“Do you like the truth (between the Brontës and my family)?” asked Monica Kendall in her fascinating, interlinking presentation to the Brussels Brontë Group last Saturday, in which she discussed her journey to discover the connections between her great-great-grandparents Eliza and the Reverend Evan Jenkins, the British chaplain in Brussels from 1825 to 1849, and the Brontë sisters’ stint at the Pensionnat Heger in the Belgian capital.
“Yes” was the resounding answer, if the animated question and answer session after the talk was anything to go by!
Monica was returning to the BBG after seven years of rigorous investigation (see blog post of 26 March 2014), which resulted in her book “Lies and the Brontës – The Quest for the Jenkins Family.” Combining the abilities and insights of a historian, a diligent biographer, and a devoted descendant, Monica put the record straight on a number of Brontë facts relating to her ancestors and skilfully wove new linkages between real historical personalities and “Villette” characters such as John Graham Bretton and Paulina. Monica even had time to check out the history of Brontë modes of transport from Ostend – contrasting the evidence of the factual train journey with the fictional diligence ride – and closed by sharing her insights into why the links between her family and the Brontës had been so long left unexplored.
Such an inspiring and informative talk should make any aspiring Brontë fan think twice: could Frigyes Karinthy’s “Six degrees of separation” idea, that a “friend of a friend” means anyone in the world is only six or fewer social connections away from another, apply to one of your ancestors and the Brontës?
Derek Blyth is a rambler. One of the most accomplished English-speaking cultural writers, journalists and tour guides of Belgium, Derek, who has revealed the hidden secrets of Brussels and its environs for the last three decades, showed the Brussels Brontë Group he certainly hasn’t lost any spring in his step when it comes to literary perambulation!
Derek opened his talk admitting that Helen MacEwan’s recent writings on Brontës in Brussels (in Brussels Times Magazine) almost made him lose his step. But he soon got back into his stride, by presenting yet another hidden literary secret of Belgium: that the house-turned-brothel where Victor Hugo stayed in Waterloo and wrote his famously gloomy poem was currently up for sale!
The circuit of the rich and winding presentation from Derek then went on to show how strangely downbeat Belgium is about honouring its resident writers, and citing how a list of authors including Karl Marx, Eduard Douwes Dekker, Lord Byron, Joseph Conrad and Baudelaire, having passed through Brussels and left their mark on history, were virtually untraceable today in the city, to all but the beady-eyed.
Focusing on the Brontë sisters, whose Belgian meanderings matter most to the BBG, Derek disclosed the less well-known fact that, unlike most other well-known Brussels-bound authors, who were more often than not fleeing debt, poverty or political suppression, Charlotte “longed to go to Brussels.” As all BBG members know, that longing transformed into a romantic episode with a certain Brussels-based professor before she wrote “Villette”, which, Derek, you can be sure the BBG agrees is “The best Brussels novel”!
Not done with that, Derek, revealing himself to be a true BBG pioneer, had also “walked the talk” about his visit to the Brussels archives to find Charlotte and Emily’s entry in the city’s 1842 census, as well as to the British Museum, to see the original cut-and-sewn-back love letters of Charlotte to Monsieur Heger. How striking, he asked, that Brussels has no dedicated site to its own literary legacy.
Coming to a close, with so many Brontë nooks and crannies to visit by physical and mental foot, it became clear that, only by looking, can all that Brussels has to share about the Brontës be found. Material enough for Derek to conclude his able ramble and express his wish that, on the Brontës in Brussels, “There’s a film to be made!”