly forbearance considering that Mrs. Gaskell had described him as “the strange, half-mad father” – and Dr. Stoneman used this first biography of Charlotte Brontë as a starting point in her discussion of different types of Brontë writers and the difficulties for unwary readers who can so easily be led astray by a blurring of fact and fiction.

We started with writers using known facts as the basis for serious biography, but, as Dr. Stoneman pointed out, even in this apparently limited field there is great variety. Mrs. Gaskell had the inestimable advantages of being a contemporary and knowing her subject personally, but she also had to deal with contemporary mores, her own prejudices and a novelist’s tendency to romantic exaggeration which led her to paint a highly coloured picture of life at Haworth parsonage and to suppress or gloss over anything she thought might be prejudicial to her friend’s reputation.

Thursday 25 April 2019

Boeklezing Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’

Dutch sisters Maartje and Janneke Schut launched a website dedicated to the Brontë sisters (www.brontezusjes.nl) two years ago and started organizing talks on the literary sisters in the Netherlands. The latest talk was an April 13 discussion on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre by Sarah Talbot, who teaches English literature at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

A small contingent from the Brussels Brontë Group took a road-trip to make a Dutch Brontë day of it across the border in Bussum, a town about halfway between Amsterdam and Utrecht. Marcia Zaaijer, a founder member of the Brussels Group who lives in Rotterdam, met us for lunch before the talk – at the appropriately named café Heidezicht (view othe moor)At the talk, the Bronte Zusjes had promised an English treat -- which turned out to be delicious scones and jam with little High-Tea sandwiches.

Sarah Talbot started her Jane Eyre talk at the beginning -- diving into the first two paragraphs of the novel in an interactive discussion. She noted how repetition of ideas creates a mood of oppression right from the outset. Allusions to the weather are bleak: the cold winter wind, chilly afternoons and raw twilight. And phrases like “no possibility” and “no company” and “out of the question” give a feeling of limitation.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

A Belgian Reads the Brontës

Belgian academic Dr. Kristien Hemmerechts remembers a time when she could look out from the university classroom where she was teaching literature and see the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, where Charlotte Brontë made her now-famous 1843 confession that she used in Villette. Dr. Hemmerechts would point out the cathedral to her students and stress the importance of the confession to Charlotte’s final novel; but the students displayed only "a `well so what?’ feeling," she said.

Dr. Kristien Hemmerechts
"We don’t share enough of our cultural heritage," Dr. Hemmerechts concluded, a feeling with which we at the Brussels Brontë Group commiserate, especially when it comes to celebrating the city's connection with the Brontë sisters. Speaking to our group on Saturday, April 6, Dr. Hemmerechts gave a lively talk on what the Brontës have meant to her as a writer, a teacher, a feminist and a Belgian. She touched on all four of Charlotte’s novels in her wide-ranging discussion.

Unlike some Belgians, she is open-minded about Charlotte’s negative descriptions of Belgians in Villette, The Professor and even Shirley. "I love all these passages about Belgium, even the horrible ones," Dr. Hemmerechts said. Noting that "a lot of foreign writers say bad things about Belgium," she added: "You start to think that maybe they have a point."

Having lived in Britain for two years in the 1970s, Dr. Hemmerechts said she could identify with Charlotte feeling like "a displaced person" during her time in Brussels in 1842-43. She also can empathize with Charlotte as a female writer, feeling that some of the same prejudices remain for women starting out on writing careers today. "There are so many things that I recognize and identify with – the way she had to fight to have an interesting life," Dr. Hemmerechts said. "Even in this day and age, your gender matters," she said.

Monday 15 April 2019

Emma Butcher on Heroes in the Brontë Juvenilia

A major feature of the main male characters in the early fantasy stories of Charlotte Brontë and her siblings was a combination of militarism and dysfunctional fatherhood, Dr. Emma Butcher said in a talk to our group on Saturday, April 6: Fathers and Soldiers: (Re)writing Male Heroes in the Brontë Juvenilia.

Dr. Butcher, who specializes in the youthful writings of Charlotte and Branwell Brontë in the context of post-Napoleonic Britain, explained how the children’s make-believe worlds were full of battles and military intrigue and how these stories were the basis for the Brontë sisters’ adult works that we know and love. 

Dr. Emma Butcher
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne all were born after the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, so none of them had any first-hand experience of war. But their father, Patrick Brontë, admired the Duke of Wellington for his military exploits and read war poetry and military journals, which the children also had access to. In her biography of Charlotte, Mrs. Gaskell notes Patrick’s military obsessions. He also had to deal with the threat of social unrest spurred by groups such as the Luddites and the Chartists, and he slept with a loaded gun in case of trouble. "Patrick Bronte was prepared to defend his own," said Dr. Butcher, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leicester.

Sunday 24 February 2019

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights - movie screening

Ola Podstawka and Georgette Cutajar treated our group to a great Brontë day on Feb. 16 with a screening of the 1992 film version of Wuthering Heights -- the one with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche -- followed by a lively discussion. Ola got it started with an excellent overview of all the movie versions of Emily's novel, beginning with a 1920 silent film (now lost) and "the definitive version'' of 1939 with Laurence Olivier, and including French, Japanese and Spanish-language adaptations.

The 1992 movie, directed by Peter Kosminsky, was the film debut for Fiennes, and also features a special guest-star cameo whom Ola and Georgette challenged us to recognize. With yummy popcorn provided, we were off to the moors!

Tuesday 22 January 2019

New novel about the Brontës’ time in Brussels: "Si j’avais des ailes", by Nathalie Stalmans

In recent years there has been no shortage of biographical fiction about Charlotte and Emily Brontë, but we had to wait until 2013 and Jolien Janzing’s De Meester for a novel focusing on their Brussels experience. Now, in Nathalie Stalmans’ Si j’avais des ailes, ‘If I had wings’ (Genèse Édition, released on 18 January 2019), once again we have the opportunity to view the Brontës’ stay in Brussels in 1842-43 through the eyes of an author based in Belgium, this time a francophone Belgian writer.