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.

As a historian who teaches history in her day job, Nathalie Stalmans is well equipped to fill in the Brussels background. Two of her previous novels, Finis Terrae and Le vent du boulet, set in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, blend real and imaginary elements to create stories around the inhabitants of a real house in Rue Neuve (still standing, at No 43) at different epochs in its history. Both books are rich in references to historical events and everyday life in the periods concerned. For the theme of her latest novel, Stalmans was looking for a 19th century drama set in her native Brussels. Happily for Brontë enthusiasts in the Brussels Brontë Group and elsewhere, she hit on the Pensionnat Heger as her setting and Charlotte Brontë’s passage through it as her drama.

Her story opens in 1856, a year after Charlotte Brontë’s death and a few weeks before Elizabeth Gaskell’s visit to the Pensionnat to gather information for her Life of Charlotte Brontë. The visitor’s arrival is awaited with mixed feelings – eagerness by some, apprehension and even dread by others. In a house in which the servants know everything that’s going on, the talk both upstairs and downstairs is of the Brontës and of what Mrs Gaskell will want to know. Who will she wish to question? As the date of her visit approaches, some in the household become increasingly unsettled as old memories and emotions are revived. It’s clear that Charlotte was both loved and loathed and that she continues to haunt the school more than ten years after leaving it; indeed, the servant Manke Née (‘Eugénie La Boiteuse’ in French), one of the main narrators, at times finds herself literally haunted – by Charlotte’s ghost.

Nathalie Stalmans has found an ingenious and effective means of structuring her narration. Charlotte’s Brussels experience is told in flashback by several different narrators, both real and imaginary inmates of the Pensionnat. We hear the voices of Constantin and Zoé Heger; of a teacher and former pupil at the school who was taught by Charlotte; of the lame servant narrator Manke Née, who knows more about Charlotte’s inner drama than anyone imagines. Even little Julia Wheelwright, a pupil at the school who died in Brussels aged seven, has her say.

As a historian, Stalmans has done her Brontë research thoroughly. As a novelist, as is to be expected, she uses some licence in her re-creation and interpretation of events, drawing on imagination to fill in gaps in our knowledge. Charlotte, for example, gets to visit the Waterloo battlefield – and why not, after all? It is true that we have no evidence that Charlotte, following in her father’s footsteps, rushed off to Waterloo to view the scene of her hero Wellington’s victory – but on the other hand, nor is there irrefutable evidence she didn’t. That she should have travelled so far, been so close to Waterloo and not found some means of making the trip there has always been a puzzle.

Author Nathalie Stalmans
Most importantly, Stalmans uses insight and empathy to get inside the minds and hearts of all the protagonists of the emotional drama played out. Her account is a moving one, set against a teeming city that comes to life under the pen of a historical novelist who, like the novel’s Belgian protagonists, is herself a Bruxelloise.

The book’s title is a citation from a letter in which Charlotte, shortly before her Brussels trip, wrote of her ‘wish for wings’ to escape the narrowness of her lot as a teacher. It was the strength of this desire that carried her to Brussels, against initial resistance by her family. Si j’avais des ailes is an intriguing and enjoyable take on that Brussels adventure by an inhabitant of 'Villette'.

Helen MacEwan

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