Sunday, 6 April 2014

'Shirley in Context': Nicholas Shrimpton gives a talk to the Brussels Brontë Group at our annual Brontë weekend

For the celebrations of this year’s Brontë Weekend in Brussels, the members of our society convened in the usual location of Université Saint-Louis and welcomed a guest speaker from the University of Oxford, Dr. Nicholas Shrimpton, who was kind enough to share his knowledge about the social and literary context behind Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. In a fascinating lecture, he presented evidence of an opinion some of us discussed earlier in the book club meeting – while not an instant classic, Shirley does have its strengths and remains an interesting read. And so, on one of the first days of spring, we’ve been told the story of a writer, who has embarked on an ambitious task of writing her sophomore novel “in a style entirely new”.

Dr. Nicholas Shrimpton
Our guest speaker started this tale of context by making us understand the novel’s origins. Shirley is the
one atypical story that came from Charlotte’s pen. Published as her second novel, it is a product of the author’s struggle with personal demons, but also of the problem of delivering something new and different, when one has only one previous experience to draw on. In her own attempt at revolution, she abandoned the single heroine of Jane Eyre, with her inner battle between stoicism and rebellion. Instead, she ventured to introduce two female characters representing the same juxtaposition in the flesh, illustrating parallel experiences rather than an individual one. On top of that, she expanded the picture with a number of key characters, who are not only introduced fairly late in the novel, but also tend to disappear from view for multiple chapters at a time.  The story is not narrated by that single heroine anymore, but by an external third person narrator, omniscient if often using focalisation. And finally, we are relatively far removed from the familiar Brontë geography – while staying in Yorkshire, we move West from the country of moors, towards Leeds and its surroundings. The real-life location of the novel was supposedly Birstall, now graced with an IKEA retail park.

Unfortunately for her, many view this attempt at innovation as only mildly successful: somewhat incongruous and decidedly less convincing than the heavily introspective works she’s best known for. Before sharing his own opinion, Dr. Shrimpton presented a vast perspective on possible sources of inspiration for this endeavour, which turns out to be necessary knowledge in order to fully grasp the meaning of the novel.

Apparently, it could have been none other than W. M. Thackeray and his panoramic masterpiece, Vanity Fair, that served as primary influence on Shirley. It is no secret that they admired each other’s writing, despite their distinct characters. The monumental story of Becky Sharpe was being published in episodes at the time Charlotte was starting work on the new novel, and several hints of that impact can be identified in its contents. The most striking example being the opening paragraphs detailing the curates’ debauchery, inspired directly by Thackeray’s satirical tones. Arguably not as successful as the master himself, Brontë only barely managed to keep up with the sharp pace of satire, and was encouraged to omit that  entire section by her editors. The fact that the opening scene and others that follow in similar vein are still there, might prove how strongly the author felt about going against the grain. In other clues, the action is moved back in time to Wellington’s era and aims to describe a wide range of social classes of the time, much like Vanity Fair. And finally, it goes on to fill one of the few gaps in Thackeray’s panorama and focus on the urbanising, industrial reality of the North of England. But while he manages to keep his characters in check through a powerful narrator figure, Brontë seems to have less control over her lot, and despite trying to emphasise the masculine voice of Currer  Bell, she comes across thoroughly feminine in her storytelling.

To further complicate things, halfway through her writing process, Charlotte was hit by a wave of misfortunes, as all three of her siblings died within a short period of time. As Dr. Shrimpton argued, some prolific writers like Frances Trollope were able to overcome their personal grief and produce masterpieces and their opus magnum even in times of grief. Miss Brontë was apparently not one of them. Insecure and always seeking reassurance with Emily, Anne or Branwell, she was not only mourning but also lonely with her incertitude. The tone of her writing changes visibly between parts 1 and 2 of the novel, and literally nothing is the same again after the tragedy strikes. Even Caroline’s eyes change colour in the process, if anyone needs tangible proof of incongruence.

Fortunately, there is yet hope for Shirley. Our guest speaker pointed out that despite all the inconsequence, there seems to be a thematic unity within the novel, which starts with Chartism, “the unspoken subject of the novel”. Indeed, the topic of social struggles  makes up for a big chunk of the novel’s story, but that doesn’t mean Charlotte equated the fighting Luddites from the beginning of the century, with the later Chartist movement, nor did she confuse one with the other. The Chartism in question is more likely the broad idea raised by Thomas Carlyle, of which the suffrage movement was only a symptom. It’s the general discontent of the working classes that flows steadily throughout the story, their struggle for food, education and dignity. Because of this widespread chartist spirit, the demand for “Condition of England” novels was going strong for many years, and prompted many writers to try their hand at portraying the ills of the working man, or at least incorporating some elements of it in their works. Maybe Charlotte is not as graphic dealing with this topic, as she usually is when digging through the layers of the inner conflict and romantic fever of her heroines, but she is successful in keeping the political theme of oppression  a relevant element of her story. And maybe, it is not the panoramic Vanity Fair we should compare it to, but rather the more common attempts at addressing pieces of the “Condition of England” that we should treat as context of Brontë’s penchant for social issues in Shirley.

The same thematic unity becomes even more apparent when we look at the broader picture outside the social issues the author raises. The very core of the story is driven by an almost philosophical juxtaposition between romantic egoism and the revival of pre-romantic rationalism. For the former, think Louis Moore with his ardent professions of love. The Byronic, individual experience linked to nature and its metaphors. Think chivalry, Wellingtonian heroism and war against Napoleon. Think, the lonely figure trying to help his mill off its knees. For the latter, go for Robert Moore and the pragmatic merchants. Go for the community of workers and the guarantee of employment they demand. Go for the idea of war as a nuisance menacing internal balance.  This dichotomy goes strong throughout the whole story. Two heroines, two brothers, two opposing social classes, the individual and the disgruntled collective. And an opening that promises “[nothing] romantic” versus the ending that evokes seeing faeries. Don’t write them off as inconsistence – look how symmetrical and present they are.

In conclusion, let’s not be afraid to admit that we’ve been discussing not the very finest of Charlotte’s work. It shifts the focus away from the conflicted introspection she is unsurpassed at, in favour a social engagement done more successfully by others. It is an inconsistent text plagued by the author’s suffering.  And, as a question from the audience made us realise, one that would sadly be forgotten if it wasn’t for other, more successful Brontë novels. And yet, let’s keep in mind  Dr. Shrimpton’s conclusion before we dismiss this novel as a failure. Charlotte put an extremely difficult task in front of her. She wanted to reinvent her well-rounded style, and took inspiration from intricate social situation and one monumental masterpiece. Only a select few in the course of history have managed to pull off a truly panoramic novel, and even those were not foolproof. This one is not really panoramic, but remains engaging and complex, and still masterfully soul-searching at times, which are some good redeeming qualities. Shirley may be a flawed and uneven work in many respects, but it is a hugely ambitious one to start with.

Ola Podstawka

"Shirley in Context"

Nicholas Shrimpton at the Brussels Brontë group, 
29th March 2014

Charlotte Mathieson, a research fellow at Warwick University who is researching the legacy of Charlotte Brontë in Brussels, joined us for the events of our annual Brontë weekend. She wrote this report on Nicholas Shrimpton’s talk for her own blog and has kindly allowed us to reproduce it here.
Charlotte also joined one of our guided walks and has posted an excellent photographic account on her blog of the tour of Brontë locations in Brussels. Read it here:

Although not a regular attendee of the Brussels Brontë group, I visited Brussels at the end of March to come to the annual Brontë weekend and had an excellent time at the various events, including the talk by Dr Nicholas Shrimpton from the University of Oxford.

Dr Shrimpton’s subject was Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley (1849). It’s fair to say that this is the least favourite of Charlotte Brontë’s novels, among readers and critics alike, and from the time of its publication to the present day has attracted far less interest than Jane Eyre and Villette. I'm in the minority who find the novel both enjoyable and of academic interest, and having taught Shirley a couple of times (on The English Nineteenth-Century Novel at the University of Warwick) I've definitely gained a much greater appreciation of it – it's a pleasure to teach as there is simply so much to say, and the novel is rich with interesting scenes to analyse in light of gender and political debates (it's also one of the few novels where I find myself wanting to really persuade students of how much they should love it, something I usually try to resist!).

But it has to be said that much of this interest, and indeed the novel’s scope for analysis, comes from its problematic nature in terms of thematic and structural integrity. It this that formed the basis of Nicholas Shrimpton's talk, in which he assessed the case for and against Shirley, exploring in detail both the novel’s problems and its possibilities. Most interesting was that Shrimpton made the case for Shirley as a ‘panoramic’ novel on a par with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: we know that Charlotte Brontë greatly admired Thackeray’s work, and Shirley, he argued, is her attempt at undertaking a novel of such scale and scope. Ultimately, it is hugely flawed, but it is also hugely ambitious. Shrimpton really captured that what makes the novel so exciting is the many fractures and disjunctures that occur throughout the text. The text's handling of the "woman question", and its eventual 'failure' at sustaining proto-feminist arguments, is an apt case in point: while on the one hand, the final marriages of Caroline and Shirley come as a disappointment after the novel's earlier promise in questioning and challenging gender conventions, at the same time it is here that Brontë most usefully illustrates the strength of such conventions and the need for change - for both the women in the story, and for the woman writer, there simply is no other realistic option but to end with a marriage.

Shrimpton also highlighted other contextual issues that are illuminating on how we read it - he focused particularly on the Luddite/Chartist conflation (or not), and also spoke of Brontë's worry that the text would be read as too similar to Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, published the year before. It was also interesting, in light of my literary geography excursion that weekend, to hear Shrimpton discuss the idea of 'Shirley country' (as distinct from 'Brontë' country') as well as talking about the novel's continental connections. The talk was an excellent reminder that Shirley deserves more attention as perhaps the most interesting, and certainly illuminating, of Charlotte Brontë's works.

Charlotte Mathieson

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Brussels, Brontë, Jenkins: My great-great-grandparents Rev. Evan and Eliza Jenkins and the Brontës

Monica Kendall tells of her search for her relatives in Brussels.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë, published two years after Charlotte’s death, Mrs Gaskell comments that when she was researching the biography and visited Brussels:

Mrs. Jenkins told me that she used to ask them [Emily and Charlotte] to spend Sundays and holidays with her, until she found that they felt more pain than pleasure from such visits. (Gaskell, 1997: 162)

I am the great-great-granddaughter of that Mrs Jenkins (her name was Eliza, née Jay), and of Rev. Evan Jenkins, the British Chaplain in Brussels from 1825 until his death in 1849. Until October 2013 I knew quite a bit about the Jenkins family in Brussels, though mostly in the second half of the nineteenth century, but knew nothing about our connection with the Brontës. It’s a mystery why there are no anecdotes in the family. But thanks to hugely helpful people who responded to my interest (and an inordinate number of emails I sent) I finally arrived in Brussels in February 2014 to investigate. It was the same month Charlotte and Emily arrived, 172 years before – rather more quickly (by Eurostar from London where I live) than the Brontës had managed!

But first, grateful thanks to the following for their support, time, help and information: Brian Bracken, Mme Jacqueline Charade and all at the Chapel Royal, Roger Cox, Robyn Crosslé, the staff at the Evere cemetery, Jones Hayden for a wonderful walk around Brontë Brussels, Renate, cousin Suzie Walker, Marcia Watson and above all to Helen MacEwan, of the Brussels Brontë Group, who not only found more Jenkins graves than I could have possibly hoped for, and rubbed off moss with Renate before I visited, but recommended my (excellent) hotel, found time to answer all my emails, saved me from howlers and organized my Saturday which ended up with a descendant of the Hegers and descendant of the Jenkinses downing (in my case) copious amounts of wine in a wonderfully convivial way which I will always treasure.

A Jenkins descendant meets a Heger descendant:
M. Francois Fierens (great-great-great-grandson of Constantin
Heger) and Monica Kendall (great-great-granddaughter of Rev.
Evan and Eliza Jenkins), Brussels, February 2014
What follows is my journey and discoveries in Brussels over three days.

St Bernard’s School, New York and what happened next ... and before
In 2000 I wrote an article for my grandfather’s school magazine, entitled ‘My Grandfather Jack’. My grandfather, John Card Jenkins (1874–1958), founded a school in New York in 1904 called St Bernard’s. It is an extraordinary and unique prep school for boys and I have visited it twice – as recently as autumn 2011. My article was accurate: but with one big error about the Jenkins church in Brussels (see below)! My research for it was based on his elder sisters’ scrapbooks that went to my mother Dorice on their deaths (my last great-aunt died in 1954). They were the daughters of Rev. John Card Jenkins (1834–94) who had been an Anglican chaplain in Brussels, after his father and elder brother. I found then that the roots of the school in New York lay in Brussels in the 1820s, with Rev. Evan and Mrs Jenkins.
My mother, Dorice Kendall, née Jenkins, remembered stories of Brussels from her parents (both British, who were born or grew up there), and in my article I tried to describe Brussels of the nineteenth century. I mentioned the Brontës in passing: ‘In this city ... Emily and Charlotte Brontë came to study languages in the early 1840s, and Charlotte returned to teach and found unrequited love.’ That’s all! Alas no one emailed me to say: But haven’t you read Mrs Gaskell’s biography? I hadn’t, nor it seems had any member of the Jenkins family, and I hadn’t even read Villette!

What happened next, 13 years later, was one of those strange coincidences that change everything: I am an academic book editor, and I just happened in autumn 2013 to be copy-editing a book that included a chapter on Charlotte Brontë’s extraordinary novel Villette (a fictional name for Brussels). I decided to buy the book since my ancestors were in Brussels at the same time Charlotte had been there. Then out of the blue my cousin Suzie Walker (née Jenkins) asked for the number of the Jenkins home in Rue St Bernard in Brussels as her artist daughter was about to visit (I am the historian of the family!). Suddenly Suzie emailed telling me to try googling this combination: Brussels, Brontë, Jenkins. I did so, intrigued. Suzie tells me she had just idly tried doing that combination as she explored her Jenkins roots and had found something amazing. And I came across Brian Bracken’s blog on the Brussels Brontë Group website about finding the whereabouts of the Jenkins home in Chaussée d’Ixelles: the house that Charlotte and Emily had ‘visited’ on several occasions in 1842–43. I was astounded. The Brontë sisters knew my ancestors?

My research took off. I began to email total strangers, including Helen via the Group website, and Roger Cox, who had written a booklet on the Anglicans in Brussels, and then read as much as I could after work. And wonderfully most people responded! After a few weeks I knew I had to go to Brussels. Helen suggested a good time would be in February 2014 for Eric Ruijssenaars’ talk for the Group on the Isabelle Quarter where the Brontë sisters had stayed and learned. I booked my Eurostar ticket. So what did I find?

Monday, 17 March 2014


On 15 February, for our first event of the year we were pleased to welcome Eric Ruijssenaars, who gave us a fascinating slide show of pictures relating to the research he did for his two books, Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land: The Pensionnat Heger and other Brontë places in Brussels (2000) and The Pensionnat Revisited; More light shed on the Brussels of the Brontës (2003). Eric guided us on a virtual walk of the area round the Pensionnat. Many of those present have already been on one of our actual guided walks and this presentation provided an opportunity to gain a fuller picture of the area and its history. Eric, who lives in Leiden and has been researching the subject for the last twenty-five years, is always delighted to return to Brussels and his old Brontë haunts here.

Eric has written the following about his Brontës in Brussels research:

Eric Ruijssenaars
It is 25 years ago that I started doing research on the Brussels of the Brontës, aiming to recreate the Isabella quarter for her, the lady who had introduced me to Villette. Over the next decades I looked at every book and picture I could get hold of, in archives and libraries, to try to understand what the old quarter had looked like in the days of the Brontës. In 1990 I visited Brussels and the quarter for the first time, with Elle. I remember the excitement of standing on the Belliard Steps, though obviously having no real idea of the world ‘down these Steps’, and what it would all bring. Most recently, my talk for the BBG.

The Tahon photograph
Of invaluable importance was and is the iconic Tahon photo of the quarter, supposedly dating from 1909. For many years it hung on the wall at my desk. The crucial breakthrough came in 2003, when I took the picture to a photography professor of Leiden University. She said it must be an 1850s photograph. It’s possibly the highlight of these 25 years. Finally we fully understood the quarter. By implication it shows us the quarter as it was in 1843.

With all we had gathered then, it had become possible to do a sort of virtual walk through the old quarter, in the mind. Just as I can easily imagine walking in, for instance the quarter as it is now. I hope that those who joined my walk can agree.
Hotel Ravenstein, circa 1920

One of my last and nicest discoveries was the following picture:

 It’s a picture of the area where the Terarckenstraat now ends (with Hotel Ravenstein on the right). This time though we only need to climb over the gate to continue our walk, ‘through the mist of time’ (unfortunately I forgot to say that at my talk). At the same time it’s also a sad reminder of the very charming quarter that not long before had been demolished.

Eric Ruijssenaars

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’

On Saturday 12 October around 80 of our members turned out to hear a talk by Dr Sandie Byrne of the University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education. It was the second time Sandie had addressed our group - but the first time that a speaker had considered the works of Jane Austen alongside the Brontës’. Below are a couple of reports by two members who attended the event.

Given the title of Dr.Sandie Byrne’s talk to the Brussels Brontë group on October 12, many of us die-hard Brontëans were looking forward to a classic confrontation with home-town favorite Charlotte coming out on top of her Chawton challenger. But Dr. Byrne, from the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education, wrong-footed us right from the start in her talk ‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’ - Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and romantic fiction.

Taking Charlotte Brontë's 1850 criticism of Jane Austen as a jumping-off point, Dr. Byrne compared the portrayal of passion and romance in the works of both authors. But she began by citing the scene in Austen's Persuasion when Anne Elliott sees Captain Wentworth for the first time in eight years. ‘There is passion there!’ Dr. Byrne said. She then catalogued some of the perceived differences between Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen where romance, romances and Romanticism are concerned. Austen's novels are often thought of as romance or ‘chick-lit,’ Dr. Byrne said, while Charlotte Brontë is considered more serious.

But the reality, as so often is the case, lies somewhere in the middle. Austen's novels are about survival as much as they are about love, showing women's plight, the fact that women have few options besides marriage, Dr. Byrne said. In Charlotte Brontë's works, women demand equality but also delight in having a master. Brontë's women demand passion; in Jane Austen, women don't demand passion, but Austen indicates it, Dr. Byrne said, as in the scene she cited from Persuasion.

Though Charlotte apparently wouldn't agree with this last bidder. Byrne quoted an 1850 letter from Charlotte to her publisher in which she says of Jane Austen: ‘She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood.’

Charlotte is suggesting that real emotional responses are missing in Austen's novels, Dr. Byrne said. And she cited an 1848 letter to G.H. Lewes in which Charlotte compared Austen unfavorably with George Sand in this regard. Sand 'is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant,' Dr. Byrne quoted, then added: ‘I can't help feeling that shrewd suggests shrew.’

To demonstrate both the passion and romance in Charlotte's work, Dr. Byrne read out the famous ‘equal, - as we are’ scene from Jane Eyre. ‘That's about as romantic as you can get -- with both upper-case and lower-case R,’ Byrne said.

But Brontë’s heroines balance the desire for independence with an opposing wish for dependence, juxtaposing an aspiration for equality with a desire for a controller, Dr. Byrne said. To help demonstrate, she read parts of Shirley Keeldar's conversation with Robert Moore in Shirley - with the label ‘leopardess’ playing on this complicated dual desire. Dr. Byrne pointed out the ‘kind of inverted hierarchy’ in this scene and compared it to the scene in Emma where Mr. Knightley wants Emma to marry him.

Jane Austen was influenced by Augustan poetry, whereas the Brontës were influenced by Romanticism, she pointed out. We classify Austen under Realism, while the Brontës’ works contain more elements of Gothic and the Romantic, including the ‘suffering Great Soul’; a brooding man with a past; the quest for self-fulfillment and the creative power of the imagination.

The bottom line for Dr. Byrne is that the works of both Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë have elements of romantic fiction, but also much more. She used the endings of Jane Eyre, Villette, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey to drive home her point. Both authors include romantic elements, but they also have Realist frameworks, she said. All four novels end in unconventional ways, but Villette and Northanger Abbey especially show both authors ‘breaking the frame,’ Dr.Bryne said, ‘indicating that the narrator knows it's a book’ and in the case of Lucy Snowe's story, saying ‘I'm not giving you an ending.’

In her own ending, Dr. Byrne left us with this thought:

‘Charlotte Brontë would have strung up Charlotte Lucas for marrying Mr. Collins. Austen is realist enough to say, “I understand.”’

Report by J.H.

Brussels hears of the romance in the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë

On 12 October members of the Brussels Brontë Group gathered at the Université Saint-Louis, where Dr Sandie Byrne of Oxford University gave a talk on the romantic elements in the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Sandie gave us a whistle-stop comparative tour of ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Villette,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘Northanger Abbey,’ as well as Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights.’

Charlotte Brontë suggested Austen’s work lacked poetry and sentiment, Sandie told the group. But does this mean that there is no passion or romance in her work?

Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett were both characters full of passion and seeking equality, we learned. Both give speeches to their male counterparts in this vein.

But, Sandie remarked that the equality or emancipation that Jane gains at the end of Brontë’s novel is only gained through Rochester’s loss of sight and arguably, his emasculation.

This theme of emancipation and “the self” gives both novels Romantic elements, Sandie told us.

Indeed, there are aspects of the Romantic and romantic in both writers’ works, but Sandie noted that Austen wrote in a period of realism. As a result of this, one can note that whereas loss of love in the works of both Emily and Charlotte Brontë leads to total destruction, for Austen’s characters they just get “very miserable.”

Adding to this point, in Austen’s novels her characters have “everyday love,” they are just very nice to one another. By contrast Cathy and Heathcliff are eternally connected and go mad without one another.

Looking at the Gothic presence in the work of both writers it appears there is a veritable buffet of stormy weather, paganism, brooding male characters with dark pasts, ghosts – the list goes on…

However, Sandie noted that true to her realist roots, Austen uses the Gothic for ironic purposes – as seen throughout 'Northanger Abbey'. By contrast, Brontë is anything but ironic when Jane is locked in the red room and haunted by her Uncle. 

It was a truly enjoyable afternoon full of fruitful discussion and debate on the comparisons that can be drawn from the works of both novelists, to whose work we all enjoy to return time and again. As Sandie said, they are both so much more than romances.

Report by Laurel Henning