Thursday 2 July 2020

Brussels square to be named after the Brontë sisters

Since 1979 Charlotte and Emily Brontë have had a plaque on Bozar, the central Brussels arts centre, commemorating their stay there in 1842-43. The building is on the site of the Pensionnat Heger where the sisters perfected their French. Since the creation of our Group in 2006 we have dreamed of a street, statue or museum in Brussels in honour of the Brontës; some of these schemes have even been discussed with the authorities, but until now none of them has materialised.

That is about to change. The municipal council of Koekelberg in the north-west of the city has decided to name a square after the Brontë sisters.

Why Koekelberg? This municipal district is known for its massive twentieth-century Basilica dominating the city’s skyline rather than for any Brontë associations.

However, Brontë fans will know that it was at a finishing school called Château de Koekelberg that Charlotte’s close Yorkshire friends Mary and Martha Taylor were studying during the Brontës’ time at the Pensionnat Heger. The school, more expensive than the Pensionnat Heger and beyond the means of the cash-strapped Brontës, was on a site near today’s Place Eugène Simonis/Eugène Simonisplein (both schools were demolished long ago). The Brontës made the two-and-a-half-mile walk to Koekelberg to visit their friends.

Château de Koekelberg boarding school.

Charlotte rushed over there on 12 October 1842 after hearing that Martha, the younger sister, was seriously ill, only to find she had died during the night. She was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, where Charlotte often visited her grave.

The Brontë sisters are now about to return to Koekelberg for a happier occasion when they give their name to a new square to be created at the end of Rue des Braves/Dapperenstraat, barely 100 metres from the site of the Taylors’ school. The pedestrianised square will house a complex of new cultural and leisure centres currently still under construction, including a library and community centre.

The naming of the ‘Place des Soeurs Brontë/Zusters Brontëplein’ was proposed by the Socialist Robert Delathouwer, a long-standing Koekelberg councillor and former alderman. Mr Delathouwer has long been aware of the Brontës’ link with Brussels and sees this as a perfect opportunity to pay tribute to them in the city Charlotte depicts in her novels The Professor and Villette.

Mr Delathouwer views the sisters as trailblazing feminists as well as internationally renowned novelists, and the name of the new square will form part of the proposed ‘feminisation’ of street names in Koekelberg, with a committee being set up to re-baptise certain streets after notable women. Currently, the only streets and parks in the municipality named after a woman are those, such as the Elisabeth park, that bear the name of the Belgian Queen Elisabeth. The Brontë square will be the first step in this initiative. In Koekelberg, the sisters are thus set to be pioneers in the twenty-first century as they were in the nineteenth.

Helen MacEwan

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