The Brontes in Brussels

I love a good excuse to travel. This trip to Belgium came about entirely due to an earlier trip – when I went to Manchester for the Bronte Society conference last year.

One of the speakers at that conference, Helen MacEwan, is the founder of the Brussels Bronte Group, and she had mentioned to me the dates of their upcoming events. Saturday April 1st was a double lecture and Sunday April 2nd was one of their guided walking tours of Brussels. What better excuse to book some flights and a couple of extra days to sightsee?

So after our lovely couple of days in Bruges, I made my way to the Universite Saint-Louis (managing to order my breakfast in French, hooray!) and listened to Helen deliver a lecture on Charlotte’s legacy in Brussels, and what the Belgians thought of it. It was a wonderful, very interesting lecture – Charlotte is not known for her kind remarks about Brussels and, in fact, said some quite nasty things about Belgium and the Belgians. And of course, she was struggling with the agony of unrequited love while staying here – Monsieur Heger, a married man, ran the Pensionnat where Emily and Charlotte were staying and was the object of Charlotte’s affections.

Both Villette and The Professor were heavily inspired by Charlotte’s experiences, and both novels are filled with thinly-veiled autobiographical detail. Charlotte and Emily lived in Brussels between 1842 and 1843. Charlotte was there for longer – Emily was far more homesick, and refused to go back after returning home for Aunt Branwell’s funeral. The girls had originally gone to Belgium to gain a proper education in French and perhaps German in order to open their own school back at Haworth. Helen has written extensively and brilliantly on the sisters’ time in Belgium and I would strongly recommend her book The Brontes in Brussels.

We broke for lunch and I ate mine (ordered in French again!) in the Botanic Gardens overlooking a pond. There were the tiniest ducklings I had ever seen, as well as tortoises, two very self-important mallards, moorhens, and even a small marsupial that might have been a water vole or a rat…I’m not actually reading a Bronte novel at the moment. I’m getting through L.M. Montgomery’s backlist and am up to Rilla of Ingleside (yes, reading it for the first time – shame!) I was thoroughly enjoying it, while still managing to get distracted by the menagerie of animal life around me.

After lunch we rejoined for a talk from Sam Jordison focusing on the Brontes in the public eye. This turned into a discussion of Haworth, and why the village made it into a series called Crap Towns that Sam has written about the worst places to live in the UK. He made a few points worth noting though – Haworth used to be such a health hazard, that it is no wonder the Brontes didn’t live longer. Now the town that killed them is cashing in on their legacy! It’s a harsh viewpoint, but an interesting one.

After the talk a large group of us went to the pub where I had a proper Belgian hot chocolate, before I met up with Sean again. We took a quick excursion to Waterstones to buy Helen’s book and then went back to Bier Circus for dinner – it was so lovely we just had to revisit. On the way home, Sean bought me a proper Belgian waffle – they are best with no toppings because the dough they are made with is so good on it’s own!!

The next morning it was the guided walk around the Bronte related places in Brussels. It started out the front of the Chapelle Royale, the Protestant Church of Brussels. Charlotte and Emily worshipped here on Sundays. It’s in the Place du Musee, which also houses the site of a former art salon that Charlotte attended. From here, we walked up to the Place Royale and the Parc de Bruxelles, both of which Charlotte would have been very familiar with, and both of which appear as disguised locations in Villette. Down the Belliard steps, just across the road from the Parc de Bruxelles, is the former site of the Pensionnat Heger. It has been completely demolished, and nothing remains, but the research by Helen and others has placed it almost exactly. A plaque was mounted in 1979 to mark the location. We finished up on Rue Villa Hermosa, one of the only streets left that would have been there in Charlotte’s time, and used to lead directly to the Pensionnat.

We had lunch in the garden of the Belvue Museum in the blazing sunshine and chatted, trying to keep ourselves from snoozing in the unseasonable warmth. Then Sean and I made two more Bronte pit stops – first, to see another, less legal plaque that was put up in honour of the Brontes about fifteen years ago and never removed, and second, to see the inside of the Cathedral of Saint Gudule. This enormous church was where a desperate Charlotte made confession on the night of September 1st, 1843, despite not being Catholic – another event that made it into the pages of Villette.

Afterwards, we had time to kill and gorgeous weather, so we drank more beers and tea, sat in the sun, ate frites and a massive meringue-and-cream confection, and eventually moseyed to the airport. Despite the holiday being busy, I really did feel rested afterwards. Perhaps it was the sun, or the beautiful scenery that did it. I would go back to Belgium in a second, regardless.

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Brontë Society Conference 2016

CBRichmond

My brain feels like it is leaking out my ears in the best possible way. The 2016 Brontë Society conference has just concluded and I am drinking tea in a Manchester café trying to process everything I have heard over the last 48 hours. It has been a brilliant weekend, full of thought-provoking, challenging, fantastic ideas and new readings and theories that were both surprising and strange. I had previously deliberated over attending, unsure if I could justify the cost to myself. I am so, so glad I went with my gut. Not only was it Charlotte’s bicentenary (and therefore a once-in-a-lifetime event), but it fitted nicely with my philosophy of trying everything in the UK that is unavailable to me back in Australia. I’m very lucky that I was able to find the money and go.

The Midland hotel in Manchester is just as grand as I had imagined, and is far more pricey than the usual hostel dorms I would travel in, so it was nice to spoil myself for a few days. After taking the train from Edinburgh, grabbing some lunch, and checking in, the afternoon kicked off with an introductory lecture from Professor Christine Alexander on Charlotte Brontë’s early literary ambitions. The theme of the conference was: “the business of a woman’s life” – Charlotte Brontë and the Woman Question. This title refers to the infamous exchange between Charlotte at the age of twenty and the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, who (probably meaning well) advised her that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be”. Professor Alexander’s lecture was therefore well-placed to introduce us to Charlotte as a young writer, and explore how this advice was to affect her literary trajectory, transitioning from her copious amounts of juvenilia through to her adult, post-teaching career as a novelist.

This was followed by a drinks reception doubling as a launch for a bicentenary publication by the Bronte Society – Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre. The authors, Professor Alexander and Sara L. Pearson were both present to sign our copies and tell us about the writing process, and so commenced my potentially unwise spending spree at the conference book stall. Dinner was lovely, and was my first proper opportunity to get to know the other delegates. The Brontë community is exceedingly welcoming and warm – all weekend I was introduced and included and drawn into friendly conversations, given phone numbers and email addresses, and engaged in fascinating discussion with my fellow Brontëphiles. After dinner, Helen MacEwan, who has written extensively on the Brontë’s experiences in Brussels, gave a talk on how the Belgians perceive Charlotte, both in the past and present. As Charlotte was generally less than complimentary towards Belgium and its inhabitants, this talk was quite funny, though Helen MacEwan was careful to detail the reasons why Charlotte held the opinions that she did. Helen was written extensively on Belgium and the Brontës, and guides literary tours around Brussels, for which I will now commence saving…

My bed was king-size, comfy, and I was too fast asleep to properly appreciate it. Breakfast was enormous and delicious, served buffet-style with all manner of options you can imagine. Unfortunately I had not bought my bathers with me, otherwise I would have been sure to use the spa/sauna/relaxation pool available and fully enjoy the hotel experience. But it didn’t matter – we started again promptly at 9.30am on Saturday morning for the keynote address from Professor Germaine Greer. I just can’t overestimate how wonderful this was. It was bold and controversial (no surprises there, it was written by Germaine Greer), and argued that Jane Eyre as a text broaches the last great taboo, positioning Rochester as a father-figure and Jane as the daughter-figure and seducer of the father. Basically labelling the novel as an exploration of father-daughter incest is an unusual claim to make in a room full of Brontë devotees, but in true Greer fashion, she was unapologetic without being aggressive, firm in her words while inviting us to argue with her, and presented some truly nuanced and brilliant observations on femininity, physicality, the relationship between Patrick Brontë and his children, and Charlotte herself. I know Germaine Greer is a divisive figure, and there are positions of hers that I most definitely disagree with, but hearing her speak was an honour, and a memory I will cherish forever.

Tea and cake played a large role in this conference. There were lots of breaks for both, and it delighted me. After a short indulgence, we re-assembled to hear a group of speakers discussing Charlotte Brontë’s 20th century impact – Dr Siv Jansson on the biographical films of the Brontës, Dr Catherine Han on contemporary literary adaptations and how they relate to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 seminal critical text, The Madwoman in the Attic, and Dr Sarah E Fanning on feminism and representations of Jane Eyre on screen. All of these presentations were wonderful, and this section was a conference highlight for me.

After lunch, a group of us went to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, and although the visit was a bit rushed, it was a delight to see the residence that Charlotte had visited during her friendship with Mrs Gaskell and hear about the way the Gaskell family lived and worked. I will definitely return for a longer visit at a later date.

We returned to the hotel just in time for the next set of speakers, discussing the theme of writing and a woman’s life – Heather Williams on the plight of unwed daughters standing in as substitute wives for their widowed fathers in Victorian literature, Professor Temma Berg on the business and representation of coquetting in fiction, and Dr Jian Choe on Charlotte’s urban experiences and the impact on her life and art. (Unfortunately Dr Choe was not present, but the paper was read to us by Jan Lee). Dinner was a formal affair followed by a talk by Claire Harman on the lives of Charlotte’s schoolfriends, Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey, and their behaviour and influence on Charlotte’s work. I really enjoyed this talk, though by this time it was so late that I couldn’t absorb it as thoroughly as I wanted – I am looking forward to seeing it reproduced in print further down the line, hopefully.

This morning after another delicious breakfast, Professor Sally Shuttleworth spoke to us about justice and injustice in Charlotte Brontë’s fiction, particularly as seen through the experience of the child characters. Professor Shuttleworth has written extensively on child psychology and how this is represented in literature of the Victorian period, and just happens to be Professor of English Literature at Oxford so, y’know, she knows what she is talking about. A truly brilliant lecture. We leapt straight into the last section afterwards, on employment, education and economics. Margaret Mills was also absent, so the Vice President of the Brontë Society, Dr Patsy Stoneman, read her article on education and employment in Charlotte’s work, while Professor Joanne Rostek spoke about feminist economics and different economic readings of Shirley, and Professor Deborah Wynne discussed the influence of the textile trade and manufacturing industries of Yorkshire and how they framed Charlotte’s life and work.

And just like that, the conference was finished! Thanks were given and lunch was eaten, contact details were exchanged and goodbyes were said. It has been an absolutely mind-blowing experience for myself, and I am trying to figure out how to get back in 2018 after my visa has expired in order to attend Emily Brontë’s bicentenary conference…

I have to finish writing this blog now. My mind needs a rest, but I wanted to get all the details down before I forgot them! My train leaves shortly and this café is closing soon, so until next time, you will find me reading my enormous pile of new books.