Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Book launch: "The Brontës in Brussels", 26 June

I suspect I’m not alone in saying that each time I make my way through downtown Brussels to a Brontë event, I gather the aura of the old city as I go, preparing myself for another delicious escape into the nineteenth century. Depending on my mood, and whether or not the North Sea climate has graced the city with mist, I might imagine a little figure in grey on a cobbled corner, or a dark-coated gentleman disappearing down an alley in the park.


I’m sure I’m not alone in confessing that this time, on June 26, as eager as I was to welcome Helen MacEwan’s new Brontë book into the world (The Brontës in Brussels), other matters distracted my journey into town. That is to say, like many of you, I was rather preoccupied by the fate of the Red Devils later that evening as they advanced in the World Cup. Instead of little ladies in grey, therefore, dallying on forgotten corners, I spied Devils supporters in tri-coloured wigs and red horns brandishing lurid, plastic pitchforks, a spectacle that would surely have rendered poor Charlotte and Emily Brontë senseless had they encountered it (though not before confirming their deep suspicion of the Catholic faith’s puzzling obscurantism…).

The above observations are not incidental to this little piece. Helen’s new book is, indeed, a journey back in time to the Brussels the Brontë sisters would have known in the early 1840s. No one can dip into these sumptuous pages without escaping contemporary Brussels – even in all her football finery. Along with a wealth of colour illustrations from the period. The Brontës in Brussels presents a fascinating look at how this city influenced the two sisters’ hearts and imaginations. Cogent details transport the time-traveller immediately: we follow Charlotte on a ramble along the Rue de Louvain, where she refreshed herself with a coffee and currant bun; we slip into an illustration of a wide, leafy boulevard with views over the surrounding countryside, and find ourselves at once elated and heartsick to touch this Brussels we will never know. Thanks to Helen’s book, however, this vanished city still has a pulse. She guides us to those corners where, if we close our eyes, we might still detect a horse’s hoof or rustle of silk in the endless drone of traffic. Such moments bring a familiar frisson to those of us who have spent many years in Brussels and fallen in love with her enigmas.
Most moving of all is Helen’s inclusion of Charlotte’s letters to Constantin Heger. The stark intimacy of these confessions draws the reader far from Brussels, all the way to the moorland chill of Yorkshire and the grey-clad little woman who anguished there, in physical and emotional exile from her “promised land”. It is with a strange sort of clairvoyance that we read those letters, knowing as we do how Charlotte’s genius would eventually transform her despair into great art.

Familiar faces as well as new ones could be seen in the substantial gathering at Waterstone’s on Thursday night. Helen presented a series of slides from her book while subtly drawing us ever deeper into the lost world just outside the door. By the time she’d finished, no one wanted to open that door and step back into real-time Brussels. After a series of stimulating questions (followed by some welcome stimulants of the liquid variety), Helen’s second Brontë book was successfully launched and her appreciative readers dispersed into the evening.


I found myself lingering alone at a bus stop in a sort of Brontë-induced reverie. Nearby, cafés were swelling by the minute with Red Devils supporters, and a passing pitchfork brushed my elbow. But these things barely registered this time. I had eyes only for the elaborate cornices overhead that a Brontë might have glanced up to admire; I kept watch out the bus window for the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudule, trying to imagine what desperation had driven the anti-Catholic Charlotte to mount its steps and seek confession. The bus traversed the mythical “Quartier Isabelle”, so lavishly illustrated in Helen’s book, and as I swept past the Belliard steps, they seemed narrower and steeper than usual, the flash of long grey skirt at their summit utterly unremarkable.

Across from the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a man in a crowded bar was draping himself in the Belgian flag and downing a Jupiler. It’s proof of the early success of Helen’s book that he clearly seemed lost in the wrong century, for I was certain that I’d spotted the watchful Mme. Heger, bustling up and pursing her lips in disapproval. The bus had whisked me up the hill, however, before I could say for sure what her expression had been.
World Cup, 0. Brontës, 1.
Leona Francombe


Monday, 30 June 2014

Annual Brontë Society weekend 14 - 15 June 2014

This year nine members of the Brussels group were in Haworth for the annual ‘AGM weekend’ or ‘Brontë Festival’. The weather was a little changeable and the atmosphere at the AGM slightly unsettled, with the need to fill a couple of key posts on the Brontë Society Council and at the Museum. But we had plenty of sunny spells for walking on the moors and chatting on Main Street café terraces, and meeting up with friends in Haworth was, as always, a joy.

The first event, on Friday 13 June, was a talk by novelist Stevie Davies, author of Emily Brontë: Heretic. She was speaking about her new novel Awakenings, set in 1860 against the background of charismatic religious movements and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Stevie came to Brussels in 2009 to talk about Emily Brontë and the Mother World. I recommend her novel Four Dreamers and Emily about a Brontë conference in Haworth. Although a fantasy featuring imaginary characters, it will strike a few chords for anyone who has been in Haworth during the Brontë weekend!

Air on Brontë Moor on Friday evening brought together music, images and poems inspired by on the moors around Haworth, with music provided by David Wilson, filmed images by Simon Warner and readings of poetry (his own and that of Emily Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and others) by Adam Strickson. Although it was jinxed by technical problems, with some images failing to materialise on the screen, it was an enjoyable mix. Earlier in the evening entertainment was provided by Pennine Harps, a quartet of four female harpists.

Air on Brontë Moor
On Saturday, events were packed back to back as always. A talk on the Wesleyan Methodist circles in Cornwall in which the Brontës’ mother, Maria Branwell, and her sister, who looked after them after her death, grew up, was followed by the AGM. Bonnie Greer, the Society’s President, was in the chair. The Brontë Society Council has a busy few months ahead. ´The Museum director, Ann Sumner, is moving to a new post and the term of office of the Chairman, Sally Macdonald, is coming to an end so these two posts must be filled soon.

The lecture was given by Lucasta Miller, author of The Brontë Myth, always a speaker worth hearing. Her subject was Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s Naughty Book. She considered it in conjunction with the work of another female writer of ‘naughty’ novels, Letitia Landon, who is the subject of her next book.

Lucasta Miller
After the prize-giving for the Society’s Creative Competition for best short story, poem and illustration (judges: novelist Margaret Drabble, poet Simon Armitage and artist Victoria Brookland), Lucasta Miller returned for the evening’s panel discussion on fictional biographies and spin-offs of well-loved classic novels. How far are they justified, what can they provide? Ably chaired by Patsy Stoneman, who has twice given excellent talks to our group, the panel also included novelists Tiffany Murray and Catherine Rayner.

Sunday was a more restful day, with some relaxed indoor events alternating with the traditional tramp over the moors. Unfortunately, sunny spells were less in evidence today! As always, the Brontë Parsonage Museum was opened for a private visit by Society members. Some then proceeded to the library for a viewing of ‘hidden gems’ of the Museum collection, presented by Collections Manager Ann Dinsdale, followed by refreshments from the famous Betty’s Tearoom in Ilkley.

Those not walking attended a screening of pictures from the scrapbook of Ellen Nussey, best friend and chief correspondent of Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte’s letters to this friend form the bulk of her voluminous correspondence and the source of much of what we know about her. Audrey Hall, who inherited the scrapbook and has researched its contents, gave this presentation and then formally handed the scrapbook over to the Parsonage Museum.

The weekend was rounded off by the now traditional dinner and entertainment at the Old White Lion. This year members were not asked to write Brontë-themed limericks, which had us scratching our heads and biting our pens last June. Instead we brainstormed ideas for events for future AGM weekends and to celebrate the bicentenary years coming up, starting with Charlotte Brontë’s in 2016. After the meal we sat back and enjoyed costume-maker and historian Gillian Taylor’s talk on a replica of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress, based on descriptions of it and Gillian’s knowledge of the period. Charlotte was married to Arthur Bell Nicholls on 29 June 1854 and died nine months later.

This year’s Monday excursion was to Liverpool, in whose streets, it will be remembered, Heathcliff was found as a child. There were opportunities to visit the International Slavery Museum, Albert Dock and Tate Liverpool, the Liverpool Maritime Museum and the Beatles Museum.

The 2015 Brontë Society AGM weekend will be held on 6-7 June.


Monday, 9 June 2014

Football and the Brussels Brontë Story…

The World Cup 2014 is fast approaching, as every soccer fan knows. Perhaps now is a good time to trace some football links in the Brussels Brontë story. There are some interesting connections which merit highlighting - however unlikely the idea might seem at first glance!

The Jenkinses

The first connection relates to the Jenkins family of Brussels. A previous, highly informative blog post here by Jenkins descendent Monica Kendall details how this Ixelles-based family was closely involved with Charlotte and Emily Brontë during their Brussels stay. Indeed it was due to its intervention that the two Brontë sisters ended up at the Heger pensionnat on the Rue d'Isabelle in the first place. But not only were the Jenkinses responsible for introducing the two literary geniuses to Brussels, the same family was also largely responsible for the introduction of the British sport of football to Brussels. (For these two feats alone, perhaps the Jenkinses merit some day an honorary plaque or a street named after them in their adopted city?!)
     The Jenkins family's role in the beginnings of the Brussels, and indeed Belgian, football story is a theme still to be fully researched, yet its close involvement is widely acknowledged by Belgian football historians.
    This involvement should come as no surprise. Rev. Charles Edward (1826-73) and Rev. John Card (1834-94), the sons of Rev. Evan Jenkins (1794-1849), were both keen sportsmen. According to Monica Kendall, John won trophies for rowing, still in the family's possession, while studying at Cambridge in the 1850s. The brothers founded the Brussels Cricket Club, the first of its kind in Belgium, in the early 1860s, and both were fine amateur cricket players.
     Most of the early members of the Brussels Cricket Club were pupils from the brothers’ school, known from around 1870 as St Bernard's and the largest British boys boarding school in the city. Indication that these young cricket players might have been playing football too, as early as 1865, is found in  L'Indépendance belge ( 31 May 1865): "Les membres du Cricket-Club, fils d'Albion habitant Bruxelles, viennent de reprendre leur jeu favori dans les plaines de Cureghem, entre le Nieuw-Molen et l'Ecole vétérinaire. Demain, ils donneront une fête comportant des jeux divers, qu'ils appellent athletic sports". Football at the time was foremost among the activities described as "athletic sports"; it would surely have featured at this sporting fête.
     If the Jenkinses counted among the very earliest pioneers of football in Brussels, some sources hold that the first man to introduce football to Belgium was an Irish student from Killarney, Bernard Murrogh, who brought the game to his college at Melle, near Ghent in 1863. The sport was soon being played in other cities across Flanders; the first official football club in Belgium was Antwerp FC, formed in 1880.

La Plaine de Tenbosch

La Plaine de Tenbosch
In the 1880s the Jenkinses and their friends were playing their football matches on the sandy open
ground of Tenbosch. [See photo of a match here from the epoch]. Now built-up, this open ground was located between the present day Avenue Louise, Rue Tenbosch and Rue Defacqz in the Ixelles commune. It was very much Jenkins family territory. In the latter 19th century, the family lived at several different addresses on the Rue des Champs Elysées in Ixelles and the Rue St. Bernard in St. Gilles, both of which were a stone's throw away from the football grounds. In 1874, the Church of the Resurrection, built largely through the efforts of Charles Edward Jenkins (Senior), was inaugurated on the Rue de Stassart, which was also close by. Given the connections the Jenkinses had with this part of the city, it is no coincidence that Tenbosch became an early home to Belgian football.
   

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Exhibition on the Brussels Royal Quarter at the BELvue Museum.

Readers interested in the Brussels Brontë story might consider a visit to the exhibition entitled Vivre au Quartier Royal 1800-2000 Du Coudenberg au Mont des Arts, just opened at the BELvue museum in
Brussels. Organized by the Cercle d'Histoire de Buxelles to celebrate its thirty years of existence,  the exhibition includes numerous photos of the old Isabelle quarter, where the Heger Pensionnat  attended by Charlotte and Emily Brontë once stood. This quarter was almost completely destroyed in the early 20th century to facilitate various urban projects, including the infamous Nord-Midi rail Jonction; the selection of photos and slides on display helps revive its memory.

The exhibition runs until 31 August 2014 and entry is via the BELvue museum. The exhibition itself is housed in the Hôtel d'Hoogstraeten, which stands opposite the BELvue, across the Rue Royale. To reach the Hôtel, the visitor descends into the labyrinth of halls and passages which lie beneath the Place Royale – the remains of the Coudenberg Palace destroyed by fire in 1731. These subterranean vestiges include a small section of the original Rue d'Isabelle which managed to avoid later destruction.

The exhibition is a small one, yet includes some highly interesting images of daily life in the Quartier Royal in former times. It covers themes ranging from the area's commercial activities to important royal family events, public transport and parades. Perhaps the most striking photos on display relate to the
final destruction of many of the quarter's streets and landmark buildings. It's hard to believe that such whole scale, ruthless devastation was carried out in the name of progressive urbanism! [See photo, Rue des Douze Apôtres]

The exhibition catalogue, on sale at the BELvue shop, is excellent. It features a long and highly interesting article by François Samin on the history of Rue d'Isabelle and Le Grand Serment des Arbalétriers. The Heger Pensionnat garden on the Rue d'Isabelle, so memorably described in Charlotte Brontë's Villette, had once been home to the city's important Guild of the Crossbowmen. Samin's article includes a wealth of little-known facts and documents related to the guild's history and its former exercise garden. It merits the attention of anyone interested in the Brussels of the Brontë sisters.

Brian Bracken

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