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

"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:
http://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/charlotte-brontes-brussels/

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
http://charlottemathieson.wordpress.com/

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

A VIRTUAL WALK THROUGH THE ISABELLE QUARTER WITH ERIC RUIJSSENAARS


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