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.

The constraints on women are starkly portrayed in Charlotte’s books and other nineteenth-century novels, Dr. Hemmerechts said. "Jane Eyre is locked in the house as much as Bertha is," she said. "The same in Austen – the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice are in the house and have to wait for the men to arrive." Dr. Hemmerechts noted how Jean Rhys was horrified at the portrayal of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, prompting her to write a backstory for Rochester’s wife in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. "Rhys identified with Bertha instead of with Jane," she said. "She wanted to liberate Bertha from the novel."

 Edmund Dulac illustration for Shirley
Dr. Hemmerechts said Charlotte devised a "brilliant solution" to the position of women in Shirley, in which Shirley Keeldar on the one hand is extremely feminine, but also has the male prerogative. Charlotte also is "wise in her analysis of gender relations" in The Professor where Frances doesn’t want to give up her career to marry William, telling him: "I should be lingering at home, unemployed and solitary; I should get depressed and sullen, and you would soon tire of me."

Before Captain Keeldar shows up in Shirley, the limitations on women are symbolized by the feminine task of sewing – "one of the first duties of a woman" – and Caroline chafing against the regime of darning imposed by Hortense. Charlotte had experienced a similar "grievous burden" in her time as a governess and was indignant about it, earning herself the charge of having a "difficult temper." As a governess, "Charlotte was supposed to be humble," Dr. Hemmerechts said; "I love her for not being humble."

Dr. Hemmerechts said she appreciates greatly "the sense of anger and indignation that Charlotte puts into her character Jane Eyre" – something that Virginia Woolf comments on negatively in A Room of One’s Own when she compares Jane Eyre with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

  " … that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely."
                      – Virginia Woolf on Charlotte Brontë 

"Woolf says Charlotte Brontë’s work is marked by anger. Probably Woolf felt that anger was not very lady-like," Dr. Hemmerechts said. "But I find the anger in Charlotte’s work fascinating, powerful." She illustrates her point with Jane’s defiant speech to Rochester: "Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!"

Charlotte Brontë was fortunate to encounter another sympathetic and supportive Belgian in 1842 -- Constantine Heger, her influential teacher at the Pensionnat she attended in Brussels. Heger recognized Charlotte's genius and encouraged her.

"I’m proud to be a Belgian because it took a Belgian to see that mind, to nurture that mind," Dr. Hemmerechts said.

What’s more: there is "no evidence of Charlotte sewing at the Pensionnat," she said.

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