Sunday 30 January 2022

In memoriam: Freddy Thielemans, former Brussels mayor and his encounters with the Brussels Brontë Group

I was sad to learn that Freddy Thielemans, mayor of Brussels from 1994-95 and 2001-2013, died yesterday at the age of 77.

I met Freddy Thielemans on two occasions in connection with the Brussels Brontë Group.

The first was in April 2008, not long after the group was first formed. The Bibliothèque des Riches Claires organised a day of talks on ‘Les Soeurs Brontë à Bruxelles’ for which we found some of the speakers. Selina Busch, a founder member of our group, wrote a report for our blog in which she said:

‘To our surprise the mayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans, was present and opened the conference day, with lively banter, switching easily and naturally from English to Dutch to French. Incredible! That’s Brussels for you!’

The Mayor told me his excellent English had been partly acquired on visits to stay with relatives in London in his young days.

Freddy Thielemans at 2008 Brontë talks.

The second time I met him was in 2012 at the Town Hall, when I went to see him with the writer Jolien Janzing to discuss various ways of celebrating the Brontës in Brussels. Jolien’s novel De Meester inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s time in Brussels was due to come out in 2013 and we wanted to use this opportunity to organise several events.

There was a project for an exhibition of Brontë manuscripts in the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits, which unfortunately came to nothing when the museum owner was investigated for alleged fraud and the museum had to close!

An even more ambitious idea of our group’s was a statue of Charlotte and Emily Brontë in Brussels. The Mayor suggested the sculptor Tom Frantzen, who loved the idea and went so far as to make a maquette for a sculpture. He and his maquette accompanied us to the office of the urban arts councillor to propose the project but it was not realised, due in part to the difficulty of raising enough funds. As far as I know the beautiful maquette is still in Tom Frantzen’s workshop, so perhaps one day …

To return to the visit to the Mayor in 2012. He was charming and jocular, with a twinkle in his eye. When we spoke about the Brontës, he asked Jolien and me which of the two of us was Charlotte and which Emily. He offered Jolien the Town Hall’s wonderful Gothic room for her book presentation, which was held there in May the following year – an occasion that was also used for Tom Frantzen to present his maquette.

One of the pleasures of the visit to Freddy Thielemans was the opportunity to see the inside of the Town Hall. We waited to see him in a splendid ante-room before being ushered into his even more splendid office, the walls covered with old paintings of Brussels. After our meeting with him, his assistant took us to see the Gothic Room.

Lovely memories – but the best one of all is of the Mayor’s genial personality.

Helen MacEwan 

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