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.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Simon Armitage launches 'Mansions in the Sky'

Mansions in the Sky - The Rise and Fall of Branwell Brontë

Simon Armitage appeared in front of a substantial number of guests in the School Room to launch the exhibition/installation which he curated. This is situated in Branwell's Room and in the Bonnell Room of the Parsonage. Here is what he wrote for the leaflet produced for the event:

Among the flurry of recent and forthcoming Brontë anniversaries, 2017 belongs to Branwell, charismatic and complicated brother to the now famous sisters. Born in June 1817, great things were expected of the only son of the family; working with the Brontë Parsonage Museum in his bicentenary year has given me the opportunity of exploring some of Branwell's early talent for art and literature, and the chance to reflect on the disappointments of his early years. As a poet of this landscape and region I recognise Branwell's creative impulses and inspirations. I also sympathise with his desire to have his voice heard in the wider world, a desire encapsulated in a letter sent to William Wordsworth in 1837, when Branwell was a precocious and determined nineteen year-old, seeking the great man's approval. The poem he enclosed describes the dreams and ambitions of a young and hopeful romantic, star-struck by the universe and building 'mansions in the sky'. But those mansions were only ever hopeful fantasies, and Branwell was to die unrecognised and unfulfilled, forever assigned the role of the dark and self-destructive brother, doomed to be eclipsed by the stellar achievements of his sisters.

Throughout the year a number of events and exhibitions will celebrate and mark Branwell's legacy, all stemming from the centrepiece of the anniversary, the recreation of his room within the Parsonage. We welcome you to enter this chaotic and frenzied space as if you were entering the mind of the man himself. And we invite you, dare you even, to discover more about the notorious Branwell whose personality and imagination were so integral to the Brontë story as a whole.
                                         (Simon Armitage, Creative Partner)

Simon Armitage was born in West Yorkshire and is Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

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Friday, 3 February 2017

Branwell Brontë in Australia


 The Australian Brontë Association meets in Sydney five times a year. Meetings are held at the Castlereagh Boutique Hotel (near Town Hall Station) from 10:30am to 12:00 noon, though we serve morning tea from 10:00am. Those who wish to do so, have a light lunch at the hotel. At each meeting, a paper on some aspect of the Brontës' life and work is presented. There is a meeting charge of $5 (members and non-members). 

2017 Meeting Program 

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë 
26 June 1817 – 24 September 1848 

1 April The Life & Art of Branwell Brontë – Prof Christine Alexander 
Branwell was a promising writer and artist with a rich imagination. Although he was the first of the Brontë siblings to appear in print, he would never gain money or success and was destined to live in the shadow of his three sisters. Mrs Gaskell described his best-known painting, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, as a “rough, common-looking” thing. Christine will discuss the life and art of this extraordinary man.

3 June Wuthering Heights – A/Prof Debra Adelaide 
Debra, author of The Women’s Pages, will look closely at the function of the reader in the novel, and discuss some of its iterations (eg Sylvia Plath’s poem, Kate Bush’s song). 

26 June Branwell Brontë Bicentenary Dinner 
6:30 for 7.00pm The Adam Room, Castlereagh Boutique Hotel 

5 August Branwell Brontë & Friends – introduced by Dr Christopher Cooper 
Branwell’s friends were both famous and infamous, ranging from prominent literary and fine arts men to mill owners, boaties and those who worked on the railways and, of course, Mrs Robinson.

7 October Gypsies in Europe – Souha Korbatieh 
Heathcliff is referred to as “that gipsy brat” and Rochester masquerades as “the Sybil” in his own home “to tell the gentry their fortunes”. Souha will examine the history of the gypsies in Europe and what such references tell us about the central characters, themes and issues of both novels whilst highlighting the plight of marginal classes and the dangers of romantic imaginings. 

2 December ABA/Dickens Christmas Lunch 

12:00 – 3:00pm The Grand Dining Room (Cello’s), Castlereagh Boutique Hotel