Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Brontë Society June Weekend 2018

This article is reproduced with the permission of the Brussels Brontë Blog

Helen MacEwan writes:

Several members of the Brussels Brontë Group attended the Brontë Society’s 2018 weekend of events in Haworth, this year celebrating Emily Brontë’s bicentenary. Our group included Guy and Evy Desloovere-Van de Voorde with their 8-month-old son Arthur Branwell – his first visit to the village of the family that inspired his name!

Ann Dinsdale's presentation

After an invitation to join Brontë Society trustees for chat, tea and cake in a restaurant in Main St, the weekend’s events kicked off with a presentation on the Brontë Parsonage Museum, now 90 years old. Ann Dinsdale, Principal Curator, and Jane Sellars, a former Director, talked us through highlights in the Museum’s history. Ann Dinsdale is the author of numerous books including At Home with the Brontës: The History of Haworth Parsonage & Its Occupants and The Brontës at Haworth.

All Things Gothic

After dinner we were regaled by ‘an evening of all things Gothic’, a highly dramatic and hilarious one-woman entertainment by the amazing Lucy Adlington of the History Wardrobe, who commented on – and in some cases modelled – the costumes on show. Her romp through the Gothic in literature was interlarded with readings from the Brontës’ novels and other works such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She is the author of several books on costume history.

Lucy Adlington, The Gothic Lady

The Eccentricities of ‘Woman’s Fantasy’

Saturday, the day of the Society’s AGM, is always packed with events. The first of these was a lecture on The Eccentricities of ‘Woman’s Fantasy’… and Heathcliff by Carol Dyhouse, a social history professor from the University of Sussex. Among other questions she looked at why Heathcliff is so often seen as a romantic hero and how far, if at all, this can be attributed to the novel itself as opposed to reinventions in screen versions of the book.

Carol Dyhouse

Brontë Society Annual General Meeting

From the Gothic heroes of the Brontës’ novels and women’s fantasies to a sermon in the church where their father preached: the Brontë Society weekend certainly offers variety and a range of experiences. On Saturday morning – another tradition of the weekend – was a church service, led by the current Rector of Haworth, dedicated to the Brontës in the (rebuilt) church of St Michaels & All Angels. After lunch it was time for the Society’s AGM. The Society currently has around 1,800 members and employs over 40 staff at the Museum, which has just made a successful bid for significant Arts Council Funding as a National Portfolio Organisation. Possible future projects were discussed, for example the idea of turning a Victorian underground reservoir in Haworth into a centre for women’s writing. The perennial question of when the Museum is to build toilets for visitors also came up – when doesn’t it! At present visitors have to use the ones in the car park, threatened with closure.

The day wound up with a quiz hosted by Lucy Mangan, journalist and co-presenter of the BBC documentary Being the Brontës (March 2016). The competitors included museum staff and Society members.

Private View

Sunday was also a busy day. As usual, the museum opened at 9 a.m. for a private viewing by members. A highlight, continuing from last year which was Branwell Brontë’s bicentenary, is the recreation of Branwell’s bedroom, curated by creative partner Simon Armitage in collaboration with museum staff and the production team of the film To Walk Invisible. The installation, supposed to present the room as it might have been in the late 1830s when Branwell had ambitions to be an artist, features an unmade bed and artworks and other objects scattered in disorder.

The morning programme consisted of Brontë Treasures (a private viewing in the Parsonage library of treasures in the Museum collection) and a talk by me on Charlotte Brontë’s legacy in Belgium, the subject of my new book Through Belgian Eyes. Thus our group and its work were well represented at Haworth this year.

Screening of Wuthering Heights (1992 version)

After lunch more energetic members joined a guided walk across the moors to Ponden Kirk, the rocky outcrop close to Top Withens supposedly the inspiration for Penistone Crag in Wuthering Heights. For those who didn’t feel up to this 9-mile walk there was a screening of the 1992 version of the novel with Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche. A dinner and quiz rounded off the day.

Emily (Chloe Pirrie) at Ponden Kirk - still from the TV film To Walk Invisible

Jack Sharp - inspiration for Heathcliff?

The closing event was an excursion to Halifax on the Monday. After a tour of the Piece Hall, there was a visit to Halifax Minster and the former Holy Trinity Church to view sculptures by Branwell Brontë’s great friend Joseph Leyland. David Glover, President of Halifax Antiquarian Society, gave us a talk on Leyland’s life. Over a splendid tea at Holdsworth House Hotel, he gave another talk on Law Hill School near Halifax, the story of Jack Sharp, a member of a local family who may have inspired the character of Heathcliff, and High Sunderland Hall, a building often cited as a possible inspiration for Wuthering Heights.

I hope that many Brussels Group members will join me for the Brontë Society weekend in Haworth next year (8-9 June) to enjoy a rich programme of events and spend time not just in Haworth but in local places with Brontë connections. 

Monday, 30 April 2018

Helen MacEwan to speak at Leeds Library on 7 June

Helen MacEwan, author of Through Belgian Eyes: Charlotte Brontë's Troubled Brussels Legacy will be speaking at the historic Leeds Library at 7.30pm on Thursday 7 June 2018. Register now for this free event at:


The event's title is Charlotte Brontë in Brussels

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Through Belgian Eyes

Through Belgian Eyes: Charlotte Brontë’s Troubled Brussels Legacy by Helen MacEwan

In this fascinating book, Helen MacEwan once more reveals herself as the current leading figure in the area of Brontë studies which concentrates on the time spent in Brussels by Charlotte Brontë, as a pupil and as an assistant teacher. Her well-known negative observations on Brussels and its inhabitants, and on Belgium in general, are rehearsed, embroidered upon and set in context, and the influence of her experiences in the city on her writings, particularly those relating to her beloved teacher, Constantin Heger, are examined in detail in a discourse which is both scholarly and accessible to less academic readers.

Less well-known ground is ploughed in addition: MacEwan has researched not only what Belgian commentators wrote about Charlotte Brontë, but what other literary figures thought of Brussels and the relatively new country at a crossroads of Europe in the nineteenth century. Many of their opinions were not too different to hers.

Baudelaire, Thackeray, Picard

Charles Baudelaire, in temporary exile from France, wrote posthumously-published notes about the ‘menacing stupidity’ and the boring ‘spirit of obedience and conformity’ in the country contemptuously named by Charlotte as Labassecour (Farmyard) in Villette, and thanked God he was born French. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote ‘…my impressions of this city are certainly anything but respectful. It has an absurd kind of Lilliput look with it.’ The writer and politician Edmond Picard recalled Brussels in the reign of Leopold I as ‘a provincial town that was slowly getting used to its role as a new capital… a town of quiet streets and sleepy squares with grass growing between the paving stones’, an account which, as MacEwan points out, brings to mind Lucy Snowe’s description of her excursion to the old Basse Ville to visit Mme Walravens, just one of many examples which indicate that Charlotte’s detailed descriptions of a vanished ‘little town’ Brussels are essentially accurate.

Pensionnat Heger

The Professor and Villette are often valued by Belgian historians as sources of knowledge about the Brussels of the mid-nineteenth century, and not just its layout and buildings. A surprising amount of evidence appears to have disappeared. Charlotte’s time at the Pensionnat Heger is covered fictionally in great detail, and much of the fiction can be taken to match the facts of life in a girls’ boarding school at the time. MacEwan adds rich pages of information about comparable schools of the time, their regimes and their intakes. As for the citizens about whom she was so scathing and dismissive, especially her fellow pupils and the girls she taught as a sous-mâitresse, it could be that she got it right, in spite of the fact that she spent much of her time confined, stricken by boredom and loneliness, in a school which she considered to be a type of convent. She was not much of a teacher after all: evidence for this can be found in accounts of her early experiences at Roe Head School in Mirfield. MacEwan balances Charlotte’s negative opinions against those of others, including those of former pupils who actually enjoyed their time at the Pensionnat, which appears to have been, according to them, less rigorous and more friendly than other schools.

Constantin Heger

So was Constantin Heger a little too friendly as a teacher, or just more or less in line with modern, less-authoritarian practitioners? He is arguably the most significant fictional brusselois in literary history. In a chapter with the title ‘Grande passion and petite pluie: Charlotte and the Hegers’ which will be read first by many, I suspect, MacEwan refers to Claire Harman’s biography, which was launched to coincide with the recent bicentenary. This begins not in Haworth but in Brussels. Charlotte, in her second summer, ‘depressed and tormented by her feelings for Heger’, is moved to confess to a Catholic priest in the Church of St Gudule. It ends in Brussels too, in the study of the 78 year-old Heger, who is writing a letter to another former pupil at the Pensionnat, Meta Mossman.

Addressing her in affectionate terms, he includes: ‘Letters and the post are not, luckily, the only means of communication, or the best, between people who are really fond of one another…’ which has led some to speculate that he was flirtatious and to wonder ‘what else went on’ with Charlotte, who might have been one of many. Jane Eyre’s long-distance communication with Rochester comes to mind, and Lucy Snowe’s description of Paul Emmanuel in Villette:  ‘his mind was… my library, and whenever it was opened to me, I entered bliss’. Of course, MacEwan weighs this against other views of Heger as a mediocre and unimaginative pedagogue. Whatever category he fell into, Charlotte created various versions of him in her novels, a fact unknown to those (the majority) who read just Jane Eyre, unaware of her experiences in Brussels.

Madame Beck

The portrayal of Madame Beck in Villette, probably based on Madame Heger, has been praised in Belgium, amongst other countries, as a masterpiece, full of psychological insights. Some who knew her recognised a number of similarities. Others, especially those close to Madame Heger, like her daughter Louise, thought of the portrait as a libellous caricature, and the whole novel as a work of revenge and ingratitude. Yet others detect a certain admiration as well as antipathy in Charlotte’s mind: Lucy Snowe compares Madame’s abilities to those of a police commissioner or prime minister. Here and throughout the book, MacEwan deploys all of the available evidence when dealing with autobiographical elements.

Richard Wilcocks

Paperback edition released 1 January 2018

Friday, 17 February 2017

Charlotte Brontë's Juvenilia in Italian

A new translation edited by Maddalena De Leo

Under the title of Juvenilia, published by Robin Edizioni La Biblioteca del Vascello, four engaging tales by a young Charlotte Brontë can be found. Two of them are very long - almost short novels. They allow the reader to open a window on the immature writing of the extraordinary English author, which is already of great strength and passion.

In 2016 the well-known Italian scholar edited two Brontë translation texts respectively for the publishers Argolibro (Stories of Genies and Fairies) and Ripostes (I Componimenti Brussels) to celebrate the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë, so this  third volume completes the triad.

In particular in this book is appearing for the first time ever in Italian, the translation of the beautiful novella Caroline Vernon accompanied with three other exciting stories from Angria: Lily Hart, another unpublished one, The Secret and Henry Hastings, already published in the past in De Leo’s translation but now out of print and therefore unavailable in Italy. All four texts are accompanied by a broad and comprehensive introduction.

Caroline Vernon is the last story belonging to Angria saga and the one that demarcates the transition from the early writings to the artistic maturity of Charlotte Brontë. Divided into two parts, the long tale follows the story of the young natural daughter of the Count of Northangerland who, from the segregated, quiet country life she leads with her mother, suddenly finds herself catapulted into high society and the elegant salons of Paris. The young Caroline is then drawn in by the seductive arts of the cynical godfather, the Duke of Zamorna, becoming his unwitting prey.

        Lily Hart is on the other hand a delicious fairy tale of love set in Africa, written by Brontë in 1833, at the height of the collaboration with her brother Branwell with whom she carried on, at that time, the military adventures of the newborn Angrian world. A secret marriage is described, that of the Duke of Fidena who falls for a girl of a social class far inferior to his own.

       If with The Secret the reader comes in contact with a weak and frightened heroine who nevertheless does not hesitate to act in contravention to her husband's orders and without his knowledge, in Henry Hastings instead there is the new heroine, stubborn and irreducible in her behaviour and ideas, the one who can cope with the temptations of love and who already anticipates the most famous and amazing character created by the pen of Charlotte Brontë, the unforgettable Jane Eyre.