Sunday, 21 October 2007

Brussels “in the grip of Brontë frenzy”

Helen MacEwan reports:

The first talk organised by the Brussels branch, on 18 October, attracted an audience of over 50 people. At present the group members are predominantly expatriate so we were pleased to see Belgians there as well, including a well-known writer and students from a Brussels university.

Derek Blyth, who is a journalist, took a fresh and personal approach to the subject of the Heger letters, sharing with us his fascination in them and musing on some unanswered questions, from the exact nature of Charlotte's feelings to points of practical detail (why the torn-up letters were repaired as they were). He had taken the trip to the British Library to see them for himself, and had heard from Sally Brown, keeper of rare manuscripts at the Library, a Charlotte Brontë ghost story well known in Brontë circles but less familiar to our Brussels audience. Derek confided that when exploring Brussels he is often aware of Charlotte's presence, if not her ghost.

We hope to attract more Belgian members to our group, so were delighted by the amount of media interest in the talk. A national newspaper was interested enough to do an interview. The reporter was fascinated by the whole concept of literary societies, almost unknown here: "People meeting to discuss the works of the Brontë sisters: this is the latest craze blown across the Channel from Britain to Brussels"! A Brussels "What's On" also forecast a Brontë craze and advised bruxellois to be "one step ahead of the pack" by going to the talk: "Close your eyes and let yourself be swept along by this torrent of passion".

A radio station decided to get in on the act by broadcasting an interview with Derek Blyth. The interviewer, albeit good-humouredly, grilled him about Charlotte's comments on Belgians. Derek, while cheerfully admitting that had she been writing today she might possibly have been sued, tried to make amends by dwelling on her affection for Brussels.

Brussels offers unique advantages for organising literary events. It has a huge English-speaking community and most of the multinational staff at the EU and other international organisations speak English, as do many Belgians. There is a plethora of English-speaking events such as theatre and talks. But, until now, no literary societies.

To exploit some of this Brontë enthusiasm, we have started a reading group. Brussels abounds in these, but ours is the only one to specialise in 19th century literature. Eighteen people have already signed up - too many for the room Waterstone's has kindly placed at our disposal. Fifty percent of the members are British, the others are Swedish, Belgian, Finnish, Bulgarian, Slovenian, German and Thai! A multinational group of expats in Brussels, just as Charlotte was, coming together in the city where she spent two homesick but intense and fruitful years.

Below, stitched letter, stitched envelope:

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